Council tries to put 'bulky' developments on a diet

Crosscut archive image.

The Seattle City Council took a new look at 2010 zoning legislation Monday in order to, as several council members put it, close loopholes on developers. The changes passed 8-1, with only Councilmember Tom Rasmussen opposing.

The original legislation allowed for more low-rise residential housing. Imagine Seattle’s many new tall and narrow townhouses and you have an idea for the kinds of projects spurred from that legislation. The ordinance has allowed for greater density in a city that has historically favored single family homes, one piece in the long running debate about where to put Seattle’s exploding population.

But in the world of unintended consequences, the 2010 bill was a little soft on the hard numbers, and buildings have been bigger than what the city imagined. Residents in popular neighborhoods like Ballard and Fremont have complained about these developments looking like Soviet-era Eastern European apartment complexes. Councilmember Rasmussen said in a mid-June Planning, Land-Use and Sustainability Committee that neighborhoods are “being bulldozed and replaced by building that are taller and bulkier than what we’d anticipated.”

The legislation to fix these loopholes, which Councilmember Mike O’Brien inherited when Councilmember Sally Clark left for another job, was borne out of a Department of Planning and Development study that the council commissioned of where developments may have stepped over the limitations on density. They found a number of problems, a few of which O’Brien pushed to fix.

First, they found that developers were subdividing lots so as to allow for more units per property. For example, by splitting a 5,000 square foot plot in two, that property could host four units instead of three. Second, the original legislation exempted external halls and staircases from counting toward a project’s overall footprint. The DPD found that by simply cutting a hole in a stairwell it became “external” and the building could be larger. The council also used the word “clerestories” — essentially rooftop lofts — more than they ever have before. Apparently some buildings have been pushing the definition of a clerestory as a way to add an extra floor on top.

There has also been some fuzziness on the low point from which building heights are measured. If a building is on a slope, is it from the top or bottom?

O’Brien’s amendments aimed to solidify all of these squishy rules. Rasmussen, neighborhood conservationist and the only no vote, felt the amendments didn’t go far enough in restricting what developers are allowed to do.

As these amendments have been considered, both in committee meetings and public hearings, public comments have largely reflected the opinion of residents worried about the character of their neighborhood. In one meeting, several commenters cried.

The issue is likely to remain tricky because, by some estimates, the Seattle area could have more than 1 million new residents by 2040. Mayor Ed Murray pledged recently that the city would build 50,000 new housing units — 20,000 affordable; 30,000 market-rate — in the next 10 years. But, as is the problem with building out transportation infrastructure, the city is limited in how far it can expand thanks to the Puget Sound, Lake Union and Lake Washington. And the density questions could reignite any day, with the long-awaited recommendations from the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda group.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.