The end of tall buildings in residential neighborhoods?

By Ethan Phelps-Goodman
Crosscut archive image.

A microhousing project built under the 2010 LR3 rules. These rules may be amended by City Council next week.

By Ethan Phelps-Goodman

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.

Crosscut archive image.
The number of 4+ story buildings constructed in LR3 zones over time.

How did such a prosaic rule change—a few feet less setback from the street, an additional story, maybe an English basement—come to be seen as an annihilating force by many in the community? Part of the reason is that the rezone has come to be seen as synonymous with the much reviled microhousing trend. While the 2010 rewrite didn't include any specific language about microhousing, and microhousing is built in other zones, the majority of the new tall LR3 buildings have been microhousing projects, as can be seen in the chart.

Microhousing has provoked a backlash for at least a couple reasons. The first is that, for a given lot size, microhousing holds a lot more people than traditional apartments. Proponents will tell you this is exactly what's good about it. Opponents will talk about impacts on parking and city services, and make vaguely troubling statements about the sorts of people who live there. The other reason is purely aesthetic. To put it bluntly, many of the projects look bulky, ugly and cheap. This wasn't helped by the fact that, up until a November 2014 rule change, microhousing didn't have to go through design review. How much these reviews will help is yet to be seen.

The other factor fueling the anger around LR3 rules is the dissatisfaction with a variety of separate development outcomes across the city. Single-family neighborhoods are fighting against tall, skinny homes being built on subdivided lots. In denser commercial zones like central Ballard and Pike/Pine neighbors are fighting six-story mixed-use projects that cover entire blocks. Seattleites even remain suspicious of skyscrapers downtown.

Add to this the rising housing costs and congested roads that have resulted from a booming economy and growing population. None of this is directly at issue in the LR3 legislation. But this is the development policy change City Council has been willing to look at, so this is where the anger is channeled.

Charges that the LR3 upzone is destroying neighborhoods seem hard to support. Seattle neighborhoods are not such brittle things that they can be ruined by a dozen apartment buildings that are a story or so taller than they otherwise would have been. Regardless of how the Council votes on the zoning changes next week, residents should prepare for more of the same for a while: another 21 four-plus story LR3 projects are already permitted and in progress.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ethan Phelps-Goodman

Ethan Phelps-Goodman

Ethan Phelps-Goodman is a civic organizer, software developer and data journalist. He runs Seattle in Progress, a web app that documents what is being built in Seattle neighborhoods. His goal is to use data and technology to promote a more informed public discussion about development in Seattle.