Last week, there were a couple of actions that added to the number of potential housing units in central Seattle. One was more straightforward than the other.

First, the Council voted 8-0 to upzone large parts of the International District ($) by up to 30 feet. Utilizing these height bonuses will require construction of, or a contribution to, affordable housing.

The upzone that includes parts of Chinatown, Japantown and Little Saigon will increase maximum heights from 240 to 270 feet on some bocks, 150 to 170 feet on other blocks and 85 to 95 feet on still others.

The historic heart of Chinatown, situated west of Interstate 5 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, will be excluded from the changes.
It’s a bummer that the section adjacent to Washington’s greatest transit hub can’t take much more density, but at least it’s fairly dense already.
The same day, the Council approved legislation designed to discourage towers ($) built close together. This was the climax of a year-long campaign by residents of a new-ish condo tower with a view of tall buildings to prevent new tall buildings that would block their view of tall buildings. (For a less glib and more sympathetic reading of the case for tower spacing, you can read Anton Babadjanov’s very long article.) My initial reaction to an apparently density-limiting measure was the same as Heidi Groover’s:

However, we should expect more of legislation sponsored by Rob Johnson and Sally Bagshaw.

On blocks in the zone where towers already exist, the legislation will allow the city’s construction-department director to increase maximum heights from 550 to 640 feet while reducing the maximum size of floor plates.

Developers who volunteer to build taller and thinner will be allowed to construct buildings with slightly more total floor area.

This is a bonus for spacing, not a penalty for not-spacing. And the payoff is more height — and more crucially, more total floor area. This is, in fact, exactly what Anton Babadjanov proposed in his very long article. Floor area is the currency of housing units, so Bagshaw and Johnson have turned what could have turned into the usual development-stifling complaint-fest into a positive force for new housing construction.

14 Replies to “Two Upzones”

    1. I can’t speak to Seattle, but there certainly precedent in King County. The key legal issue is the city needs to provide a benefit to the property owner, so it would need to correspond with an upzone. The HALA policy, however, allows for a payment in kind, so that’s not the direction Seattle is currently going with the upzones.

      For example, in the Highlands development in Issaquah, the development agreement required that 30% of the new housing units had to be affordable, split 10%-10%-10% into middle, moderate, and low income, which I think corresponded to 120%, 80%, and 40% of MHI.

      1. My fear is that the payment in kind will not lead to a boom in middle and low income housing in Seattle– or if it is, in areas where there is lousy transit.

  1. Any idea how “tall and skinny” affects floor plans? Will buildings that take advantage of the height bonus wind up with a higher proportion of 1brs and studios? If so, will the higher price/sq.ft. warranted by the better views counteract the demand-relief effect of extra units?

  2. They make view preservation a priority in Van BC. They space the towers out so everyone above the fourth or so floor sees something natural. Seattle’s core is more like New York or Shanghai, but that doesn’t mean the periphery of the CBD can’t be more resident-friendly.

    1. Thanks, Richard. You took the FCC-forbidden words about quality of Seattle density right out of my mouth. Gives NIMBY-ism a lot of ammunition. But will say it again ’til I get [OT]’d into [ORBIT]:

      Huge amount of every facet of our home-building and transportation problems owes to disastrous mis-division of wealth last few decades. Including in Sweden. In a normal economy, this amount of new money and a brand-new industry should energize its new home.

      Not crush the life out of it with its own deliberately stagnant tonnage. Station, Kakao, and Empire cafe’s. Safari restaurant and Ark Lodge Theater in Columbia City. Will fight for rapid transferless transit between them. But know there are other survivors under the rubble.

      So also buying extra biscuits for the brave dogs still digging other unknown survivors out from under the rubble.


    2. People on all sides of the argument should stop using words like “Manhattanization” or comparing Seattle to cities like Shanghai. Hyperbole doesn’t help the conversation. Seattle is a LONG way away from anything even close to resembling Manhattan.

      1. Downtown is obviously nowhere nearly as large as Shanghai’s or New York’s cores. But what there is of it has the buildings squeezed together in the same way. And if you had read the comment before entering sneer mode, you would have understood that.

  3. There are major structural considerations about height decisions. If an area is more prone to liquefaction, a taller height limit is needed for a new building to be build in a cost-effective way because the pilings must be deeper. We tend to look at building heights as an aesthetics or views consideration and as an adjacent property impact question or as a densification question, but for those that are actively seeking to develop, the structural question is a big one!

    Having said this, I think that floor are ratio (FAR) or building square foot divided by lot square foot should be the primary regulatory density mechanism rather than mere height and setbacks. Height and setback requirements are important, but developers should have enough wiggle room to design buildings that maximize floor area ratios first.

    In practical example, is it better to have a 10–story building cover an entire lot, or a 20-story building cover 60 percent of a lot? If the objective is to increase density, then having the latter is better. If a developer must put pilings deep into the ground, the latter also reduces their building square footage costs. The latter would also provide better views from nearby structures as well.

    Trying to prevent so many buildings being crammed up against each other is a good start, but I think that until we change the fundamental conversation to focus on FARs first, we won’t make as much progress on the densification challenges.

  4. Doesn’t take Wiki or other Dishonest Sad LEAKERS! to point out everything I don’t know but say anyway.

    But would really like to be right on this point from here on. How much of present Disruptive (Elon, Jeff, and their element think that’s a good quality) real estate economy is true supply and demand?

    And how much is sheer 2008-style speculation, with nothing behind it but greed and wishing possessed by people who professionally who should know better. But also know by experience they won’t go to jail like poorer banking-law violators?

    Bracing pathetically to hear first time a bank reinstates “Woo Hoo!” as its lending policy. Meantime, somebody please set me straight.


  5. This is great. I only wish they had allowed 800ft instead. IMO taller is beautiful in so many ways.


    “Sickla Udde”. Sickle Point, Stockholm. South Lake Union in its Dreams.


    Flexity Swift. Looks like same size, capacity, and performance of LINK Kinki-Sharyo.

    But hey, anybody driving LINK right now: Street running South Lake Union, former Benson Line Waterfront, ramp to I-90, 60 mph to Renton….Whadda ya mean nobody’s picked it for a week?


    In the 1330’s, one legend has it that a local influential resident named Bo Jonsson Grip chased a presumed romantic rival into a church in Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s Old City, and beat or stabbed (or both) him to death on the altar.

    “Uh oh…Jeff! Elon!…I was just having coffee with her at Kakao! Put down those axes! The Biosphere is NOT a Church! I’ve got an attorney!”

    In Swedish….. “Gentrifierling.” Can anybody think of a better definition of the term?


  7. This is unfortunately promoting “towers in a park”, which is a known-bad development style. Filling the block is better.

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