Sometimes the most boring legislative language is the stuff that gets people the most riled up. Case in point: a land use bill that got a vote in the city council's planning and land use committee yesterday and is headed for a full council vote early next month.
The bill involves some seriously arcane-sounding city code relating to "upper-level setback requirements," "floor area calculations," and something called "clerestories." But it's reenergized a density-vs-NIMBYs fight in the city and people are spilling a lot of feelings over it.
"I own property on Harvard Avenue," the woman in the photo above said during a public hearing earlier this month, just before choking up. "A lovely little two bedroom townhouse where we’re going to have 44 high-density apartments next to us. So, my husband’s and my dream of moving into Seattle and living where we’d only need one car or no car—I’m not sure that’s a dream anymore because of the way the street’s gonna get turned upside down due to this infill project."
How the "infill project" and torn-up street were destroying her dream of urban living was not exactly made clear, but she continued: "It shouldn’t always be about the next residents that are coming into town."
The crowd applauded. "We’re very, very fortunate to have a robust economy here in Seattle," the woman said. "But it shouldn’t always be about the people that are coming. What about the people that are here?"
The crowd applauded again. Other speakers at the hearing called on the council to do something before Seattle looks like an "Eastern Bloc" city. (It was nuts. You can watch it here.)
All the neighborhood worry—"raw emotion," as developer lobbyist Roger Valdez put it—is what drove the introduction of bill aimed at dialing back density. It was originally put forward by Council Member Mike O'Brien, who's running to represent a new district that includes a lot of formerly suburban-feeling enclaves that are now becoming more dense. But then O'Brien's bill found an even more willing ear in—surprise!—Council Member Tom Rasmussen. He proposed a whole bunch of amendments to make O'Brien's bill go even further.
In the committee meeting yesterday, seven council members supported some of Rasmussen's changes and killed others. The discussion was basically O'Brien saying, "Here's how this bill will limit bulky development" and Rasmussen saying, "That doesn't go far enough!" (Council Members Kshama Sawant and Bruce Harrell were missing. Committees are only made up of three members and one alternate, though, as we've seen, any council member can show up to vote even in a committee they don't belong to—which is how we got seven people at this thing.)
What they're arguing over is, in the end, a certain type of neighborhood zone. The zones in question are usually found in urban centers and along arterials or in transitions between single-family residential areas and commercial zones. They're home to single-family houses, small apartment buildings, and townhouses—but not high-rises. They make up just 10 percent of all the land in the city, but, according to O'Brien, have seen permits for more than 700 projects with 4,000 units since 2011.
In an effort to reduce the size and bulk of buildings going up in these areas, O'Brien's bill adds new rules about what counts toward—try not to fall asleep on the floor as I write this—"Floor Area Ratio." FAR, as the wonks say it, is the comparison of the size of a building and the lot it's on. The city has certain limits on that ratio, which determines how dense a development can be. Start tinkering with those limits, and you reduce the allowed size of a development.
Following the meeting's pattern, O'Brien wanted to tinker in a way that would reduce the allowed size by a bit, while Rasmussem wanted to tinker in a way that would reduce it by quite a lot. Their fight about staircases alone cost me a few hours of my life to understand, but all you need to know for now is that Rasmussen won. (Not that victory was enough for him. He tried to go even further with some tricky business about indoor lofts and basement apartments and whether they count toward the FAR, but those amendments failed.)
Then there was the issue of skylights and clerestories (which sound like a condition you'd get an artery cleaning for, but are actually... actually, I still don't know what they are. Go ahead and take away my single-family home to punish me for my failure. Oops, I don't have one). These matter because they're a way developers add height to a building, in the process freaking out people like the woman who testified. O'Brien's bill puts limits on this practice.
Here's a clerestory visual from the city's Department of Planning and Development. You're welcome:
In addition, O'Brien's bill requires new "upper-level setbacks," which means that once buildings reach a certain height, any more height will have to be added toward the back of the building, not on the street-facing side. (Erica C. Barnett has perfectly described these as "wedding-cake-style.") The idea here is to make buildings feel a little less tall and imposing from the street—again, so that people like the woman who testified can cry a little less.
Here's how DPD illustrates that tactic:
A Rasmussen effort to make these restrictions even stricter failed.
All of this means so much to neighbors, NIMBYs, and the tearful testifier because they're all looking for some respite from all the big, bad new development in their neighborhoods. But it matters a whole lot to the other side, too—Publicola is calling it "The War on Density"—because they worry it'll stifle new density.
The problem: No one knows exactly how much these new rules will cut into density. Again, they only affect these low-rise zones, or just 10 percent of the whole city.
Still, here's how the Sierra Club's Jesse Piedfort set the stakes over at The Urbanist:
This new threat to housing in Seattle couldn’t come at a worse time. By 2040, the Puget Sound region is expected to add as many as 1.4 million new residents. Those unable to find housing in urban, transit-accessible areas like Seattle lowrise zones will often end up living further away and relying more on automobile travel. That’s not an effective strategy for fighting climate change, congestion, or the urban sprawl that threatens our nearby farms, forests, and wild places.
Any additional restrictions on new housing in lowrise zones will also exacerbate our affordable housing crisis. Mayor Murray’s stated goal of 50,000 new units in the next ten years will be difficult to attain even without onerous new restrictions that disincentivize new construction. With population and job growth expected to remain strong in coming years, continuing to allow new supply in lowrise zones should be an important component of any strategy for keeping Seattle housing prices from spiraling permanently out of control.
Rasmussen, meanwhile, is sending an anti-density warning to the group the mayor has convened to deal with that exact issue, the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee.
"There will be a significant backlash," Rasmussen said, "if that committee does not take its responsibility to include livability among its goals in its recommendations."