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.

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Example of Pioneer Square detailing

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.

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.

A complication of the present code comes when a building on a neighboring block becomes taller through renovation or new construction. Suddenly, the height limit affecting a nearby block face would increase, though it could not exceed 100 feet. The resulting growth pattern is unpredictable and unfriendly to developers looking to mitigate risk.

Let's assume that up-zoning works and property owners begin to fill up the half a dozen empty parking lots that make unsightly holes in the fabric of Pioneer Square’s neighborhood with new taller buildings. Would this be a good thing urbanistically? Some argue that higher buildings in and around Pioneer Square will have ill effects on the congruity of a district where most buildings fall between 70 and 90 feet

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. The few sites that are available won’t be enough to undermine the integrity of the district’s context. Many of the unprotected sites are simply too small to support a building that is large enough to provide underground parking and the other amenities one needs to make a tall building economically viable.

Additionally, there are precedents of buildings much taller in Pioneer Square and adjacent areas including most visibly the Smith Tower, 467 feet, King Street Station clock tower at 247 feet, and Qwest Stadium at 263 feet.

Another impediment for building owners is how expensive and challenging it is to renovate or add vertically to the existing buildings in Pioneer Square. There are a lot of reasons for this: the historic restrictions, the lack of parking, the seismic upgrades and changes of use often required. It will be a lot easier to in fill the large open sites(such as the parking lot to the east of Occidental Park) with new buildings first. Once occupied, these residential complexes  will create an active market, and in turn, make renovations such as the Washington Shoe Company building more economically viable.

Another development incentive in the plan is a South Downtown Historic Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program. Its twin goals are to preserve historic structures, and to provide resources toward their rehabilitation by selling off development rights to nearby developers, who can then build higher structures. Filling in the “empty teeth” with continuous rows of shops will help reinvigorate Pioneer
Square into a lively, safe, pedestrian neighborhood?

Changing the zoning is not enough to create positive long lasting change in Pioneer Square. Fortunately, much more is happening, such as the revitalization principles found in the Main Street program for commercial renewal, changes in on-street parking on game days, improved electrical infrastructure for today’s hi-tech office needs, additional transit options, and additional bike lanes. Pioneer Square may once again regain its prominence as an active, vibrant, 24-hour community.


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