In 2010, Seattle made a number of tweaks to its residential zoning rules, opening many neighborhoods to four-story or higher construction for the first time in decades. Pressure from neighborhood activists to roll back the rules has been mounting, and on July 6, after more than a year and a half of discussion, the City Council is expected to vote on legislation that would restrict some of the density allowed in the 2010 upzone.
The zoning rule changes of 2010, which focused on a common residential zone called lowrise 3 (LR3), were passed without much fanfare. So it came as a surprise to many residents of LR3 zones when the taller buildings began to pop up. As residents have pushed back against the rules, the rhetoric has grown more and more extreme. At a public city planning meeting in February of 2014, the room erupted in applause as a tearful resident described the taller buildings as a "rape" of the neighborhood. At a City Council hearing last month, Dhammadinna—a Buddhist monk from Capitol Hill—channeled the mood most clearly, describing how "the 40-foot upzone has given permission to developers to destroy these neighborhoods…neighborhoods are overwhelmed by anguish, hopelessness and loss that this has created at the heart of our city."
Under pressure from neighborhood groups to roll back the changes, the City began another example of the "Seattle process.” Public meetings were held. Reports were written. Claims and counter-claims were argued through a hearing examiner. Council introduced a bill. More public meetings were held and the bill was amended.
Now, after over a year and a half of this process, City Council is expected to vote on changes. True to form, the bill will likely displease anti-density advocates by doing too little and equally displease pro-density advocates by doing too much. Given all the passion this issue has incited, it’s interesting to take a more concrete look at the construction that resulted from the 2010 upzone.
To document the effects of these zoning changes, I pulled data from Seattle in Progress, the King County Assessor and Seattle's Department of Planning and Development. The search was narrowed to buildings in LR3 zones that are four stories or higher, indicating the project is utilizing the zoning changes. The attached map shows the 33 buildings over three stories that have been built in these zones since the new rules went into effect.
All 4+ story buildings built in LR3 zones between 2011 and June 2015. Light pins are traditional apartments, darker pins are microhousing. Click on any pin for more information about that building.The bulk are in Capitol Hill and the U-District, which have a dozen buildings each. These are the sorts of projects that may no longer be allowed, depending on how Council votes next week.
In addition to the geographic distribution, it's also interesting to look at the rate of construction. As the attached chart shows, there has indeed been a dramatic increase in the construction of tall buildings in these zones. From 2001-2012, Seattle LR3 zones added an average of one new four-story or higher building a year. In 2013, ten new four-story apartments were built—as much as the last ten years combined. In 2014 the yearly figure climbed to 17 new buildings. Those numbers sound even more significant when you consider that LR3 zones make up only five percent of Seattle's buildable land.