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    Lowrise Multifamily Code Updates: Balancing Design and Density

    Lowrise-mapLegislation a Council committee discussed earlier this week has been characterized by one side as a dramatic giveaway to developers and, by the other side, an unnecessary and dangerous downzone. Both characterizations are false.

    The Council’s land use committee considered code adjustments to the city’s Lowrise residential zones. The multifamily Lowrise zoning category, which makes up about 10% of city land, is designed for a range of moderately dense housing types, from townhouses and rowhouses to apartment buildings.

    Even though many Lowrise zones contain older single family houses, these zones are designed to be denser multifamily—not single family—zones.

    Lowrise zones are often found in the City’s Urban Centers and Urban Villages, where we focus our efforts to concentrate density. Concentrating density is good for the environment, good for the economy, and good for our communities. When people live closer to work and have easier access to mass transit systems, it creates a better city for all of us. It also allows us to protect the character of single family zoned neighborhoods.

    In 2010, the Council passed a comprehensive update to the multifamily code to improve street-level design and encourage a mix of housing types in Lowrise zones. After large updates like these, we typically circle back around after a couple of years to close unanticipated loopholes. (Since construction slowed down significantly during the great recession years the process took longer this time.)

    After construction resumed, the Council heard from numerous constituents and frustrated neighbors when it became clear that loopholes exist that allow for larger and out-of-scale development. In the fall of 2013, Councilmember Sally Clark requested legislation to make technical fixes to the Lowrise code. Developers appealed the resulting legislative proposal and lost, but in doing so forced a further delay.

    The legislation introduced by land use committee chair Councilmember O’Brien, while modified from the 2014 version, honors much of the intent of the 2010 code update and will address concerns we’ve heard from many neighborhoods. The committee was shown egregious cases of out-of-scale buildings and all of these examples wouldn’t be allowed under the proposed new rules:

    • For those in the Lowrise 1 zones like our Ballard neighbors, the bill eliminates the loophole that let developers squeeze more buildings onto a single 5,000 square foot lot.
    • For those in the Lowrise 2 zones, it adds a design review requirement already applied to the Lowrise 3 zone.
    • For those concerned about height, primarily in the Lowrise 3 zones like our Capitol Hill neighbors, this bill limits bulky rooftop features and imposes setbacks at higher heights to eliminate the canyon feeling from the street level.

    I also supported an amendment proposed by Councilmember Rasmussen to apply a new density rounding threshold to larger lots. The rounding threshold in the base legislation would have solved the problem we’re seeing now where four townhouse units are squeezed onto a 5,000 square foot lot, but the amendment will make sure developers don’t take advantage of the same loophole on lots greater than 5,000 square feet.

    The committee approved two other amendments that I did not support: one that mandates counting all exterior stairways in a unit’s overall size limit (something the City hasn’t done before) and one that creates side setbacks for rowhouses that abut multifamily parcels that still have a single family home on them. This second amendment highlighted a difficult tension: do we zone for what is on the ground now or do we zone for how we’d like the neighborhood to evolve over the course of many years? I can see the merits of both sides, but took the longer-term view.

    While the detailed language may not be exactly what some are looking for at points, I believe the bill addresses the major concerns that have been expressed. And it does so while still providing some flexibility for different housing types and styles in these Lowrise, multifamily zones of the city. We need this flexibility as we see thousands of new residents and rising housing costs. Some housing created by this flexibility, like partially below-ground units, provides some of the most affordable units in a building.

    We all want the same goals: good design, a variety of housing options, and the preservation of neighborhood character. I believe the legislation that passed the committee strikes a good balance that upholds these values and doesn’t sacrifice one for the sake of another.

    But in many ways, this debate was not about the specific legislative language. People do not get as fired up as we saw just about details like rounding thresholds. The rapid pace of change in many neighborhoods concerns many people, and reasonably so. Seattle is growing dramatically and that growth is causing disruption.

    As a city we must accommodate the thousands of new residents who are moving here, but we must also keep up with the necessary infrastructure that alleviates these growing pains: open space, transportation, the need for affordable housing, and more. Sadly, City government hasn’t provided this infrastructure or zoning loophole protections in a timely manner. I know we can do better and the legislation that passed out of committee this week is a good step in that direction.  

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