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    New incentives would spur growth in Pioneer Square

    The city is considering zoning changes to allow more density while keeping the core historic area protected. Here's an overview of the new package.

    Iron pergola, Pioneer Square

    Iron pergola, Pioneer Square Joe Mabel

    Pioneer Square in Seattle

    Pioneer Square in Seattle Jill Rachel/Crosscut Flickr Group

    New higher zoning limits are coming to Pioneer Square and the south downtown Seattle neighborhoods. These changes are long overdue, as Pioneer Square has languished in economic stagnation for the past two decades. But will these changes achieve the desired effect of bringing more residents to these neighborhoods without harming the existing urbanscape?

    Seattle’s planners, in partnership with property owners and developers from the area, have created a new zoning plan aimed at increasing the residential population, thereby spurring more retail and office development and rentals. The plan consists of a package of up zones, open space, and streetscape proposals that ares now before the Council’s Committee on the Built Environment.

    The second and final public hearing on these proposed changes will be held Nov. 22 at 5:30 pm at the Wing Luke Museum, 719 S. King St.

    The key is to get more residents in Pioneer Square, so that the parks, sidewalks, and retail will get more use at all hours of the day. With more population, the area will become a safer, more livable, lively, and desirable neighborhood for young people, empty-nesters, and even families. Currently, there are only 2,000 people living in the district.

    So how can we create more housing, given all the constraints of historic buildings? Developers say that the current  limits in Pioneer Square do not offer enough buildable opportunities to justify the risk. They argue that only by relaxing the zoning can there be enough incentive for growth in the next cycle of development. Raising height limits is the obvious first step, and one only has to look at the impact of changing the zoning from 35 feet to 65 feet on Capitol Hill. That change, along with relaxing parking requirements, has quickly made Capitol Hill into the hottest residential neighborhood in Seattle.

    In most cases for the proposed new zoning in and near Pioneer Square, the underlying base zoning has not changed, and increases in height are allowed through incentives. The new incentives to developers are intended to encourage low income housing and child care. For instance, by devoting 11 percent of the bonus floor area to affordable housing a developer could gain up to 75 percent of non-residential floor area in commercial projects and a minimum of 60 percent of bonus floor area could be gained for residential and mixed use projects.

    Zoning height limits in Pioneer Square are divided into several zones. In the compact core of Pioneer Square, where most of the historic buildings are, the preferred plan is only recommending an increase of 30 feet. (Most of the historic buildings range from 70 to 90 feet.) The most significant change is in the North Parking Lot (north of Qwest Field), which has already been changed from 120 feet to a maximum 240 feet with certain incentive housing and amenity code provisions. In general terms, the plan keeps building heights low in the core historic district, while allowing considerably more density and height in the adjoining areas to the east (toward the railroad stations) and the west (toward Elliott Bay).

    The preferred alternative plan, for instance, calls for infill development in the “over-tracks property” south of King Street Station, allowing new buildings up to 180 feet in height. Buildings here would create new connections between Pioneer Square and the International District. In the “railroad gap” properties north of Jackson Street at the edge of the historic core along Fourth Avenue S., the plan proposes a new 150-foot height limit. A new zone in the South First Avenue corridor called South Downtown Mixed (SDM) is proposed allowing buildings of between 120 and 160 feet, depending on which alternative is finally approved.

    Another issue concerns infill buildings in the historic core. The current code leads to unintended and undesirable consequences in its 100 foot tall zone, the dominant zone in the district. The code for these areas reads, “No structure shall exceed by more than 15 feet the height of the tallest structure on the block or the adjacent block front(s), to a maximum of 100 feet.” This language promotes similarity of new buildings to existing building heights.

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    Posted Mon, Nov 22, 8:26 a.m. Inappropriate

    Good overview Stuart. Normally I'd post some sort of additional thought or criticism...but at the moment all that comes to mind is "^^what he said".


    Posted Mon, Nov 22, 9:48 a.m. Inappropriate

    Looks like the High Density Scam Artists keep on a-rolling.

    No matter how many vacant buildings.

    No matter how many neighborhoods ruined.

    No matter how many "re-urbanizing" projects that end up areas just as crime ridden and derelict, they find a welcoming hand and access to public till in the form of local Seattle politicos.


    Posted Mon, Nov 22, 10:54 a.m. Inappropriate

    Wow, jabailo.

    It always astounds me when these conservative, no-government types complain about relaxing or eliminating government regulations.

    Nice article, Stuart.


    Posted Mon, Nov 22, 12:40 p.m. Inappropriate

    This article is long on building height considerations and short on other equally important considerations. Thus it can be taken as fodder for inconsiderate developers. Density is NOT thee solution. Diversity (economic, transport, as well as cultural diversity) is closer to thee solution. Density without diversity, backfires.


    Posted Mon, Nov 22, 1:38 p.m. Inappropriate

    Good ideas... but can we make sure this time that we don't just kick off another inevitable cycle of pricey buildings gentrifying the area and bringing in new residents who complain about "all the homeless" and "street people" that make them feel afraid (and who were here long before the new buildings) and the "loud music" and "drunk people at all hours" outside the bars and clubs (which were also here long before the new buildings)?


    Posted Mon, Nov 22, 3:39 p.m. Inappropriate

    Belltown has a lot of tall buildings. So one would expect that with crowds of middle class people on the sidewalks it would be safe as a church. It hasn't worked out that way has it? the resident patrolled sidewalks only seem to work up to maybe past the dinner crowd; after that a new population moves in and the locals go up to their apartments. Pioneer Square could see the same results.

    I will have to take your word for it that Capital Hill is the hottest area in town but if true that does not necessarily translate into an endorsement for 200 foot buildings in Pioneer Square. Zoning up, raising height limits benefits the current owners of property; the value of their property goes up because, in theory, the property has more development potential. Subsequent owners, including developers, do not get this economic windfall because they have to pay the new enhanced price. It could be argued that "zoning up" is a one time stimulus that raises the marginal cost of land to a "stable" value that regulates development. That's OK but where's the payoff? one generation of big buildings?

    I would argue that the payoff to "zoning up" that results in more and better quality development is probably only going to happen in the type of overheated market we had between 2000 and 2008.


    Posted Wed, Nov 24, 11:30 a.m. Inappropriate

    Nobody claims that adding market rate housing will make Pioneer Square or Belltown comfortable for skittish type people. And bar patrons will do what bar patrons do. But higher activity levels certainly make non-viable neighborhoods viable for a wider cross-section of people.

    Anecdotally, I've lived in Belltown or the Market area for many years and have never felt unsafe.

    As for noise, I agree that anything close to the First Ave bar area will have to understand that the noise was there first. On other blocks, it should depend on who was there first. We need to learn from other countries, NY, etc, where being urban isn't a blanket ok to flaunt noise rules.


    Posted Mon, Nov 29, 8:03 p.m. Inappropriate

    A minor correction:

    Stuart Silk writes: "Pioneer Square’s designation as a National Register Historic District protects all of its many historic buildings permanently. This removes from development opportunities the vast majority of the sites in the core of the district." I believe he is correct that the area is protected, but wrong that this protection comes form listing on the National Register.

    Listing on the National Register only protects properties and districts from "federal actions" (things requiring a federal permit, using federal grant money, receipting federal tax credits, etc.).

    What protects Pioneer Square buildings permanently and limits the actions of owners is the protection afforded to the area as Seattle's first (local) historic district. It is through local land use law and the City of Seattle's Pioneer Square Historic District ordinance that the privately owned properties are protected from private actions.

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