‘Scrunched’ on Capitol Hill

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 11.11.05 AMMaybe it’s a sign of fatigue in people’s interest level after years of debate — CHS’s first major examination of aPodment-related development came way back in the summer of 2012 — but this epic Politico examination of Seattle’s microhousing is worthy of more attention on Capitol Hill.

For one, you’ll learn more about the people behind the debate…

Like Jim Potter:

The roots of micro-housing in Seattle can be traced to a single developer named Jim Potter. At 6 foot 6, he was the movement’s Johnny Appleseed, an imposing presence with a booming voice, an aggressive businessman who owned properties up and down the state of Washington. But his true claim to fame, at least in the Seattle real estate world, was his compulsive study of the city’s zoning code.

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Seattle’s new regulations leave space for densest microhousing to continue in Capitol Hill’s core

UPDATE 10/6/2014: The full City Council Monday afternoon approved the new microhousing rules passed by committee and detailed below. The mayor had threatened a veto of the bill if it resulted in changes that would force developers to increase rents in microhousing-style apartments. In the meantime, a judge’s decision has prompted DPD to kick 21 microhousing developments back in the planning process.


This 12th Ave microhousing project will have room for a Basque restaurant. This one will have beer. Put that in your regulations! (Image: CHS)

34 pages of legislation ( here in PDF) — plus a few possible last minute additions related to elements like defining exactly how many sinks an aPodment-style unit should have — are ready to move on from City Council as Seattle seeks to complete a long, drawn-out quest to regulate microhousing developments. Meanwhile, a legal battle that had a seeming happy ending for neighbors fighting a Capitol Hill microhousing development near the tony Harvard-Belmont Historical District will have a judicial epilogue.

DPD "congregate housing" related permit activity, 2010 to present. Big clouds of microhousing headed your way!

DPD “congregate housing” related permit activity, 2010 to present. Big clouds of microhousing headed your way!

Tuesday afternoon, the City Council’s land use and planning committee is expected to unwrinkle a final set of amendments before sending the bill onto the full council.

“People living in smaller units is a choice,” planning committee chair Mike O’Brien said. “What we really care about is how big the building is on the outside.”

UPDATE: The committee approved the legislation Tuesday afternoon and the bill will move to the full council for a vote on October 6th.

The new rules pounded out after over years of debate will continue to allow microhousing development in dense areas like Capitol Hill while setting a new average size requirement for the apartments built in lowrise-zoned areas. Under the compromises forged by O’Brien, Seattle will end up with two types of microhousing. In areas zoned lowrise where you’re more likely to find single family homes or small apartments, microhousing units must average 220 square feet — though Tuesday’s amendments may adjust size thresholds.Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 4.19.29 PM

But buildings within “urban centers” like the western core of Capitol Hill and “urban villages” like E Madison, Miller Park, and parts of the Central District will be open territory for good ol’ fashioned microhousing with shared, congregate elements and units that can average smaller than 180 square feet.

But we're only talking about 100 or so projects and no massive uptick through 2014's partial year tally

But we’re only talking about 100 or so projects and no massive uptick through 2014’s partial year tally even as Seattle still doesn’t have a plan in place to tackle housing affordability. It’s OK, though — at least somebody is thinking big

“My proposal will allow these to continue to be built as congregate housing, but specifies that they can only be built in higher density zones in our urban villages and urban centers,” an O’Brien statement on the legislation states. “These are the places that most likely have access to transit and amenities to support a higher density community.” Continue reading

Judge: Microhousing bedrooms count as ‘dwelling units’ in Capitol Hill project, must go through design review

The proliferation of microhousing throughout Capitol Hill and Seattle may have hit its first major snag after a judge ruled that at least one of the dorm-style projects must go through a public design review before construction can begin.

On Wednesday a King County Superior Court judge reversed the city’s characterization of a proposed microhousing project on north Capitol Hill after a neighborhood group filed a complaint against the city, arguing the bedrooms should count as stand-alone dwelling units.

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 10.11.11 AMThe proposed 49-bedroom building at 741 Harvard Ave E near Aloha had been characterized as having only eight “dwelling units” because the dorm-style bedrooms were clustered around eight shared kitchens and living spaces. Each bedroom will now count as a separate dwelling unit, meaning it passes the dwelling unit threshold for going through a public design and environmental review.

In her decision, Judge Laura Gene Middaugh wrote the Department of Planning and Development’s characterization of the microhousing project as having only eight dwelling units was “clearly erroneous.”

“The fact that the developer designed a communal area that allows, or even encourages, residents of an adjacent dwelling unit to interact, does not change the fact that the individual units were designed, and can function, as independent living units,” the judge wrote.  Continue reading

The small unit: Review board looks at 15th/Howell microhousing project

1420 E Howell's future

1420 E Howell’s future

The future of 1420 E Howell

G’bye fourplex

The next two Capitol Hill apartment projects slated to come in front of the East Design Review Board starting Wednesday night share common frameworks: nimble projects squeezing as many highly coveted, small units as possible onto land where old single family homes or underutilized fourplexes stand today. They also share a common reaction from some neighbors in the area: complaints —

Will there be any restrictions on car ownership by residents of these buildings? Will they be eligible for zone 4 permits?
Even if there was parking provided for these units, the very high density would be a stress on the neighborhood parking just because of their guests parking on the street. While we have parking for our car, our friends do like like to come to visit us in Capitol Hill specifically because it is difficult for them to park.
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aPodment developer agrees to settle disabled access complaint over Capitol Hill building

13th and John's Centro (Image: Calhoun Properties)

13th and John’s Centro (Image: Calhoun Properties)

Critics of the dormitory-style apartment buildings known as microhousing are able to say, “I told you so!” about at least one of their myriad arguments against the developments.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced today a settlement with developer Calhoun Properties and architect ECCO Design over a complaint that their Capitol Hill aPodment project The Centro on E John at 13th “discriminated against persons with disabilities by failing to design and construct the 56-unit complex in a way that meets the accessibility requirements of the Fair Housing Act.”

From the HUD statement:

Under the terms of the agreement, the owner, builder and architectural firm will make modifications to the project’s public and common use areas and a unit to enhance accessibility.
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Seattle’s microhousing rules — including design review for aPodments — finally moving forward

The Cortena micro-style apartments stand at 227 Boylston Ave E (Image: Matthew Gallant Photography)

The Cortena micro-style apartments stand at 227 Boylston Ave E (Image: Matthew Gallant Photography)

A legislative process to regulate microhousing that has played out over the past year will move forward Monday with a public hearing at the Seattle City Council chambers in City Hall.

In February, CHS reported on a decision by the Seattle Hearing Examiner to reject an appeal of the Department of Planning and Development’s approval of the new regulations designed to define and provide some level of environment and design review for the density-friendly, congregate housing type. The Examiner rejected the appellate’s argument that intensive development will overwhelm Seattle’s environmental and civic resources and that the new legislation proposed to further regulate the housing will open the floodgates for aPodment-type developers.

Monday, May 19, 2014
5:30 p.m. 

Monday’s hearing will be an opportunity for developers, urban density advocates and slow growth groups to have their say — once more — on the topic that has dominated much of Seattle’s public discussion on affordability and density even as developers continue to build microhousing and other topics like rent control have yet to find a larger audience in the growing city.

As part of the new rules, the city is proposing to institute a trigger of the design review process based on the size of the proposed development, not the number of dwelling units that currently trigger the process.

A memo from City Hall staff on the proposed legislation is below.
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New microhousing regulations can move forward

DPD's "Example 4" -- "A micro-housing development that did not undergo any design review. The development contains more than 12,000 gsf in all three buildings, so it would have been required to undergo Administrative Design Review (ADR) if these recommendations had been enacted at the time"

DPD’s “Example 4” — “A micro-housing development that did not undergo any design review. The development contains more than 12,000 gsf in all three buildings, so it would have been required to undergo Administrative Design Review (ADR) if these recommendations had been enacted at the time”

In a decision released earlier this week, the Hearing Examiner has sided with the Department of Planning and Development’s decision to move forward proposed legislation to further regulate microhousing in Seattle.

CHS reported on the hearing’s two days of testimony in January as Capitol Hill land use activist Dennis Saxman and neighborhood activist Chris Leman took their fight against microhousing into the appeal process in an attempt to overturn a DPD decision to sign off on the proposed regulatory legislation — Does microhousing cause blackouts? Slow growth groups take cause to Seattle Hearing Examiner

Their argument: The intensive development will overwhelm Seattle’s environmental and civic resources and new legislation proposed to further regulate the housing would open the floodgates for aPodment-type developers.

“The evidence fails to show that the proposed legislation would spur new development of micro-housing or congregate residences, compared with what occurs under existing regulation of micro-housing,” the Examiner Anne Watanabe wrote in deciding against Saxman and Leman. “Clearly, the Appellants fear that this will occur, but the record does not demonstrate that this impact would likely occur.”

DPD documents submitted as part of the hearing showed that about 10% of all living units permitted or under construction were microhousing — a number DPD contends is likely to stay steady or drop when if the new regulations the appellants were fighting against are approved:

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 4.25.24 PM

DPD was also able to show that the arguments Leman presented regarding fire danger for microhousing development were groundless:

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While the defeat of a slow-growth effort might please the city’s urbanists, the decision is a double-edged sword as it moves the probable regulation of the housing type back onto City Hall’s agenda. The Hearing Examiner’s decision places the proposed microhousing legislation on track for the City Council to take up later this year. In addition to defining exactly what “microhousing” means, the legislation includes better triggers for environmental and design reviews for the projects and updated development standards to address issues around quality of life for those living in — and nearby — the congregate residences.

Meanwhile, developers in the area haven’t been waiting around. Permitting is underway for a new project from aPodments developer Calhoun Properties on an empty lot near 23rd and E Madison. Down near 14th and Yesler, there’s an even more ambitious project. Weighing in at 159 rooms, the five-story structure will “contain” four “congregate residences” plus two live-work units. The project also includes 1,147 square feet of retail space plus storage for 42 bicycles.

Does microhousing cause blackouts? Slow growth groups take cause to Seattle Hearing Examiner

Inside the Hearing Examiner's Muni Tower conference room -- it didn't make for great television. Great internet? (Image: CHS)

Inside the Hearing Examiner’s Muni Tower conference room — it didn’t make for great television. Great internet? (Image: CHS)

An appeal hearing brought by community groups with a Capitol Hill core seeking to toss out a Seattle Department of Planning and Development decision on proposed microhousing rules will continue on Thursday.

Tuesday, representatives for the community groups bringing the appeal and the DPD squared off for initial procedural jostling, opening statements — and some interesting positioning in front of Seattle’s Hearing Examiner, Anne Watanabe.

Neighborhood activist Chris Leman said he attributes two recent City Light blackouts — including one Monday night that knocked out power to thousands on Capitol Hill for 45 minutes and another 600 or so north on the Hill and in Eastlake for several hours — to “development in our area” in an aside as he questioned the appeal’s first witness from DPD. His remarks were deemed inappropriate and struck from the official record but were illustrative of the appellants’ position: New microhousing rules — ostensibly opening the door to new microhousing projects — should not be sent to the City Council for approval until a more thorough environmental review of the impact to Seattle’s neighborhoods is completed.

In November, CHS first reported on the appeal against DPD’s “determination of non-significance” for the newly proposed rules which would include definitions for microhousing and tantamount legislative acceptance for the building type which critics say smashes city dwellers into cramped, dorm-style living quarters that are potentially dangerous and overburden surrounding resources like parking and utilities. While not exactly cheap on a $/square-foot basis, the aPodment-style buildings do provide price-points for living units mostly unheard of in the Hill’s newer construction.

The appeal contends the DPD’s determination of non-significance for the proposed microhousing regulation did not follow appropriate standards: Screen-Shot-2013-11-13-at-8.32.47-AM-600x147

While Tuesday’s hearing was a mostly dry and procedure-focused affair — at one point, an incredulous TV anchor asked one of the appellants if the hearing was really going to last more than one day — Leman told CHS Thursday’s session would likely be a more interesting affair as he planned to bring pointed questions to officials about fire safety in the microhousing style developments.

A decision in the appeal will be announced within two weeks of the end of the hearing. The Examiner has already dismissed several portions of the appeal (PDF) including a demand that would have halted issuance of permits on any new microhousing projects.

City considers curbing building heights in response to outcry from neighborhood groups

The micro-housing building at 1720 E Olive St. is the type of structure the city will seek to prevent in lowrise zones (Image: City of Seattle)

The microhousing at 1720 E Olive St. is the type of structure the city is seeking to prevent in lowrise zones (Image: City of Seattle)

A group of neighborhood activists organizing against taller building appear to have landed a major victory despite a year of rising demand for housing on Capitol Hill — and rising rents.

Following a petition and flyer campaign, Council member Sally Clark has called for the City of Seattle to consider lowering building heights in areas zoned for lowrise townhouses and apartments.

The code correction would specifically target Lowrise 3 multi-family zones which includes most of the lowrise areas in Capitol Hill. “There is a sense that these new generation buildings have more height than necessary,” said city planner Geoff Wentlandt.

The Department of Planning and Development will hold a public meeting January 14th at 6:30 PM at Lowell Elementary to get public feedback on lowering the height limits. You can also provide feedback via email.

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