Changes to Lowrise zoning regulations

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On Monday, the Council will introduce a bill that makes several changes to the multi-family code to ensure that new development in Lowrise zones is at-scale with the neighborhood, while continuing to produce significant new housing throughout the City.


In 2010, the City Council adopted a comprehensive package of changes to the multi-family code. Lowrise zones are our smaller-scale, multi-family zones where we see rowhouses, townhouses and smaller-scale apartment buildings. Lowrise zones cover about 10% of the City (by acre). LR1, the least dense of the Lowrise zones, is often located adjacent to single family areas and in areas outside urban villages. LR3 is the densest of the Lowrise zones and is generally present in urban villages and centers, near frequent transit, and in popular growing neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Ballard. Here’s a map of all the low-rise zones.Lowrise map

Between September 2011 and September 2013, 414 projects were permitted in Lowrise zones creating 2,376 housing units – largely townhouses, rowhouses and small apartment buildings.  In 2014, an additional 310 projects with 1,918 housing units were permitted in Lowrise zones.

The Council heard concerns from residents that buildings in LR3 zones were taller and bulkier than expected and the micro-housing projects were popping up  without any opportunity for neighborhood input or design review. Several Councilmembers agreed and in response, Councilmember Clark asked Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to take a second look at the code regulations and what was being produced in Lowrise zones. That research also revealed several additional issues related to townhouse and rowhouse development in LR1 zones.

In May 2014, after several months of research and community meetings, DPD published a Director’s Report and draft ordinance that recommended several adjustments to the City’s Lowrise zoning regulations.

Council review of the legislation was delayed through the summer and fall of 2014 as SmartGrowth Seattle appealed DPD’s environmental review for the bill in order to delay its implementation. In late October of 2014, the Hearing Examiner affirmed DPD’s findings.

In January of 2015, Councilmember Clark and I asked members of the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee to weigh in on DPD’s proposed bill.

Changes proposed in the Current Bill

The legislation, as introduced, does not include all of the changes proposed by DPD in 2014. Rather, it focuses on a few key provisions that I think best address the concerns that have been raised. Those provisions are:

  • Establish an upper-level setback on street-facing façades. The setback would be 16’ at a height of 44’ in a 40’ zone, and 12’ at a height of 34’ feet in a 30’ zone: The setback will ensure that a building, seen from the street, is at the expected scale of the neighborhood. Behind the setback, a building could go higher on sloped lots. Some limited projections, such as bay windows, eaves, and gutters, could project into the setback, and open railings and predominantly transparent parapets would also be permitted up to a height of 4’. Departures from the upper-level setback could be considered as part of design review if the designer demonstrates there is a better way to address building scale.
  • Place limits on the use of clerestories: The proposed changes would allow clerestories on 30% of a roof, rather than on the full area. This is to ensure that this design feature is available to let light into top-story units without creating opportunities for the construction of a de-facto extra story.
  • Change rounding rules and density limits in LR1 zones: In the least dense, LR1 zones, developers have been gaming the rules in a couple of different ways in order to increase the number of units they can construct. The first is subdividing 5,000 square foot lots into two 2,500 square foot lots, which allows them to round-up density limit requirements and build four townhomes, rather than the three that would be permitted on a 5,000 square foot lot. The introduced legislation applies a 0.85 rounding requirement to lots less than 3,000 square feet to close this loophole.

The second practice that involves the building of two or more rowhouse units (which do not have a density limit) in front of two townhouse units on subdivided 5,000 square foot lots where only three townhouses would have otherwise been allowed. For lots measuring less than 3,000 square feet in size, this legislation creates a new density limit for rowhouses (1 per 1,600 square feet of lot area) and also applies the same revised rounding requirements to rowhouses as it does to townhouses.

Both of these changes to the LR1 zone are consistent with the intended density that was legislated in the multi-family code changes in 2010. While they may result in a few less units being built per year, the trade-off will be better design and predictability for neighborhoods.  The impact of these changes on housing affordability city-wide should be minimal.

  • Clarify rules about exterior hallways: In the Lowrise zones, exterior hallways (imagine a 1950s era motel) are exempt from FAR. Several projects have been permitted with quasi-exterior hallways that have open air lattice work at one end of the hallway, but are otherwise fully enclosed. This legislation clarifies that hallways with walls on both sides are included in FAR and hallways that are more than 50% open on one long side are exempt.
  • Add design review threshold for LR2 zones: In addition to the changes studied by DPD, this legislation adds a design review requirement for projects in LR2 zones similar to what is currently in place for LR3 zones. This will require projects in LR2 zones that include more than 8 dwelling units to go through the full design review process.

Provisions that are not advancing

There were several possible options that DPD did environmental review on that this legislation does not advance. The most significant of these proposals was to remove an FAR exemption and additional 4’ of height for partially below-grade story apartments. The FAR exemption and height often make it possible for basement units to be included on steeply sloping lots. While these units in newly constructed buildings are not often affordable to low income families, they are generally the most affordable units in a building. Additionally, basement space often includes laundry rooms and other building services like bicycle parking that enhance livability but otherwise compete with rentable space in the rest of the building. I believe the upper-level setback requirement addresses community concerns about scale of buildings and that these provisions are not necessary.

Schedule for consideration

The Planning Land Use and Sustainability Committee will deliberate on the Lowrise legislation at the following meetings, all of which will be held in Council Chambers at 600 4th Avenue, 2nd floor.

  • Tue 5/19/15, 2:00pm: Committee briefing and discussion
  • Tue 6/2/15, 2:00pm: Public Hearing
  • Tue 6/16/15, 2:00pm: Commission discussion and possible vote

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