The past?

It’s true. I am impatient. During the ongoing discussion and debate about land use around Sound Transit Link Light Rail stations, I have been thinking, “there ought to be a law!” Specifically, I’ve been dreaming of legislation that would substantially up zone around all light rail stations in the city of Seattle, and create options for innovative ways to create the density that makes light rail work. There are a lot of discussions about doing just that, but I decided I’d take a crack at writing the legislation myself.

There are a number of problems affecting light rail and land use in Seattle. First, there is the lack of market appropriate land use to produce more housing and commercial space next to light rail. Second, there are vested interests wanting to keep things just about like they are, willing to accept only incremental change. Lastly, the City Council, just by the nature of politics, always has to try to make everyone happy, and that’s tough.

More below the fold.

The legislation I have written attempts to address all three problems. I’ve suggested ideas how to address the second problem in more detail elsewhere, too. I’ll run through the proposal and then suggest how we might get something like this passed. And the draft is on line as Google document, so leave comments and ideas of what you’d like to see.

Getting started: Growth positive language and making the overlay matter

The legislation revises the section of the land use code (SMC 23.59) creating overlay districts by removing the Station Area Overlay (SMC 23.61) so that zoning created by the legislation will override all the underlying zoning. Currently, in an overlay district, the zoning defaults to the underlying zoning if there is a conflict.

Next I revised the purposes of existing Station Area Overlay, broadening it out to include an intent statement, stating clearly that Seattle wants to sustainably accommodate growth in station areas. Most of the language in Seattle’s land use code talks about growth as in impact, something that has to be off set or mitigated. Growth can be a good thing if we’re prepared for it.

Zoning changes: More height, dominos, and a new type of land use decision

The legislation establishes a one-mile radius for the station area in which the base height allowable is 65 feet as designated on land use maps. This means that all parcels within a one mile radius, and any parcels partially in the district, would be zoned NC-65.  Any parcel could be rezoned to 85 feet upon the completion of a Type II land use decision process by the Department of Planning and Development. Type II land use decisions don’t go to the City Council and don’t have as much public process.

There are two further provisions for changes. A proposed project can be rezoned over 85 feet without any height limit provided that it is approved under a new kind of land use decision. A type VI land use decision would allow projects permitting after approval from the Planning Commission and the City Council.

Additionally, any parcel adjacent to a property that is rezoned, including properties rezoned as a Type VI rezone, can apply to match the zoning of that adjacent parcel through the Type II process. This “domino zoning” means that properties next to rezoned properties can more easily match the zoning changes of those properties neighboring them with higher zoning.

There is no parking requirement in the new Station Area Overlay District and single use parking is banned.

Making a decision for light rail: Type VI Land Use Decisions

The legislation creates a new type of land use decision, the Station Area Decision by amending 23.76.

This new decision requires, comprehensive review of a proposal that would exceed 85 feet (there are no FAR provisions) in 90 days, including a general review, public hearing, and focus groups of a demographically diverse group of city and regional residents.

The Planning Commission can either approve the proposal and forward legislation to the City Council for approval with an up or down vote, or they can reject the proposal.

This means the City Council can’t amend the legislation presented to them and they have to act very fast. This gets at the ‘splitting the baby’ problem, when Council tries to make people by adjusting heights or adding requirements to proposals, changes that often add to costs and subtract benefits from the project. I also added a section putting developers on the hook for most of the cost of the Type VI process.

How do we get this passed?

The most obvious way to do this is to have Council pass legislation. The biggest challenge with that avenue is that this proposal would take some power away from the Council and it’s staff. Instead, much of the action would happen at the Planning Commission, a group with more distance from the political process. The other option is to put submit this to a vote of the people of Seattle in the form of a referendum. That would mean collecting signatures and running a campaign. We could also change the City Charter. None of this is easy, but let’s get started!

Or the future?

61 Replies to “Station Area Zoning In Seattle: Legislation or Initiative?”

  1. Roger, is the point here that the light rail system Sound Transit is building never will be worth it unless there are high-rises packed in around all the stations? It seems to me that’s putting the cart before the horse . . . there should be density before trying to build out a rail system in an urban area.

    1. The NYC subway was built on-grade through farm fields in Manhattan. Development sprang up around the stations.

      It’s too bad they put the cart before the horse; just think where NYC could be now…

      1. Your example makes my point. Sound Transit isn’t building out through farm fields, it is building in a 21st century highly developed urban environment. Maybe you want to address the question I posed to Roger: is it fair to say the light rail system Sound Transit is building never will be worth it unless there are high-rises packed in around all the stations?

      2. Not really, Sotosoroto.

        Central Park was built before the surrounding areas were fully plotted, in order to lure development and the prosperous population northward, but that was 50 years before any subways.

        The early uptown elevated (and private) railways developed concurrently with city around them. And some of the later elevateds to the outer boroughs were indeed developed as marketing tools for development opportunities in Brooklyn and Queens (much in the way streetcar suburbs came into being in smaller cities).

        But the picture you’re painting — of the city itself building subways through the farmland that we now call the Upper East and Upper West Sides, with only a glimmer of the possible future in its eye — is historically inaccurate and a bit of a dangerous precedent to push, as the Beacon Hill experience has shown.

      3. I never meant to imply that the city itself was building the train lines in NYC. When the train companies built lines to Harlem, however, there was a lot of rural land along the way which is now skyscrapers. That’s all I meant.

    2. I would disagree. Development follows transportation, not the other way around. Look at all the huge subdivisions that sprout up around any new freeway. All the original streetcars were built in order to stimulate development.

      1. Your example also reinforces my point. Sound Transit isn’t building out through farm fields where new subdivisions can go in, it is building in a 21st century highly developed urban environment.

        Maybe you want to address the question I posed to Roger: is it fair to say the light rail system Sound Transit is building never will be worth it unless there are high-rises packed in around all the stations?

      2. Grant Williams, your comment shows YOU need information about train lines and development. “TOD” is a self-referential theory that doesn’t play out well.

        We’ve known for thirty years that designing new high-rise housing developments because there’s a nearby train station is a huge mistake:

        The urban theorists try to justify those projects on economic, social welfare, and environmental grounds. The fact remains though that when large-scale apartments/condos go in next to rail stations these days ostensibly because the less-well-off then will have “access to jobs down the train line” it will turn out poorly, quickly.

        If this were a city on the order of Hong Kong, Shanghai or Tokyo then rail enabling that density is efficient. Seattle only will get “denser” if more multifamily buildings are put in upzoned areas, and the “Othello Station” project shows rail will not act as a success-driver for that kind of density. Putting the cart before the horse – building up a rail line and then hoping density will develop where the stations were located – NEVER has happened anywhere before. In Paris they are tearing down the density that was erected after the train lines were put in.

      3. Never has happened anywhere before? I live in a streetcar suburb. Right here in Seattle.

      4. I think Just Curious is trying to distinguish between development where there was nothing before, and where there has already been a first wave of development that may not be as dense as we’d like.

    3. First, 6 stories is hardly a high-rise.

      Second: Worth it, yes. Utilized to it’s full potential, no.

    4. This is my main concern, but it’s the opposite of what Just Curious says. Link is useful now, even without upzones. Upzoning would make Link even better, but it’s not strictly necessary. Broadway and the U-district are already at HCT density and have been underserved for decades. Roosevelt and Beacon Hill are useful stations even as-is, for a trip to Greenlake or Whole Foods and for neighborhood residents. The Rainier Valley stations have respectable if not remarkable ridership.

      Insisting that density must come before HCT causes two problems. (1) The density won’t happen. Who thinks Roosevelt or Beacon Hill would be upzoned in a hundred years if it weren’t for Link? (2) It reinforces the skeptics’ belief that Link is a waste of money.

      The problem is the fact that it takes an hour or two to get across the city, and that you often have to wait 30-60 minutes for the privilege. Fixing this problem with Link (and the First Hill streetcar, and future HCT corridors) benefits the city and its commerce, regardless of whether upzoning is done. Upzoning causes additional benefit.

      Ultimately this is a side issue to your land-use proposal. So I’d tone down the rhetoric about Link requiring higher Seattle density to be useful, so that it doesn’t distract from the main debate, which is whether NC65/85 is good overall.

      I am a bit concerned about impozing uniform zoning around every station without considering their local characteristics, but your proposal is still worth debating.

      1. “Link is useful now, even without upzones.”

        By what measure? Try to justify it in light of the public costs INCLUDING the new local tax costs. Betcha you can’t!

      2. I don’t think transit should be judged on the capital cost per rider. We don’t ask how much a library costs per patron or per book, or how much a neighborhood park costs per neighborhood resident. We look at the project as a whole and decide whether it’s a worthwhile amenity for the city, something that once built will remain there for many years. The benefit of a transit route is not just to the people who are riding it right now, but also to the people who don’t need it right now but will sometime. Because if it’s not making regular runs now, it won’t be there when you need it.

        You underestimate the benefit of a single route that can run as fast as an express bus but serve stops like a semi-local bus, replacing several bus routes at one swoop. That consolidation effect means it can run more frequently than each of those bus routes. That means, if you go to the station you only have to wait five or ten minutes instead of thirty minutes. You can go to any of the stations along the line. And if you change your mind in the middle and decide to go to a different destination instead, there’s zero lost time if the other destination is also on the line. Whereas with a bus you’d have to at minimum transfer if the other bus shares a stop with this one, or go to the other bus if it doesn’t (which may itself take half an hour, plus another half hour of waiting).

  2. Poorly crafted, too broad brush, not planning. More fodder for nothing. How about policy change and direction to *station masterplanning*. Very different approach. One size fits all is NOT planning. This rubbish doesn’t sell anywhere but here. And this is why Valdez won’t be taken seriously by the urban planning community.

    1. Perhaps the “urban planning community” is rubbish. We’d be better off without them telling us how to live our lives and develop our property. (Disclaimer: I once lived in Houston.)

      1. Oh I totally agree. I would love it if people would stop telling developers how high they can and can’t build.

        Our ever escalating rents are a symptom of decades of having small apartment buildings and duplexes banned in 60% of the city. We would totally be better of if no one was saying “all you are allowed to do with this lot is build one house – and if you do that, you must build parking spaces.”

        Fun fact: The triplex apartment I live in is actually illegal under current zoning. 3 units on a 3000 sqft lot zoned LR2. And the illegal renovation that created my apartment actually predated the upzone to L2.

      2. Lack Thereof – It really is unfortunate that many zoning codes have created nonconformity unnecessarily, especially when they are good uses/designs. Triplexs just make sense, so does row housing, but nope! This is why we need to move to form-based coding!!!

      3. Well, I can’t say that isn’t an approach. But haphazard development is just as bad if not on the whole considerably worse as our sprawl-oriented development policies and regulations. Without planning laws, I highly doubt there would be environmental preservation, a common goal I think most of us can at least agree upon. However, it should be clear that planning actually adds value and prevents nuisances that would otherwise tie up our legal system.

      4. I would never advocate for a lack of zoning or development regulations. But our current setup is very restrictive in some counterproductive ways – such as allowing densely packed townhouses, but banning having more than 2 apartments in a converted single family house next door.

        DPD is currently moving in the right direction, I think. But it’s a slow process.

      5. I agree DPD is becoming better. I just wish they’d work on freeing up zoning as they update neighbourhood plans rather than simply applying rezone with tired regulations that aren’t tailored to neighbourhood-specific issues. And, you’re dead on. We have the remnants of mid-20th century planning layered with 21st policies and practices. It’s a very odd regime to work under. But, I’d certainly be happy to work to untangle the mess. But Valdez’s insights don’t achieve that at all.

    2. I would agree that standardized [ AND SUPPORTED ! ] Station Area Planning work is currently lacking and/or non-existent in Sound Transit and the city’s work. Effective and thorough SAP should both inform our new “transit communities” about necessary + desired urban planning to support the stations <> inform Sound Transit’s Station design so that it allows development, and maximizes integration with infrastructure, other transit, and urban design.


      I agree with the comments that roger’s current proposal is a bit too “broad-brush” and “one-size-fits-all”.

      Just to give some perspective, and using NorthLink as an example:

      The stations at the stadium, brooklyn, roosevelt, and northgate are each less than two miles apart — so using a 1-mile station-area definition means that there would be a contiuous “station-area” zone of minimum 65 foot zoning from the ship canal to NE 130th; with an east/west reach of aproximately SR99 to 35th ave NE.

      Now as much as I’d get a giggle out of seeing parts of Laurelhurst suddenly hit with 65′ zoning, this seems a bit much….. (them that had the big fight over the children’s hospital addition)

      Again, just for perspective, if we were to assume 65’+ zoning would give a zoned capacity of 150 DU / acre, this roughly 2-mile x 7 mile area of NE Seattle would suddenly have zoned capacity for over a million people.

      But of course it would never (or at least not for a long time) be built out to that capacity — and that’s the problem. Developments would pop up sporatically throughout the area where ever the best deal (most profit) is to be made — and in many cases this would mean the cheaper properties FURTHER from the stations. ‘Further’, as in “up to a mile away” — well past the 1/2 mile radius of a station where average people will commonly walk to stations, and potentially will even consider living without (gasp) a car.

      So #1, I’d say pull back your legislated + mandated station-area of up-zoning to the 1/2 mile radius more commonly considered for the “station-area” of fixed-guidway transit.

      Second, please be less “one-size-fits-all”.

      For the sake of variety and allowing different sections of the city meet their needs + urban plans in different ways, I’d suggest you set firm desity goals, rather than mandated heights. If one area wants uniform mid-rise zoning throughout — great, let them meet the numbers that way. But maybe other spots will decide they’d rather meet the required density numbers by allowing a couple 120′ towers in the center with lower heights surrounding it. Same result, more flexibility, more choices for residents considering where/how to live.

      Maybe a plan that requires zoning that allows:

      200 DU / acre within a radius of 1/4 mile from a station,


      100 DU / acre in the ‘donut’ of land between 1/4 and 1/2 mile from the station.

      This would provide a zoned capacity within each station area of about 62,900 dwelling units. even if the build-out is only half that for the next few decades that would still represent significant density gains at the stations.

  3. What is your response to the small-time property owners who get upzoned and have to pay increased property taxes but won’t be able to develop to the envisioned higher density for the next 10-15 years until the train finally arrives?

    1. I think I heard that there is a law that prevents this kind of thing from happening. If I understand correctly, the yearly increase in someone’s property tax bill is capped somewhere in the neighborhood of 1-2% per year, no matter how much the land value spikes.

      1. Obviously you wouldn’t want to burn through the money and have nothing left to pay your debts. Save it, invest it, make more money. It’s an opportunity, not a burden.

      2. It seems a little pessimistic to look at an increase in your home’s value as a tax burden. I consider my home a significant part of my retirement savings – I’d love for the value to go up at some point before I sell.

  4. Interesting post Roger. However, your ‘Future’ photo leaves me frightened and confused. I see a barren wasteland with towers in it. There are people on the ground, but there doesn’t seem to be anything for them to do or anyplace to go. There isn’t anything at the human scale. The near tower exists in emptiness and is much to far to interact with those in the distance, and there doesn’t seem to be much in between. Obviously people could get on one of those skybridges; car or train, and go somewhere – but to me that is just called sprawl. The acres of vacant concrete make me feel like this environment is much less dense than it would be if it were six or even four stories and actually cohesive. I think density is imperative, but perhaps secondary to inspiration and place-making. This looks either like hell or the suburbs.

    1. I agree. But I just think that’s a product of poor picture selection. One thing I like about Roger’s legislation is that it zones everything near a station to 6 stories, with some work required to get to 8 stories and a significant amount of work to get past that (to the Council, no less). This should tend toward Paris style development, with every building being 6-8 stories.

      I would like some provisions to be added to limit the width of buildings, which would keep them at a human scale. Maybe require a type II or even VI process for wide buildings as well.

    2. Actually, it’s Vancouver, one of the most beautiful and livable cities in the world. Don’t judge a post by its picture.

      1. Vancouver has succeeded in becoming one of the most beautiful and livable cities in the world in spite of the high-rises, not because of them.

        Taken individually, Vancouver has much of the same hideous corporate-algorithmed architechture as Belltown — dreary crap from the ’60s-’80s, shiny crap from the ’90s-’00s.

        The reason it all works in sum total, and activates for pedestrians — is that city planners past decided to focus their energies on regulating street-level activity rather than overall height or aesthetics. So street-level parking: gone. Garage entrances: hidden as possible. Pedestrian ROW: unbroken. Retail frontage: controlled for width, depth, and diversity. It’s basically the opposite of New Belltown.

        When you walk down a central Vancouver street, you barely notice the high-rises. It’s truly the best of all worlds: density without the distraction.

        But the only reason Vancouver needed to build density upwards was the lack of mid-rise precedent (everywhere but the Downtown East Side) in an era when mid-rise was frowned upon. The forest-of-towers + regulated-street-frontage is a stand-in for the kind of Paris-London-Boston landscape that still works out to a higher density than anything Vancouver offers!

      2. And that picture looks like Skytrain’s Stadium/Chinatown Station area. The plaza at street level is the entrance to Rogers Arena (home of the Canucks).

      3. One point of the Vancouver picture is that all those people living in all those highrises mean that the Skytrain has enough riders to run at 108 second intervals. More people ride the Skytrain system daily than use BART (which is in a much larger metro area). These people can wander out their door and get on a train in seconds (not within 10-15 minutes), and travel to a disproprionate number of the regions jobs, shopping and attractions, all without a car.

      4. All true, Chad.

        My point was that the high-rises do provide density, and are better-managed re: their street-level impacts than almost any other high-rises in the western world, but that they still provide less density than consistent medium-rise cities do.

        More people ride the Skytrain system daily than use BART…

        But not more than ride MUNI. Or the MBTA. Or the subways and the trams in similar-sized Prague. All of which achieve their density with older mid-rised methods that are starting to return to vogue.

  5. The danger here is that this could easily turn into a Robert Moses style commission that finds “blighted” areas and pushes for rail stations in that area–then the area is razed and replaced by towers for the wealthy, and everyone else is displaced. Even worse, there is a huge potential here for collusion between master developers and the commission. I agree that we need more density around stations, but a messy public process helps avoid wholesale corruption and arrogance. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes made in New York and elsewhere with urban renewal.

    1. To be fair, there are no “towers” without a public process (the type VI Roger creates). That said, upzoning to 6 – 8 floors can certainly remake a neighborhood. What protections do we have against that happening right now? Isn’t that more or less what happened in the Rainier Valley under the current system?

    2. 6 stories does not make a tower. I don’t think it’s enough of a bump to get developers salivating to demolish entire neighborhoods. It is enough to encourage gradual change.

    3. The urban renewal shock treatments of the mid 1900s happened during a particular cultural mindset. (1) Neighborhoods with over 25% non-white residents were considered to have negative value, and the wishes of the residents was not important at all. (2) Freeways were seen as the universal solution to traffic, walkability was unimportant, and empty spaces containing only road interchanges were not a negative. (3) Modernism was king, tradition was backward.

      All of these values now have significant opposition. We do get big, barely walkable developments like Fred Hutch, but it’s doubtful you’ll see anything along the lines of Moses or Urban Renewal.

      1. But one reason urban renewal was able to happen is precisely because unaccountable planning commissions had a lot of power. I’m afraid Roger’s proposal removes a lot of the checks and balances.

  6. You rock, Roger. In the Internet age there’s often the tendency to talk, talk, talk, with no actual action. Legislation like this could be the best thing to happen to Seattle since we developed out neighborhoods.

  7. I tend to wary of those offering to dictate to others what they should do with their property.
    If Roger has a lot of property and is willing to give up his rights of ownership, then that’s another thing. I think it’s the other way around though.

    1. Actually, you’re looking at things backwards. The status-quo is to tell people what they’re allowed to do with their property. This legislation is reducing the current restrictions.

  8. The one-mile radius might be a bit extreme for the full 65 feet.

    If I was in charge, I’d make it 65 feet within 1/2 mile, stepping down to LR3 at a mile. Realistic walking distances, please.

    If I was in charge, I’d also require occasional zoning censuses to find at what level current zoning is being utilized. If an area is found to be maxing out current zoning, it would trigger an automatic, incremental upzone. That would allow for growth in areas where there’s a demand, while maintaining a gradual, “natural” increase in building heights that wouldn’t hurt the “character” of any neighborhood.

    1. I like the automatic upzone idea, but be careful with the term “maxed out”. That’s the battle cry for NIMBY’s, since zoning is never, ever maxed out (“upzone? but we’re only 1/3 built out!”). Development slows down at a fraction of “maxed out”, as it becomes more and more difficult to tear down those 4-story condos and still make a profit off of the 6-story condos that replace them (all demo, construction costs, and profit would have to be less than 1/3 the value of the original 4-story condos). Basically, long term percentage of buildout is a function of demand. So as long as you mean passing some percentage of “maxed out”, I’m with you.

      1. The kind of test I would be envisioning is something like this:

        If the average FAR for parcels in a 40 acre block exceeds 70% of the allowable maximum, the area should be rezoned.

        Replace FAR with an appropriate measurement, depending on what’s relevant to the existing zoning. For SFR zones you’d probably want to use either density or lot coverage, and maybe even for LR1&2.

        So that means that you’d always have a mix. It’s mostly a matter of finding the right block size and the right ratio of buildout to maximum. No one’s going to be knocking down 6 story buildings to build 8 story buildings, but if you get the numbers right in a test like this, you can trigger an upzone while there’s still lower buildings in the area.

    2. This is a great idea, Roger. Can it be passed as a citywide initiative? It would be a great public debate to have in Seattle. Framing the issue on a citywide basis forces everyone, homeowners and renters, to consider their values about how they want the city to look and function, in general. It gets past the block-by-block arguments with impassioned homeowners only considering their own perceived interests.

      It might not pass the first time, but if enough environmental organizations came out in favor, it could pass after two or three tries at the ballot. (Also, its critical to get in on a high turnout ballot, when younger and poorer voters are most likely to vote)

    3. Um, same comment regarding the radius.

      People generally refer to 1/4 mile or 1/2 mile, or somewhere in between as being the catchment radiuses of your average urban train station. 1 mile is simply too large a circle.

  9. I think Roger does his totally valid proposal a disservice with this particular pair of images.

    The “past” photo is a vestige of a much denser time for that block of Vancouver, which in a different place or time might have been preserved and rejuvenated to for a possibly mixed-income neighborhood at that (again) much higher density.

    Meanwhile, I can’t quite figure out how you squeezed such a dystopian “future” photo from the mostly-functional Vancouver model. A station beneath an auto overpass, by a hockey arena and a Costco, the city’s most arbitrarily-placed towers in the distance and one of its few frontage-less stand-alones off to the left. Your photo shows the exact antithesis Vancouver’s valiant efforts to preserve pedestrian scale at ground level even as the towers grow taller in its midst.

    “Unthinking growth increases the divide.” There, I fixed that for the Del Mar’s owner. It’s now about limiting the amount, but about considering the form, the function, the effect, and the value of that which you replace in progress’s name.

    Roger, you and everyone else who finds this conundrum engaging owe it to yourselves to go see Battle for Brooklyn sometime between now and Thursday.

  10. Part of the issue is: if we don’t build it now, it’ll be more difficult and more expensive to build in the future. Therefor, we must build as much now, as fast as we can.

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