UP #336 Council Vote on South Lake Union Rezone

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Mercer Street, 1959

Mercer Street, 1959 (Seattle Municipal Archives)

The City Council approved a rezone of the South Lake neighborhood on Monday, May 6 by a 9-0 vote.

The rezone increases maximum building heights to 400 feet adjacent to Denny, and 240 feet in much of SLU to Mercer, aside from the Cascade neighborhood. Previous zoning was 65 to 85 feet in most of this area, and 125’ adjacent to Denny. The rezone is intended to meet new growth targets for Seattle’s implementation of the Seattle Comprehensive Plan, required by the state Growth Management Act.

I proposed amendments related to the urban form along South Lake Union Park and along Westlake, and to provide for additional housing, as described below.

2012 DPD Presentation

Dept. of Planning and Development presentation, 2012


The previous zoning in SLU provided capacity for 12,000 new units and 18,000 jobs; the state GMA requires development capacity to be at least 125% of the 20-year growth target. The most recent 2031 targets are for 12,000 housing units, and 22,000 jobs.

DPD estimates the new updated zoning provides capacity for 22,000 to 24,000 housing units, and 28,000 to 30,000 jobs. This equals 190% of 2031 housing estimates, and 131% of job estimates.


Council amendments to the Mayor’s original proposal included:

  • Views: Creating permanent setbacks on east-west corridors to protect views of the Space Needle; this was accomplished without reducing development potential;
  • Landmarks: Expanding incentives to encourage preservation of all landmarked structures;
  • Schools: Strengthening incentives for developers to include a public school in their project;
  • Conservation: Requiring all new buildings to meet the LEED Gold standard;
  • Zoning: increasing height in the Cascade neighborhood from 75’ to 85’, and from 85’ to 125’ on parts of the southwest side of the lake, and reducing height from 240’ to 160’ between Valley and Mercer.
  • Affordable Housing:  Applied a Consumer Price Index increase to the existing affordable housing pay-in-lieu price for developers who don’t want to build affordable housing and added a 20% premium to incentivize on-site affordable housing development.

The Council approved other elements of the proposal submitted by Mayor, including:

  • Farm/forest: the first step in a program to preserve farm land and forest land by transferring development rights into South Lake Union; if approved by future legislation it will generate funds for transportation improvements;
  • Design standards for different neighborhoods within SLU;
  • Most of the proposed building heights;
  • Preserving existing affordable housing in Cascade by maintaining current heights.


I co-sponsored two amendments to address the visual impact of towers proposed for the blocks adjacent to Lake Union Park at the South end of the lake. The Mayor proposed height of 240’; I co-sponsored a 160’ limit, which the Council passed by a 6-3 vote. The previous zoning was 40’, with 65’ under some circumstances, so even 160’ represents a significant increase. With 400’ along Denny and in the Denny Triangle, and 240’ in between, 160’ provides a good transition for maintaining urban form. This change will reduce the visual impact of shadows from the towers on Lake Union Park during the winter months.

Secondly, I also co-sponsored a proposal to limit the floor plate size (the size of each floor), for slimmer towers to protect views. Although this didn’t pass, the Council did approve a 105’ limit on the east-west width of towers.

The Council increased the zoning of a section of South Lake Union adjacent to Westlake and Dexter avenues, from the Mayor’s proposal of 85’, to 125’. I co-sponsored an amendment to ensure a smooth transition in the base heights, in line with the slope of Queen Anne Hill. The developer who owns the site planned on commercial buildings only at 85 feet; 125 feet will allow them to build up to 4 residential towers. This area is along a High Capacity Transit Corridor identified in the Seattle Transit Master Plan, and removed from the seaplane flight path. It’s a good location for additional housing.


I’m pleased that the Council increased the obligation of developers taking advantage of the potential for increased building heights to provide affordable housing, but it’s not nearly enough to meet South Lake Union’s future need. The City’s goal for affordable housing in South Lake Union is 4,200 units, the proposal the Council passed will result in approximately 700 affordable units produced.  Estimates are that these SLU upzones may result in over $12 billion worth of development over the next 25 years.  Without significantly more affordable housing for people working in the city, traffic congestion will increasingly clog our streets, hurting the economy and our environment.

Whether the Council enacts upzones in SLU or any other neighborhood, upzoning adds significant value to private property.  Seattle is among the most active real estate markets in the country, and we still have a great opportunity to get this right.  Just saying we’ll build more housing isn’t enough of a solution.  Housing regulations of cities across the country generate new units of affordable housing for their workforces. Denver and San Diego set aside 10% of all new units for affordable housing and Boston and Sacramento set aside 15%. Seattle’s incentive zoning program only sets aside 5% of all units.  I proposed an amendment to increase the affordable housing setaside to 10% of all residential floor area in a 240’ high building.  The amendment did not pass.

While the legislation passed by the Council does not require that enough affordable units will be built, I’m also concerned that the housing built will not serve the full range of workers. The Council’s own study found that by 2031, 100,000 new jobs will come to downtown Seattle. If current wage levels are maintained, one in four of the workers in these new jobs and one and three of workers in all jobs downtown, new and existing, will be paid wages that qualify them for affordable housing.  I proposed an amendment that half of the affordable units produced be affordable to these workers.  It did not pass.  Instead, the Council passed legislation with a target household income set at 80% average median income.  This means that childcare workers, health care, grocery/retail, hospitality and janitors will be priced out of South Lake Union and endure long commutes, contributing to pollution and suburban sprawl.

We all suffer if we push more people out of the city.  For these reasons, I will seek city-wide incentive zoning, requiring housing be built for our entire workforce, not just those earning the highest wages.


Included in the Mayor’s original submittal in November 2012 was a summary sheet and Memorandum of Understanding with Vulcan, under which Vulcan would sell four properties in “Block 59” of South Lake Union adjacent to Aurora and Mercer, to the city, to be combined with City properties. In return, they would receive a credit of $10-12 million for affordable housing bonus payments, locked in at the rate proposed by the Mayor. The facility would provide low and moderate income housing, a childcare facility, education/job training programs, and other services. Numerous social service agencies were involved in the planning, along with Vulcan and the Mayor’s office. Vulcan would pay up to an additional $3.25 million to build up to 240’ in the Mercer waterfront blocks.

Valuation for the Block 59 properties would be determined by an independent appraiser at the proposed rezone height of 240 feet. The appraisal value would be capped at $12 million; Vulcan could opt out of the agreement if the appraisal came in at less than $10 million. The zoning at that time was for 65 feet, with the King County Assessor listing an appraisal of the land value in 2012 at $4.7 million.

The Council received a funding scenario from Vulcan at a January 31 meeting of $76 million, mostly from SLU housing credits. It estimated 337 units of low and moderate income housing would be produced over 12 years on that site. The funding scenario included $6.5 million each from the state and King County, $7 million in city land, and $4 million in additional city housing funds.

The Council opted to not pursue the agreement, because it was tied to a specific Vulcan request, and the credits could only be used for one project, rather than for projects throughout South Lake Union. In any case, the Mayor never submitted legislation to the City Council.

While I didn’t support the agreement as it was presented, I found the concept intriguing and worth considering; I am continuing to explore options for pursuing the vision of an integrated program in SLU that would provide for the same services and housing.