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City Council considers bigger hotels along Seattle waterfront

Bigger hotels would be allowed along Seattle's central waterfront if the City Council approves a recently proposed set of changes to the city's land use code. Although height limits would not increase, hotel developers would be granted larger allowances for total square footage under the rules the council is considering.

With plans on the horizon for tearing down the Alaskan Way Viaduct and building a vast new waterfront park, the area that the code amendments would target is poised to change dramatically in the coming years. The proposed changes to the land use rules are intended to promote residential and retail growth. They would affect a cluster of properties sandwiched between First Avenue South and Alaskan Way, which stretches about six blocks between Columbia Street and Union Street.

The current 160-foot height limit for buildings in the area, which is known as the Commission District, would not change, but the maximum "floor area ratio" for hotels would increase. A floor area ratio compares the total square footage in a building, to the size of the lot on which it is built. The proposed changes would raise the maximum allowable ratio to 8:1 for hotels.

A diagram showing differently configured 0.5:1, 1:0 and 2:0 floor area ratios. Source: City of Seattle

Hotels and other commercial buildings in the area currently have a maximum allowable ratio of 5:1, unless developers are participating in the city's existing incentive zoning program, in which case that ratio can jump as high as 7:1. Through the incentive zoning program, developers provide public benefits, such as childcare facilities, affordable housing and open space, in exchange for added floor area. In lieu of providing some of the public benefits, they can also make per-foot cash payments to gain additional square footage.

Hotel developers would still need to participate in the incentive zoning program to be eligible for the new 8:1 ratio. At the same time, other types of non-residential structures in the area, like office buildings, would no longer be eligible for incentive zoning and under the newly proposed rules would be limited to the 5:1 ratio.

If the code changes are adopted, a hotel on a 20,000 square foot lot could have up to 160,000 square feet of floor area, rather than the 140,000 square feet allowed under current land use rules.

There are no floor area ratio restrictions for residential structures in the area. But those buildings are subject to the 160-foot cap on height.

"We've seen consistently that housing and hotel uses are great for generating activity," said Marshall Foster, city planning director at the Department of Planning and Development.

"What we're doing is really in response to all the public planning around the waterfront," he added.

Department of Planning and Development officials briefed the City Council's Planning Land Use and Sustainability Committee on the proposed amendments last week. A public hearing is scheduled for July 15.

"I think that the hope is that the waterfront would be active with people not 24 hours a day, but maybe 18 hours a day," said committee chair Mike O'Brien.

Both Foster and O'Brien said they were not aware of any specific hotel projects that developers were planning for the area.

The old Federal Office Building on First Avenue South is one of the historic structures in the Commission District. Photo: Bill Lucia 

Once known for warehouses, the Commission District currently consists of a mix of properties, including some of the Harbor Steps apartments, the old Federal Office Building, The Alexis Hotel and the private utility, Seattle Steam Co.

The city is currently reviewing plans for a 16-story building with 168 residential units, retail space and parking, which would be located on the site of a parking lot next to one of Seattle Steam's buildings. Mack Urban, formerly known as Harbor Urban, is spearheading the project.

Plans for a new 16-story building with residential and retail space at 1301 Western Avenue are in the works. Photo: Bill Lucia

Another commercial parking lot in the area affected by the proposed changes belonged to the late Myrtle Woldson, who died earlier this year at age 104. The City Council voted 8-0 last year to acquire that property either through condemnation or negotiation, in order to use it for short term parking while the viaduct replacement was underway. Woldson was reluctant to sell, but through an attorney entered into negotiations with the city. The attorney, John Paul Turner, said those negotiations were ongoing and now involved Woldson's estate.

"They still tell us that they would like to have that property," he said, referring to the city. "They haven't taken any formal steps to acquire it."

The amendments to the land use code that the council is considering also include a range of other changes designed to make the waterfront more pedestrian friendly.

Ryan Smith, a principal at Martin Smith, Inc., a real estate development company with a seven-story commercial building on the corner of Western Avenue near Seneca Street, expressed support for the proposed changes.

"I think it's great the city is looking at ways to encourage housing," he said. "It'll be good for retail."

As an example of the type of development the city would like to see in the area, Foster, the city planning director, pointed to The Post, a 206-unit, 16-story apartment building on Western Avenue between Columbia Street and Marion Street.

The Post apartments (center) are an example of the type of development the city is trying to encourage in the Commission District. Photo: Bill Lucia

Foster explained that the real estate development market is reacting to the plans to demolish the viaduct and that getting the new land use rules in place now would help guide projects that would be permitted in the near future.

Department of Planning and Development's Dennis Meier provided some context about the Commission District last week as he briefed the council's land use committee on the proposed rule changes.

“Currently the development standards in our zoning reflect past assumptions about this area," he said. "It's the backyard, it’s the area along the edge of the viaduct and it’s more or less treated as an alley.”

“With the viaduct gone," he continued, "that’s going to be completely different.”

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