Portland LooOn Monday, September 30, the Council approved legislation that could lead to new housing on a vacant block next to Occidental Park in Pioneer Square — and bring the first “Portland Loo” to Seattle. The legislation, prepared at the request of the Pioneer Square community, modifies an earlier land use action that allowed the developer at 200 Occidental additional height in return for including residential uses and a streetcar base. On the same day, the Council also approved legislation limiting some heights in the few areas of midrise zoning adjacent to single family zoning.

In 2006, the Council approved raising the allowed height at 200 Occidental from 100 to 130 feet if the developer set aside 12,600 square feet for a maintenance base for the waterfront streetcar. The space would not have been donated as a public benefit – the developer would have been paid rent by King County.

Since then, the City has developed a streetcar maintenance base just south of Dearborn to serve the First Hill streetcar, and, if the waterfront streetcar is revived, that base would be available to maintain it. That left the developer in the odd situation of either being able to build a 100 foot office building or a 130 foot mixed use building – but with 12,600 square feet of vacant space on the ground floor. The Pioneer Square community has been trying to get residential development on this site for many years, and neither of these options made much sense to them. On the other hand, it did seem appropriate to require the developer to do something to justify the additional height.

So they came up with the great idea of requiring the developer to pay for the installation of a public restroom in return for being allowed to use the 12,600 square feet. While the City has had challenges in making public restrooms work in the past, Portland has had great success with its ‘Portland Loo’ model, designed to discourage the kinds of activities that made the past public restrooms problematic. The community asked the Council to approve this proposal, and submitted a letter signed by a truly incredible range of entities, including the Coalition to End Homelessness, Downtown Residents Council, Downtown Seattle Association, and Real Change. The Alliance for Pioneer Square offered to pay for operations and maintenance.

This was a truly win-win solution. The cost of buying and siting the restroom is estimated at around $250,000, comparable to the $170,000 value of 12,600 square feet under the incentive zoning program. If the developer goes forward with the mixed use project, Pioneer Square gets the restroom, and, more importantly, the housing on the site adjacent to Occidental Park, which has sat vacant for many years. The developer gets a workable project, and there will be new housing and jobs for the community. The public restroom will serve a wide range of people, from the homeless to tourists, and hopefully reduce the impact on neighborhood businesses and the environment from people using the alleys instead. All of these things benefit the City.

On the same day, the Council also approved legislation limiting the height of buildings in midrise zones adjacent to single family residential zones. Generally, zoning provides a step down from taller buildings to low-rise to single family, but there are a few blocks in the City where a quirk in the zoning code has midrise zones directly abutting single family, most notably along Avalon Way in West Seattle. The issue was exacerbated when legislation was approved allowing additional height in midrise zones under certain conditions; this legislation specified that the additional height would not be allowed if the buildings were adjacent or across the alley from single family zoning. It’s a minor adjustment in the code, but one that brings a bit more rationality to this unusual situation.