You don’t see many eight-story buildings in Seattle, but they may start sprouting up in Pike/Pine and other places around town in the coming years. The reason has to do with the way affordable housing will interact with historic preservation.
Eight stories is an odd height. Under the Seattle building code, buildings up to seven stories can be built from wood. Eight or higher, and the building needs more durable materials such as concrete and steel. The more durable materials also make construction cost considerably more, to the point that eight-story buildings aren’t really profitable.
Under current regulations, that all works fine in the Pike/Pine neighborhood. Buildings there are typically allowed to build to 65 feet, or six stories. There are also an incentive in place that allow enough height for a seventh story if the developer preserves the façade and street-level interior spaces of an historic building.
The program has enticed quite a few developers, and the result can be seen all over Pike/Pine in buildings that often have a couple stories of brick with a more modern-looking building seeming to sprout out from it.
John Feit of the Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council and a frequent CHS contributor on neighborhood architecture said the tradeoff has been worth it.
“All those buildings would have been torn down without the incentive,” Feit said. “The alternative would have been nothing, so you would have no recording of what the neighborhood was.”
But the proposed new affordable housing requirements — Mandatory Housing Affordability, or MHA — could have placed the program in jeopardy.
Under the new rules, developers could need to build that seventh floor and set aside a portion of the units in the building for affordable housing. With a seventh floor required, and an eighth floor not economical, the incentive to preserve the older façade would evaporate.
The Pike/Pine council approached the city with the conundrum last year. Unlike many of the groups weighing in on the proposed affordable housing rules, the group supports the affordability elements and actively wants more density in the area.
“We were very clear we’re not fighting this, we just don’t want it to undermine a successful program,” Feit said.
The Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development reacted positively, Feit said.
Geoffrey Wentlandt, senior planning manager with the city, said his office is proposing a building code change to address it. Under the new proposed regulations, an eight story building could be built of split materials, with the bottom two floors made of concrete, and the top six made of wood. This so-called six-over-two system seems to have made everyone happy.
One of the biggest issue surrounding the wooden frame vs. concrete construction is fire safety. Basically wooden buildings burn too quickly and make it much more difficult to evacuate the top floors in the event of an emergency. This method, which also calls for added firewalls, brings the fire safety issue under control.
Developers agreed that this would allow their costs to pencil out, Feit and Wentlandt said.
So now these properties, which under new rules will effectively be zoned for seven stories, will now be able to add an eighth, assuming they take advantage of the historic preservation incentive.
Wentlandt noted that this change will apply citywide. So most spots zoned for 85-foot buildings today, which will then be permitted to go up to 95 feet under the new housing mandates, could take advantage of the change. Wendlandt noted, however, that there are relatively few spots in Seattle that would be likely to use the new rules, since that zone is uncommon.
Even in the Pike/Pine area that started the change, it may not see much use for the time being. New construction seems to be slowing in the neighborhood. All the buildings that have gone up in the past few years buildings won’t be torn down to add one more floor anytime soon. And there’s not very many places left where the preservation incentive-boosted eight-story buildings could go.
Feit notes the Richmark Label building – on Pine between 12th and 11th is one of the only properties left that is large and has a single owner, which might be able to make use of the incentive. He does note there are a number of smaller properties, however, which could possibly try and make a go of it, either by themselves, or by banding together with adjacent property owners.
Though the impetus for the change came from the affordable housing regulations, the proposal will proceed independently, Wentlandt said. It will likely appear before the City Council for approval in the fall, about the same time as the affordable housing guidelines are scheduled to. It will not, however, be tied to them, and will pass or fail on its own.
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