Living Building Ordinance Amendments

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Rendering of the Bullitt Center, Seattle’s first Living Building Challenge development. (Miller Hull Partnership)

The Council has unanimously adopted changes to the ‘Living Building Challenge Pilot Program’ that will tighten the qualifications for participation and provide additional incentives for builders to participate in the program.  We expect at least one additional building to be able to proceed into construction as a result of this change.

The Living Building ordinance is a pilot program.  The idea is to find the right set of incentives that will encourage builders to go to a high level of green.  The program only allows 12 buildings to be constructed.  It is not a general rezone, and has both a limited number of buildings permitted and an expiration date.  At that point, we pause and see what we are willing to incorporate into our regular code in order to reach this new level of greenness.

While the program was enacted in 2009, only one building is in construction, the Bullitt Foundation.  Clearly, the incentives provided are not enough.   During the drafting of the original legislation, the Bullitt Foundation requested flexibility in case they fell short of meeting the Living Building Challenge, and the City incorporated a fallback process that would allow buildings to keep the incentives if they met 60% of the criteria for certification by the Living Building Challenge, as well as other specific requirements for energy, water and stormwater.

The Living Building Challenge sponsors have decided that they are not satisfied with the 60% level being called a ‘living building’, so we have worked out modifications to the ordinance that require buildings to fully attain three of the seven living building challenge criteria, one of which must be energy, water or materials.   In addition, requirements for energy, water consumption and capture and use of stormwater are specified in order to call the building a participant in the Living Building Pilot Program.    The current 60% path will be limited to a maximum of three developments, and participants at that level will be designated as ‘Seattle Deep Green’ buildings rather than ‘living building challenge participants.’

The Living Building Challenge sponsors are now satisfied with this ordinance.  Denis Hayes, President of the Bullitt Foundation, states:

This looks very good to me. …Three Deep Green buildings seem fine to me.  In fact, after we take this through the next iteration sometime in the future, it would be good to encourage many high-performance, ‘deep green’ buildings (while encouraging living buildings — with their higher costs and greater benefits — even more.)

Seattle’s goal is not just to create a small number of living buildings, but to change the world by demonstrating that buildings that meet rigorous standards for the environment can be commercially viable.  That is why two incentives are added to those in the original ordinance.  The amendments provide the option of 20 feet of additional height above the base zoning, instead of the 10 feet approved in 2009.  And the ordinance provides that floor space used for ground level retail services is exempted from floor space limits.  Both of these provisions can only be implemented with the approval of the Design Review Board.  Consistent with a settlement agreement with a Wallingford neighbor, the ordinance also limits the area above 45’ to no more than 66% coverage to help address bulk and view concerns.

The proposed added incentives only apply to buildings that are in Industrial Commercial (IC) zones located in urban villages or urban centers.  Approximately 27 parcels are eligible, mostly in the area around 34th and Stone Way in Fremont/Wallingford, but including some parcels in the University District and Eastlake.  The immediate result will be that the proposed Stone 34 development, on the northeast corner of 34th and Stone Way, will be able to proceed.  Other sites around the corner may be developed under these provisions, but DPD thinks it is unlikely that the sites in the U District and Eastlake will be, since they are either too small or already developed.   The ordinance does not have any impact on Capitol Hill.  One other potential living building is proposed on Capitol Hill, but it would qualify under the existing ordinance.

The Stone34 project is located in the Fremont Hub Urban Village, and the amendments that would permit it to proceed have the endorsement of the Fremont Community Council and Fremont Chamber of Commerce.  While some residents of South Wallingford have opposed this project because of concerns about private views, the adopted Comprehensive Plan policies in the South Wallingford plan provide protection for public views, which the project does not impact.  The project design was changed to reduce the bulk of the top two floors in order to reduce the impact on private views.  The Wallingford Community Council has opposed the legislation, but did not appeal the SEPA determination of non-significance.  Future appeal of the SEPA review on the Stone34 project itself is not precluded by any of the SEPA process for this legislation and is not precluded by adoption of this legislation.

The Fremont Neighborhood Council stated the following in support of the ordinance:

  • “The appropriate zoning for the block of industrial lands around 34th and Stone Way has not been comprehensively addressed by the City since before neighborhood planning in the mid 1990s. In 2009, DPD did propose changing the zoning around 34th and Stone Way from IC–‐45 to IC–‐65 in response to Council direction to review all “I” zones in urban villages outside of manufacturing and industrial centers MICs)… The Stone34 proposal is consistent with the overall tenor and movement of land use in the area, and will actually help mitigate the impacts of the City’s new Transfer Station by completely screening it from Stone Way. The east end of the Transfer Station will be built into the hill that rises over 40 feet from Stone Way to Woodlawn Avenue.
  • “The land rises away from the Stone34 site in all directions except toward Lake Union. The Stone34 site is not in the 200 foot shoreline zone. The project will cause no loss of views of Lake Union from any public right of way; the building at the southeast corner of 34th at Stone Way already does that for lower Stone Way. Loss of views of Lake Union from private property will be minimal, and there will be minimal blockage of views of the Aurora Bridge as well. All of these impacts were thoroughly vetted in both the design review process and the SEPA review of the LBPP amendments.”

The process for these amendments was not as straightforward as would be ideal.  The Stone34 Project was reviewed in 29 meetings with the public.  This includes 14 hours of Design Review Board discussions, which resulted in a recommendation by the Design Review Board pending approval of this amendment.  The proponents of the Living Building Challenge, who had some initial concerns, have now concurred with the proposed revisions.  It should be emphasized that the organization that administers the Living Building Challenge has no position on the proposed incentives, but wanted to make sure that there was not confusion about the use of their name in the legislation.

If constructed, the Stone34 proposal will provide many benefits for the community.  It will be an attractive building, with ground floor retail, and will appropriately screen the North Transfer Station from the west.  While there may be some impacts on private views, the building will be much better in every other way than what could be built under the underlying zoning.  Brooks Shoes will relocate its headquarters to the building, supporting some 200 jobs initially and potentially significantly more as Brooks Shoes expands in the future.

I appreciate that the process that led to this result was confusing, and I very much regret that.  However, the legislation is clearly consistent with the Comprehensive Plan and meets the wishes of the Fremont Neighborhood Plan and the neighborhood stewards for that plan, and is likely to be a good neighbor.