A 2010 change to Seattle’s Lowrise 3 (LR3) zoning designation hasn’t sparked much public interest until now, when the economy has picked up and developers are taking advantage of increased height limits for new multi-family buildings. Residents in neighborhoods with LR3 zones, especially those living in adjacent single family homes, are concerned about 40-plus-foot tall apartments that alter neighborhood character, create shade and reduce privacy, and increase on-street parking demand. In order to collect citizen comments, on Tuesday night the Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) hosted a community meeting that brought out both enthusiastic supporters and hostile opposition.
The issues stems from four years ago, when the City Council enacted amendments to its lowrise codes that allows apartment buildings in LR3 zones to be up to 40 feet tall within areas designated as ‘urban centers‘, ‘urban villages’, and ‘station area overlay districts‘. These terms refer to neighborhoods where growth is being directed because of existing population densities, retail activity, and existing or future light-rail stations. One exception is portions of the property within 50 feet of a single-family zoned lot, where the height limit is 30 feet. The designers and developers of such apartment buildings can increase the height limit, however, if they follow other code provisions: if the bottom level of the building will be partly below ground level, the building can extend its height by 4 feet to compensate but is limited to four stories above ground; if the previous is used, the ridgeline of pitched roofs may extend another 5 feet above the height limit; if at least half the roof is covered with vegetation the height may be an additional 2 feet; elevator penthouses may extend above the height limit up to 16 feet.
Developers can build more dwelling units and earn a larger return on investment when they build taller, so there is an incentive for them to take advantage of the code’s exceptions. But since the code changes were enacted, not much lowrise apartment development occurred until the last couple years. City Council President Sally Clark asked DPD to review the changes last October when neighbors began taking notice.
The first public meeting with DPD staff occurred Tuesday night, as residents from across the city converged on Lowell Elementary School in Capitol Hill and packed a cafeteria to the brim. The event started off bitterly almost immediately, as planners Mike Pedowski and Geoffrey Wentland presented background information amid heckles and insults. But the introduction was succinct and explained that lowrise zones cover 12 percent of the city’s land area and growth is being directed into them to preserve the lower density neighborhoods. The 2010 zoning update was intended to end the rapid spread of bland auto-court townhouses and increase housing diversity with cottages, rowhouses, and apartments. The update also made standards more flexible, requires better design review, and encourages compatibility with the surrounding neighborhood character. But staff acknowledged that the resulting developments have not been in line with the code’s intentions, and DPD will submit revisions to the City Council by March after gathering public comments.
A question-and-testimony session followed, during which many people lined up at a microphone to express utter rage towards the planning department. An early theme was criticism towards the lack of official notice for the meeting and that two weeks for follow-up public comment is too short. Many single family homeowners were dismayed at the tall structures being built next door and the resultant loss of backyard privacy and sunlight, arguing that architects are insensitive to neighboring properties. Others suggested that the movement for affordable housing is misdirected, because the older and smaller apartments buildings that are being replaced have naturally lower rents. Some people noted that the goal of increasing density and reducing parking is foolhardy amid the region’s upcoming transit cuts. And several suggested specifically removing the 4 foot increase for sub-grade floors, and to thunderous applause, one man advocated a complete stop on permits for LR3 projects until the code is revised.
After hearing complaints about the city’s focus towards new residents, not current ones, a Capitol Hill resident asked the audience to recall the neighborhood’s inclusive spirit and argued growth is good for increasing social diversity. On that point, a supporter of increased density pointed out that the vast majority of the audience was made up of older white homeowners and did not represent the views of young renters. Others were supportive of growth but said it needed to be concentrated on arterial streets and areas with existing multi-family housing, such as Broadway and the Pike-Pine corridor, not near single-family homes.
The meeting became unhinged several times when people in the audience tried to talk over the person who had the floor or yell obscenities, prompting city staff to step in and remind attendees to remain civil. It also veered off topic with complaints about ‘aPodments‘ and the city’s unwillingness to impose infrastructure exactions on developers.
Many legitimate concerns were raised by residents, and the meeting revealed a much broader concern for increasing density citywide. Plopping large buildings among small homes can disrupt the urban fabric, so DPD staff should look at downzoning some areas to protect historical districts while upzoning in areas better suited for high-density, like on major streets with retail presence and transit connections. It would also be simpler to remove code exceptions and be more straightforward on what heights the city wants; height bonuses in commercial zones are usually rewarded on the basis of public amenities like open space or public restrooms, so it’s unclear how residential lowrise bonuses based only on private design benefit the public. As some attendees mentioned, the public also needs more data on recent development in LR3 zones before a decision is made.
The fact remains that Seattle is an urban city experiencing rapid growth, and because there is no virgin land left, many new residents will need to be accommodated in taller buildings. The long democratic process that Seattle is known for, along with its active citizenry, will likely lead to a delay of the Council vote and plenty of time to flesh out common ground and compromises. Yet if the density-opposition continues being uncivil in public discourse, it is not imaginable they will win many favors.
Video of the meeting can be viewed here.