Here’s an extended quote from “Anon,” posted here on Seattle Transit Blog on my Fourth of July post:

Ballard was being inundated with a bunch of boring, boxy condos, that really took away from the uniqueness of Ballard. While we don’t hate progress, we also wonder why progress can’t at least look good. It seems like the city just rubber stamps the ugliest designs, the developer comes in, builds and runs and “we the people” are left with the ugly monstrosities

It’s a comment I have read again, and again in my posts about density. Another version of it goes, “I’m not against density I just hate bad design.” But there’s a solution for Anon and others who want great design and density.

Tonight the Seattle City Council is considering an extension and modification of it’s Living Building Pilot Program, a program designed to incentivize better buildings by granting some departures from Seattle’s land use code. All the projects have to go through the design review process (hardly a rubber stamp) and the program limits participants to 12 over the life of the program. The program is set to expire this year and make changes to allow more flexibility for developers.

More below the jump.

Building green can be expensive and the intention of the program was to promote more innovative design that reduced environmental impacts, save energy, and highlight great design.

One project, Stone34 in Fremont, is already moving ahead, but in order to benefit from the program that project needs the extension. The amendments to the program are pretty straightforward, allowing developers to choose elements of the living building without having to meet them all. In exchange, buildings can get more height.

As I wrote over at Seattle’s Land Use Code, the Living Building Program is incentive zoning at its best, allowing departures from the land use code in exchange for public benefits. While the Stone34 project is an office building, what’s true for mixed use development is true for Stone34: the money to pay for better materials and more energy efficiencies have to come from somewhere. The departures from the land use code can reduce costs and help increase revenue to help pay for a better building.

The problem is that some neighborhood groups are already assembling themselves to oppose this project for a bunch of reasons laid out in a flier posted in Capitol Hill.

"Neighborhoods throughout Seattle are teaming up to fight this legislation."

Once again the Seattle City Council is debating land use policy lot-by-lot, project-by-project rather than passing broad measures, implementing them, then evaluating them to see if they work. And once again some neighborhood groups are claiming that departures for Stone34 are a precedent that can’t be tolerated.

In the end it’s pretty simple. If we want good design along with density somebody has to pay for it and the Living Building Program and Stone34 are a chance to raise the bar on policy and design in a way that is economical for the developer and produces benefits for the neighborhood and city. Let’s give the program and the project a chance to prove it can meet those expectations.

The City Council’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability (PLUS) committee has scheduled a public hearing for Monday, July 9, 2012 in the City Council Chambers, 2nd floor, Seattle City Hall, 600 Fourth Avenue. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m.

The July Greendrinks will be sponsored by Skanska and will take place at EM Fine Art in South Lake Union on July 10th starting at 5:30pm.The event will feature an opportunity to learn more from Skanska and others on two development projects proposed in Seattle, Stone34 and 400 Fairview. A short 5 -7 minute documentary on Stone34 by local filmmaker Eric Becker will be premiered at this event.

44 Replies to “Council Hearing Tonight: Living Buildings and Livable Neighborhoods”

  1. The thing that may kill the Living Building program is a lack of attention paid to the potential resistance around the height increases. The Mayor’s office should have seen this coming.

      1. Yep, but it’s not resistance we should stop for. Those people are choosing between a real option and a magical, unreal “something else” that really means suburban sprawl.

      2. That’s hyperbolic even for the internet. The folks in Fremont in particular already pretty dense zoning that was developed through a neighborhood planning process.

      3. Kevin,

        First, Ben is definitely *not* hyperbolic by internet standards. Spend some time on Something Awful, 4chan, or even Reddit, and you’ll quickly see what I mean. :)

        More seriously, the point is not that Fremont has suburban density (it doesn’t), but that people have to live somewhere. If we don’t let them build in the city, then they will build in the suburbs, where the only thing you need to build a new subdivision is a checkbook. This is not hyperbole; it’s a fact. Permits in Houston (which has tons of land and no urban growth boundary) are tops in the nation.

        Every unit we don’t build in the city is another person/family that will have no choice but to live somewhere else. I personally think it’s really unfortunate that someone who wants to live in the city would be forced to live in the suburbs because there aren’t enough urban apartments, but that’s exactly what has happened, and what will keep happening, unless we do something.

  2. You say the program is set to expire this year. Of the potential 12 projects, how many have been started/completed, and what were the changes allowed/amenities granted on those projects?

      1. The author often links to his own writings. Perhaps citing the program site would also make sense. Apparently he thinks the program is a good one. Maybe not as good as his own opinions.

      2. Well, according to the director’s report: “At this point, more than half way through the effective period of the Pilot Program, only one project has participated in the program and been approved for construction.”

        The builders didn’t get enough of what they wanted, so they’ve come back to the table for more. The argument “it’s not about the height” keeps coming back from both sides…so it must be about the height.

        The Bullitts are building what they wanted because it wasn’t profit motivated. A six story office building will have different impacts than an eight or nione story residential building.

        Do to the expense of construction and maintanence of green components, (like the highly engineered composting toilets) residential buildings constructed under this program might just be way too expensive for most folks who are just dying to live in a denser urban area. Show me someplace where promised “affordable” units have become a reality.

    1. Glen,

      Only one project has been completed. That’s in one of the links somewhere in the post.

      The bottom line is that there is no need to limit this. It’s kind of like the cottage limitation of 50 backyard cottages.

      The council could allow 1000 of these and it wouldn’t result in a flood of construction. That’s the point: this is a pilot to incentivize some innovation.

      Why people would want to squash that is beyond me, but have at it.

      1. “cottage limitation of 50 backyard cottages” ?
        I’ve seen no such limitation and I’m in process to build one myself.

        Agreed that there would not be a flood of construction, but having an out is good for the city, the politicians and the populace. For the most part, 6 and 8 pack townhouses are a blight.

      2. Backyard Cottages:

        In late 2009, the City of Seattle legalized backyard cottages for the entire city of Seattle expanding on a successful multi-year pilot in a portion of the city. The new law affects as many as 100,000 city lots which are Single Family zoned and at least 4000 SF, and there is no annual cap on the number that can be built.

        Interestingly most so called mother-in-law apartments are illegal in Seattle.

      3. They are illegal because they are not “permitted”, i.e., they have not shown that they meet the livability standards the city would like to see.

  3. Amazing…a small cabal of densifiers, having been shown a hundred times that it is not what people want, march onward ever more deaf and dumb.

      1. John, there are more people walking, biking, and riding than driving on 5th Avenue and every Downtown street for that matter. The density bomb has hit and you just keep ignorning that.

      2. Because many of those people can’t afford to live in town… because living in town is too expensive for normal people… because there’s not enough dense central-city housing… because regulatory constraints on dense housing are strangling the supply and causing a market failure.

      3. David, exactly! People are leaving at the end of the day like that because we don’t allow enough places for them to live in the city. We *cause* traffic with our restrictions. :)

      4. Experiment:

        Go sit at a table outside Top Pot Doughnuts at 4pm on a workday.

        Count the people “walking and biking”.

        Count those stuck in traffic.

        Bonus point: Go up to a few drivers stuck in traffic, and ask why don’t you just move to a one bedroom condo in this dense city instead of driving 45 minutes every evening to your alpaca farm in Ravensdale?

      5. Obvious answer is obvious: “Because I can only buy a one-bedroom condo for the price of my alpaca farm plus all the gas I use on this insane commute that sucks up 10% of all my waking hours.” And that answer is largely correct.

        The reason: a regulatory regime imposed by those who fear density, that strangles the supply of in-city housing and drives up its cost to astronomical levels.

        If we actually let developers build in-city housing in the amounts they could sell, a few more suburban residents could afford better housing in the city, and some of them would have more interest in moving in.

        By the way, Top Pot is a poor location for your comparison. No one is walking along 5th Avenue because little housing has been built yet in the dead zone between Belltown and SLU. Try sitting at Bauhaus and you will see way more walkers than drivers.

      6. John, I honestly don’t many of the South County peeps who drive to Seattle if they work Downtown. Actually, I can’t count one and I know a lot. The people stuck in traffic are either incredibly rich, shopper, or tourist. I frankly don’t care why they’re stuck in traffic. If they can’t understand basic economics of time and cost, that’s they’re problem, now isn’t it?

    1. Hmm…John, you are forgetting one crucial factor. If you look at home prices over square footage, in-city units are nearly always more expensive, hence the demand for urban housing is much higher. Did you notice that unit you listed has only 626 square feet in living space, whereas a comparably priced home in the suburbs is easily 4 to 5 times that size? I’m thus curious to know how you say people don’t want density.

      1. If you look at home prices over square footage, in-city units are nearly always more expensive, hence the demand for urban housing is much higher.

        That’s just patently false. The price per pound of foie gras is much higher than filet mignon but the demand for steak is much higher than duck liver. Urban housing is a completely different animal than suburban or rural but overwhelmingly the majority of people moving to the region choose an option other than dense urban housing; even those that want multi family rather than the traditional suburban home.

      2. To continue your slightly tortured metaphor, overall demand for steak may be higher, but demand exceeds supply more for foie gras.

        With dense urban housing, there is a drought of supply. With suburban subdivision housing, there is not. Thus the higher prices (and lower inventory and much shorter times on market) for housing in Seattle’s densest neighborhoods.

        Here’s another hint: look for condos for sale on Capitol Hill. You’ll find startlingly few. Then go look for houses for sale in any suburban area with a roughly equivalent number of owned dwelling units to Capitol Hill. You’ll find at least several times as many.

      3. Sometimes limited demand it’s self can account for higher prices through low volume production. If the demand had been for more urban housing Tacoma and Everett would be booming and Bellevue would still be blueberry farms. In fact there’s still large areas of Seattle waiting to be gentrified. But far more people have chosen to live outside of an urban core and the growth pattern is still strongly bias in that direction. The net result has been cities moving to the people; not people moving to the city.

    2. If that money could buy a 1000 sq ft 2-bedroom home rather than a 600 sq ft 1-bedroom home, it might tip the balance for a few more of those folks.

      1. True – per the DSA, the two reasons people give most often for not moving downtown, or leaving downtown, is lack of schools and lack of larger units.

      2. There are plenty of 1000 sq ft 2 bedroom homes in Seattle available for less than $250K. Per Redfin there are currently 89 available in the Rainier Valley, 98118. Many close to light rail too.

  4. Seriously, thanks for this post, Roger. I’ve got the evening off, and will definitely make this meeting.

    I’ve lived in Ballard since 1985. Growing density has brought a great many really fine young people into a community whose aging reached its last funny point with “The Ballard Driving Academy.”

    Full benefit hit me my last stint as a poll-worker at the VFW hall at 28th and Market, as I met the new electorate and their kids. Have to say, though, that the housing market crash of 2008, which let my side win the election with their help, also kept the rents where people in my bracket of any age can still afford to live there.

    A lot of the new construction really is a lot squarer and uglier than it’s got any right to be- as could be said of the architectural sensibility behind them and the finance that paid for it. My grandmother would have said their taste was in their feet, which really carries its full force in Yiddish.

    My own vision of the kind of development I think many of us want is what I remember from the Sickle Udde section of Stockholm, light rail Route 12, if memory serves. Also low-rise neighborhoon surrounding the “Turning Torso” skyscraper in Malmo.

    These things are possible. My own experience on as an advisor on the artwork in the Downtown Seattle Transit Project, which subjected every artpiece to value engineering, convinced me that the extra attention needed to make things economical can also make them better aesthetically.

    Like sharpening a carving tool.

    See you at City Hall this evening.

    Mark Dublin

  5. These Living Building initiatives really shouldn’t be that controversial. I’m convinced that people are incapable of visualising what this type of height is like. There needs to be a real DPD-led public education campaign. No, neighbourhoods are not going to be torn apart. You’ll still see daylight and get your views. Chill out.

    1. You should ask the people who live next to the Bullitt Living Building on Madison if they still have their views or how they feel about solar intrusion – really you should do a site visit – as your comment indicates your lack of knowledge on the subject matter.

      I have no problem with the Bullitt Building, but when you look at this structure, it is pretty evident that they were not thinking about their adjacent neighbors in their development – they maximized the size of the structure without any regards to the adjacent property – I am not saying this is wrong – but let’s not pretend or assume that builders of living green structures are any more community oriented than the builder that slaps up clap board town homes.

      1. James I had a good friend that lived in the building right adjacent to the Bullitt Foundation building and I think it’s much more of the adjacent buildings fault than the Bullitt building. They built the adjacent building as if Bullitt lot would never be redeveloped in the future, orientating all windows directly towards it. That bet paid off with great views until now, but it was a gamble on their part and a poor long term design choice.

        Views are not enshrined in property rites and when people talk about “air, light and sun” that is usually what they are talking about.

      2. The imperative driving the kind of sustainability behind the Bullitt is rendered moot if it’s pulled down within a generation. An exalted sense of moral superiority is anathema to a real place where people actually want to be.

      3. Occasionally views are enshrined in property rights — look up “viewshed easement”.

        If you don’t have a viewshed easement on your neighbor’s property, you have no legal right to your view over it. Most people don’t.

    2. The neighborhood is currently zoned for 45 feet maximum, but this building will be 82 feet tall. I realize that the zealots here don’t want any zoning at all, so any excuse to bust the rules is fine by you.

      The Brooks Sports building in Fremont-Wallingford (which, under the rule that the city council will pass, can be replicated on the other three corners of the intersection) is not even a green building. The living building trade institute testified that the city’s proposed rules, which will be relaxed even further, are so far out of compliance with their codes that they want the city to find some name other than “living building” for the monstrosities.

      Roger Valdez has made it clear that he has no regard at all for Seattle’s neighborhoods or the people who live in them. Anyone who opposes any scheme he and his real estate buddies are backing is a NIMBY and too old, too rich, and too white.

      Funny thing about the “transit” types. They tend to hold Portland in high regard. I have a good friend who was a city planner in Portland. He and I drove around the city last week, and he was aghast at Lake Union, and what’s about to happen at the corner of 34th and Stoneway, and the disaster with SLUT and “Allentown.”

      “Unless you live on a houseboat or can afford one of those expensive condos they’re going to be putting up, you’ll be completely cut off from the lake, other than that postage stamp park,” he said, referring to Gasworks.

      “I can hardly believe it,” he told me. “I know that Seattle has always been much more pro-development, and much more in love with money in general, but privatizing a whole lake within the city limits?”

      He contrasted what Seattle is doing to Capitol Hill, and Ballard (“they’re killing the character,” he said), and soon Fremont and Wallingford, with how Portland has protected the Pearl District and the west hills there.

      “Seattle is a disaster, and it’s getting worse,” he told me. “You do have some tough geographical issues here, but what’s much worse is your city government. They’ve always been lay-downs for money, but it’s out of control up here.”

      Needless to say, I agreed.

      1. Did your planner friend observe Lake Union by car?

        As it is hard to say that it is privatized when you jog the full length of the Lake on a public multi-use trail (about a 15K).

        Did your friend not check out the new Lake Union Park on the south side of the lake – I believe it is about a 12 acres park – is this too a postage stamp park?

        It doesn’t sound like your friend accessed the lake along the parks in east lake – if your Planner friend had done this he could have picked up a game of bocce ball or even took a kayak into the lake at the public non-motorized boat access on Minor.

        Your Planner friend was clearly making some arrogant snarky comment that he could not back up?

        Also, if your friend was a good urban planner, he wouldn’t say things like, “killing the character of a neighborhood” as a person educated about the built environment understands that nothing is permanent and everything natural and built will change – including character – and much of this change is in response to variables out of the control of any City government.

        All City government can do is try to orchestrate the mess into the best possible scenario for the community.

        Your friend is lame.

      2. “He contrasted what Seattle is doing to Capitol Hill, and Ballard (“they’re killing the character,” he said), and soon Fremont and Wallingford, with how Portland has protected the Pearl District and the west hills there.”

        “Protected” the Pearl District? What a laugh. The only thing remaining of the old brewery district are the facades of some brick buildings that now house million dollar condos and upscale shops. All of the culture of the original area is largely gone, as industry and artists have been priced out. At least SLU now has thousands of well-paying jobs and some affordable apartments, that’s two things the Pearl District doesn’t have. Your “planner friend” sounds like a figment of your imagination.

      3. Not having been born or raised in either Portland or Seattle, I have nothing invested in the rivalry between the two cities. What I often tell my Portland friend is that if we could put a hook and Portland and plop it next to Puget Sound, we’d have the perfect city.

        Yeah, the Pearl District is upscale, just like Allentown is upscale or will be. But one has been protected, and the other is just hideous, and destined to get worse and worse. From what I gather, the urbanists have pretty much marked what’s left of Eastlake for destruction too.

        Whatever is left of Lake Union is quickly vanishing. It’s unfortunate that the urbanists, in their rush to pack the joint with giant buildings, care so little for the quality of life here.

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