In his letter to Seattle Department of Planning and Development Head Diane Sugimura about the Roosevelt Station Area up-zone, Mayor Mike McGinn said the city should ‘take towers “off the table”’ but that ‘the city needs to take a closer look at heights above 40 feet, such as 65 and 85 feet’. I am confident 85 or even 65 feet is completely workable, and it is possible at those heights to create the sort of neighborhoods that would allow Seattle residents to get their money’s worth from the light rail station. To find examples of sufficiently dense neighborhoods at that zoning, we don’t even need to go to Paris or New York, we can look right here in Seattle.

Reasons below the fold.

It is possible to get a serious amount of density with fairly modest heights. Writing over at the Atlantic, Kaid Benfield praised the Thornton Creek project just south of Northgate Mall on NE 103rd and 5th NE. I recommend reading the entire piece, but when reading about that project what jumped out at me is this:

  • 530 units of housing (net density: 96 units per acre)
  • 50,000 square feet of retail space
  • 14-screen cinema (not counted in the 50,000 square feet)
  • Increased open space within the Northgate Urban Center by about 50 percent

96 units per acre is right in the range that the Sierra Club has called “efficient urban”. At 100 units per acre are the “Russian, Nob and Telegraph Hills, and North Beach in San Francisco, River North in Chicago, Beacon Hill in Boston, along Connecticut Ave. in DC”. While not the most dense neighborhoods in the country, these areas are certainly urban and dense.  100 units per acre is 153,000 people per square mile – or three times as dense as Manhattan or Paris. Of course I understand that is without streets, but the Thornton Creek project includes both commercial space and open space, as well as a plaza.

Outside of the Cinema – which has no housing and is the only portion of the development zoned for NC 125′ –  no one going to Thornton Creek is likely to feel like the development is over bearing or out of scale. In fact, almost half of the area is “green space”, something most people want more of in their neighborhoods. And because Thornton Creek has the Cinema, the plaza and all of the commercial space, similar zoning in Roosevelt could accommodate even more residential and commercial density as well as open space while staying within most Seattle’s idea of reasonable density.

The obvious rejoinder to this argument seems to be “Well, if 85 feet can easily you 100 units per acre, then 170 feet can easily get you 200 units per acre.” While this might seem correct, there is no place in the city that this is happening. The Yesler Terrace redevelopment project is going to include residential buildings as tall as 240 feet and office buildings as tall as 300 feet, but will only have 5000 units in 28 acres, or about 178 units per acre. Both projects have a similar ratio of open space (20%) and commercial use.

Dense development is obviously hugely important to making transit successful. My only point here is that we do not need to build high-rises everywhere to achieve that density. Let’s continue to push the City Council and the Mayor to increase the amount of development allowed near all current and future light rail stations in the City. But let’s not get hung up on how tall the developments are allowed to be; let’s focus instead on how intense they can be.

71 Replies to “Opinion: For Roosevelt, 85 Feet is Plenty”

  1. I think a major issue we are struggling with is the assumption that SF5000 zoning is sacrosanct. These zones are largely off the table, putting most of the pressure on NC zones to absorb all of the density. Because of this people like us are tempted to push for something more than 85ft, because we know the surrounding SF5000 zones won’t be touched.

    Ballard is actually a very interesting example with relation to this. The core area of Ballard, around Market is NC65-NC85 transitioning to SF5000 from Market to NE 65th. Equivalent of over 10 blocks. This entire area is zoned LR3 to LR1. This allows for the growth of family sized units within walking distance of central Ballard, without under developing property in the immediate vicinity.

    1. Agreed. While politically more difficult, if forced to choose I’d rather raise minimum densities than raise maximums. SF5000 has a place in Seattle away from transit and commercial districts, but nowhere else. If we end up with a broader area zoned 45-85′ with well-built, street facing, low parking, no setback apartments and condos, I’ll be happier than seeing SF5000 next to towers.

      1. If we end up with a broader area zoned 45-85′ with well-built, street facing, low parking, no setback apartments and condos, I’ll be happier than seeing SF5000 next to towers.

        Ultimately what should matter is the number of units. If you can get 200 units per acre in a 1/4 mile radius, you would have something like 25000 units. If you get 50 units/acre over half a square mile radius, you get like 25000. Ultimately, it’s the same number of units and the same density.

        What should matter is the net new number of units, not how tall the buildings are or how large the area is.

      2. Why, Zach? I don’t think any developers are building below the maximum allowed.

  2. Adam has it. I don’t think the real issue is the height but the total number of homes within walking distance of the station. 65′ or 85′ is just fine – if you build enough of them. If we’re talking about 65′ for a few buildings, surrounded by lowrise construction then we’ve failed. If you want to keep the single family homes and want to meet density goals, then towers probably need to be on the table.

    That actually brings up a great question for this group to solve: What number of homes do we want within 1/4 or 1/2 mile of the Roosevelt station? The Roosevelt community wants to have control over how the buildings are built, but say they’ll work with any reasonable number of homes Seattle wants them to build. How do we go about figuring out this number? We could look at model stations in other cities, but is there some other objective measure?

    1. In response to:

      “What should matter is the net new number of units, not how tall the buildings are or how large the area is.” (Andrew, above) … and “I don’t think the real issue is the height but the total number of homes within walking distance of the station.” (Matt)

      Yes, it’s important how many units we get. But it’s also important how they are designed, and how the neighborhood is designed. Modulating from taller near the transit down to single-family further out is very different from towers and single-family. You could argue for either way (I would prefer a gradient) – but my point is that it is a significant decision, and it’s not just the # of units that matters for placemaking.

  3. So to give everyone a sense of how the “other side” sees it (this was also quoted, but not linked, on PubliCola yesterday:

    I would encourage people who care about this to take O’Halleran’s advice and email the council expressing your views on this upzone. And let’s not turn STB into a RNA-bashing slugfest like SLOG. As you can see, that doesn’t help anything.

    Oh, and STB-ers, your WordPress is badly misconfigured. It’s sending out “Expires” headers one hour in the future for all the HTML pages, requiring a manual refresh. It’s driving me bonkers.

  4. I disagree with the premise that “getting our money’s worth” out of light rail requires either give-aways to developers near stations (via upzones) or big ridership increases.

    The Sound Transit model never was based on big ridership. Indeed, ridership is inconsequential from a financing perspective (fares cover only 20% of the operating costs, and none of the capital and financing costs).

    Sound Transit’s mission always was to build the system to provide an alternative to driving. That never meant inserting new land uses into neighborhoods just because of light rail. The last thing we need is the public’s perception that the agency is a bully. Being a good neighbor does not mean fostering out-of-scale developments like Thornton Creek (which I never liked on several grounds) or the new Yesler Terrace tower in what are single family dwelling neighborhoods.

    1. I completely disagree. Link is all about accommodating and shaping our long term growth strategy. That might not be the stated intent of ST (which is a problem in my mind, but does helps to keep ST from looking like a “bully”) but that certainly is how land use planners think about Link.

      1. “Link is all about accommodating and shaping our long term growth strategy.”

        That statement simply is not true. DCLU does not, and can not, use the region’s light rail network to trump the city’s neighborhoods’ imperatives. Moreover, nothing in the RCW’s or in Sound Move/ST2 is a mandate to the city regarding upzoning. One way we know that is how Joni Earl is calling for park & rides near the stations – that’s completely inconsistent with the greatly-increased density being discussed here.

      2. “Moreover, nothing in the RCW’s or in Sound Move/ST2 is a mandate to the city regarding upzoning.”

        No-one is suggesting that.

      3. Kyle I’m not talking about laws, I’m talking about our adopted long range land use and transportation growth strategy from PSRC, which is all about smart growth and transit oriented development. Nothing is mandated which is why we are fighting for it.

      4. Kyle, I don’t think neighborhoods should be able to reject new growth. Right now, Roosevelt is saying they want us to clearcut more forests.

      5. I don’t think neighborhoods should be able to reject new growth.

        Ah, the Houston Texas “no zoning” model. This board has jumped the shark . . . c u later

      6. No Kyle, it’s not the “no zoning” model at all. It’s the “zoning in accordance with previously-adopted policy” model.

      7. Kyle D. – it’s not clear that there are any positives to neighborhoods being able to dictate zoning.

      8. What would you have instead? The John Fox/NIMBY “freeze the region in amber” model? Where nothing can be torn down and to the extent infill development is allowed on vacant lots or surface parking it must not exceed any of the existing density/uses?

        That just leads to much higher housing prices and massive sprawl. Just look at the Bay Area.

    2. You’re absolutely right, Sound Transit has nothing to do with this upzone. They are neutral to these land use issues, and I’ve spent much of my time on STB in the last month arguing this it should stay that way, and against the horrifyingly stupid idea that ST should be in the housing development business.

      The people pushing for this upzone are those in the city care about the cost-effectiveness of transit and maximizing the return on this very large investment, and giving more people the chance to benefit from it by living within walking distance. Farebox revenue will cover more of the O&M costs in time — even a farebox recovery rate of (say) 35% (which seems very achievable as North Link is built out) is a third of the cost of running the system and is not to be sneezed at.

      But that’s not the main point. You claim that higher-density upzones are a handout to developers. I disagree, rather I would say that this much SF zoning this close to a subway station is a handout to millionaires who want mansions near a subway, whose housing choices will now be subsidized by the land use code. Allowing more density in ways that are compatible with the aesthetic of the neighborhood reduces the cost per boarding of the light rail, and allows more people to benefit from this massive public investment.

      Finally, this is slightly tangential, but while I don’t know anything about Thornton Creek, Yestler Terrace on First Hill would not be a single-family neighborhood were it not owned by the city and hitherto kept that way. It sits on premium real estate and would have been upzoned to midrise and developed a long time ago. Being only a few blocks from Harborview and the rest of First Hill which has highrise zoning, towers are not out of scale there.

      1. Bruce sez:
        “I would say that this much SF zoning this close to a subway station is a handout to millionaires who want mansions near a subway”

        You can’t build a mansion on 5000 sf.

      2. aw – no one will ever again build a house cheaper than a million dollars near Roosevelt subway station. Restricting use like this is causing Seattle to be unaffordable.

      3. You could buy multiple lots and develop them as a large, upscale house.

        Regardless, my point stands. It’s delusional to think that putting in a subway station in this neighborhood (good schools, nice parks, low crime) isn’t going to put the value of the land into the stratosphere in the immediate area. That means either you build densely or you build gold-plated houses.

      4. Bruce, let me know when you get a permit for a house on multiple lots. Would that be allowed by DPD?

        Ben, there are also the existing housing stocks to consider. I imagine folks already living in those houses will not immediately sell out to developers. And until they get sold and remodeled by a flipper or torn down and rebilt, they will be more expensive, but relatively affordable.

        Even if the upzone were approved tomorrow, it’s going to take a decade or two before the developable areas will be built out. The proposed zoning is okay for now.

      5. Given that this upzone has been in the works since 2006 (according to the RNA), I suspect that yes, we want to get it right this time.

      6. “aw,” yes you can build a house over several lots by merging the lots together. I believe it’s a much easier process than subdividing.

    3. I’m really curious what about the Thornton Creek development makes you think it’s “out-of-scale”? It’s built on what was a giant parking lot, and it’s sandwiched between a large shopping mall and a bunch of multi-story office buildings.
      To me, it’s a perfect place to build a mid-rise residential development, if the builder thinks they can sell it.

      1. Imagined you own property, and the government says to you, “You cannot build a large building on your property.”

        And you were to respond “But there are a lot of people who want to live on this property because of its close proximity to an expensive new public amenity.”

        “We are not going to let you build a large building there because we talked to your neighbours and they might not like it. Besides, it’s an urban ‘village’ instead of an urban ‘centre’.”

        What’s the giveaway? It’s a taking if anything.

    4. Kyle, I think you have to explain to me why it’s ok to tell a land owner they can’t build where people want to live.

      1. Because what one person does with their property does impact those who live on neighboring properties. For the same reason it’s okay to tell a land owner they can’t build a steel mill there.

        I think it’s perfectly possible to be in favor of dense urban development without opposing the idea of zoning entirely.

      2. I don’t oppose the idea of zoning, but I just disagree that upzoning could be a “giveaway”. “Give back”, maybe. “Give away?” Never.

      3. It could be seen a windfall to the property owners because they purchased the land with X development potential and through legislative action the land now has 2X development potential. That in and of itself will raise the land value substantially (as did the construction of the light rail line – assuming the property was purchased before the station was planned with reasonable certainty).
        If we’re concerned about unfairly benefitting those property owners though, there are mechanisms to balance out the value gain. The best way is to require that amenities be provided in return for the additional density – parks & open space, art, transportation facilities, or even the purchase of development credits from farmland or rural open space (no better way to make clear the tradeoff between this sensible upzone and the alternative of exurban sprawl). Set the value of the amenity such that the property owner/developer still realizes enough profit to build, and you have a win-win: the neighborhood gets growth and vitality, the property owner gets profit, the neighborhood/region gets amenities, and Sound Transit gets riders.

      4. There is a giveaway in the sense that building the subway will increase property values near the stations. You’re using public funds to increase the wealth of private individuals. The big problem for transit is that you’re ignoring a potential financing mechanism: value capture. Create a special taxing district around the stations to capture a percentage of the increase in property values and that money goes toward financing the construction of the line.

      5. So how much do greenfield developers have to pay when WSDOT builds a highway to serve their exurb?

      6. I like both the amenities (especially open space) and value capture ideas. You could even use the value capture to fund more transit if the money was sufficient!

      7. “There is a giveaway in the sense that building the subway will increase property values near the stations.”

        Except that has not been the case near light rail stations in Seattle. Othello Partners are taking it in the shorts, and they had massive tax breaks to work with.

      8. That value capture idea is unconstitutional in WA. That’s why we don’t have tax increment financing in Washington, the way Portland uses it to build streetcars.

        shabadoo, Jane Jacobs fixed this in 1961. Regulate the externalities, not the use. Let land owners figure out how to build a steel mill that doesn’t make noise or pollute.

        We don’t let people gate the streets in their neighborhoods and say who can go there because those streets are public goods. At the same time, the area around a light rail station has expensive transportation access, and the existing users should NOT be allowed to tell other people they can’t use it.

      9. Skerritt – do you have any evidence AT ALL that light rail didn’t increase property values? Or are you making things up through correlation?

      10. Without the low income tax credits and Section 8, Othello would not be there. Sorry, but increases in valuation result in revenue coming into the government, not flowing out.

      11. Section 8 vouchers can be used anywhere, they’re not property specific, and only a small number of apartments in that building are below market rate, i.e. affordable to someone making 80% of Seattle’s median income. Hardly low-income.

        According to the tax records the parcel the Station at Othello Park was built on was appraised at $1.9 million in 2007 and $7.3 million in 2010.

  5. Seattle will never be San Francisco, and we will never have that kind of density. SF’s core housing stock has always been crammed-in rowhouses and apartments. Compared to Seattle, it has a fundamentally stronger and more cohesive urban fabric.

    Seattle’s core housing stock (aside from downtown and some inner neighborhoods) are single-family homes. It has nodes of commercial activity and density, not large swaths like San Francisco or Chicago.

    We will not be able to upzone everywhere in Seattle without leading to signficant social injustice. We need to focus on bolstering the nodes while preserving the single family home areas. Upzoning recklessly in Roosevelt is a slippery slope.

    1. What we are talking about here is upzoning a few more blocks in a designated urban village; it cannot possibly be construed as a widespread assault on Seattle’s ubiquitous SF zoning.

    2. You make a lot of big statements there. “we will never have that kind of density.” Never is a long time. We have low density because we’ve chosen to have low density, via our zoning laws. We also have the ability to change our zoning laws.

      “We will not be able to upzone everywhere in Seattle without leading to signficant social injustice.” Why not? What social injustices occur would occur with upzoning everywhere? I’m not proposing we do it, and I’d rather upzone outward from urban villages, but I don’t see any social issues with upzoning everywhere. Actually, that would significantly increase social justice since more people could afford to live here.

    3. Seattle’s core housing stock (aside from downtown and some inner neighborhoods) are single-family homes

      You mean by area. Most people in Seattle live in multi-family housing.

      1. Actually, I don’t think that’s true (yet). As of some time in the mid-2000s, I think, it became the case that most units in Seattle are multi-family, but last time I checked there are still more people living in single-family housing (because household sizes are larger in SFH)

    4. In what way does Roosevelt not count as a “node?” It’s getting a freaking subway station!

    5. Nobody is talking about “upzoning recklessly” in Roosevelt. We’re talking about taking some NC-40 and NC-65 and bumping the height limits up to 65′ and 85′.

  6. If there is a demand for high-rises near a subway station, then there just isn’t anyway I can be opposed to that.

  7. Re building to an 85-foot height limit; I’d like to see someone discuss whether or not this is a cost-effective building height. 65 feet works because it permits 5 floors of wood construction over a one-story concrete base. This has proven to be an affordable model.

    To do the same at an 85-foot height would mean five floors of wood over a 3-story concrete base, since building codes don’t permit more than five floor of wood construction. The other option would be an all-concrete building.

    The more floors of all-concrete construction, the higher the net cost per sq. foot. Taller buildings require faster elevators also, further adding to expense.

    85 feet may be too tall for the mostly-wood model, and not tall enough for an all-concrete model. Maybe someone in the development business could elaborate for us.

    1. I’m not in the development business, but I think the relatively few 85 foot zones that do exist have been getting built out as 8-story concrete buildings, suggesting it can work. There are two recent buildings on Market in Ballard at about NW 17th, I think.

      That said, I’m curious how the underlying costs compare, too. If it’s a lot harder to make an 8-story concrete building pencil out, then pushing hard for 85 ft (vs. 65 ft) might be a huge waste of time vs., say, pushing for a larger 65 ft zone.

      1. I suspect that 8-story all concrete buildings are high-end condos, thereby being able to cover the added construction.

        There’s probably a sweet spot up there, maybe 125 – 160 feet?, where an all-concrete building reaches a cost/sq.ft. low point. That would be a target height for a zoning code to shoot for.

        My observations, however, based on 40-some years in Seattle, is that zoning code authors just don’t consider issues like optimizing construction costs when writing codes.

        Thanks for sharing my concerns, Steve.

      2. I don’t think any of the buildings on 17th are 85 ft. The new On the Park Apartments on 24th are 8-story. They’re luxury apartments in an all-concrete building.

      3. Oh, I stand corrected. Looks like Leva on Market (between 15th and 17th) is 8 stories, not 6 as I recalled. Those are also luxury apartments. Hjarta across the street is also 8 stories, but those are luxury condos that have not sold well (the building is at 45% occupancy last I checked).

      4. Transit Voter – Leva is apartments, and not even really luxury – many are sub-$1000. Instead of deciding you know what’s good, why don’t you ask a developer if they prefer 85′ over 65′?

      5. Ben, reread my original post — I’m soliciting facts and opinions from people more in the know than I.

        Quite the opposite of deciding I “know what’s good.”

      6. Leva has two towers; one is 8 stories, and the other is 6. I assume this was done so that they could have four floors’ worth of “great views”.

      7. My understanding of how you get to 8 floors is through a 2 floor concrete base, with 6 floors of wood frame.

      8. Fire/building codes put an upper limit of how tall a partially wood structure can be. I thought the limit was about 75′ (5 over 2) but it might be high enough to allow 6 over 2 construction.

        In general I wish the height limits were a little more aware of the reality of development economics. There is a reason for instance most NC-40 zones haven’t seen much development.

  8. If there is a demand on the part of developers to build high-rises around subway stations, we should allow it. This goes for Capitol Hill and any other station, too.

  9. Everything in the Roosevelt Urban Village boundaries south of 70th St. is within 1/4 mile of the station entrances, and everything north of it is outside of that distance. It makes sense to maintain existing zoning outside of the 1/4 mile core. It also makes sense to have a residential buffer near Ravenna Park. And obviously the high school can’t be rezoned. So all of those elements in the neighborhood plan should be retained.

    Here’s what I’d change:

    * The 40′ corridor along Roosevelt should be upzoned to 65′ all the way from Ravenna to 70th (i.e. roughly 1/4 mile from the stations, a total of a 1/2 mile stretch of Roosevelt).
    * The LR1, LR2, and 40′ corridor between 12th and 15th along 65th and across the street from the high school on 66th (now scheduled to all be upzoned to 40′) should be upzoned to 65′ throughout.
    *The station lots should be upgraded to at least 85′ and preferably in the 12-15 story range. This adds density where it is most helpful while leaving the vast majority of the neighborhood at a more familiar scale. And the taller buildings would be surrounded by 65′ buildings or just west of the high school, excepting one small area of newly-zoned L3 across from the northern entrance. So nothing would tower over the neighborhood.

    This really isn’t that different from the neighborhood plan in terms of the subjective changes to the neighborhood (how it feels), but it would add a lot more units.

    Personally I would be comfortable with a lot more upzoning (including the Sisley properties that otherwise might remain undeveloped) but it’s not my neighborhood and it’s worth bending a bit to accommodate the willingness of the neighborhood to upzone at all. But the neighborhood resistance to 65′ retail along the main axes within a quarter mile of a subway station goes too far.

    1. I mostly agree though I would extend the size of the 85’+ zone to cover a bit more of the “core” of the neighborhood, mostly the existing 65′ zones within a block or two of the station entrances. The Sisley block right across 12th from the station should be zoned the same as the station blocks as well (or at least the west half should be).

      The area near I-5 along 8th NE and Weedin could be built to the same height as the highway or slightly higher without being too noticeable. The entire triangle bounded by I-5, Ravenna, 12th NE, and NE 66th should be at least a 65′ zone.

      As for Roosevelt I don’t think it would really hurt much to make it a NC3-65 zone all the way from NE 75th to NE 50th (where the zoning should go up even higher due to Brooklyn Station)

  10. The debate about upzoning around stations isn’t just about financing the cost of rail construction or increasing the stock of affordable housing. It is also about where we want people to live: in cul-de-sacs in the suburbs, or in TOD in the city? At its root, this is a debate about the future of our planet.

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