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Heated forum on lowering building heights draws 200+ to Capitol Hill’s Lowell Elementary

IMG_8646IMG_8650An impassioned forum to discuss lowering building heights in large swaths of Capitol Hill and elsewhere in the city drew a packed crowd, and frequent outbursts, in the Lowell Elementary auditorium Monday night. More than 200 people attended the city’s forum on lowering building heights in Lowrise 3 zones.

Amid an explosion of development in Capitol Hill, the forum surfaced long-brewing frustrations of homeowners who “feel like the deck is stacked against us,” as one Capitol Hill homeowner said.

Still, there was some notable push-back on the slow-growth crowd, spurring an honest debate over the character of the neighborhood.
IMG_8660Owen Pickford, representing Housing for Seattle, said that the cost of housing is the most important issue facing the city and that preserving character should not come at the cost of raising rent. By the way, Pickford posted his thoughts on the night’s proceedings here.

A more recent Capitol Hill transplant urged attendees to think about why young people want to move to the city in droves. “What I think it boils down to is the spirit of inclusiveness. I came from my small town and I wouldn’t dare be caught holding hands with another man,” he said. “We’re telling people you can only move here unless you can afford a mortgage on a single family home… we should be welcoming growth not pushing it away.”

The meeting comes following a petition and flyer campaign by neighborhood activists to get the city to reconsider building heights in areas zoned for lowrise housing after a 2010 overhaul to encourage more townhouses and apartments. Seattle City Council member Sally Clark called for the city to reconsider building heights in these areas intended for four story structures. Several developers have used various incentives and “loopholes” to get an additional floor on buildings inside these zones.

In Geoff Wendlandt’s opening presentation, the Department of Planning and Development representative said microhousing would not be up for discussion, which drew loud jeers.

IMG_8655“We’re not supposed to talk about aPodments, but can we talk about the height of aPodments,” shouted one attendee. Heights on microhousing structures, like the one at 1720 E Olive St., have served as the poster-buildings for code correction for the city and many residents.


  • One Woman said that she had been to Warsaw, Poland and saw the devastating effects of historical buildings being destroyed. “There are homes in this part of the city that are build with wood that’s no longer grown”
  • A home owner in Queen Anne spoke in support of allowing increasing density and new developments that house people with less environmental impact.  “A city is made of people in addition to houses,” he said.
  • Capitol Hill resident who lives near in 18th and John.. “What I hope the city can do is add something back, that we can get something in return for taking away character” of older buildings, she said. “My real beef is those are affordable units … we’re mowing those down for a net loss of affordable housing.” 
  • A Man who moved to Seattle in 1996 said he’s never been more excited about new housing in the neighborhood. “I want Capitol Hill lot say a place where people like me can move in a find a place,” he said. “Town houses before 2010 are terrible … lets continue the experiment.” 
  • One Capitol Hill resident complained about small houses with old sewers that are strained because of new density. “Everybody’s sewer is popping.” 
  • Capitol Hill resident Dennis Saxman rebuffed comments about density being more inclusive. “When all these people talk about all the inclusion, it doesn’t include the people who live here. Seattle has never been governed by a more elitist group.” 
  • Bill Parsons from Ballard feared overbearing buildings would mean the “end of privacy.”
  • One attendee suggested putting a moratorium on the 40 foot allowance while we review them, which drew a loud round of applause. 
  • A Beacon Hill man, who rents a house, said “when I look at this meeting it’s predominantly white, older, and homeowners.” He urged DPD to reach out to renters  as they are the people that will be most directly impacted. 
  • “B plus four equals five” was one man’s take on basemen floor calculations: 
  • One woman suggested developers should be putting money in a fund for mass transit because of the strain on buses, adding that “communities need to lead this density … This should not be a gold rush land grab.”

DPD planners will use feedback from the forum — and sent in directly via email — as they form recommended zoning changes. The City Council is expected to vote on the changes by March. You can learn more on the city’s Lowrise Multifamily Code Corrections page.

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38 thoughts on “Heated forum on lowering building heights draws 200+ to Capitol Hill’s Lowell Elementary

    • The young man in this article raises an interesting point. Should the City Council focus on protecting “the character” of the neighborhood (i.e. limiting development to million dollar condos) or should we instead focus on significantly increasing the housing supply for middle class workers who love this neighborhood and want to call it home? If the rental supply on Capitol Hill doesn’t keep up with demand, the rent will increase, and middle class Seattlites will be locked out of the neighborhood just like they have been locked out of many neighborhoods in San Francisco.

      Capitol Hill will never be the thriving, inclusive community it once was in the 90s if the City Council continues to favor millionaires over hard-working, middle class Seattlites who also want the opportunity to live here. Like the Castro District in San Francisco, Capitol Hill first became the community it is today because of the variety of people- workers and artists of all socio-economic backgrounds- who could afford to live here. Today, the Castro District and many other neighborhoods in San Francisco are losing their character because strict building height restrictions have limited the number of people who can live there. Hopefully Seattle will blaze a new, more inclusive trail instead of meekly following San Francisco.

      • I was making a snide remark about the people elected to be in charge more than addressing the concerns voiced in the forum. There is so much involved in keeping money flowing into the city’s coffers that I suspect the forums are more or less a dog and pony show for the residence that attend. The “white, older, and homeowners” don’t have the voice or power they had about 20 years ago. The people building out subsidized housing that keep Fed/State money coming into the city, they have much more influence.
        Rent prices? I’m not sure what can be done realistically to address that. Prices would only go down if no one wanted to live here and there were vacancies throughout the city. Getting someone else to pay the rent if I couldn’t afford it doesn’t appeal to me personally, but that’s me.

  1. What galls me most about the pro-development folks is that they always say that those opposing them are “anti-density.” We are not. We simply want the new development to be done sensibly, carefully, and compatible with the neighborhood… opposed to the “gold rush” mentality that currently exists. And this approach would include closing all the various loopholes being exploited by developers.

    • AMEN. I am tired of words being put into my mouth.

      I’m a renter, will probably get priced out of Capitol Hill despite all the development and long to see a DIFFERENT avenue towards density.

      It is not density that I respond negatively to . . . .it’s the lack of meaningful urban planning.

      The city is being “penny-wise and pound foolish”, They are giving away the farm house, the forty acres and the mule to developers who
      stand to get filthy rich while subsidized by the citizens of Seattle.

      Meaningful growth, with an eye toward the future, does not equate with “nimby” . . .it is not the same thing as “being afraid of change” . . . it is not anti-density . . . and it should not be “rich land owners” against those who rent and/or of limited funds. I think the developers must love this division and pat themselves on the back as they laugh all the way to the bank.

      Are there more people like me? (I suspect so).

      • Hello, so it seems like we’re all on the same page that adding density is necessary to accommodate Seattle’s growth. I’m genuinely interested in reading your opinions on what you all think smart and sensible density would look like. When I read these articles and the comments, I understand what people do not want, but I don’t have a great understanding of how some would envision density/apartments in these zones. Is 40 feet heights (4 floors) fine, but objections are more to their horizontal footprint? Or is preference for two-story structures on small lots? Or no apartments at all in some parts of the Hill? Should facades be made of brick to keep with neighborhood character, or can developers use any material they wish? Should parking garages be a requirement? In my opinion, I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle between both perspectives, but how a community gets to a consensus all depends on how well we talk to each other, and avoid not talking (or yelling) at each other.

      • We need help resolving this conflict. Having a real conversation with the decision makers in this town and giving all people a voice. The DPD seems like the enemy right now- insulting us continually, telling us we’re stupid and should follow the proper procedures and then offering a lame “Design Review Forum” where it is too late to stop the beast. Our neighborhood is organizing, best we can! NERD- Neighbors Encouraging Reasonable Development Let’s connect and figure out how to resolve the dispute and find justice in a more peaceful way!

    • …”various loopholes being exploited by developers.”
      You know they are being allowed to do it. If it were otherwise they would have to take it down just like any of us as individuals would be forced to.
      To be honest Calhoun, I’m not sure what to think about the building heights. A lot of build out was blocked in the 70’s-80’s that kept the city as small as it is. Now they seem to be allowing it for various reasons, but the building methods and materials as someone else pointed out, leave a lot to be desired.

  2. Bryan Cohen serves the audience poorly when he portrays them as “the slow-growth crowd”. His audience quotes make that clear. The ‘crowd’s’ concerns were buildings heights out of character with the neighborhood, the loss of privacy, the loss of sunlight – some losing all sunlight. The over taxing of utilities with sewers bursting from the new 50 plus resident structures – neighboring property owners paying the price developers bearing no cost.
    The author’s description demeans the character of the audience.
    Where are the minority opposition seemed to favor unfettered development, no concern for the damage the quality of life of current residents, buildings out of scale with surrounding property, neighboring residents put into perpetual shade, systems overburdened. They would take so much and give so little.

      • Do you see anywhere in my comment that I appose increasing building heights? I would like some context applied though. an organic approach that considers existing properties. I would like to see provisions for protecting the solar rights of neighboring property owners. It is pretty clear here that the ‘peddle to the metal folks’ are trying to portray those who want a thoughtful and respectful approach to developments as selfish troglodytes. An attempt to demonize so that what we say is unworthy.

      • I took “buildings heights out of character with the neighborhood” to mean you oppose certain building heights (and not low ones).

        When it comes to paying for more infrastructure, I’m fairly certain developers have to pay impact fees to the city for this exact purpose (of course that’s passed on to the people who move into the developments). But this has nothing to do with building heights and everything to do with number of people moving into the area (in fact higher densities of people reduce infrastructure costs). If you want less people living in Capitol Hill, then say so.

      • The answer is a simple one, Maria….you just build new buildings, hopefully in a careful and well-designed manner. Increased heights are not necessary, except for perhaps on more commercial streets.

      • How does a new building accommodate more people than the building it replaces without increase heights (or making the units smaller – but micro-housing apparently is not okay)? Or are you referring to infill buildings? I don’t see much space in Capitol Hill for that to make a significant impact on the number of residential units needed.

      • The new buildings, for the most part, are not being built by demolishing older apartment buildings. They are being built on lots that were previously parking lots or single family homes, so there is a significant net increase in density, even without height increases.

      • They maximize their take and minimize their give. That is my impression. I walked by some of these building yesterday afternoon. The apodiments at 13th and John are impounded with black cyclone fencing, dumpsters in full view just inside the fencing, signs plasterd over the building and entry doors. It looks like a dog kennel for people. I walked by the building at Olive and 18th. I don’t find the height that bad with the Olive Terrace just behind it. I think the 2 building have no residential warmth however. They have more of a barracks feel to them, battle ship gray sides with white paltry framed windows, black iron rails and flying black metal stairways. The extended 4th or 5th floor might add interest the to the wall but it feels like it is encroaching on the sky, almost threatening. Sure they are adding density but with this kind of taste who is going to want to live here.

      • Dennis, I encourage you to speak with one of your neighbors living in the apodments. I’m sure they are actually giving back to the community in their own way — they might surprise you. And maybe the residents in apodments are perfectly happy living in a unit that historically Americans are not accustomed to. When I lived in Tokyo, my first apartment was about 150-square feet, quite a bit smaller than these apodments. It really taught me to live (and consume resources) minimally. As I moved back to the US, I’ve tried to continue living by these principles. Not all of us subscribe to the idea of living in a home, as I’m sure you’d never choose to live in a small apartment. Both choices don’t make either group “a taker.” Again, these discussions on the future of Cap. Hill would be best served by all groups talking to each other, and not at each other. Tuesday’s meeting was quite embarrassing — I never thought I’d see so many Seattelites behaving so much like the Tea Party caucus of the GOP. It was an ugly display of intimidation and disrespect to all of those in attendance.

      • I didn’t say the occupants were takers. I was referring to the developers. And,, I am not apposed to micro housing. I am apposed to buildings that as I described look like dog kennels for people or like barracks with no feel of residence or home.

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  4. I spoke with numerous people who attended the meeting and Mr. Cohen’s article is quite accurate. There were a fair number of typical NIMBY yellers in the audience who attempted once again to dominate the meeting through what I consider to be uncivil, juvenile behavior – booing, hissing, yelling over other people, talking (or yelling) out of turn.

    Its the same nonsense from last year and the “Capitol Hill Conniption” over micro-housing. And like some of the pro-growth commenters at the meeting noted, it also brings with it a fair whiff of privileged property owners wanting to keep others out of “their” neighborhood.

    • In my opinion, you should not be commenting on a meeting that you didn’t attend. Yes, there were a few shout-outs, a lot of applause, and occasional booing…..that’s expected in a meeting over an issue that’s this controversial…..nothing wrong with it.

  5. $1225/month for a studio apartment at Terravita? $1591/month for a studio in The Lyric?! $1415/month for a studio at The Heights?!! Hardly affordable, unless you make $60k+ per year and don’t have a partner or roommates. Architectural design and curb appeal on many of the new buildings on Capitol Hill (and the rest of Seattle for that matter) is absolutely hideous, and by no means are they timeless, or built to last 100 years. I wish more thought went into durability, economical pricing so people with low to average income could afford to live here, and building design. I’d love to know the profit being made from rent in these new buildings. Luxury apartments my ass; I just want a place to live.

    • Unless certain changes are made to the DPD regulations governing new housing, we will continue to get the same cheap, ugly buildings you decry.

  6. One of the reasons a city like Paris is so attractive is that they have preserved historic buildings. There is a place for development and new construction in Seattle but not at the expense of the few beautiful structures in the city. Why is there never a balanced approach to development? Why doesn’t the zoning code allow for a tapered approach to building heights? The way the city does things seems so ridiculous.

    • Don’t forget that much of we have as a romantic view of Paris was created by Haussman in the 1850’s by raising vast areas of a medieval city:

      These are hardly the single family homes or even some of the small apodment buildings that are pitted against each other.

      HOWEVER these large apartment buildings have a scale and sensitivity to humanity that is sorely lacking in almost everything built in the last 20 years.

      Lets build density but lets have a thoughtful vision and master plan.

      Sadly, something as magical as P

      • aris requires a ‘divine right to rule’ mentality – and that’s not ever going to happen here (although maddening, the Seattle Let’s All Agree On Every Single Thing Here way of getting done has a charm all of its own). There are a lot of older cities in the Midwest and east that have lovely dense neighborhoods built of all small apartment buildings or three story flats – the three flat “town houses’ often owner occupied. buildings with no parking because they were built before the invention of the automobile. Yes, parking is bad but many people don’t own cars. It’s true!

        What we do need to do is raise the bar on design and make the developers more responsible for what they build.

        I’m all for density but let’s do it right!

      • …”buildings with no parking because they were built before the invention of the automobile”…
        I appreciate the historical flourish in your post, but that was also at a time when the kitchen was often in a small structure outside the main house due to fire (let alone a “bathroom”). The cook house would often burn down twice a year. Trivia question: what was the leading cause of death for women prior to 1910?
        Answer: Nope, not child birth. Burning to death. Dresses would brush up against the oven/stove.

      • Apartment buildings built at the turn of the previous century =/= tenements! Don’t conflate the two!
        There are acres of neighborhoods in Chicago that consist of three story townhouses next to four to five story apartment buildings with typically two to four units per floor with the average size of a unit to be about 900 sf for a very livable 2 bedroom – and they usually had a very nice back porch / shared fire stair exit off the back. And not one of these buildings has any kind of parking except for the existing street. (Maybe the townhouses have a one car garage off the alley). Chicago also has it’s share of single family neighborhoods but not the 70% share that composes Seattle neighborhoods.

    • Just want to point out that Paris is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. And some of us don’t want to live in an overpriced preserve for rich people.

  7. What a great discussion! Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have better aesthetics and more attention to infrastructure. However, when people talk about new apartments paying costs for infrastructure such as upgrading sewers, why shouldn’t that be borne by all residents? Should people who are here already have lower costs because we got here first? When people talk about having more affordable housing, where is the revenue going to come from to support the projects? Projects have to have economic viability, meaning, they need to be profitable in our economy (unless the city gets into the apartment building business). So, if we have lower priced units we need higher density, or the numbers won’t work out and nobody will build.

    One thing nobody’s talking about is our big density issue: trains. We are putting a multi-billion dollar train line in, about two miles long under Capitol Hill, with just one stop, under Broadway and John.. It makes absolutely no sense unless we have much, much higher density near the station. Likewise we’re putting in all these expensive streetcar lines (well, tens of millions of dollars of our taxes going into these) — why if we don’t expect very high housing density along the line? :You could put multiple bus lines through lower density neighborhoods for less money. But that’s not our plan — we want to have transportation like NYC or SF, or other cities with much higher density. Once we’ve committed to spending billions on trains and tens of millions on streetcars, prioritizing these things higher than say, education, higher density has to happen, or we’ve wasted our money. But the bright side is, if we have a very dense city where lots and lots of people take trains instead of driving, and if we build green, maybe we’ll be doing our part to reduce carbon emissions, and if 1000 cities around the world follow this plan, it might have an impact, or, well, at least things would be that much less worse…

    • I completely agree with you on the density/rail transit front. Density should be emphasized most on rail lines, including the street car — height limits should be even increased on these cooridors (around Broadway, and Pike and Pine to downtown), I’m sure adding density in these areas would take some of the pressure off of the more contentious height limits in the Hill neighborhoods being debated above.

      It’s quite impressive to see some of the changes taking place along the First Hill SC in the Yesler Terrace neighborhood. And hopefully, city planners will rezone some of the property along the Mt. Baker station; some are considering ten story apartment buildings near the train station on lots that are now mostly strip malls.

      Capitol Hillers need to be involved in the zoning process city wide (including the upzoning proposals in Yesler, Mt. Baker Station, Beacon Hill Station, and South Lake Union, where taller buildings make sense) otherwise we really do deserve the title NIMBY.

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