This Monday, April 25, 2011, the Full Council will be voting on Council Bill 117140 which amends the zoning for South Downtown including Pioneer Square. At the Committee on the Built Environment (COBE) on April 13, a motion to adopt the Department of Planning and Development’s (DPD) recommendation for a lower level of building heights in the Pioneer Square Historic District was defeated on a 2 to 2 vote (Clark & O’Brien in favor, Bagshaw & Burgess opposed.) As a result the height limit in this historic district could go up to 140 ft in some instances, whereas the current height of most of the buildings there is between 20 and 50 feet.
I am recommending that the full Council amend the South Downtown legislation to roll-back the maximum height limits in Pioneer Square to the maximum height limit of 120 feet as proposed by DPD, for the following reasons.
The Pioneer Square Preservation Board worked with DPD over a four year period to carefully consider appropriate height limits. It supported DPD’s proposed maximum height of 120 feet that could be reached through participation in the incentive zoning program. The Board, which consists of ten volunteer members, was established by the City to help preserve the district’s special appeal and architectural character. It includes representatives of property owners, retail business owners, human services providers, architects, residents, and historians. At Councilmember Bagshaw’s request, the Board discussed the height limits again at two meetings this spring, including one with Downtown Seattle Association representatives. The Board continues to support the DPD proposal, and we should respect its recommendation in making our decision.
The goal of the proposed height increase is to encourage residential development. The North Lot development will add about 600 apartments. The renovation of the historic King Street Station and a new waterfront will spur additional residential development, especially when combined with the height increases proposed by DPD. We should give that an opportunity to work as conceived by the Livable South Downtown plan—a plan resulting from five years of work from community stakeholders and planning experts.
I do not believe that higher heights are an important factor in stimulating new housing development in Pioneer Square. Other factors, such as market demand, are much more critical. For example, the Pike/Pine neighborhood just east of downtown is experiencing a lot of multifamily housing development with height limits of 65 to 75 feet.
While an increase of 10 to 20 feet over the height limit proposed by DPD may not seem like a big change, the higher height limits represent a major change when compared to the actual heights of the buildings that contribute to the historic character of the District. A 140-foot building could loom over an adjacent historic building, and would be three to seven times as tall.
Over time, the proposed higher heights would change the scale and character of the District, and would erode its physical integrity. The higher heights, which are intended to revitalize the district, could have the unintended consequence of negatively affecting the very character that we are trying to save.
The 130 and 140 foot heights could eventually risk the removal of the District from the National Register of Historic Places, according to Dr. Allyson Brooks, the State Historic Preservation Officer. This would remove federal tax credits and the donation of façade easements as a source of funding for building rehabilitation. Over two dozen properties in Pioneer Square have successfully used these mechanisms since 1982.
Proponents of 130 and 140 foot heights in Pioneer Square point to Portland’s Pearl District as an example of how tall buildings can fit well in historic districts. However, only a small part of the Pearl District is designated as historic on the National Register—a strip of about six blocks fronting a single street. The rest of the Pearl District lacks the necessary scale, character, and continuity to be designated. In contrast, we are fortunate to have much bigger and more cohesive historic district in Pioneer Square, and we have protected it by including a large number of contributing buildings within its boundaries. The examples of tall buildings that have been described as positive in the Pearl District are close to their historic district. In contrast, the COBE proposal would allow tall, out of scale buildings inside the Pioneer Square Historic District itself.
The height limits in the COBE recommendation step down to lower limits moving westward toward the historic core of the District along First Avenue South. While the urban design strategy of lowering heights from east to west in downtown moving toward the waterfront is generally positive, it does not work well for Pioneer Square. Here it is better to create a sharp edge, where the low heights of the District meet the high rise buildings of adjacent downtown neighborhoods. This helps emphasize the special character of the District and adds to its importance in contrast to the later growth of the urban core.
As a general principle, any proposed height increases should maintain the scale, character, and continuity of historic buildings in the district. I believe that the maximum height limit of 120 feet proposed by DPD and supported by the Pioneer Square Preservation Board carries out this principle, and recommend that it be restored. My amendments would carry out this recommendation. In addition, my amendments would undo the enlargement of the area in which upper-level setbacks are required, because COBE’s enlargement of this area to include a block north of Yesler Way was considered a mitigating measure for increasing the maximum height limit.
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