Rendering of South Lake Union rezoneOn Monday, April 22, the City Council celebrated Earth Day with a unanimous Committee of the Whole vote approving a far-reaching rezone of South Lake Union (Council Bill 117603). The land use changes will allow for more jobs and housing close to downtown, reducing sprawl and the environmental degradation that accompanies it. The Council modified the legislation submitted by the Mayor by adding additional requirements for green buildings, historic preservation, and view protection, strengthening affordable housing provisions, and making a few changes in development capacity. However, the core provisions of the legislation continue to embody the recommendations of the South Lake Union Community Council, the stewardship body for the South Lake Union Neighborhood Plan update. The legislation will go forward for formal approval on Monday, May 6, but it is likely that only technical or minor changes will be made after the ten months of Committee work.

This action completes eight years of work to implement the 2004 designation of South Lake Union as an “Urban Center” in the Seattle Comprehensive Plan. Urban Centers are a key element in the region’s implementation of the Growth Management Act (GMA). They are intended to have high levels of housing and employment growth, in contrast to the rest of the City, which is intended to grow more gradually. Ensuring that South Lake Union and other Urban Centers can accommodate Seattle’s continued growth will take pressure off other neighborhoods that would have to absorb greater numbers of residents than are currently planned.

In 2004 South Lake Union was assigned a twenty year growth target of 8,000 households and 12,000 jobs, approximately 17% of the City’s household growth and 19% of the employment growth for that period. The planning horizon for this rezone extends out twenty years, and by 2031 South Lake Union would have to absorb some 12,000 households and 22,000 jobs in order to continue to meet its share of future growth. Decisions made on this rezone will shape the neighborhood for the next hundred years.

The rezone prepares the way for South Lake Union to become an integrated part of the downtown core and gets rid of the current zoning that fosters ‘breadbox’ buildings occupying full blocks. While allowing greater height in the form of towers, the new zoning also imposes development standards and incentives to encourage a diverse urban form, more open space and an enlivened streetscape. For example:

  • Only one tower per block would be permitted on the Mercer blocks. Other blocks can have two towers but they must be more widely spaced than anywhere else in the city.
  • There are strong street-level design standards and incentives to ensure a lively and vibrant pedestrian environment such as requiring retail at ground level.
  • A series of subarea standards will maintain the character of specific communities through incentives for preservation of landmark properties and existing open spaces.
  • A new program that preserves farm and forest lands by transferring development rights into South Lake Union will also generate funds for transportation improvements.

Much of the public discussion centered on increases in building heights. Tower heights will be 400 feet on Denny, matching the zoning on the south side, and will be 240 feet in the central area of the neighborhood. Towers are only permitted for residential development. On the Mercer blocks, between Mercer and Valley, towers will be limited to 160 feet. In the southwest portion of the neighborhood, heights will generally be limited to 85 feet to protect the flight path for Kenmore Air, and there are lower heights in the Cascade neighborhood and in the blocks nearest Lake Union.

Major amendments approved by the Council include:

  • Reducing the allowed height on the Mercer blocks from 240 feet to 160 feet, and reorienting the towers to protect views by limiting east-west width to 105 feet.
  • Adding the opportunity for three or four 125 foot residential towers on two blocks between Westlake and Dexter and Highland and Galer, where the slope of Queen Anne Hill creates a significant change in the topography. This will replace most of the development capacity lost with lower heights on the Mercer blocks.
  • Requiring all new buildings to meet the Gold standard of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program of the US Green Building Council.
  • Expanding incentives to encourage preservation of all landmarked structures.
  • Raising heights in part of the Cascade neighborhood from 75 feet to 85 feet to allow more flexibility in design.
  • Strengthening the incentives to developers if they include a school in their project.
  • Creating permanent setbacks on east-west corridors to protect views of the Space Needle, which was accomplished without reducing development potential.

The Council also made modifications to the affordable housing incentive program. The Mayor’s proposed legislation created a requirement for developers to either include affordable housing in their projects or to contribute to funds for building low income housing if the developer wants to build above the base height, which is 85 feet in most of the neighborhood. The Council increased the amount of the required fee by about 30%, in hopes that this would stimulate more affordable housing in developments. If fully implemented, this could provide 10 to 20% of the City’s goal for affordable housing in the neighborhood. The challenge in creating these kinds of provisions is to balance the goal of providing affordable housing against the risk of decreased development. Raising the cost of residential development too much could cause developers to build offices instead, or even to decline to take advantage of the new zoning and only build less risky smaller developments.

Getting to the “right” fee amount is incredibly tricky, which is why I favored maintaining the Mayor’s proposed fee of $15.15 per gross square foot for residential units — the same as what developers pay to build across the street in Denny Triangle and downtown. This would put SLU on an equal playing field for development in the short-term and give Council time over the next few months to conduct a rigorous analysis of options for overhauling all our incentive programs, not just for SLU but also other neighborhoods with incentive zoning programs. However, a majority of Councilmembers believed that some increase over the proposed level could be included in this legislation, and we ultimately came to an agreement on a compromise package that can later be modified as we study the issue further.

There is general agreement that the incentive zoning included in this legislation is only one part of the answer. Recognizing this, the Mayor has convened a task force of stakeholders to analyze other tools to increase the supply of affordable housing and make recommendations on a comprehensive program that would consider not only South Lake Union, but the entire City. The Council will adopt a resolution that complements this by creating an Expert Review Panel to fully examine options for revising and expanding the incentive program. Ultimately, getting more housing built – affordable or market-rate — is the most critical step in making sure that all residents have a place to live, and the rezone is a major accomplishment in reaching that goal.

The Council will also adopt two additional resolutions as part of the South Lake Union package. One accepts the recommendations of the Council’s Race and Social Justice (RSJ) analysis of the rezone, and creates a work plan for job training and placement as well as actions to strengthen community resources for low and moderate income residents. The second resolution proposes several additional work plan items to follow up on the rezone, including providing view protection from Lake Union Park, funding a historic preservation survey, and advancing a review of transportation improvements.

Cities all over the country are looking at South Lake Union with envy. Seattle is incredibly fortunate in having the confluence of private and public investment that is creating a new neighborhood and providing jobs and housing for our future. While in the last two recessions, Seattle lagged a year or more behind the national recovery, this time we are leading the way. This legislation is a thoughtful and careful action that will enable Seattle to continue to prosper and will allow South Lake Union to be the great Urban Center envisioned in the South Lake Union Neighborhood Plan.