New multifamily construction in Sammamish. Courtesy Sky Sammamish.

The Puget Sound region’s extreme growth hasn’t gone over well with some residents. (To put it mildly.) That backlash has caused some frustrating policy snags, like the lawsuit that has placed Seattle’s MHA upzones on hold.

But construction in Seattle continued on plenty of multifamily projects. That hasn’t always been the case in the rest of King County. In recent years, several suburban cities, including Issaquah, Sammamish, and Federal Way, halted construction on new projects by enacting construction moratoria.

Under the Growth Management Act, a city can pause work on any or all kinds of new projects by enacting a construction moratorium. The power is broad, but not unlimited. A city has to cite specific detrimental impacts caused by new construction, and use the period of the moratorium to enact code changes that address the problem. A moratorium only lasts six months at a time, but can be renewed indefinitely. Issaquah, for example, renewed its moratorium three times before letting it expire earlier this year.

You might think that those laws are the product of NIMBYism. In some cases, that’s true. But the reality is more complicated.

Federal Way blocks dense, multifamily housing

Federal Way’s development moratorium was adopted near the end of 2016 as a response to a citywide backlash against multifamily housing construction in the center of the city, and a proposed redevelopment of part of the old Weyerhaeuser campus.

Federal Way’s moratorium came after a series of ugly public meetings. In the meetings, some residents blamed new, multifamily development in the center of the city for a series of shootings.

“This moratorium came after we had a series of shootings and killings in the city, and it seemed at the time that people tended to equate multifamily housing with that. That really bothered me a lot,” said Federal Way City Councilmember Dini Duclos at the time.

The moratorium was ostensibly enacted to allow the school district to catch up with growth, but a defensive qualifier in the moratorium ordinance stated that it was “not a reference to any recent crimes or criminal activity.”

Predictably, the code changes enacted by the city council in 2017 are a NIMBY wishlist. According to Federal Way Community Development Director Brian Davis, the code changes included:

  • “Added language to reduce building massing”
  • Increased parking requirements to one spot per bedroom, instead of 1.7 spots per unit, in neighborhoods outside the center city
  • Limited building heights and increased setbacks near single family zones

According to Davis, “the intentions behind the adopted code amendments were to …improve the safety of residents, and to increase compatibility between new stacked non-single residential development and existing neighborhoods.”

Davis says that, since the moratorium ended in May 2017, only one major multifamily project, a 200 unit affordable senior apartment complex, has applied for a permit.

Sammamish mixes new density with bigger roads

In Sammamish, the picture is more complicated. The city isn’t exactly opposed to density, but it’s not taking proactive steps in that direction.

According to Sammamish Mayor Christine Malchow, residents are excited about the new amenities in the new, relatively dense town center. Some longtime residents have also expressed a desire for condos and apartments, so that they can downsize as they get older.

“If you were a long time resident, a lot of those people are leaving,” says Malchow. “That’s in part due to the housing mix. If you wanted to downsize from a four bedroom home to a condo—those aren’t here in Sammamish. The town center is needed from that perspective, to give affordability and a better housing mix.”

However, the town is still betting on driving and single family housing. The city’s politics are dominated by a fight over traffic and road capacity. The city council enacted the moratorium in order to recalculate the formula the city’s department of transportation uses to measure traffic congestion.

The new rules, which the city council enacted by popular demand, will require new construction to come online with expanded road capacity. In the past, new projects could instead build transit, pedestrian, or bicycle infrastructure.

Issaquah pauses to mandate an urban village

The moratorium that Issaquah enacted in 2016 was much more limited than those in Federal Way or Sammamish. In fact, the goal behind the moratorium was to encourage the development of mixed-use, transit-oriented, walkable neighborhoods in the center of the city. Nor was it a total freeze on building.

“It didn’t stop everything, even in the areas that were covered by the moratorium,” says Issaquah Mayor Mary Lou Pauly. “It was targeted at a certain scale of building product.”

Downtown Issaquah from the air. Courtesy City of Issaquah.

The 2012 Central Issaquah Plan is designed to contain sprawl through transit-oriented development, and limit car trips by developing the city as a job center. According to Pauly, the moratorium had to be put into place in order to meet those goals.

“We did not hear back from the community or businesses that we needed to revise what we had in the plan,” says Pauly. “We heard from the community and developers that we weren’t getting built product that matched the vision. We wanted to center development around I-90 and future light rail, with a connection to transit, the right aesthetic, a mix of jobs. We didn’t get that in 11 out of 12 projects that first came in.”

So the council developed the moratorium to tighten design and permitting standards. According to Pauly, who worked as a civil engineer for the Issaquah Development Commission before running for office, the code was loose to allow for creative design. But developers didn’t necessarily understand that.

“I had one developer come in and say, ‘You didn’t require me to have affordable units or main floor retail, so I didn’t. If you want that stuff, you have to require it.’”

Oddly enough, Issaquah decided to pause density in the short term, in order to make it the rule in the future. The last thing the city wants, according to Pauly, is to go the route of Federal Way.

“If cities are taking actions that shake the development community’s confidence, we can have unintended consequences,” Pauly says. “We can create a chill, or be seen as a partner who’s hard to work with. We don’t want that.”

10 Replies to “Suburban construction freezes can kill density—or create it”

  1. Meanwhile, single family sprawl continues unabated. I flew out East from Seatac last week and saw new suburban culs-de-sac roads and foundations out past Issaquah, Preston, North Bend… Maybe we should ask what affordable housing requirements they have for those.

    1. How much of that development you flew over was outside the urban growth boundary, either the regional boundary or the boundaries around those ex-urban towns? I suspect the answer may be Not Much.

      1. You’d be correct. North Bend is putting in 150 houses (I’m pretty sure that’s one of the deveopments you saw), but it is all on land within the UGA. Also, oddly enough, North Bend’s UGA includes properties that are not within North Bend’s city limits. In fact they are so aggressively expanding they reserve the right to rezone unincorporated properties while they are still unincorporated (page 31/36).

  2. What’s that anti-transit majority and in Sammamish going to do when, like suburbs up ’til not, nobody can move precisely because there are too many cars? On their own streets and roads, and everywhere else they have to go?

    People from overseas have a point: Compared to the rest of the world, what we think is density, they think is open range. Sooner or later, we’ll congest to a complete stop- as is happening more frequently.

    But how much longer is transit going to be outlawed, outright or just de facto? Is there anything anybody can do to accelerate the cure? I still want to figure out some way to reverse the process. “Desprawlification.”

    Wonder if 2008 Part Two is going to leave acres of empty foreclosed developments that somebody can buy and rebuild transit-friendly. Meantime, I still wish that one of the LINK’s can feature at least a couple of updated “Streetcar Suburbs?

    Transit Oriented Development with grooved rail in the pavement, and catenary overhead, with trains compatible with or part of LINK itself trailing into the main line?
    About this caliber? Power package of Karlsruhe cars an handle street and over-the-road.

    My idea is still to somehow get ahead of sprawl, rather than have to work around it after the whole world gets cul-de-sacked (sounds like Genghis Kahn, doesn’t it?) What’s first move, possible now or not?


  3. Up ’til NOW. Before people realize how few Hatfields, the McCoy’s, and Frank and Jesse James and their mother Zerelda lived in multifamily housing.

    Legend has it that Mrs. Jones chased the Pinkersons (early version of Securitas) off her property after they blew off her arm when they threw a bomb into her house. Both sides of that one lived in single family homes, Allen Pinkerton in a really nice one.

    Or had a railcar with blue and white cars run down their street. Everybody knows nobody ever does drive-by’s with cars! Let alone payrolls to steal at gunpoint after a horse-chase, or cause a noise problem by blowing up the safe.

    Will never be able to shake the memory of a car-full of obviously non single-family thugs call somebody over to their car and just about drown him with battery powered squirt guns.

    With single-family homes far as the eye could see! Something that just goes SPLOOOOOSH! like a Don Martin cartoon in Mad Magazine, the law will have to order that they carry a smart phone with suitable Ka-BLANG effects.

    At least a little waterproof flag that says “Bang!” that comes out the barrel. Anyhow, like real guns, it will make their kids less violent than a month in the basement playing armed zombie video games.


  4. I’m really disappointed with the actions of Federal Way. They need to take a lesson from Issaquah.

  5. I tend to be skeptical of Issaquah’s pause on incremental infill while permanently auto-exclusive subdivisions on the slopes of the “Issaquah Alps” continue. Infill land use change is usually incremental! But the last article I read on Issaquah’s pause made it sound like the city was really obsessed with a particular, and particularly expensive, building form: vertical mixed-use with structured parking.

    If Issaquah is taking the time to figure out how to make incremental development a positive thing all over town, by wise planning and infrastructure choices, that’s one thing. If it’s just holding up development until land values are so great that vertical mixed-use buildings with structured parking pencil out that might not be so good. It’s easy to overstate the benefit of vertical use-mixture over the kind of tight horizontal use-mixture that’s common in old suburbs (even in old parts of Issaquah!), and easy to overstate how much ground-floor space is saved by structured parking relative to surface parking.

    1. The vertical mixed use regulations have to do with requiring both residential & commercial development in the urban center of Central Issaquah, around the likely ST station location. The VMU requirement is about encouraging active street life in the core. It’s about encourage greater density – Old Towne is great and very walkable, but the density is well below what is intended in Gilman and Pickering.

      The structured parking requirement applies to all of Central Issaquah, not just the urban core, and is intended to discourage large surface lots. It still works with horizontal mixed use – for example, row houses with garages would meet the structured parking requirement, as long as the garage was built into the structure and wasn’t free standing. “structure” doesn’t necessarily mean concrete parking structures.

      As for “incremental” change, I disagree. While the neighborhood may take a decade or two to change, individual lots change abruptly. Most of the valley floor was developed in the 80s.. Parcels that re-developed now will not be developed again for 30-50 years. The moratorium was about ensuring that the development going on right now, in the current boom, is delivering the quality of development we want in the city for most of this century.

      You are right that VMU is expensive, but that’s kinda the point. If VMU doesn’t pencil out, we’d prefer the existing structure to remain and to wait until VMU doesn’t pencil out, rather that develop a mediocre structure that we are stuck with for 40 years. The VMU development we want is already being built in Kirkland, Redmond, Bellevue, and even Bothell. If the Issaquah rental market isn’t there yet, it will be soon.

      Issaquah will meet our 2035 regional growth target next year, so we aren’t in a rush to grow right now. The moratorium is about building a dense, vibrant city center over the next 10~15 years, not about growing rapidly in the next 2 years. What matters is Central Issaquah in 2040, not Central Issaquah in 2020.

      1. “Issaquah will meet our 2035 regional growth target next year, so we aren’t in a rush to grow right now.”

        That’s not a great argument if the targets are too low. Seattle neighborhoods have been filling up their target in a few years and saying they shouldn’t have to upzone further because they’ve already filled their target. But people don’t just stop coming because estimated targets are filled.

      2. Old Towne is great and walkable, with a great density of storefronts on its main streets contributing to this. A lot of buildings with structured parking fail to deliver storefront density because parking infrastructure takes up space on the ground level… and often do add curb cuts across important sidewalks! In big, expensive buildings that will be around 40 years or longer! If you want to talk about mediocre structures we’re stuck with for 40 years, well, look at downtown Bellevue: all built around structured parking to cram in as many cars as possible, and it’ll take much longer than 40 years to unravel.

        I hope Issaquah is using its “pause” to make sure it’s developing requirements to ensure a good pedestrian environment in places where redevelopment will happen. A lot of that has to do with limiting and managing car impacts. Keeping driveway entrances off the most important pedestrian streets, for example, for which you have to know what those streets are… and then figure out how you are going to accommodate all those cars on the other ones. For now, no matter how abruptly the appearance of an individual lot changes, people’s habits only shift so much relative to the status quo. If there’s not some proven walkability the new residents will come with their cars and use them — if a big mixed-use building goes up surrounded by parking lots and warehouses it doesn’t matter much that the building itself is mixed-use, there just isn’t much to walk to. Its businesses will demand customer parking and the developers will be too scared to build with less. The parking will be underground but it will feed congestion and disrupt sidewalks all the same.

        You don’t want development to happen only when and where land values are so high that developers have no choice but to cram everything, including huge numbers of cars, into single lots. You want development to happen mostly when and where there is a critical mass for pedestrian access so human growth can occur without car growth. Otherwise you’ll build the car-choked density of downtown Bellevue, of Northgate, of South Lake Union, so marred by all the cars that nobody wants to walk there. If you don’t want large surface lots you probably don’t want large underground lots, either.

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