by ROBERT CRUICKSHANK

Seattle DPD

Rising rents across Seattle have generated a robust discussion about the best way to solve the affordability problem. The last thing we would want to do is make that problem worse by scaling back the opportunity to build new housing. But a new proposal being considered by the Seattle City Council would do exactly that. Incredibly, the City Council is going to consider reducing height limits in certain neighborhoods. This change could cause rents to rise further and help put Seattle on the path to becoming as unaffordable as San Francisco.

The Department of Planning and Development is billing this as a “code correction.” It’s difficult to understand what exactly needs to be corrected. Councilmember Sally Clark initiated this review with an October 2013 letter claiming that “I never envisioned developers would be able to achieve five stories in LR3 zones. I think five stories is too big a change in height and scale for the LR3 zone.”

Councilmember Clark may not have intended that to happen. But it is happening, and the results are good for Seattle. With each additional floor of height, more people are able to rent a unit in a building, helping more developments pencil out and get built. Every unit built in a new development helps protect those tenants currently renting an older building, reducing the competition for existing housing stock. More units also help ease upward pressure on rent by providing more options and more vacancies.

Seattle’s rents have been rising fast. Rent for a 2 bedroom apartment rose by 63% between 2009 and 2013, from $1165 to $1906. That’s expensive. But that’s a much slower rate of increase than in San Francisco, where rent for a 2 bedroom apartment rose by 123% over that same four year span, from $1767 to $3945. Nearly $2000 for a 2 bedroom apartment in Seattle is expensive. But nearly $4000 for a 2 bedroom apartment in San Francisco is ridiculous.

Low height limits were adopted in San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s in reaction against proposals to develop high rises downtown and in several neighborhoods. The restrictions have preserved the look and feel of many neighborhoods, but at a terrible economic and human cost. San Francisco is no longer affordable for most people, unless they make incomes well above $100,000 a year.

Those low height limits, combined with other development restrictions, have made it nearly impossible to build new units in the city. This is a major factor causing rents to skyrocket, particularly in combination with regional development limits and rising demand. The dot-com boom of the late 1990s priced out most low-income and working class residents of the city, as landlords took advantage of low vacancy rates to raise rents to attract tech workers making higher incomes. This process has accelerated dramatically in recent years, pricing out most of San Francisco’s middle class as well.

San Francisco’s too-low height limits are not only a problem for private development, and private development alone won’t solve our affordable housing needs. In fact, low height limits are a major obstacle to the construction of new affordable housing by the public and non-profit sectors, particularly in the city’s less dense, low-rise neighborhoods:

The Excelsior/Outer Mission, particularly along Mission Street, appears to have a huge number of family housing sites. But the zoning restricts height and/or density to such an extent that relatively few family projects—and, to my knowledge, none with the type of deep affordability Coleman seek—can feasibly be built.

A nonprofit cannot afford to build a 20-unit affordable family project. The costs just don’t pencil out. In fact, in reviewing all of the family housing projects newly built by nonprofits in San Francisco since 2000, the smallest appears to be a 29-unit Tenderloin building. There was a 38-unit project in the Outer Mission, but most are fifty units and much more.

That’s why we will not see many new affordable family units in the Excelsior/Outer Mission unless the zoning is changed to increase height limits, and the number of allowable units in each project.

Reducing height limits in Seattle will only make it more difficult for affordable housing to be built. At a time when consensus is building in San Francisco that the low height limits need to be reexamined to help address the rent crisis.

In fact, an affordable housing development is one of the projects being cited as a reason for this code change. Capitol Hill Seattle reports that a microhousing project at 17th and Olive has fueled the most backlash from some neighborhood residents. A photo of the development from the DPD website is above. Located just one block off of Madison, a key transit corridor for Capitol Hill, the 17th and Olive building is a reasonable development that provides affordable housing in a walkable neighborhood close to frequent bus service. It’s a good example of what we should be promoting, not penalizing.

This proposed code change would be a big step backward for Seattle, and should be rejected by the City Council. But that won’t happen without a mobilization of those who care about affordable housing. DPD will hold a community meeting about the proposed change next Tuesday, January 14, at 6:30 pm at Lowell Elementary. We know that opponents of affordable housing will turn out. Let’s hope those who support affordability and who want to stop Seattle from experiencing the same unaffordable rents as San Francisco show up too.

Robert Cruickshank is the founder of the California High Speed Rail Blog, and until recently was a a Senior Communications Advisor to Mayor McGinn.

86 Replies to “Seattle Considers Lowering Height Limits”

    1. Yes, this will become a very prickly mess. I wonder if we won’t get different zones for different neighbourhoods.

    2. The question is, are Councilmembers changing their behavior now to make themselves more electable in these future districts? Most people assume that the districts were intended to give single-family anti-density interests more control over the city. That leads directly to “lower height limits” being an attractive campaign position. Of course, we don’t know what the actual impacts of districts will be, or whether the Council’s policies will really change that much. But the presumption itself can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, if Councilmembers become more anti-density in the belief that it will help them in the future.

    3. I was (and am) a strong opponent of district elections. Regardless, I find it hard to believe that this particular issue has anything to do with districts. For one, Sally Clark has filed to run in one of the at-large districts. For another, Clark appears to be proposing this change on behalf of Capitol Hill, even though she is not even eligible to run in District 3.

      A much more likely explanation is that Clark honestly means what she says, namely that she thinks “five stories is too big a change in height and scale for the LR3 zone”. I think it’s unfortunate that she holds this belief, and I can’t imagine voting for someone who believes that we need more restrictions on construction in Capitol Hill. But it is what it is.

      1. I feel like I’m in a “why do you hate affordability” conversation. To those who can’t believe I don’t support 5 stories in the LR3 — the code already sets four stories max for the LR3. Changing that would be a much bigger deal than the small fixes to be discussed Tuesday. I’m not advocating “more restrictions.” In 2010 we gave a whole pack of incentives to go higher than the allowed base of 40 feet in return for good design and we’re now seeing how some of those combine to in not-so-great design beyond the zone standards. This has occurred in a small number of projects. By and large, I think the rules we set are working to produce good projects.

      2. Sally,

        Thank you for engaging on this thread. I do appreciate it, and I think it speaks highly of you that you’re willing to engage with an audience that is not particularly sympathetic.

        Having said that, I do think your argument is a bit self-contradictory. Currently, there are circumstances under which it’s possible to build five story buildings in LR3 zones. You want to change the code so that those buildings can no longer be built. I don’t see how you can say that such a change isn’t adding a new restriction. As an analogy, if you close a tax “loophole”, you’re raising taxes.

        That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing to do. But it feels disingenuous to claim that your proposal wouldn’t restrict building. If your proposal wouldn’t have any impact on the buildings that are allowed, you wouldn’t bother proposing it!

      3. I agree with Sally. More height doesn’t always translate to more units or affordability. Just look at the amount of townhouses being built in lowrise multifamily zones, when building apartments/condos could produce many more units on the same land.

        The only good thing about apodments is that they will allow increased zoning to be implemented as the single family home neighbors sell out. Then the apodments can be knocked down (before the fall apart) and real midrise units can be built.

  1. Thanks for posting, but let’s be clear this isn’t about lowering heights in the lowrise areas. The height limit was increased to 40 feet when my committee passed the overhaul of the Multi-Family Code a few years ago. I do not want to revisit that. The 40 foot base height allows much better design, living spaces and overall productivity in the zone. We also built in allowances to exceed 40 feet in return for going above and beyond (more creative roof lines, smarter parking designs, etc.). However, some of the height bonuses we built in to encourage better design and productivity have been combined in ways that exceed what was envisioned with when we looked at the bonuses being used individually. We should retain the good combinations. This isn’t about lowering heights. We’ve seen a lot of good buildings using the new code — and a few not so great.

    1. Several of your statements don’t seem to match. You say that they’re building higher with bonuses than you’d want them to, yet you say this “isn’t about lowering heights.” If you aren’t intending to scale back these height bonuses, exactly what is the intent of this Code Correction?

    2. Councilmember Clark,

      With all due respect, as a voter in Seattle, I simply do not agree with your identification of a “problem.” From the sounds of it, you are making a judgment about aesthetics. If it isn’t, please correct me.

      Also, 40 feet? Really? Is this the best we can do?

    3. Reading Councilmember Clark’s letter to DPD (see DPD link) offers insight into the code revision:

      “I’d like to look further into making sure we don’t leave open other methods of achieving five stories.”

      That’s it. Councilmember Clark is siding with the squeaky wheel Capital Hill residents that have said “we don’t want these higher density buildings in our neighborhood.”

      As a Capitol Hill resident and Seattle voter, I would LOVE to see height limits raised from 40 feet to much higher. I’d love to see an influx of new development that brings a lot more accessible housing prices that would actually help maintain the diversity of demographics that Capital Hill has. That diversity of demographics is fast eroding in the current city council’s vision of “neighborhood character” where only the wealthy can afford rent.

      1. I think the idea of different visions of “neighborhood character” are really important. The most important part of neighborhood character aren’t physical, they’re social. Not buildings, but people. Sometimes the buildings and other infrastructure facilitate or hinder people’s interactions and movement, but ultimately people are what matters.

        If all the housing in an attractive neighborhood becomes unaffordable, but the buildings stay the same, has the neighborhood’s character really been preserved when it turns from a mixed-income area to one that only the rich can afford? I’d say its character has changed in a much deeper way than if some new buildings went up but economic diversity remained.

    4. With all due respect, Councilmember Clark, this is an awful idea. We need more housing and taller buildings, not what you are proposing. Seattle is growing and restrictive zoning like you are proposing only makes housing more expensive.

      As a Mt. Baker voter in your district, I will certainly remember this come election time.

    5. Thanks for the comment! The overall height limit would remain, but an outcome of the code change would be to effectively reduce heights – and concern over height does appear to be driving this proposal.

      I’m wary of the definitions being used here to define “good” and “bad” buildings. Those are very subjective concepts, aren’t they? Developers are getting creative, certainly. Isn’t that something we want to encourage if it means more units and more affordability is the result?

      1. If ‘bad’ is defined by the photo you’ve included with the post, I would tend to agree. That thing is ugly. On the other hand, it would be ugly at four stories too.

    6. Councilmember Clark, thank you for participating in the discussion. The primary issue is not heights per se but the number of units. Seattle has a low vacancy rate and rents have been climbing steeply, to the point that middle-class people are finding it difficult to afford a place or wondering how they’ll live in the future. We need significantly more housing now to bring it back to equilibrium, especially in areas close to major transit routes and urban villages for those who don’t want cars.

      If you don’t want more than three-story buildings in lowrise areas, then we the citizens need to know how the Council intends to increase the supply of housing to meet demand. My Capitol Hill apartment was $1275 in early 2008, it was $1175 when I got it in 2009 after the crash. It’s now $1390. Across the street a new building will open this year with rents around $1800 minimum, and new tenants in my building are now quoted $1500 minimum. Part of this is the influx of affluent tech workers, but most of it is because the vacancy rate is going down in spite of the new buildings last year.

      Lowrises are a particularly sensitive threshold, as explained in this article on townhouses by GW. (Cited recently by Al Diamond.) Height limits and setbacks affect small buildings more severely than large buildings, because their fixed overhead (hallways, parking, entrances) takes a larger percentage of space. Just five feet can make an entire room or unit non-viable, so the net loss is more than that five feet. In a 100-unit building it’s only 1% of the units lost, but in a 5-unit building it’s a 20% loss.

      1. While that 2009 link (frequently cited by Ross) is a fantastic illustration of the dangers of ill-conceived design regulations, my understanding is that the worst of the Frankentownhouse regulations were remover circa 2011.

        But you’re absolutely wrong that bad zoning regs affect only townhouses or the LR1-sized apartment buildings.

        Councilmember Clark’s half-baked statement above led me to take another close look at the zoning rules for apartment buildings in LR3everyone here needs to read both the introductory page, and then scan down to the bottom-right corner of the second page chart. All that is awful and ugly about our LR3 construction can be found therein:

        1) The primary crime comes in the form of pathetic FAR and mandatory street-side setbacks. FAR may be held as low as 1.5 even in “growth areas”, forcing the purchase of gigantic lots just to build moderately-sized buildings.

        2) The “higher far” — a ho-hum 2.0 — can only be accessed by “meeting additional standards” regarding “amenities” like on-site parking, ensuring that only crappier garage-oriented designs get this FAR bonus.

        3) Gunning to build that 5th story, while surrounding it with useless dead space, is actually encouraged by the setback requirements on all sides, which pushes the available FAR toward the center of the (oversized) lot.

        The above problems combine to ensure that charming blocks of skinny, adjacent, independently-constructed (and thus inherently visually varied) 3-to-5-story apartment buildings are illegal even in our “growth zones”. The type of residential neighborhoods that upwardly-mobile Seattleites ooh-and-ahh over when they visit San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Montreal, and Washington, D.C. — the kind they vacation all over Europe just to get a taste of living among — those kinds of neighborhoods are explicitly verboten in Seattle under this code.

        But it gets worse:

        4) One of the bonus-enabling “features” that Clark is impugning rewards building a “partially below-grade floor”. She’s right that this is a problem, but she’s wrong about why. Though half-stories and garden apartments may work among Brooklyn’s skinny brownstones (thanks to the permeability and immediacy inherent in their skinniness), the big-lot/square-building Seattle form makes it more obvious for developers to hide their half floors behind sunken gardens and ugly fences. This rule, thusly, removes the building even further from the street, rendering it faceless and hostile to pedestrians in a way that an ingratiated no-setback first floor could never be.

        5) “General design standards require that visual interest be provided by articulating the façade, varying building materials, or using architectural features.” In other words: “Since we have dictated bad building shapes, tons of wasted sidewalk space, and a hostile remove from passersby, please attempt to mask our mistakes by festooning your building with a bunch of ridiculous bullshit! No subtle detailing of the kind historically used to add interest at street level, please! Just a bunch of arbitrary, function-less shapes and colors that are neither fooling nor pleasing anyone!”

        The stupidity of this “general design standard”, combined with the mediocrity arising from every specific requirement and/or incentive, is precisely why everyone complains about these new buildings as invasive, hideous crap. Yet Councilmember Clark appears to be addressing the negative reactions of constituents by doubling down on the precise approach that makes new Seattle buildings so loathsome to their neighbors!

        If she is serious about growing “growth areas” in ways that please the eye, the spirit, and the neighbors, she needs to take the entire code back to the drawing board, and she needs to push hard to make it legal to build attractive low-rise apartment neighborhoods again!

      2. d.p is rambling, but right.

        FAR is what matters in the end.

        2.0 FAR + those setbacks + open space = These 50 foot … things.
        Just like the old LR code dictated townhouses that resembled overgrown houses, the new code dictates anorexic mushroom apartments in LR3.

        We need to keep the 2.0 FAR in order to add units and fix Seattle’s housing shortage long-term. That’s what the code was intending to encourage. We can easily keep 2.0 FAR at 40 feet so long as the rest of the code is friendly to the idea. Reducing height limits without allowing better use of the land will only produce shorter monstrosities, as well as reducing housing growth.

        LR3 zones are uncommon (the vast majority of Seattle’s lowrise zoning is 1&2) and are usually sandwiched between LR2 zones and higher midrise areas. It is NEVER used by DPD as a buffer between SF5000 zoning and denser areas. It’s usually used as a buffer between LR2 and various NC midrise zones, or as lower density islands within midrise zones. LR3 is used where we want medium-small apartment buildings. Trying to put them in the footprint of the SFH-friendly 1.0 and 1.3 FAR buildings allowed in LR1/ 2 is madness.

        Please, Councilmember Clark. Go around the city. Find historical examples of 2.0 FAR apartment buildings that are deemed to be attractive and appropriate. Rewrite LR3 to allow those buildings to be built today.

      3. A good set of rules would do the following:
        (1) Eliminate ALL “Floor Area Ratio maximums”. These are NEVER EVER EVER a good idea. What the hell are they for anyway? Making sure there aren’t enough apartments? Making apartments too expensive? Making houses cramped and small inside? Creating useless dead space outdoors? If anything, there should be a FAR *minimum* of 2.0, to avoid wasting land!
        (2) Relax overall height limits, leaving only “anti-shadowing” provisions.
        (3) Remove setbacks beyond what is needed practically for sidewalks, drainage, utility lines, firebreaks, and the like. In certain neighborhoods perhaps you can mandate a setback to match the neighbors if you care about uniformity.
        (4) Remove “open space” requirements entirely. These are STUPID. Lawns are wasteland, mostly. Public parks? Fine. “Open space” on private land? Unused 99% of the time by almost all landowners. There will always be enough buildings with garden space for the rare and exceptional landowner who cares.
        (5) Require reasonably sized interior rooms, which is what actually affects quality of life, and which is NOT required by your current code as far as I can tell! The current code encourages low ceilings and miniscule apartments! Why?!?

        These are all things which could be done immediately. Other things could be done later.

    7. “However, some of the height bonuses we built in to encourage better design and productivity have been combined in ways that exceed what was envisioned with when we looked at the bonuses being used individually.” Coming from an elected official that is either entirely disingenuous or naive beyond belief. If the City Council does not operate on the understanding that developers will utilize every bonus in the Code to increase height, they should all resign their job for incompetence. If for no other reason than that that 62-story building that contains the Department of Planning and Development was in fact designed initially as a challenge to build the tallest building that could be built under the then-existing Code. If they wanted a Code in which you can’t combine bonuses to increase height, they can say that, but when they don’t, they have to assume that every bonus will be included in every building and the height maximized.

      1. Are you sure you aren’t thinking of the Columbia Center? That was the one that caused them to rethink a lot of the bonuses (at least Downtown).

      2. Nope. It was the Gateway Center, which became the Key Tower and is now the Seattle Municipal Tower.

    8. Im confused. So you and the council built some incentives in the code, to encourage developers to design how you wanted them to. Then some builders did all of the stuff you wanted, reaped the max incentives, which resulted in a building that strikes you as too big.
      Am I unclear on this? Cause this doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. If I give someone a list of tasks and rewards for completing each one, I shouldn’t be mad when they do em all and I have to pay out. I should be happy cause they did everything I wanted and my plan is working perfectly.

  2. Not to be Captain Buzzkill, but like the Roman Empire, we’re superpower on a long, slow decline. The collapse of the middle class is one of the last nails in the coffin. Tinkering with height limits is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. There may be a temporary benefit, but it will be short-lived. BTW, what has all the new apartment construction in Ballard over the last decade done for that community’s residential affordability? Look up the word paradoxical. The more units, the more affordable. The more affordable, the less units. The less units, the less affordable.

    1. So what is your pessimistic forecast meant to motivate us to do, Sam? Throw up our hands and decide not to do anything because it doesn’t matter? If that’s the case, why are you commenting here, as that wouldn’t matter either?

      1. My solution is in my comment. Only a strong US economy with a healthy middle class can solve the housing affordability problem. Tinkering with height limits has only marginal, temporary results.

      2. Without more housing capacity we’d have the same affordability problem in Seattle if we all made 10x our current salaries. Every new unit built allows one more household to live in our city, no matter the economic forces involved.

    2. Sam, you are right about decline, but lettign more people live where the jobs are, and letting them live affordable is a small step we can actually do ourselves.

  3. Thanks for posting this Robert. It seems like for every very slow, overly careful step forward Seattle takes we take almost a whole step back. I bet next they’ll require fees for developing LR3 housing like they’ve done with the SLU properties.

  4. If transit grew to match the density and height growth, there would be much more support for it. The “if you build it, they will come” mantra for transit following density has not been true for at least ten years in most areas and it was only a matter of time before people got fed up with it. How are they supposed to see density as a benefit when there have been no benefits?

    1. ? There are a vast array of benefits to density. Walkable areas, interesting stores, lower cost per capita utilities, decreased travel distances, less material and energy use, etc. Sure, transit is a huge benefit to density, and you can’t have good transit without density (and to some extent vice-versa), but it isn’t the only benefit.

      1. I wouldn’t say it’s any more or less livable. My neighborhood, for example, is great. It’s always been walkable, well before the present density trend started. The amount and type of businesses hasn’t changed a whole lot in the past 10 years, and to their benefit, density is growing, which means business is booming.

        But for residents (other than people who don’t like change and never will), the main resistance to density is the fact that transit hasn’t grown with density. Traffic has gotten worse and transit hasn’t gotten better (if not worse). As Matt the Engineer pointed out “you can’t have good transit without density”. People in my neighborhood have been promised this for quite some time. So when does the “good transit” come? If it’s not coming soon, is it smart to continue growth until it does happen?

      2. “Is it smart to continue growth until it does happen?”

        The growth is happening, whether you (or anyone else) likes it or not.

        The question is just whether that growth expresses itself in terms of more population, rising housing prices, or a combination of both.

        Unless we want Seattle to be just another playground for the rich, we need to add people. People will help generate the political support for transit, if it’s slow in happening.

    2. This is a completely fair question. Places that are very dense generally succeed with a good and rapid public transport system. As sucky as SF Muni is, it is still more comprehensive than Metro/Sound Transit (although Metro service is far nicer). From 17th and Olive, the Capitol Hill Link stop is kind of far, so you are relying on buses, which are getting increasingly more crowded and less pleasant up to the hill (also, you pretty much need to be going downtown all the time). There is also an impending reduction in Metro service. Seattle has so far shown a willingness to allow density in places (West Seattle, South Lake Union, Ballard, U District) way before any “rapid” transit service even shows up. (Sorry, but I don’t count Rapid Ride as rapid transit – at least to W Seattle, it appears to be slightly slower than the old 54). So these areas are going to wait a minimum of 20 more years before any sort of real rapid transit happens, but they are getting the density now.
      I support the density, but to make it work, and to convince people to not drive everywhere, we need to step up the transit side of this equation.

    1. You need to adjust what you mean by “cheap”. Cities are efficiency machines and incomes greatly increase with density. Even teachers in Manhattan make 4x the national average.

      1. Cheap as in cheap to live compared to average salaries. Where people are not paying an astronomical percentage of their salary in rent or mortgage payments. Every single place that is looked to as a model of dense development is also insanely expensive. Why would Seattle be any different?

      2. Models of dense development usually point to recent projects, as they’re most relevant ones. Recent projects happen where there is robust job and population growth, and therefore increasing rents.

        The center of rust belt cities (Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo) is a good example of dense but affordable housing.

        If you want to lower rents, campaign for job destruction. Otherwise is to either moderate rent growth (through new development) or allow it to skyrocket (by constraining supply).

      3. I’m afraid you might be confusing cause and effect here. Might it instead be that only the insanely popular, and thus insanely expensive, places have already become so dense?

      4. Increases in building potential increase affordability, and decreases in potential units decrease affordability. The cities you’re thinking of have either restricted their building potential (San Francisco, Paris, parts of NYC) or have run out of room to build (parts of Manhattan, Hong Kong). Seattle has a long, long way to go until we come close to the second option.

    2. Joaquin, there’s little incentive to make something dense when it’s “cheap”. I will say that a lot of super-dense cities in Asia are actually more affordable than you might think (Tokyo, Singapore and Seoul pop to mind), because of the easy permitting of dense buildings. On the other hand, the most expensive places (London, New York, etc.) are those with the most difficult building processes.

      1. It doesn’t get any denser than Tokyo and Hong Kong, and they have the costliest price of living in the world. When we call for density developers build luxury condos, not affordable housing.

      2. Also, it is completely misleading to say that every new unit built allows for another family to live there. The developers, who love these calls for density, build luxury condos which are snatched up by wealthy families or institutional investors. By no means is it one person/family per unit. In downtown LA, where I currently live, developers are “densifying” like crazy. Who lives in these condos? No one! They are snatched up by foreign investors and remain empty of actual people. I’m not saying that increasing the density in urban cores doesn’t improve the street life and vitality of cities, but by no means does it make it more affordable.

      3. Do you have any data on unoccupied units for a non-world-city like Seattle? Or is there any evidence that this is a significant phenomenon here?

        In any case, I agree that we forfeit most of the benefits of new construction if there are no occupants for non-economic reasons. But it’s not clear to me what the costs are, and we still get the economic benefits of construction jobs, and capital injected back in to the system for more occupied development.

      4. Joaquin, those comparative cost of living spreads that get a lot of publicity are for people setting up an expatriate worker in digs that are equivalent to what they might expect in their home country. This seriously skews the results. For example, to live in Tokyo is not all that terribly expensive if one were to live by Japanese standards (modest home, Japanese diet, no car, public Japanese schools for children), but to live by U.S. standards (big house, Western diet, car, tuition at English-speaking private schools for children) is very expensive.

      5. The idea that there are rich investors buying Seattle condos and leaving them empty, leaving thousands upon thousands of dollars on the table each month per unit, doesn’t pass the smell test.

      6. It happens in world-class cities like New York and London, and in some neighborhoods it’s a bit of an epidemic. But it’s a story of extreme wealth allowing profligate waste of resources more than a land use case study.

      7. I’m not sure about NYC but in London it’s an incentive issue. You don’t have to pay council tax (effectively property taxes) if your home sits vacant for 6 months. In contrast, WA has no income tax so property taxes are fairly high and there’s no reprieve for letting your condo sit empty. So an empty home is a monthly loss here, whereas in London it can be a fairly safe long-term investment. Also, it’s important to note the empty homes they worry about in London are mostly unlivable – people aren’t building luxury condos and leaving them empty.

      8. Wealthy foreigners also have other reasons to own empty condos. It may be a nominal vacation house or status symbol. It may be a way to support a US visa. It may give a better return than high inflation, taxation, or instability at home. It may be incredibly cheap compared to prices at home. It may be a way to launder money. It may be insurance that you have a place in the US if you need it someday.

        In Vancouver, the way all those highrises got built was that Hong Kongers wanted land in a Western country as insurance in case things went bad after the Chinese takeover of 1997. They chose Vancouver for a variety of historical reasons (Commonwealth nation, Pacific Rim, multicultural friendliness, previous Cantonese immigrants, low Canadian dollar,…). Since they had the land, they built, in their accustomed Hong Kong style. The Vancouver government was open to density at the time, although not actively pushing it. It became an unexpected success, because of the pent-up demand for walkable transit-rich neighborhoods which North American governments tend to be blind to.

        Another thing about Vancouver. There’s speculation that some of the money going into the sky-high prices and empty condos is drug money laundered by the BC Bud pot gangs (who doubtless are involved in other drugs too).

      9. I don’t think there are many owned-but-empty condos in Seattle. But if there are they’d probably be downtown, in those million-dollar and almost million-dollar units on Pike and Pine Streets, and maybe around 2201 Westlake. The law of prestige still applies, even if Seattle has fewer prestigious areas than the world-class cities some people want it to aspire to.

      10. . For example, to live in Tokyo is not all that terribly expensive if one were to live by Japanese standards (modest home, Japanese diet, no car, public Japanese schools for children), but to live by U.S. standards (big house, Western diet, car, tuition at English-speaking private schools for children) is very expensive.

        This is still expensive, but not like much of New York or London are expensive. You can get a small condo (400 sqft) in an older building on the outskirts of central Tokyo for like $400K. Try that in the other two places.

      11. There’s speculation that some of the money going into the sky-high prices and empty condos is drug money laundered by the BC Bud pot gangs (who doubtless are involved in other drugs too).

        For some reason, real estate is a big place to put laundered money into. I have no idea how this is supposed to work (a brief case with three-quarters of a million or something?), but it’s very common, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be in BC either.

      12. As the owner of a $400,000 (new construction) 1BR apartment in Brooklyn, about a 25 minute subway ride from the Financial District, I think you may be either drawing a weirdly restrictive lines of what constitutes “the outskirts of central New York”, or just be making stuff up.

    3. “Super-dense city”

      What is super-dense? Manhattan and San Francisco are the densest in the US, but even they are roomy compared to Hong Kong, Tokyo or Taipei. Chicago is lower than all these, but even that is unrealistically high for Seattle. But we can take inspiration from Chicago’s North Side, which has a mile-wide rectangle of 3-10 story lowrise/midrise, with some highrises on the lake. That kind of rectangle produces a great walkable, transit-rich neighborhood. In Seattle, within the constraint of existing single-family blocks, we can only aspire to smaller urban villages and linear development (e.g., Aurora, 45th, 125th/130th).

      “Every single place that is looked to as a model of dense development is also insanely expensive.”

      That’s because housing demand is even greater than that “dense development”. There are three solutions: get even denser, expand the city, or establish dense satellite cities. All expansions must be walkable and transit-rich. The density level can be like Chicago North Side, or like Boston or Paris (row houses or similar-sized buildings), but not like bungalows or ranch houses or garden apartments. Canada is doing it better than the US: Vancouver’s dense West End, highrise nodes around Skytrain stations, Toronto like Brooklyn, Calgary more transit-friendly than comparable American cities.

      ‘there’s little incentive to make something dense when it’s “cheap”.’

      This is true in a sense, but it doesn’t negate all hope. Seattle was cheap in the 1980s when its population hit postwar bottom (400K), so not much was being built. That’s good if you have good urban villages already (Chicago, Boston, U-District, western Capitol Hill), but not if most of the buildings are one-story bungalows or strip malls and the buses are half-hourly or hourly. The key word is equlibrium. Housing supply must rise to match demand, and the proportion of cheap vs luxury housing must match the market’s profile. Then prices will remain the same or increase only modestly.

      Since we talked about San Francisco recently, why is San Francisco so expensive? (1) Housing supply not keeping up with population growth and job growth. (2) An influx of affluent workers. (3) A rigid density barrier at the city limits: no density allowed in the Penninsula, North Bay, or East Bay, with minor exceptions. (4) Cable cars, Rodin, Haight-Ashbury, Castro Street, traditional architecture, bridge views, “I left my hear in San Francisco”. (5) Frequent transit cuts off at the city limits, and BART doesn’t reach all suburbs.

      Of these, only #3 is intrinsically place-bound. A small number of people will pay top dollar to have a bridge view and live near left hearts. #1, #4, and #5 could be addressed with walkable, transit-rich, human-scaled neighborhoods in the suburbs. That would indirectly help #2, by giving both the affluent workers and everybody else more choice — and some of them would be satisfied with the outer (less prestigious) neighborhoods if they were convenient to live in.

  5. I think it’s reasonable to revisit some zoning; part of the objection people seem to have is lack of clarity and predictability. The terminology doesn’t help either, many people who haven’t looked into zoning laws would (and do) assume the “3” in LR3 means three stories. Yes, we know that’s not the case, but I think most people don’t realize that. I’m not for lowering height limits per se, but I do think our land use code could be streamlined and clarified.

    On a related point, I think our zoning and height limits in the urban villages is too restrictive. When the city was revising zoning in the Triangle neighborhood of West Seattle, I wrote to the powers that be urging height limits of 120 to 220 feet. We ended up with 80. I’d be open to the idea of “downzoning” some areas, such as LR3, in exchange for more height and density in the urban villages.

    1. So, change all references to “LR3” to “LR5” to make the code and the results more legible, but leave the details as are? That makes sense for purposes of correction. I still hope we can increase some height limits in some low-rise areas, especially since there has been resistance to building much higher around train stations.

  6. Honorable Councilmember Clark,

    Thank you for commenting here on STB.

    Could you enumerate the bad combinations of incentives you want to see removed, and comment on whether you would be willing to raise the base allowed floor number for each unintended incentive you remove, so that we can still get five-story buildings in these low-rise zones and remove the incentive combinations that weren’t intended?

    Do you have other proposals in the works to offset the likely unit-reduction of your proposals by allowing at least as many units (or, better yet, at least twice as many units) to be built elsewhere in zones you feel more appropriate for taller buildings (but certainly inside the city limits), and where code currently makes building those additional units impossible?

    Do you have a larger vision for how to increase workforce and low-income housing in Seattle?

    1. This voter in your district would also like to know your answers to Brent’s questions. Thanks for commenting, Councilmember Clark.

    2. OK, this is quite a good string (except for the small number of haters). Thanks for the discussion of density and livability. And I’m glad someone brought in FAR. The new code tries to give flexibility to architects to use FAR and incentives to get better designs and living spaces. Getting to 40 feet was key to that.

      Brent – to your questions, I’m concerned about how some projects have combined extra height allowances for partial-below grade floors + height allowances for butterfly or shed roofs or clerestories + the new total building height measurement approach. There may be other issues that people highlight at the Tuesday meeting. Regarding the number of stories, the code currently sets four as the number of stories for the L zones. I think we’re seeing more capacity added (or in the case of North Rainier currently proposed) and its in places where transit (for now) is pretty good. I do have ideas for a better comprehensive approach to housing. Lucky me that I get to chair the Council’s housing committee this year.

      1. Thanks for your responses!

        I will point out that renters are not well-represented at evening meetings, as we have a greater tendency to be doing shift work. You may have noticed that renters are indeed a target of hating-on at some of these meetings. Even on this blog, someone accused aPodment developers of trying to bring more low-income housing into Seattle. The nerve! When you are at the meeting Tuesday, ask yourself: Is this a hater free zone?

      2. @Brent: My take on the thread where a poster “accused” aPodment developers of trying to bring more low-income housing into Seattle is that many of us violently agreeing that aPodments were, at the very least, not a Sisley-esque scourge upon the city. I (not wanting to take an aggressive stance) characterized aPodments as being basically like other kinds of apartment developments in being primarily motivated by extracting maximum rent from a given lot under the code; the poster replied that aPodment developers had at least publicly stated a motivation to provide affordable housing at market prices, making them actually more virtuous than other developers.

        In Seattle opposition to affordable housing is usually couched in coded language.

      3. Wait, sorry, I had that wrong; the poster that made that comment was the same one comparing ‘pods to Sisley in the first place. Carry on. It’s certainly the case that we need affordable housing at sizes much larger than ‘pods, and we aren’t going to get it without more larger units being built.

  7. Simply put: FARs are as important than height limits. The whole theory of Corbusier was to put people in high-rises — with large open spaces between the buildings. There is this attitude that all density is good, but let’s be frank about its consequences: Having dense development simply gives everyone a lovely view of their neighbors wall or bedroom 15 feet away. “Wedding cake” setbacks would be a good way to address height limits.

    Perhaps we need to approach this problem in a top-down approach: Figure out how much residential density is appropriate for each neighborhood around the city then work backwards to set individual FARs and height limits to achieve it.

    1. FARs and height limits don’t achieve density. They inhibit it. The problem with setting these in stone is that population will continue to grow. WIthout further council action FARs and height limits will not. Our land use laws are, unfortunately, built with the current generation in mind, not the seventh generation.

      1. Which is why FARs, height limits, and minimum wages should be indexed values!

        time based LR3 height limit = (current year – 1964) x F, where F is a growth factor (I propose F = 1)

      2. I think median rent would be a better index than elapsed time, for purposes of height limits. The more rents get raised, the more competition is allowed back into the market to stabilize rent.

      3. The problem with median rent is it’s a terrible measure of affordability. If an old 50-unit building with $1000 rent is joined by a 51-unit building with $2000 rent on its block, the median rent of the block just doubled, but no one’s rent went up.

      4. Martin, your comment’s out of order.

        But to your point, how about rent/income? If all of the renters in those buildings make, say, 3x their rent then the rent/income doesn’t change. Vacancy rate could also be useful.

      5. Median rent may not be the best index, even with a much larger, less absurdist sample set, but it makes more sense than average rent (which gets tilted by a handful of mega-expensive penthouses), and mode rent (which would give a totally non-useful result). Are there better indices that are used somewhere? Does anyone know of examples of height, FAR, or other construction limits being allowed to grow gradually over time automatically?

    2. The building in the photo would be. Much more appealing if Seattle had wedding cake setbacks. You regulate building envelopes as boxes (as Seattle does here), you get boxes for buildings.

      1. The building would be more aesthetically appealing if it were taller and had ground-floor retail, if you ask me.

      2. They used to make buildings more like wedding cake using SEPA mitigation – they wound up looking kind of weird. If you look at the buildings along Greenwood Ave that were built in the early 90s you’ll see some examples. I think a well designed box can still work pretty well.

      3. If wedding cake buildings are ugly in Seattle, it’s the fault of the architectural community here. There are plenty of examples of good wedding cake architecture in Paris, Chicago and East Coast cities. Maybe we need another local university to introduce a new perspective.

    3. Corbusier-inspired construction made horrible, unlivable hellscapes which have mostly been demolished.

      “Towers in parks” turn out to be *awful*, as they give you the worst aspects of towers and the worst aspects of unused open space. Turns out it’s better to have 4-10 story buildings cheek-and-jowl with each other — apart from the big pedestrian-friendly streets between them — with occasional public plazas, and a short walk or transit ride to big parks.

      I’m not quite sure how New York and London got this roughly right, but they did.

  8. Seattle and Chicago may be the two best examples of dense, but relatively affordable, prosperous cities. Seattle would be a heck a a lot more expensive, but for the permitting of 20k+ units over the past three years. relative to incomes, Seattle is a very affordable ” big city”, especially given its job growth of late, which is among the highest in the county. That said, we have a socialist on the council, so time to pander to the bleeding hearts and deal with unintended consequences later.

    1. relative to incomes, Seattle is a very affordable ” big city”

      Ah, but there’s the rub, not everyone working in Seattle has the same income. Our median is a shade over 50k, but there’s a lot of people making 100k competing for lower-priced apartments against people making 25k. We have a lot of high-income earners that skew the average upward, but still have a significant underclass of working-poor who earn too much to get public housing assistance, but not enough to compete with thrifty white-collar professionals looking for good deals.

      I had to move out of the City this year because rents have been rising faster than my wages. I still work inside city limits, of course.

      1. High central city rents are the norm worldwide. That’s a fact from Hong King to Paris to London to New York. The US obsession with suburbanization delayed it or dampened the effect here, but those days are quickly ending. The question should really not be how prevent it, but how to develop denser areas outside of the city along with an effective and productive transit system to provide choice to workers.

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