Changes in Land Use Code
In 2010, Seattle changed its land use code for low-rise multifamily zoned areas. This has had a dramatic impact on Central Ballard, particularly the area that extends north from NW 59th Street to NW 65th Street, and west from 15th Ave NW to 28th Ave NW (where zoning was changed from LDT to LR1). This area primarily consists of single-family homes with some duplexes and a few small multifamily buildings. Now, under the code changes, modest and affordable houses and duplexes are being torn down and replaced with tall, expensive groups of three or four townhouses, which tower over the existing houses and sidewalks and are not at all compatible with the neighborhood.
This is being encouraged by the City despite the fact that Ballard has already exceeded its 2024 density goals by more than 300 percent, if you count both new and permitted projects. With so many big, new condo and apartment buildings already built or under construction in Ballard, and the potential for so many more, we question the need to raze modest single-family homes and duplexes to make room for just a few more units. It seems especially wrong-headed as Ballard is not well-served by transit; if light rail is extended to Ballard at all, it won’t happen for many years. This pattern of development is also destroying our green streetscapes. With every new townhouse development, we lose trees and green space — sadly ironic in the Emerald City.
The code changes were intended, among other things, to promote a variety of housing types — townhouses, rowhouses, apartments, and cottages — and to improve the design of those structures (eliminating problems with the first generation of townhouses, like “formula designs,” unusable yards, and developments centered around auto-courts and parking spaces). These more flexible standards were accompanied by the introduction of the Streamlined Design Review (SDR) process, which is supposed to be required for all townhouse developments of three or more units. SDR has three principal objectives, including:
• “To encourage better design and site planning that enhances the character of the city and ensures that new development sensitively fits into neighborhoods.”
• “To improve communication and participation among developers, neighbors and the city early in the design and siting of new development.”
Unfortunately, this SDR process – intended to help avoid the very problems we are seeing – is not being effectively implemented. Developers are using loopholes to get around SDR, so new townhouse developments are not subject to design review and neighbors are not being given opportunities to weigh in. Review of the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) website indicates that none of the townhouse developments of three or more units in the LR1 zoned areas in Ballard have been subject to SDR.
In the absence of design review and neighborhood participation, the combined effect of these changes (the rezoning and more flexible standards) in Ballard has been a proliferation of large, out-of-scale townhouse developments that do not fit into the existing neighborhood. At the individual block scale, the impacts are jarring, with these huge developments dropped between one- and two-story single-family homes. Developers are taking advantage of the more flexible standards to maximize the size of their buildings with no regard to the existing built landscape. We are seeing several new types of “formula design,” one of the problems the code changes were intended to eliminate. The attached photos provide views of representative projects constructed in LR1 zoned Ballard since 2011.
Almost without exception, the developments we are seeing fail to meet the key goals of the 2010 Update legislation, which were defined as follows in an April 22, 2010 City Council memorandum:
• “Encourage well-designed buildings that fit in with established neighborhoods.”
• “Generally maintain the current overall scale and density of low-rise zones.”
• “Support Comprehensive and Neighborhood Plan objectives.”
Seattle City Council President Sally Clark has asked the DPD to review its zoning-code changes and fix unforeseen problems. In an Oct. 18, 2013 letter to DPD Director Diane Sugimura, Clark wrote: “In the past, when a new chapter of the Land Use Code was adopted, we have always needed ‘clean-up’ amendments to address problems that were not apparent in the abstract.”
We appreciate that the Council and DPD are reviewing the impact of the 2010 Update. We propose the following specific modifications:
• Invite meaningful public comment. As currently structured, the City’s public notification process with respect to townhouse developments is clearly broken. The primary opportunity to comment typically occurs when a project is significantly underway and neighbors are asked to comment on the upcoming subdivision of land so the developer can sell the already permitted townhouses. In cases where a developer first subdivides (short-plats) the lot, neighbors are asked to comment three times on a single project, but cautioned on each occasion that their comments will have no bearing on the project itself. This is a waste of everybody’s time and valuable city resources.
• Require design review for all townhouse developments of three or more units, including rowhouses. The SDR process was established “specifically for townhouse developments and other small forms of lowrise multifamily housing,” yet it is not being applied to townhouse developments in Ballard. This is primarily because developers are subdividing (short-platting) single-family lots and pretending that one three- or four-unit development is actually two separate developments when this is clearly not the case. This loophole needs to be closed, with design-review requirements applied to the original parent lot. SDR also needs to be applied to rowhouse developments, which are presently exempt from this requirement. Finally, as with other design review, DPD decisions should be subject to appeal to the City of Seattle Hearing Examiner.
• Adjust the density limit in the former LDT zone of Ballard. Instead of allowing one unit per 1,600 square feet (sf) of lot space, as is the case under the 2010 Update, we should return to allowing one unit per 2,000 sf. This would still allow accessory dwelling units (ADUs), duplexes, and, on larger lots, triplexes. Managing development in this way will promote projects that are compatible with this long-established, unique Seattle neighborhood, which dates back more than 100 years, and help maintain the overall scale, while allowing a thoughtful and sensitive increase in density, as envisioned in the 2010 Update.
• Close the loophole that allows developers to put more units on a lot than intended. Under the 2010 Update, a typical 5,000 sf single-family lot zoned LR1 can accommodate three townhouse units (one unit per 1,600 sf). In practice we are seeing developments of four units per lot because developers are able to get around this requirement by first dividing (short-platting) lots into two, and then applying the LR1 standards to each of the new lots. Allowed to round up the number of allowable units (from 1.56 to 2), they are then putting two units on each half-lot. (As mentioned above, this also allows them to avoid SDR.) This deceptive subdivision of lots should not be allowed. Development standards in LR1 should apply to the original parent lot, with a maximum allowable density of 3 units per 5,000 sf. This density requirement should apply to townhouses and all other developments, including rowhouses.
• Reduce building heights in LR1 zoned areas. The 2010 Update increased allowable building heights from 25 feet with an additional 10 feet allowed for a pitched roof to 30 feet with an additional pitched roof allowance of 5 feet. Intended to promote more design flexibility and better interior spaces, in practice this has resulted in 30-plus feet tall buildings with flat roofs and often with rooftop decks. These buildings are dramatically taller than their neighbors and significantly different in just about every respect. Building height limits should be 25 feet with a pitched roof allowance of 10 feet.
• Revise front setbacks so they are the average of neighboring properties. Before the 2010 Update, new developments had to be set back as much as 20 feet from sidewalks, the average of the setbacks on neighboring properties. Now, the setbacks of neighboring properties are no longer taken into account and front setbacks for new developments can be just 7 feet back on average, down to as little as 5 feet. This results in developments that are dramatically out-of-step with the neighboring properties, crowd the sidewalk and adjacent structures, and are visible from blocks away. Front setbacks should return to being the average of those on neighboring properties.
• Require reasonable side setbacks for rowhouses. The revised code includes special provision for rowhouses, which are intended to be attached side-by-side along common walls and face onto the street. The code allows rowhouses to go right up to the side property lines, with a setback of 0 feet. This could make sense, in theory, if multiple contiguous lots are being redeveloped. But developers are currently planning to build four-unit rowhouse projects right in between single-family homes, meaning a 30-plus-foot wall could be built right along a property line, with no consideration of the adjacent homes. Rowhouse developments should be subject to the same 5-foot side-setback rules as townhouse developments. The current code also exempts all rowhouses from SDR, which means neighbors who will be very heavily impacted have no opportunity at all to weigh in on design. Rowhouses should be subject to design review just as other projects are.
We believe most of the zoning issues in Central Ballard can be traced back to the City’s lack of engagement with the residents of Ballard’s Hub/Urban Village. The recommendations of highly educated but doctrinaire city planners and the perspectives of developers/stakeholders have seemingly been given higher value than the practical considerations put forward by citizens. As Seattle’s Hub/Urban Village neighborhoods have been targeted for the highest growth in the city, we, the people who must live with the collateral impact of these changes, believe we deserve a leadership role in how these changes come about.
Slow Motion Clear Cut
Open letter to City Leaders Regarding Tree Loss
We know that the environment and the people of Seattle suffer from the ill effects of urbanization. The heat island effect, the sewer overflows and marine pollution, heat exacerbated illnesses, habitat degradation—these are all the result of development which is unmitigated by a sufficient amount of green space and the Urban Forest.
Taken with global warming it all adds up to an environmental crisis for Seattle. What is the City’s reaction in the Comprehensive Plan’s proposed update? Is it to increase our open space goals, to seek out new funding sources for green space acquisition, or tie greenspace acquisition to development? No. The City’s response is to reduce open space goals to be more ‘realistic’ and cut the parks acquisition budget to a record low. This is at a time when Seattle is awash in money from development boom, and experiencing unprecedented losses of privately owned open space.
Our current comprehensive plan goal is to have one acre of public open space for every 100 City residents. And we are pretty close to that now. By way of comparison Portland has 2.3 acres per 100 people, DC has 1.3 acres, Atlanta has 1.1, Seattle has .9, Boston .7 and NYC .5 acres.
Because of the predicted arrival of thousands of new people in coming decades, The Department of Development says we would need to add 70 acres of open space per year to meet those same goals. Between 2000 and 2014 we averaged a gain of 18 acres per year.
The Seattle Urban Tree Canopy Project Report says we need 410 acres of new tree canopy coverage to make our goal of 40% by 2035. We have somewhere between 23-29% canopy coverage now. Pittsburgh has 42%; DC has 35%, Huston 30%, Boston 22%. LA 18% and Jersey City 11%.
By way of a different comparison, the Parks budget for land acquisition in 2016 is $ 6.9 million. The City plans to spend $28 million in coming years to improve access to the Westcrest dog park. According to the Move Seattle website, the City will spend $83 million each year over the next ten years on safety measures to ‘eliminate crashes and accidents.’
‘It’s hard to get new open space’, the drafters of the comprehensive plan tells us, ‘because land just isn’t available.’ Meanwhile the City is planning to sell 30 surplus properties, the ‘substations’ which are practically mini-parks now, a large piece of surplus land in the densely packed South Lake Union Urban Village, and it plans to sell 33 acres of sensitive areas—steep wooded slopes, open meadow and wetlands—in an underserved southwest Seattle neighborhood. All to become yet more development.
‘But’, the City says, ‘we need that land for low income housing’. It’s not true. Housing can always go upward. Open space must be ground based.
Can anything be done to stop the paving of paradise? The transformation of a once scenic City into an intimidating set of concrete blocks, where the water views and back yards are reserved for the rich?
Yes! Adopt the 2015-16 TreePAC Green Agenda: Increase setbacks and landscaping requirements on private property, reduce maximum lot coverage in single family zones, increase tree retention by increasing its value in Green Factor, set robust open space goals for industrial/manufacturing zones, adopt new and innovative funding and acquisition strategies like Tree Fund, require surplus land to stay in the public domain, adopt a strong tree ordinance, offer financial incentives to retain open space and trees (treebates), tie open space/urban forestry funding to development, disallow exceptions to building in sensitive areas, increase open space goals, hold law and code enforcement accountable for legal violations of tree laws, keep an accurate and annual update of tree removals and a more frequent update of the tree canopy, fund non-profits who increase or maintain open space and urban forests. But mostly, stop making excuses and get more open space for Seattle before it really is too late. Once it is gone, it is gone for good.
When you sell the land, it is the end.
—From The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck
TreePAC/Open Space Advocate