Panorama of 901 5th Ave (built 1974)

When you look at a building built downtown in the past half century and compare it to an old building, the largest change you’ll notice other than the materials used is how they fill up space.  Older buildings often are built from the sidewalk to the alley, from one property line to the other.  Yet newer buildings generally take up a small amount of land and are surrounded by plazas.  The reason for this was the introduction of Floor Area Ratios (FAR) in our building and land use codes.

FAR is simply the ratio of floor area to the area of the property.  A 2-story building built out the property lines would have a FAR of 2, as would a 4-story building built on half of the property or an 8-story building built on a quarter of the property.  The theory behind limiting FARs is that a city can keep a large amount of open space (limiting height, width, and/or depth of a building) while allowing an architect some freedom to design their building as they’d like.  The reason that open space is valued is to let in sunlight, and to give developers an incentive to give future employees room to enjoy this sunlight on their lunch breaks.

Colman Building (built 1889)

I’d argue that unplanned open space has little use in a city.  Parks and retail-lined plazas can be valuable in small quantity, but the landscaped or empty plazas that restricted FARs tend to leave us with are uninviting.  Setbacks planned using sun angles can provide as much sunlight as our skinny towers, but with much greater density.

Of course much of Seattle might value this unplanned open space more than I do, so I propose we start small.  Just as Seattle has an unlimited height zone, I propose we create an unlimited FAR zone.  This zone would allow buildings built right to the property lines up to 7 stories high, then set back based on solar modeling.  Buildings on an East or West side of a street might be set back more, whereas maybe a North side building face could rise straight up.  Parks and plazas would be city-planned and paid for by new construction.

The result could build a far more dense area than just increasing building heights.  This density would bring everything closer – more people could access these parks, more stores and restaurants would be in walking distance, and better transit could be built.  Some of our most beautiful and valued buildings and neighborhoods were built before FARs were a requirement.  I’d love to see us try to build this way again.

35 Replies to “We Could Use a FAR-free Zone”

  1. I personally support this idea. Those plazas just seem like wasted space to me, and I honestly enjoy having storefronts and whatnot at the sidewalk rather than away from it. I’d be much more inclined to “window shop” if said window is near my path of travel. If there are others who do the same, it could be a boon for business.

    Heck, just having one or two floors at the property line (possibly for retail) and the rest of the tower set back based on solar modeling makes sense to me.

  2. The Colman Building, and the Seattle Tower, and the Smith Tower were designed by architects with a sense of grace and proportion, hired by businesspeople who valued these things.

    When we once again have both of these professions in the hands of people of similar quality, we won’t need numerical formulas to tell us how to design our city.

    I’d like to hear from an architect as to why the last several decades have left us with so many ugly buildings, and from someone in the business community as to why your trade demands them.

    And also, does either profession have the actual skill at artistic drawing to create buildings of the quality of the above examples if the law made you do it?

    Mark Dublin

    1. As an architect, I’d say the primary drivers for the final appearance of a building are the owner’s taste, the city’s requirements, and a balance between high-quality and inexpensive materials.

      I’m sure any architect would love to work on a beautiful building, but we’d also like to get paid for it…

    2. I think your rant is a bit misdirected. I certainly don’t think it’s the architects fault. They still create and have the ability to create incredible visions. The problem is we rarely see anything near that vision. WTC 1 is a perfect example of how far away from the vision we tend to get.

      It’s a cultural problem. The problem is our flavor of capitalism has streamlined over the years by chipping away the ideals and ethics that keep us honest and aimed toward the future. Now our system is 100% geared toward short term goals and short term profits, all that matter are the dollars and cents. It’s all black and white. One missed quarter can doom a company. Buildings, especially beautiful large buildings, are all about the future. Its an investment in not just the physical building and what that enables, but in an image and many other intangibles. Intangibles don’t translate well to paper and can’t be well represented in dollars and cents. So these considerations have fallen away. Those investments are too risky as companies are rarely built to last, but rather built to survive each quarter. So the demand is just not there.

      We still need buildings but maybe it would be cheaper to build a complex in the suburbs…. or maybe we build a standard box of a building made of the most basic materials. That’s what it comes down to now, no one is willing to make the investments or they simply don’t value those investments. And thats because our society is focused on today and not tomorrow. On the ‘me’ instead of the ‘we’. If that were to change I think you would see people building great buildings again, for now we just don’t have to spirit or ideals to support it.

      1. Did you see the article on how Seattle’s incredibly restrictive zoning code *forces* the “four-pack”?

        In the 19th century, junky buildings were built too — tin roofs on wood walls. But they’ve been torn down, while many of the nice buildings have been retained. At the moment the rules can make it very hard to build any nice buildings.

      2. Matt, that is one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read. It was broken down and illustrated so that anyone could understand it, yet had enough details to show just how constricting the old zoning rules were. I REALLY wish the author would make an update for the new regs.

  3. FAR itself isn’t the problem – it’s just a way of articulating allowable square footage that can be more flexible than height and bulk requirements. The developers of some of those pointless plazas were given FAR bonuses for providing them as public benefit features. I wouldn’t be averse to increasing available FAR on a range of properties Downtown and I would also favor incentives to build to the street wall for at least the first few stories.

    1. Maybe FAR itself isn’t the problem, but the combination of low FAR and high height limits can be. If you have a height limit that allows 30 story buildings to be constructed, but a maximum FAR of 10, then there will be quite a few property owners who decide to leave 2/3 of their lot empty so that their CEO’s office or expensive penthouses can be 30 stories high instead of 10.

  4. With today’s urban vacancy rates, I would be thinking about “weeding out” a lot of the less used, grungier properties and creating lower rise retail, civic space or other opportunities to make downtown more pleasant for the premium building customers.

    So, sure, for a good, green, building, let it rip to a FAR of 0, but then surround it with actually park squares.

    Also, buildings with transit under them…people can easily escape to more pleasant environs for coffee breaks…

    1. Those grungier, older buildings are exactly where businesses with smaller profit margins thrive. To talk about filling them in with new buildings will create awful neighborhoods.

      Can you provide any examples of downtown properties that should be weeded out? I can only think of parking garages.

      1. In *some* places, new buildings are actually built “around” old buildings, integrating them into the design. Sure, this can be “facade preservation”, but it can still be nice….

    2. Funny, Bailo wants to rip out older buildings in Seattle that are too grungy for him, but wants to keep the 1970s strip malls on East Hill because they provide low rents for startup businesses.

  5. How would it be possible to subdivide mega-block developments like Rainier Square and the Wells Fargo center?

  6. I like the idea. The whole concept of a FAR in a downtown business district is ridiculous…. as for other areas, well I’m sure many would say it’s debatable. But in a downtown? Just makes no sense. Buildings set back from the sidewalk are just awful

  7. And there is still room for plazas and parks and places for people to take their coffee breaks… on top of the buildings! Why rooftop parks and such are not utilized more in this city I’ll never know…

  8. I wholeheartedly agree, I wish Seattle had streetwalls like South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Every time I ride north, round the shedd, and have that just plopped in my view it makes me just smile. Looking across grant park at a WALL. Also, any time I’m biking from north Michigan ave. to South Michigan, I see it approaching, and go right by it, and its just amazing.
    The gold coast also has this to a slightly lesser extent, and it is just beautiful. Fairly consistent building heights, and a complete frontage, with breaches only for the roadways. I miss that when I go home to Seattle, Though, there’s lots of design elements I wish were incorporated in Chicago that Seattle does, like, podiums that aren’t butt ugly, and underground parking garages (darned lake and high water table…)

    1. The thing that makes the street wall on S Michigan remarkable is that it is only on one side of the street. The open space of Millenium park and Grant Park make it a mutual admiration society. Go a few blocks west of there to LaSalle St and you get the canyon effect with street walls on both sides. Dark, virtually no sunlight, noisy as all get out and very windy. And of course, the vista of the faceless goddess atop the alter of commerce caps the head of the street.

  9. I will say that sun angle setbacks are a much more thoughtful concept than FAR. FAR is just kind of dumb.

    1. I don’t think FAR is dumb. It’s a measurement of pure density. If you want to sum up the zoning of an area, FAR is the simplest and most understandable way. In an wide-scale planning sense, it is the one of the most important numbers, and agencies writing out zoning rules should have a FAR target they are shooting for.

      But on a lot-by-lot scale, pure FAR-based zoning screws with things a lot. The zoning should help achieve a goal FAR, not simply prescribe the FAR.

      1. I agree completely. An example where a mixed approach was applied is the master plan for the old Group Health property in Redmond. There has to be a way to know and plan for the desired density of jobs and housing. The GMA commands it under it’s concurrancy clause.

      2. OK, I’ll agree with you on that.

        Using FAR as a measurement is one thing; that may make sense. As a measurement, it may indicate how much in the way of intercity transportation needs to be provided, the width of sewer lines, all kinds of useful things.

        Using it as a RULE — FAR-based zoning — is what’s dumb.

  10. Eliminating FAR is a good idea. I still think you are going to continue to get crappy buildings as long as the money’s in building crappy buildings on megasites.

  11. I couldn’t possibly agree more. Setbacks and plazas are soul-destroying city killers. And the requirements to build out superblocks to get the height is insane — exactly the opposite of what should be required. If I was designing the rules, building out to the sidewalk would be a requirement, but the maximum size of any building would be a quarter or a sixth of a block, with incentives to build narrower. I’d also require alleyways to be developed as retail, like Melbourne’s laneways or even some of the lanes and places in San Francisco. Every planner and every architect and every official working in the city would be required by law to spend fifteen minutes a day looking at the Colman Building.

    I give architects a lot of crap, but I agree that it is stupid design codes that are the biggest culprit. Seattle in particular has always seemed to be ruled by people who hate the very idea of cities, and make it almost impossible to establish urban amenities. Instead we get dead zone after dead zone, empty plazas and blank walls with massive vents in them. The architects get some of the blame though, because there don’t appear to be any architects working today who see the street interaction of their own buildings; they focus on how the tower looks in the skyline, which is unimportant to the city dweller, and ignore the interaction of street and building. If they do feature it, they concentrate on avant-garde technical solutions that create drama and aggrandize personalities but provide nothing for the city dweller, who often can’t even find the damn door.

    1. If I was designing the rules, building out to the sidewalk would be a requirement, but the maximum size of any building would be a quarter or a sixth of a block, with incentives to build narrower.

      You’ve got my vote!

  12. The architects share some of the blame. The building codes may mandate a plaza, but they don’t mandate that benches should be put where no one wants to sit on them, or spaced too far apart for groups of people to gather and talk. People want a small-scale cozy space to sit and rest or chat or picnic, not a windswept monstrosity of a space. That’s what destroyed the “towers in a park” idea. The architects also still love modernism too much. I really wish we could get some real 19th century or art deco style buildings now. If the architects want something creative to do, figure out how to evolve those styles for the 21st century rather than just sticking on postmodern knobs and plain horizontal slabs at the bottom and top. And get rid of those corner trellises and fake balconies already.

  13. I don’t think the solution is to get rid of FAR– the solution is to enforce minimums, not maximums. For example, there should be rules like “all new development within 1/4 mi of a rail station needs to have a minimum FAR of 10 and all new development within 1/4 mi of a BRT station needs a minimum FAR of 5”. This would focus dense development around the areas that have the greatest access to transit, which should be a top priority of any zoning regime.

    1. Now, that’s an interesting idea. I’m not sure minimum FARs work any better as rules than maximum FARs — but maybe they do. I haven’t worked out what the ugly consequences would be yet. :-)

      I’ve ended up being generally opposed to “rules-based zoning”, except when it comes to stuff like pollution, fire safety, and other really basic stuff.

      But then, I live in a single-family house next to an apartment building rented to college students, and I don’t consider it a problem. :-) So I *would* think that a lot of zoning was inappropriate.

  14. By comparison…. what is the quality that makes Paris such an inviting city?

    Was FAR a consideration either explicitly or implicity?

    I suspect that the reason Paris is so enchanting is it results from the sight line approach where as you walk and glimpse long wide vista/streets aimed at a significant land mark can you say Avenue des Champs-Élysées?

    Then the high speed underground keeps the masses of cars off the streets. Then there are neighborhoods each with their own character.

    1. Yeah, probably all about transit planning. A couple thousand years of history has virtually nothing to do with it. Put in a streetcar and your well on the way to being the cultural center or the universe.

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