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Seattle tries to scale back new apartment buildings near single family homes

After two years of wrangling over what to do about “loopholes” in the lowrise zoning code, the City Council passed a series of code adjustments Monday in an attempt to rein in apartment building size near single-family homes.

With almost no deliberation and only a few comments, the Council passed the bill in an 8-1 vote. Council member Tom Rasmussen opposed the measure after he was only able to insert three of eight amendments he proposed in June to further curb the bulk and scale of certain buildings.

On Monday, Rasmussen cautioned that “exploitative” developers would have a “feast” destroying the city’s older housing stock under Council member Mike O’Brien’s compromise bill.

The vote caps years of bitter debate between vocal contingents of slow-growth advocates owners and pro-density urbanists. At issue was the character of the city’s lowrise zones — residential areas common on Capitol Hill that encourage “a wide variety of new housing … located in between mixed-use commercial areas and single-family neighborhoods.”

While lowrise zones make up a relatively small percentage of the city’s landscape, the areas have been a hotbed of activity for microhousing and efficiency apartment buildings and include some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Seattle. The controversy came when developers cobbled together various zoning incentives to build bigger and taller buildings than had been anticipated under a 2010 code adjustment.

To illustrate where such buildings are located, Ethan Phelps-Goodman of Seattle In Progress mapped 33 buildings built over three stories in Lowrise 3 zones, which includes many microhousing projects:

All 4+ story buildings built in LR3 zones between 2011 and June 2015. Light pins are traditional apartments, darker pins are microhousing. Click on any pin for more information about that building.” — (Image: Seattle in Progress/Crosscut)

The code adjustments passed by the City Council would restrict the size of these buildings, but it doesn’t explicitly stop developers form building more microhousing in the future. Monday’s zoning adjustments include:

  • Requiring an upper-level “stair casing” or setback in buildings that go above the three or four story zoning limits. The idea is that from street level, buildings with extra height bonuses should still appear the same hight as surrounding buildings.
  • Restricting the size of clerestories — rooftop structures intended to act as shelter areas or light sources for apartments below — so they can’t be made into de-facto units.
  • Closing a rounding loophole that allowed developers to subdivide a 5,000 square foot parcel in Lowrise 1 zones in order to build four townhomes, rather than the three that would be permitted on the larger lot. The adjustment would also restrict the number of row homes that could be built in front of a town home on subdivided lots.
  • Requiring that hallways that open into outdoor areas are included in a buildings floor-to-area ratio — the total square feet of a building divided by the total square feet of the lot.

The zoning adjustments are a reaction to then-City Council member Sally Clark’s 2010 changes to the multifamily zoning code that allowed for bigger buildings in areas zoned for lowrise development. Many neighbors later complained the new structures were too big and too tall.

Where lowrise development is generally thought of as three to four-story townhouses and apartments, some developers have used incentives to create five stories in tightly packed apartment and microhousing buildings.

City Council member Kshama Sawant said she supported the measure even though it would continue to allow developers to run “roughshod” over neighborhoods. The Council District 3 candidate is supporting rent control and fees on developers to preserve and build affordable housing.

One provision was left out of the bill after members of the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Committee said it would discourage developers from maximizing the living space inside their buildings. Clark initially proposed to remove an existing 4-foot height bonus and another floor-to-area ratio bonus for developers that included basement units in their projects.

The HALA committee, along with the developer-backed group Smart Growth Seattle, argued the bonuses were key to getting developers to build cheaper units and better amenities inside their buildings.

Mayor Ed Murray’s housing committee is set to vote on their recommendations Tuesday, one committee member told CHS, and release a plan by the end of this week. The HALA committee is charged finding ways to create 20,000 income restricted units in the next decade.

It’s unclear how the committee’s recommendations will interact with the Council’s recent code adjustments. Developer Maria Barrientos said the group will be proposing the city allow for higher buildings in all residential zones, including those adjusted in the Council’s recent action.

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7 thoughts on “Seattle tries to scale back new apartment buildings near single family homes

  1. You don’t mention the part where the bill bans rowhouses. Rowhouses are one of the primary forms of building stock in many other cities, and for good reason: they provide dense housing that’s still human scale, and which can preserve the single-family ownership structure.

    Under the new regulations, rowhouses are required to be set back from the property line. This means that the defining feature of row housing, that the buildings are built to the property line, in direct contact with each other, is now only available if the rowhouses are developed all at once.

    In the best areas of row housing elsewhere, however, you have the variety of design that comes with houses being built individually by different people, and simply built next to the current end of the row to extend it. If you try that in Seattle now, you’ll be forced to leave a useless gap in between each house.

    Because some of our council members hate row housing, they’ve made it legally impossible to build any but the worst forms of row housing. It’s short-sighted.

    • Because Clark (under the guise of developer and design freedom) refused to look at zoning whole blocks as “rowhouse”, we have instead created this bizarre amalgamation of housing forms.

      Rowhouse next to rowhouse makes sense as a full block pattern – look at the cities where this works.

      But since we will allow a rowhouse next to cottages next to town houses, etc, the spacing is the alternative.

      • Seattle has always been an “bizarre amalgamation of housing forms”. I hesitantly say “always” as I’ve been a resident for 17 years. In 1998, I moved here from Chicago, where there is a very definitive style of row housing or “two/three flats” as they’re called. Seattle was such a hodge-podge of housing styles in 1998 as it is now. Nothing is new here. Wake up! We are simply continuing a legacy long ago established as the norm. I’ve grown to admire the abnormality of it. Seattle’s design style is that there is no particular style like you see in, say, San Francisco or Chicago or East coast cities. To me it reflects the various styles of life we all are “supposed to” embrace here. Just look at all the various fashion statements (or questions) you see walking around. I’m not saying it’s good or bad but it just is. Accept it and embrace it. I don’t think it looks bad once you shift your outlook on it.

  2. I suppose the new regulations will help, but only a little. It’s really unfortunate that the Council defeated most of Tom Rasmussen’s amendments, which if passed would have made a real difference.

    Mike O’Brien championed this very limited bill. His “environmentalist” credentials are very much in doubt…he is obviously in the pocket of big developers. I hope he is defeated this fall.

    • Sir,

      You make absolutely ZERO sense. It is environmentally responsible to encourage MORE urban density. Urban density discourages suburban sprawl. The real environmental problem is population growth…focus on curbing that and not on discouraging urban density!

  3. If the title of this article is the desire, then it’s an awful idea. The fact is we have single family homes in areas that single family homes are the ones out of place. To limit heights next to them is silly.