New Rules Would Further Limit Density


Contrary to the recommendations of Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Afforability and Livability Agenda committee, city council member Mike O’Brien has proposed additional design review requirements for buildings with eight or more units in low-rise 2 areas of the city–neighborhoods where small, two-to-three-story low-rise multifamily buildings (essentially, a range of uses from townhouse to apartment building, depending on the designation) are allowed.

Mayor Ed Murray wrote a letter to O’Brien opposing the proposed new requirements, which O’Brien said are worth considering because of concerns about excessive density in those areas (remember, we’re talking about eight-unit apartment buildings here) from neighborhood residents.

In the letter, Murray notes that HALA never even discussed imposing the often costly, time-consuming design review process on small buildings, and noted that such a requirement “could run counter to some of the emerging recommendations for ways to reduce the cost of new housing.

“I could be more supportive of this revised legislation if this unexpected addition of a new design review threshold in the LR2 zone were removed, and considered instead as a part of more comprehensive design review improvements.”

Low-rise areas make up just 10 percent of the city’s land area, and are located either in urban centers or urban villages, or along major arterials, according to a 2014 analysis by the Department of Planning and Development.


The council will also consider several new rules that would reduce allowed density in low-rise zones–up to 25 percent less density in low-rise 1 zones, and up to 20 percent less in low-rise 3, according to DPD’s analysis. Among the proposed changes, many of which do echo HALA’s recommendations:

An amendment that would count unenclosed external areas, like outside staircases, toward a development’s total density. This would reduce the number of units that could be built in a new building. The recommendation, council staffer Sara Belz told the committee, came after the city started “observing larger, bulkier buildings in low-rise zones than were anticipated in 2010,” when the council adopted a package of amendments to multifamily zoning regulations.

A proposal that would limit the size of clerestories (my new favorite word), which are small (around four-foot) additions on top of apartment buildings that allow developers to include skylight or loft space above the building’s maximum allowable height. The logic there, O’Brien explained, is that many developers are using clerestories as, essentially, a “height bonus” across the entire roofs of buildings, which, he said, “doesn’t serve the purpose of a clerestory.”

Continuing to allow a four-foot height bonus for partially buried buildings (to allow daylight basement apartments on the downhill side of slopes), while simultaneously requiring wedding-cake-style stepbacks at the tops of low-rise buildings where they face the street, so that a four-story building, for example, would only look from the street like a three-story building. This one didn’t raise many questions, except from Tom Rasmussen, who wondered why the elevation drawing featured a sharp-looking ’50s Ford Fairlane. (A mini Don Draper also shows up in the left bottom corner).

Vanishing rowhouses.
Vanishing rowhouses.

New limits on the number of townhomes on a single lot. The proposed rules would increase the threshold for “rounding up” the minimum ratio of building to land in multifamily areas. Instead of four townhomes on a 5,000-square-foot lot, for example, the new rules would only allow three. The rules would also limit density in low-rise 1, already the least dense low-rise zone, to prohibit four-packs of rowhouses. “We get a lot of complaints about lot subdivisions” into rowhouses, committee member Tim Burgess said.

Requiring a certain amount of space between rowhouse developments and adjoining lots, a proposal that came out of “concerns about adjacency impacts associated with not requiring a side setback for some rowhouse projects.” The proposal would lead to 3-and-a-half-foot gap between rowhouses on adjacent lots. Although Licata said a photo in the council presentation of a rowhouse butting up next to a single-family house next door “is why people are angry about these type of structures in their neighborhoods,” Rasmussen noted that leaving unusable gaps between rowhouses leads to the accumulation of litter and creates spaces that are “not easy to landscape” and “dark.”

The committee also talked about the Seattle 2035 plan, a complete overhaul of the comprehensive plan that guides all city development. During the brief discussion, Rasmussen suggested that he was opposed to 2035 Plan Alternative 4, which would encourage transit-oriented development around both light rail stations and frequent bus transit hubs like RapidRide stops, because “Metro [which funds buses] doesn’t have a stable funding source.” Metro relies heavily on sales tax; Sound Transit, which builds light rail, has a dedicated levy for that purpose.

Rasmussen also told his colleagues that although there were good arguments for building a light-rail station at N 130th St.(something the neighborhood wants, and which O’Brien has supported), transit-oriented development in the Lake City neighborhood could displace the people who live in “modest” homes along that street, pushing those residents into the suburbs.

Two things about that: One, the houses Rasmussen was referring to are mostly owner-occupied, and so owners would benefit if house values went up dramatically because they were suddenly on desirable, developable land. And two, it’s more than a little ironic to hear Rasmussen worrying about low-income residents while simultaneously pushing a proposal for neighborhood conservation districts that would make it harder to build new apartments and so increase the cost of housing.

6 thoughts on “New Rules Would Further Limit Density”

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  2. The whole point of a rowhouse is that it’s right next to the property line so that if the owner of the next property also decides to put in a rowhouse they’ll be touching each other, and if enough people on the block build them you have…wait for it…a row of houses! If you’re going to require a three-foot gap at the property line, you shouldn’t call it a rowhouse anymore.

  3. Thanks for the excellent reporting on this.

    I’m constantly amazed that the Council seems to be actively working to make sure housing prices go up instead of down in this city. Every change above works against density, sometimes strongly.

    And the idea about requiring gaps between rowhouses! “Although Licata said a photo in the council presentation of a rowhouse butting up next to a single-family house next door ‘is why people are angry about these type of structures in their neighborhoods,’…” This goes to the core of what I dislike about the neighborhood fight against all things that aren’t old craftsman homes. The fact that the council is so worried about neighbors being angry because people are building on their own property in a multifamily zoned neighborhood. This process has been filled with people in houses built right up to their lot line that are incensed that their neighbor is building up to their lot line.

    All of this *I don’t like what you’re doing on your own property* nonsense is having far, far more sway in the Council than the fact that people can’t afford homes because developers aren’t allowed to build enough of them.

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