Inside a sprawling set of legislation designed to overhaul the laws Seattle uses to regulate growth and development is a plan that would impact Capitol Hill’s residential, business and restaurant environment like nowhere else in the city. For some, the proposal to open more of the neighborhood to mixed-use development — putting restaurants and stores mid-block in areas that are now entirely residential — is the stuff of urban planning dreams. Others are asking where we draw the line when it comes to mixing business and every day life.
“Here we have a proposal supposed to improve and make neighborhood more sustainable,” Capitol Hill resident and City Council staff member Rebecca Herzfeld tells CHS. “I think we already have that. Way more than other parts of the city. What’s so special is we have multifamily areas not just strung out along arterials. But it’s all residential and walkable. That’s so rare.”
A hearing on Seattle’s Regulatory Reform package is scheduled for March 27th in front of the City Council’s planning and land use committee. The goals of the reforms are efficiency and economics:
To spark innovation and entrepreneurial investment, and make it easier for businesses to be sustainable, the City is pursuing opportunities to reduce red tape and encourage job growth while enhancing our commitment to the environment. Over time, some of the City’s regulations have become outdated, or redundant. Now is the time to update the regulations.
Included in the 67-page ordinance is an amendment designed to “allow more flexibility for commercial uses to be located in multifamily zones,” according to the Director’s Report on the legislation (PDF):
- Allow ground-floor commercial uses in Lowrise 2 and 3 (LR2 and LR3) zones that are within urban centers or station area overlays (with permitted uses and standards similar to those in Midrise and Highrise zones)
- Apply a maximum size per business of 2,500 square feet, and limit outdoor uses after 10:00 p.m., in LR2 and LR3
- Extend the capability for ground-floor commercial uses in MR zones (no longer limited to places within 800 feet of an NC zone)
- City Regulatory Reform site
- Draft Ordinance (PDF)
- Director’s Report (PDF)
- Herzfeld’s report and example letter to Conlin
About 2,300 acres, or 5 percent of the city’s land area is zoned LR2 and LR3 and only about 20 percent of that area is located in an urban center or station area overlay. See the LR2 and LR3 Zones Map, where the proposal would allow ground-floor commercial uses.
The commercial uses would be limited to a set including services, restaurants and cafes — no bars or taverns. You can see a list in a document prepared by Herzfeld, here. Currently, the commercial uses are restricted to midrise and higher zoning areas. And, yes, the new zoning would apply to existing structures within those zones, DPD planning staff tells CHS.
The proposed set of code overhauls was set in motion by a City Council resolution last spring that set up a framework for changes to Seattle’s regulatory structure to boost the economy and create more jobs in the city. City planners then worked with “a roundtable of business, environmental, and neighborhood leaders” to craft seven proposals that range from raising the number of living units a development must contain before triggering an environmental review to codifying home-based businesses.
Capitol Hill, for the most part, is a hot-mess celebration of mixed-use. For as much as it can be a drag — loud drunks, loud smoking drunks and loud drunks — the frothy mix of commerce and life is a big part of why we’ve chosen our respective places in the neighborhood. The lowrise commercial amendment could change that by extending the ability for developers to create mixed-use structures in areas off Broadway and commercial strips like 15th Ave E. The amendment — let’s call it the Volunteer Park Cafe amendment — has the ability to put Capitol Hill’s good nature about its frothy commercial mix to the test.
“This proposal would damage both business districts and residential areas, and is not needed to make the Capitol Hill neighborhood sustainable,” Herzfeld wrote in an example letter to City Council planning and land use chair Richard Conlin.
Before you bring out the NIMBY grenades, Herzfeld is the kind of neighbor a community might need to wrap itself around legislation like this. It’s a deep set of proposed laws. As a member of City Council staff, Herzfeld decided to put her Capitol Hill residency first and recuse herself from any dealings around the legislation in City Hall.
She might be most concerned about the loss of the residential nature of areas on Capitol Hill but she also makes valid points about the existing areas of concentrated business activity. Do you see retail on Broadway as half-empty? Or half-full? (OK, 25% empty? Or 75% full?). There is more inventory coming to Broadway — lots of it — does it really need to compete with Federal Ave E?
While it’s a citywide set of laws, with the requirements around “urban centers” and “station area overlays,” Capitol Hill holds the lion’s share of the land where the new zoning laws would be applicable. There are also opportunities the amendment creates that most anybody could get behind — more cafes on the edge of Cal Anderson Park, for example. The Regulatory Reform package also has other potentially interesting amendments for Capitol Hill including a loosening of the rules around temporary uses to be more “micro-business” and pop-up friendly.
The City Council hearing on the reform legislation is scheduled for Wednesday, March 28.
The City Council’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee will hold a public hearing to take comments on the proposal on Wednesday, March 28, 2012 in City Council Chambers, 2ndfloor, Seattle City Hall, 600 Fourth Avenue. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. The entrances to City Hall are located on the west side of Fifth Avenue, and the east side of Fourth Avenue, between James and Cherry Streets. For those who wish to testify, a sign-up sheet will be available outside the Council Chamber at 9:00 am on the day of the hearing.
You can provide written feedback by emailing committee chair Conlin.