Earlier this week, the Seattle City Council finally adopted a set of restrictive new rules making it harder and more expensive for property owners to remove trees in their private lawns by more than tripling the number of regulated trees in the city.
The rules, which govern removal of any tree larger than six inches in diameter, go further than any previous ordinance, requiring land owners to replace any tree larger than 12 inches in diameter or pay a “payment in lieu” of replacement that ranges from $2,833 to tens of thousands of dollars. They are, in a word, Byzantine—and do nothing to address tree loss in the city’s own parks and open spaces, which are losing a greater proportion of their trees than privately owned property.
Which made it all the more remarkable when, at Tuesday’s meeting, “tree protection” advocates—in many cases, people who use “save the trees” as a proxy for anti-housing, anti-renter sentiments—argued that the council should scrap the whole policy in favor of a brand-new proposal floated by Councilemember Alex Pedersen that would vastly restrict development on nearly all the city’s low-density residential land. During public comment, speaker after speaker lined up to argue that the restrictive new tree ordinance would empower developers to “cover 85 percent of detached residential lots with structures,” as one commenter put it—a misinterpretation, encouraged by Pedersen, of regulations that do no such thing.
Pedersen did nothing to dispel his supporters’ misinterpretation of the law on Tuesday. Instead, he argued that the council “should vote [the legislation] down and start over”—presumably with his own proposal, rejected overwhelmingly earlier this month, that would have made it difficult to build anything other than single-family houses in areas where low-density multifamily housing, such as duplexes, was recently legalized.
The misconception stems from the fact that the new bill limits the amount of “developable” land on any residential lot to a maximum of 85 percent, once all tree protection requirements are factored in. In a maximal development scenario, in which tree protection areas only make up 15 percent of a lot, it would still be impossible to turn the rest of the lot into buildings. That’s because the city also has many other ordinances in place requiring walkways, landscaping, parking, green plantings, and other mandatory amenities. Altogether, these mandatory amenities restrict housing development to between 30 and 45 percent of any residential lot.
Pedersen did nothing to dispel his supporters’ inaccurate interpretation of the law on Tuesday. Instead, he argued that the council “should vote [the legislation] down and start over”—presumably with his own proposal, rejected overwhelmingly earlier this month, that would have made it difficult to build anything other than single-family houses in areas where low-density multifamily housing, such as duplexes, was recently legalized.
Quoting at length from the Seattle Times editorial board’s error-riddled argument against the legislation, which also repeated the inaccurate claim that “developers would be able to build on 85% of the lot in low-rise and other zones,” Pedersen said, “The process produced a pro-developer tree removal measure instead of one that actually preserves and grows trees. If this bill passes, there will be less shade and higher street level temperatures. That’s from the Seattle Times editorial board and I concur with those comments.”
The tree ordinance passed 6-1, with Pedersen voting “no”; Councilmembers Debora Juarez and Kshama Sawant were absent.
City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who’s leaving next year after a single term, had hoped to stuff a new tree-protection ordinance with amendments that would prohibit new development in many historically exclusive single-family areas.
Instead, Pedersen’s colleagues rejected nearly every one of his proposed amendments, leaving Pedersen—whose Zoom background includes a yard sign promoting the Seattle advocacy group TREEPAC—to vote against a bill that would have represented his primary legacy on the council.
The bill that passed out of committee, without Pedersen’s amendments, still creates a Byzantine maze of new regulations aimed at preventing tree removal on private property.
But Pedersen’s proposals would have gone much further—dramatically increasing the cost to remove trees, restricting where new trees could be planted, and shrinking the area where a property owner could build new housing through a series of overlapping protections that would require a PhD. in math to decipher. Pedersen said he based his amendments on a letter from the Urban Forestry Commission.
In all, Pedersen proposed 17 amendments that would have imposed new restrictions on development or made it more expensive to build. Every one of his substantive amendments failed—a limp denouement to the Northeast Seattle council member’s years-long efforts to prevent new housing in the guise of tree protection.
Some, like an amendment to change the way the maximum developable area on a piece of property is calculated, would have made it harder to build anything other than a single-family house in neighborhoods where, thanks to a groundbreaking density bill the state legislature passed this year, it’s now possible to build up to four units per property. Others, like an amendment to increase the amount property owners must pay to remove trees, were designed to maximize the financial pain of removing trees for development. A third group of amendments would have created new reporting requirements and enlarged the bureaucracy charged with enforcing the new tree laws.
All of Pedersen’s amendments failed—a limp denouement to the Northeast Seattle council member’s years-long efforts to prevent new housing in the guise of tree protection.
One of the primary new rules in the underlying tree protection bill is a change allowing development on up to 85 percent of residential lots, with exceptions that would make the development area smaller or larger in some cases. Pedersen wanted to change that baseline, in zones where multifamily housing is allowed, to a variable rate based on floor-area ratio—a measure of the total square footage inside a building, including buildings with multiple floors—which could have the impact of reducing the size of new housing developments or making them infeasible to build.
“This almost feels like a proxy for anti-density more than it is about protecting trees,” land use chair Dan Strauss, who sponsored the underlying tree legislation, said before the vote.
Councilmember Sara Nelson—a frequent Pedersen ally—also voted against several Pedersen amendments, citing the need to encourage new housing in lower-density zones. Mid-rise areas, where small apartment buildings and townhouses are allowed, are “where some of the most affordable pathways to homeownership, through townhomes, is happening,” Nelson said, “and so that’s a pretty important zone to just single out [for new restrictions].”
The committee also voted down a Pedersen amendment that would change the “tree protection area,” where construction is prohibited, from a consistent area defined by a tree’s “drip line” to a complicated, variable formula based on a tree’s diameter, age, root spread, soil health, tree health, and species. At its upper limit, Pedersen’s proposal could have prohibited construction within hundreds of feet of a tree in every direction.
Pedersen also attempted, unsuccessfully, to change the standard for replacing trees removed for development to an “inch for inch” requirement, meaning that if a person removed a 24-inch tree, for example, they would have to plant six four-inch trees somewhere else.
The term echoes anti-development demands for “one-for-one replacement” of dilapidated housing as well as the concept of “concurrency”—the idea that cities should not allow new development until they expand the capacity of its streets, transit systems, sewers, and other amenities to accommodate new residents. The biggest difference between “inch for inch” and “one for one,” of course, is that trees grow.
The legislation still places the burden of tree preservation and replacement on individual property owners, despite the fact that almost half the tree loss in Seattle has occurred in city-owned parks and rights-of-way.
Pedersen also failed to pass an amendment that would require property owners to plant new trees only in areas of the city with low tree canopies. The idea sounds equitable—historically, the city failed to plant trees in neighborhoods where more people of color live, and has an obligation to right that wrong—but, in practice, it would do little to improve tree canopy in underserved areas. And it would create logistical and ethical questions—requiring homeowners building a backyard apartment in North Seattle, for example, to physically take trees to South Seattle and plant them in front of other people’s homes.
A final Pedersen amendment, which would increase the fee to remove midsize trees from $2,833 (in the underlying legislation) to a variable rate ranging from $4,000 to $7,425, didn’t get a vote. (Making the case, Pedersen claimed developers would choose to take lower profits rather than passing the cost of tree replacement fees on to renters or homebuyers.) Instead, the council adopted an amendment from Strauss increasing the fee to remove some protected tree species while keeping the basic fee at $2,833.
The full council will vote on the entire tree protection later this month.
As we’ve noted, the legislation still places the burden of tree preservation and replacement on individual property owners, despite the fact that almost half the tree loss in Seattle has occurred in city-owned parks and rights-of-way. Forcing private property owners to plant or preserve trees on their lawns won’t save Seattle’s tree canopy, but it will prevent some development and drive up the cost of housing as developers pass along their increased costs. The good news is that the council majority seems to have prevented Pedersen, an anti-density crusader to the end, from using tree protections to place a stranglehold on new housing in every corner of the city.
House Bill 1110, which allows new multifamily housing near transit stops, will impact residential neighborhoods in cities of all sizes across Washington state.
But some of the biggest changes will be in Seattle. The legislation, which passed last week, ties density to public transit infrastructure, allowing significantly more density—up to six units per lot—in areas near frequent transit stops.
The bill requires larger cities, including Seattle, to allow four residential units on every lot, and to allow six units on lots within a quarter-mile walking distance of bus rapid transit, light rail, and streetcar stops.
That means that in significant segments of Queen Anne, Madrona, Wallingford, and Mount Baker, where property owners are currently limited to building two accessory dwelling units—like a basement apartment and a backyard cottage—courtyard apartments, six-unit apartment buildings, and townhouses will now be legal.
Seattle’s lobbyists quietly worked to support bills like HB 1110 throughout the session, while trying to make sure they wouldn’t interfere with the city’s own density laws, such as Mandatory Housing Affordability; MHA requires developers to provide affordable housing or contribute to an affordable housing fee when building in the cities’ designated “urban villages.”
“It’s still Seattle and there’s still a process that we still have to go through, but I do think by having these frameworks in place now, it’s going to be able to help accelerate some of the development that we need, and have needed for a long time.”—Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34)
“I think it’s going to have a huge impact on Seattle,” Senator Joe Nguyen (D-34), whose district includes Pioneer Square, West Seattle, and Burien, said.
“Obviously, I don’t think it will be perfect, because it’s still Seattle and there’s still a process that we still have to go through, but I do think by having these frameworks in place now, it’s going to be able to help accelerate some of the development that we need, and have needed for a long time,” he said.
The legislature also made some significant changes to how the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) affects individual housing projects. Currently, as part of the official SEPA review process, anyone can appeal a proposed housing project over its potential impacts, such as loss of views, increased noise, or traffic. These delays can add months or years to project timelines, even if they’re ultimately dismissed. A group called Save Madison Valley, for example, appealed a proposed mixed housing and retail development featuring a PCC in both 2018 and 2020, delaying the project.
Senate Bill 5412, sponsored by Senator Jesse Salomon (D-32, Shoreline), will limit those appeals. Under the adopted bill, if a proposed housing project complies with a city’s existing comprehensive plan, it will be categorically exempt from SEPA review, eliminating the lengthy appeal process that’s now common for developments that are controversial for reasons that have nothing to do with local environmental law.
The final version of the bill includes a provision that allows projects in Seattle to take advantage of it before other cities in Washington.
“A lot of the costs that are associated with delay and with litigation get passed on in the high cost of housing,” Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents downtown, Queen Anne, and Magnolia, said. “Ultimately as consumers we pay for all the lawyers that interject into these processes along the way.”
“We can legalize increased density, but it’s not going to come very quickly if you keep in place a lot of the tactics and methods that people use to slow it down or to whittle the ambition of the projects down,” he said.
“The debate [now] really is about how we can be thinking about new nodes of development, or new corridors where denser development will happen. How are we thinking about integrating things like corner stores, or other basic or essential services, into those neighborhoods?”—Futurewise Executive Director Alex Brennan
Lewis says intense environmental review of dense housing in the middle of cities is counterproductive and notes that dense housing provides an environmental benefit in its own right. “In the aggregate, it has a colossal environmental benefit. If we are unable to build a significant amount of new housing units in the City of Seattle, in an efficient amount of time, we’re just going to have compounding challenges relating to climate.”
A spokesman for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections said it was too early to say how the new batch of housing legislation would impact SDCI’s work.
The collective impact of changes to statewide zoning will impact Seattle’s comprehensive plan update, due in 2024, as city planners grapple with how to accommodate at least 112,000 new units of housing—Seattle’s share of King County’s growth target—over the next two decades. The zoning provisions in HB 1110 automatically take effect six months after that update to the comprehensive plan.
Alex Brennan, the director of Futurewise, a statewide smart growth advocacy group, says allowing four housing units per lot increases Seattle’s options for future growth. “We don’t have to fight for that baseline anymore,” he said. “So, the debate really is about how we can be thinking about new nodes of development, or new corridors where denser development will happen. How are we thinking about integrating things like corner stores, or other basic or essential services, into those neighborhoods?”
At the beginning of this year’s legislative session, house housing committee chair Strom Peterson (D-21, Edmonds) predicted that 2023 would be the “year of housing.” But legislation to allow more housing statewide ended up being far more modest than many housing proponents hoped.
The state senate approved a bill on Tuesday that will require most cities in the state to allow at least two units on all residential lots, effectively prohibiting most cities from banning duplexes in single-family areas. Despite significant pushback from local officials wary of losing control over land use, HB 1110, which passed the House on March 6, has now passed both chambers on wide, bipartisan margins, and is moving toward Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.
“It’s a huge and fundamental change in land use policy in Washington State to create a statewide floor of zoning based on population size of the city,” Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia), the bill’s sponsor, told PubliCola. “And there has historically been a significant amount of opposition to making that change.”
However, the senate dramatically scaled back the bill. As introduced, the legislation would have required nearly all cities in the state, regardless of population, to allow four units per lot, and six units per lot close to frequent public transit. Lawmakers reduced the bill’s scope at nearly every stage of the legislative process; the final Senate bill only required four units per lot in cities with more than 75,000 people, like Seattle, Bellevue, or Auburn.
“We did do away with exclusionary [single-family-only] zoning in the state of Washington, and I’m very proud of that. I think there’s some of us that recognize this was a huge first step, and we would like more steps to follow.”—Sen. Yasmin Trudeau (D-27, Tacoma)
Currently, Seattle allows a total of three units per lot in its neighborhood residential areas—a single-family house plus one detached and one attached accessory unit—so allowing freestanding buildings with four, and potentially six, units could eventually increase density substantially in formerly exclusive single-family areas.
The legislation would allow up to six units in areas where fourplexes are legal as long as two units are affordable housing. In smaller cities, the bill would allow less density on a sliding scale, based on the size of the city; cities under 25,000, like Woodinville and Medina, will only have to allow two units per lot, regardless of proximity to transit or whether the housing is affordable.
The changes were substantive enough that the Association of Washington Cities, the influential lobbying group representing a broad swath of local city governments, had dropped its opposition to the bill by the time it got to the senate floor. For most of this session, the group took a neutral position in the hopes of scaling back the density requirements in the bill.
“I would have liked a stronger bill, in an ideal world,” Sen. Yasmin Trudeau (D-27, Tacoma), who shepherded the bill on the senate side, told PubliCola. “We did do away with exclusionary [single-family-only] zoning in the state of Washington, and I’m very proud of that,” she said. Trudeau noted that this likely won’t be the last time the legislature tries to implement statewide zoning reform. “I think there’s some of us that recognize this was a huge first step, and we would like more steps to follow.”
Only two senate Democrats voted against HB 1110—Bob Hasegawa (D-11,, Seattle), and Christine Rolfes (D-23, Bainbridge Island)—along with 12 Republicans. Some Democrats like Lisa Wellman (D-41, Mercer Island) faced intense pressure to oppose the bill from local elected officials in places like Beaux Arts Village, population 315. “We have a problem, [and] we are addressing it in a very thoughtful way that allows for a lot of individual adjustments on the part of each and every community, regardless of their size,” Wellman said on the senate floor before the vote.
HB 1110 was a centerpiece in the housing supply agenda this year, but now that legislators have slimmed it down, another bill—HB 1337—might have a bigger impact on Washington’s smaller cities. While HB 1110 allows duplexes, 1337 allows property owners to build at least two accessory dwelling units (ADUs), allowing three units per lot, much as Seattle does now. And it applies to unincorporated areas, like White Center and Silverdale, which HB 1110 does not.
Another substantial pro-housing bill that would have required cities to allow larger apartment buildings near transit, SB 5466, won’t advance any further this year after it failed to get a floor vote in the house on Wednesday. Just a few weeks ago, that bill looked like it might advance over HB 1110, with some legislators and local leaders voicing support for density near transit over broad changes to residential neighborhoods.
But after Democrats in the House housing committee revamped SB 5466 to require developers to set aside 20 percent of units for affordable housing, the bill lost most of its Republican support. The bill will probably return next year, but the issue of mandating affordability for developments in individual cities—a dicey proposition at a statewide level—will almost certain remain fraught.
When I was growing up here in the 1980s, Seattle was one of the most affordable cities in the country. My parents rented a house for $100 a month, allowing them to save enough for a down payment before I was born. Since then, the city’s unique combination of affordability, natural beauty, and economic dynamism has attracted people from all over the world to our region, further enriching our cultural diversity, civic engagement, and economy.
Unfortunately, housing has not kept up with growth—especially where we need it most. Now Seattle’s housing is some of the most expensive in the world. Many of my childhood friends have been priced out and many beloved newer friends are struggling to stay. These problems extend across the state.
Since the 1950s, popular culture has sold us a vision of prosperity where you get a big house with a big yard and drive everywhere. Suburban property owners, developers, and other powerful interests rigged a land use system that stripped away other options. This growth pattern has damaged critical wildlife habitat and prime farmland, strained infrastructure, isolated households, and priced out whole communities. We were sold a bad bill of goods.
Standing in the way are a handful of small but powerful suburban cities, home to some of the wealthiest people in the world. Many welcoming people live in these places, but the organized voices representing them in Olympia are saying no—no to taking their share of growth, no to affordable housing options, no to people who do not have cars or cannot drive, and no to sharing their parks and schools.
This old model for growth is broken and cannot meet our needs. We need a new model that offers housing for Washingtonians at every income level—especially near jobs, transit, and essential goods and services. That is why this year, a broad, unlikely coalition of business and labor, environmentalists and developers, affordable housing providers and social justice advocates have come together to support new housing options in addition to new ways to design and invest in our communities. Our success moving past the House-of-origin cutoff shows that, after years of advocacy and coalition building, we finally have an opportunity to make this new vision a reality. Right now, legislators have three important bills before them:
• HB 1110 would allow duplexes in most single family neighborhoods across the state, and triplexes, fourplexes, and some sixplexes in larger cities. These more diverse housing types, often termed “missing middle” because they fill in the gap between single-family homes and larger apartment buildings, are essential for providing lower cost options in all our neighborhoods.
• SB 5466 would set minimum densities near light rail stations and other high-capacity transit. We need to let more people live near the transit that can provide access to major job centers and essential goods and services without getting stuck in traffic. This legislation, which also provides incentives and funding for affordability and requires that cities develop anti-displacement plans for high displacement neighborhoods that are impacted.
• HB 1181 incorporates climate change into the State Growth Management Act, the framework for how our state, cities, and counties plan for growth. Local governments will be directed to implement local policies and investments that will create more compact, walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods that reduce the need to drive.
These three policies are also part of a broader package of housing policies including the Covenant Homeownership Act, which addresses past racial discrimination in mortgage lending and makes record investments in the state housing trust fund. Together, this broader package will move Washington toward a more sustainable and inclusive future.
Standing in the way are a handful of small but powerful suburban cities, home to some of the wealthiest people in the world. Many welcoming people live in these places, but the organized voices representing them in Olympia are saying no—no to taking their share of growth, no to affordable housing options, no to people who do not have cars or cannot drive, and no to sharing their parks and schools.
But we can make a different choice. We can ensure that working class communities from all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds have a place in our state. Our housing options, just like our communities, should be plentiful and diverse with everything you need—fresh groceries, the doctor’s office, your favorite restaurant, parks and libraries—available within easy reach of your home. Whether you want to live in a big city or a small town, we all deserve an affordable home in a neighborhood built for people and communities.
I feel lucky to live in the city where I grew up. I want other long-time residents to be able to stay and thrive in their communities and I want to welcome new people to come here and enjoy what makes Washington such a great state. We have the tools. Now it is our legislators’ turn to fulfill this promise and pass these important bills this session.
Alex Brennan is the Executive Director of Futurewise. Born and raised in Seattle, he now resides in Capitol Hill and works across the state. Futurewise is leading campaigns to pass HB 1181, HB 1110, and SB 5466.
Late Monday night, House Bill 1110 passed the Washington House of Representatives on a bipartisan 75 to 21 vote. The bill, which has taken center stage this session as legislators focus on ways to increase the state’s housing supply, would require most cities in the state’s urban and suburban areas to allow a slightly higher level of density in residential neighborhoods.
“We need homes now, and we need action now, because we’ve seen so much inaction in local communities for so long,” Representative Emily Alvarado (D-34, Seattle), said on the floor before the vote. Alvarado, in her first term in the legislature, previously served as the director of Seattle’s Office of Housing.
The City of Seattle has been supportive of the policy change statewide even as its own Office of Community Development has shied away from studying the most impactful changes to city zoning ahead of a required update to the city’s Comprehensive Plan next year. ”I don’t want to lock people out. I want to invite new neighbors in,” Alvarado said.
The bill now heading to the state senate had several amendments, with the biggest changes proposed by Rep. Tana Senn (D-41, Bellevue). Cities in her district, including Mercer Island, have loudly opposed the bill. “The upzoning of all single-family zones will force the City into an expensive and protracted planning process to study and right size infrastructure densities far beyond anything contemplated,” a letter addressed to the 41st district’s legislators and unanimously approved by the Mercer Island City Council in early February said.
”I don’t want to lock people out. I want to invite new neighbors in.” —State Rep. Emily Alvarado (D-34, Seattle)
Senn’s amendments mean cities with fewer than 75,000 residents, like Mercer Island, would only be required to permit triplexes on residential lots that aren’t close to frequent transit lines, no matter how close they are to a large city like Seattle. The previous version of the bill set the floor at four units. Larger cities, like Bellevue, would still have to allow four units per lot, and cities of all sizes would have to allow six units per lot near light rail, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit stops.
“All cities are different sizes, and have unique aspects,” Senn said as she introduced her amendment.
Senn also succeeded in passing an amendment that removed a requirement for cities of any size to allow six units per lot around large parks and public schools, treating these valuable “community amenities” the same as a frequent transit line.
Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, Seattle), who was chair of the house’s local government committee when a similar bill failed to make it to the house floor last year, also amended the bill. Pollet’s amendment would allow cities to hold off on any zoning changes for up to two years in areas where it considers residents at “high risk of displacement.” Pollet said those changes allowed him to support the bill, even with outstanding concerns over affordability.
“I’m disappointed that this bill still fails to bring housing to the people of Washington who need it the most,” Pollet said on the house floor. “Those are the people who do not earn $100,000 or $150,000 or $200,000 a year.”
In fact, the bill had already been amended to explicitly allow any city to add additional affordability requirements.
Now the bill heads to the senate, where it has fewer full-throated supporters. “I’m searching for other solutions better suited for Mercer Island than HB 1110,” Senator Lisa Wellman, who represents the 41st District in the senate, said in early February. “There may be more useful legislation in the senate right now.”
Wellman appeared to be referring to Senate Bill 5546, which would allow denser housing immediately around transit stations while leaving most single-family areas around the state untouched.
The night after the house approved HB 1110, the Mercer Island City Council voted to support SB 5466, in the explicit hope that HB 1110 would not move forward. That bill has already passed the senate and is now in the house.
At the halfway mark of the 2023 legislative session, the state house and senate are both moving ahead with a number of bills that would change land use in cities across the state, with the goal of increasing the supply of new housing over the coming decades. But the two chambers have gone in starkly different directions when it comes to the specifics, with the house leaning harder into pro-density proposals.
When House Bill 1110, one of the highest-profile bills dealing with local zoning this year, passed its final house committee last Friday on a bipartisan vote, the core idea of the bill was still intact despite a few major amendments: Cities must allow more density in areas that are currently zoned for single-family use.
Specifically, the bill would require many smaller cities to allow duplexes in residential areas, and cities with more than 75,000 people, or suburbs of large cities like Seattle and Spokane, would have to allow fourplexes everywhere and six-unit buildings within a quarter mile of frequent transit stops, major parks, and public schools. The amended bill is a downgrade from the original version, which would have allowed more density in even more cities across the state, but would still represent a significant increase in the amount of density allowed in cities across Washington.
The bill has come under intense criticism from local elected officials who don’t want to lose their ability to restrict development in some of their cities’ lowest-density neighborhoods.
“I’m just really concerned with the impact to the character of our neighborhoods,” Bellevue Deputy Mayor Jared Nieuwenhuis said in January.
“This bill completely disregards critical local context and will surely lead to untold and unintended consequences,” Woodinville City Manager Brandon Buchanan told the house appropriations committee last week. Woodinville, Edmonds, and Mercer Island have all adopted formal resolutions or written letters to lawmakers opposing the legislation, while individual officials in other cities have also criticized the bill. “I’m just really concerned with the impact to the character of our neighborhoods,” Bellevue Deputy Mayor Jared Nieuwenhuis said in January. Despite this pushback, the bill is moving toward a vote on the house floor.
The bill’s supporters contend that it doesn’t interfere with local control. Instead, they argue, it allows property owners to do more with their land, with a goal of increasing the “missing middle”—buildings that are larger than a single-family home but smaller than an apartment complex. Older examples of these buildings exist in many neighborhoods but can no longer be built under modern zoning rules.
“We have to make it easier to build housing,” Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia), the prime sponsor of HB 1110, said at the bill’s first hearing in January. “As a former city councilmember and planning commissioner, I can tell you that the majority of cities make it either illegal outright to build middle housing throughout the majority of their residential land use areas, or they make it infeasible by creating things like minimum lot size or minimum set back requirements.”
The senate companion bill to HB 1110, sponsored by Sen. Yasmin Trudeau (D-27, Tacoma), did not move forward. Instead, the senate Ways and Means Committee advanced Senate Bill 5466, Senator Marko Liias’ (D-21, Edmonds) bill that would require cities to allow higher-density apartment buildings, condos, and office buildings near transit. That bill has seen fewer tweaks so far, and currently would require cities to allow buildings of around five stories in height for three-quarters of a mile around any transit stop with service every twenty minutes during peak hours, and larger buildings, around eight or nine stories, closer to the most frequent transit like light rail.
With the Washington Department of Commerce now projecting that the state will need an additional million new housing units to keep up with population growth over the next two decades, no single approach to increasing supply will be enough to meet the demand. An analysis of HB 1110 by the Puget Sound Regional Council found that the changes in the bill could produce just over 200,000 new housing units in the central Puget Sound region, where most new housing will be concentrated, in the next 20 years—a fraction of the need, but a start.
The house and senate are approaching density differently in other zoning legislation as well, including a pair of bills intended to remove barriers to building backyard or basement apartments, known as accessory dwelling units (ADUs). House Bill 1337, sponsored by Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-33, Burien), would require cities to comply with at least three of four guidelines for new ADUs: no off-street parking requirements, no on-site residency requirements for people who build an ADU on their property, a limit on impact fees, which can discourage homeowners to build ADUs, and allowing two ADUs per property.
In contrast, Senate Bill 5235, sponsored by Sen. Sharon Shewmake (D-42, Bellingham), would allow cities to limit the number of ADUs on small lots, and allow cities to require parking for all ADUs except for a quarter-mile from major transit stops. The bill would ban owner occupancy requirements, but not when a homeowner wants to use their ADU for a short-term rental. Shewmake, a former state representative in her first year as a senator, sponsored a similar bill last year in the house that didn’t make it to the senate floor, but this week the senate resoundingly approved this year’s version of the bill, by a vote of 42-6.
“I support both bills, and if I could have signed onto [Gregerson’s] bill I would have…I just think we need to do things that are also going to pass.”—Sen. Sharon Shewmake (D-42, Bellingham)
The house let its companion bill to SB 5235, HB 1276, sponsored by Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46), die ahead of a committee deadline in February, focusing instead on HB 1337. “This is the strong one… the one that will get things done quickly,” Rep. Andy Barkis, (R-2, Olympia), one of 1337’s sponsors, said at a hearing on both bills. HB 1337 is facing opposition because it’s much more prescriptive about what cities have to allow.
“I support both bills, and if I could have signed onto [Gregerson’s] bill I would have…I just think we need to do things that are also going to pass,” Shewmake told PubliCola. “Maybe Mia’s will be the one that passes, because she has that bipartisan support, or this will be the one that passes, and they can be folded one into the.”
Shewmake said she saw the two competing ADU bills as a bellwether. “Figuring out what we can get off the floor with this ADU bill is going to be important for figuring out what we can do generally on housing,” she said. In other words, if the senate doesn’t pass HB 1337, it’s probably not going to consider even more substantive changes like HB 1110.
Rep. Julia Reed (D-36, Seattle), who has signed onto HB 1110 and also sponsored the house version of Liias’s bill, HB 1517, told PubliCola, “You kind of have to have both…because of the way our cities are quite spread out, in Washington State, and because of the types of homes that people are looking for. …Not everybody wants to live in a multi-unit apartment building. Some people are really looking for that fourplex, that townhouse, [or] the duplex model just fits their family and their lifestyle better.”
House Speaker Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34, Seattle) conceded that local control can be in tension with statewide housing goals. “Cities have a tough job, and we recognize that, and we want to make that job easier by making a floor for jurisdictions, small, medium and large… knowing that Seattle is not the same as Moses Lake, but the housing shortage impacts every part of our state,” he said during a press briefing in late February.
One of his counterparts on the senate side, Deputy Majority Leader Manka Dhingra (D-45, Redmond), pushed back on the idea that the senate was being more conservative and timid about changing local zoning. “I’m not sure I would say that the senate is more deferential to local control versus the house,” she said. “But I think that is a struggle that is always front and center.”
Mayor Bruce Harrell’s State of the City speech should have urbanists worried. Listening to his address last week made it clear the mayor wants to counter the recent emergence of a new generation of urbanists. This new pro-housing movement, defined by an unprecedented alliance between social justice activists, developers, environmentalists, labor advocates, and transit nerds, has chalked up a series of policy wins in recent years. And judging by Harrell’s speech, he’s trying to stall their momentum.
That might seem like a strange thing to say after Harrell, previewing his “Downtown Activation Plan,” used the speech to paint this colorful urbanist picture: “It may mean a linear arts-entertainment-culture district that connects downtown with multiple neighborhoods or identifying a 24/7 street, a stretch of several blocks where you can find a restaurant, bar, grocery, or your favorite clothing boutique at any hour of the day.”
I’ll be the first to argue that shops close too early in Seattle (especially its pizza places) and that a thrumming nightlife is at the top of any credible urbanist agenda. But Harrell’s limited, “stretch-of-several-blocks” urbanism represents the reverse of what the new movement has been pressing for. Today’s urbanists want to move away from using the downtown core (and a few scattered urban hubs) as an offset for our city’s otherwise suburban and unsustainable land use patterns. Unfortunately, by looking backward to the old downtown-centric model of city building, Harrell is giving cover to single family preservationists who benefit financially when the city limits opportunities for increased density, amenities, and housing citywide.
Erica hilariously titled her report on Harrell’s state of the city speech “The State of the City is Vibes.” Credit where credit is due, ECB—it’s a headline for the ages. But I’d like to amend it. It seems to me that under Harrell’s vision, the state of the city is: The ‘90s. Specifically, 1995.
Here’s what I mean: The idea that a city’s cultural electricity (and its housing, but more on that in a second) should be focused in the center city is a remnant of Seattle’s 1995 comprehensive plan. That shortsighted plan stuck us with the land use model we have today—one that relegates mixed-use, urban spaces to downtown and tiny slivers of the city along busy, wide arterial streets.
That 1995 model is the root cause of our current gentrification spiral and affordable housing crisis. It puts a crunch on supply by prohibiting apartments, condos, and storefronts almost everywhere. With the neighborhood planning process coming up again next year, Harrell’s retro impulse to focus on downtown put urbanists on notice that efforts to add affordable housing beyond the downtown core or a few scattered urban hubs is anathema to his vision. His speech led with a big pitch about the significance of downtown while failing to acknowledge any other Seattle neighborhood—nor the controversial, classist residential zoning rules that prevail across most of the city.
Unfortunately, by looking backward to the old downtown-centric model of city building, Harrell is giving cover to single family preservationists who benefit financially when the city limits opportunities for increased density, amenities, and housing citywide.
In what seemed like an effort to curb this urbanist momentum and hijack YIMBY talking points, Harrell talked about downtown the way pro-housing urbanists have been talking about the city as a whole. Seizing on office vacancies as an opportunity to address the housing shortage, Harrell promoted “bold action” downtown which “may mean changing our zoning codes to convert excess unused office space into housing. We need more housing options,” he said. “Let’s make downtown affordable for everyone who wants to live there.”
I’m all for converting excess, unused office space into housing, but a plurality of Seattle’s affordable housing, 35 percent, is already located downtown. Putting more housing there hardly constitutes “bold action.” It would actually be bold to challenge the status quo and change the zoning that needs to change: the exclusive rules in Seattle’s leafy, outlying neighborhoods where multifamily apartments, including low-density fourplexes and sixplexes, are prohibited. As for allowing greater flexibility, that too is needed in the outlying neighborhoods; we need to allow more commercial uses in our residential-only zones. If the pandemic has taught us anything about urban life, it’s that amenities traditionally reserved for “urban” zones actually fit right into “neighborhood character” elsewhere in the city.
In his state of the city speech Harrell tied his urban hopes solely, and precariously, to downtown.
The mayor’s emphasis on downtown undermines the renaissance afoot in Seattle’s neighborhoods, where urban energy like expanded outdoor seating at local cafes and more pedestrian-oriented streets are becoming the norm. That energy is on the verge of moving Seattle away from its 30-year-old planning model that has stifled economic diversity in our neighborhoods. While density was once the third rail of politics, it was notable in 2021’s election cycle not only that moderators at every candidate forum included a question about citywide upzones, but that nearly every candidate signaled support. Harrell said there is already enough “zoning capacity” in the city to house everyone who needs housing—another vintage ’90s argument that ignores the exclusionary reality on the ground.
In his speech last week, Harrell tied his urban hopes solely, and precariously, to downtown: “I am very pleased that employers like Amazon recognize coming back to work downtown is a great thing,” he said. The very next day the Washington Post hit with the reality check that employees themselves weren’t interested. And that same day, the Puget Sound Business Journal reported a 30 percent drop in demand for Seattle office space since January 2022, running a story about downtown occupancy that featured this alarming quote from a recent report on downtown commercial real estate: “There will be no great return. Seattle’s lights will not just turn back on again. We thought this in 2020 and we were wrong. Too much time has passed.”
Downtown is an important part of the city, but two emergent trends—the recent activation of Seattle’s other neighborhoods and the need to reimagine our downtown for a future with fewer office workers—suggest we need a more imaginative, beyond-downtown vision as opposed to the 1995 model that tries to sequester density and city life. As the affordable housing crisis persists, it’s disappointing that Mayor Harrell’s only reference to zoning changes in his speech was about creating more housing downtown (where zoning already allows residential housing, by the way). Simultaneously and sadly, he remained silent on the 75 percent of the city where multiplex housing remains illegal.
Back in 2018—as a Gen X traitor, evidently—I editorialized against saving the Showbox. I was opposed to making policy based on ’90s nostalgia and was for building new housing coupled with the $5 million in affordable housing funds the development would generate from the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program.
At the time, a City Hall legislative staffer asked me in earnest if there was any spot around town that would turn me into a NIMBY if it was slated to get torn down and replaced with fancy condos? I honestly couldn’t think of anything that fit the bill.
But now comes the latest in Seattle-is-changing news: The Grand Illusion, the independent movie house at 50th and University Way NE (the Ave), may be the next casualty of real estate development. It’s still not 100 percent clear what the fate of the Grand Illusion will be, but according to a January 23 Daily Journal of Commerce report, real estate developer Kidder Mathews is offering the building for $2.8 million on behalf of the theater’s longtime owner. For now, the theater, which has been around since 1970, has signed another two-year lease, and they say they’re set on finding a new home.
The news hits me in the gut. True story: Just 10 days before I read about the Grand Illusion’s hazy future, I went to a movie at the groovy theater (for the first time since the pandemic, and likely even well before that). Excited to find the place as lively as ever—a disheveled goth was working at the combo ticket/refreshments booth before a nearly sold-out Friday night show—I ended up making a contribution to the nonprofit the very next day. Over the years, I’ve seen countless indie, foreign, art, and cult films at the Grand Illusion while eating a bucket of popcorn heavily dusted in nutritional yeast. I even attended former Seattle city council member Nick Licata’s wedding there, sitting in the rickety yet plush red seating. I’ve also spent a healthy dose of time in the adjacent tortured-poet coffee shop. The Grand Illusion defines Ave culture.
The countercultural Seattle landmark is in a precarious spot because current Seattle zoning prohibits housing and businesses just about everywhere else in the city.
As a pro-development urbanist, I could be called a hypocrite for fretting over the fate of this charming, grunge-y spot. But actually, the potential closure of the Grand Illusion simply confirms the basic problem with Seattle’s zoning code I’ve been writing about for more than 20 years. The reason developers buy up spots in exciting locations like 50th and the Ave. is because these spots are typically located in the few slices of the city that are zoned for multi-family and mixed-use development. “Under current zoning, the listing … estimates that a six-story building could yield 31 apartments,” the DJC reported.
This fact underscores an even more germane point: Offing the Grand Illusion for density is redundant. The block where the theater now stands already works the way a smart city should, with its surrounding dense zoning and plentiful transit. Unfortunately, the area is an oasis of six- and seven-story neighborhood commercial zoning in a desert of land zoned for low-density and single-family housing (and no commercial space). We don’t need more businesses and housing on the Ave.—we need them in the surrounding low-density residential zones.
The YIMBY position remains as it has always been: Put more housing and businesses in the suburban-esque tracts of Seattle where we should have more economic diversity. Unfortunately, with density cordoned off into just 25 percent of the city’s residential land, developers have limited places to build. And so it’s the dense urban areas where beloved, longstanding institutions—Piecora’s on Capitol Hill, Mama’s Mexican Kitchen in Belltown, Tup Tim Thai on Lower Queen Anne—get replaced by apartments. Meanwhile, the strictly single-family tracts stay untouched as the people who live there see their assets grow.
I’m not going to start a petition drive or sign onto a “Save the Grand Illusion” campaign—a la the cringe-worthy, largely white and Gen X effort to save the Showbox. Instead, I’ll point out that the news comes with an explanation slow-growthers won’t like: The Grand Illusion isn’t on the chopping block because of some pro-developer bent in Seattle’s zoning rules. The countercultural Seattle landmark is in a precarious spot right now because current Seattle zoning restricts housing and businesses just about everywhere else in the city.
Democrats in Olympia are making good on their pledge to remove local regulatory barriers to housing by proposing bills that would require cities and towns to permit diverse types of new housing. Many of these bills are being passed over the objections of local elected officials, who are wary of changes in state law that take away their authority to maintain status-quo land use policies.
But while lawmakers seem willing to go against the recommendations of some cities when it comes to density limits, they seem more hesitant about getting rid of local parking requirements. Parking requirements add costs to new housing—garages aren’t cheap to build—and are often unnecessary as cities become denser and easier to navigate without a car. Cities across Washington currently require a certain number of parking spaces for each new housing unit they permit, though Seattle has removed that requirement for buildings close to transit lines.
Many of the bills proposed this session remove or reduce minimum parking requirements in order to reduce construction costs. But those provisions are now proving to be a sticking point for both parties.
Rep. Julia Reed (D-36, Seattle) is leading the charge to eliminate parking minimums, particularly in areas that are close to transit. “A lot of these parking minimum laws that are in place from cities and counties, they were created a while ago and they’re not really revisited that often,” Reed said. “It’s not tied to how people really move around that neighborhood, it’s tied to an assumption that parking is needed.” Reed cited the high cost of parking spaces in new buildings: $50,000 or more per spot.
Reed’s House Bill 1351 would prohibit cities from requiring parking in new buildings within a half-mile of frequent transit lines, and within a quarter-mile of half-hourly bus service. But by the time that bill passed the house local government committee this week, the restriction only applied to areas within a quarter-mile of any level of transit service. And even that major change wasn’t enough to get any Republicans in the committee to vote for it, in a year when Democrats are counting on some Republican votes to get their housing votes across the finish line.
The state senate is where that support might matter the most. When the bill’s senate counterpart received a hearing earlier this month, it was a Democrat, Sen Claudia Kauffman (D-47, Kent), who expressed concerns with how this would impact downtown Kent, where street parking is generally free. “If you start reducing [required parking] because of the transit center, it’s going to reduce people’s ability to have their car. … For me, this doesn’t work within the transit system that we have,” Kauffman said. “In my area this just wouldn’t work.”
Many of this year’s senate housing bills would also reduce or remove parking minimums. Senator Marko Liias’ (D-21, Edmonds) Senate Bill 5466 would require cities to allow substantially denser developments around transit stations, and would ban parking minimums within three-quarters of a mile of any major transit stop.
“It doesn’t make sense, when we’re saying [that] in a transit zone, the way we want people to move is by transit, to also require and guarantee that you can get to those destinations by car,” Liias said at the bill’s first public hearing. “Overlaying the two creates really incompatible and inefficient land uses. … When we require parking minimums, that’s when we get empty parking lots right next to light rail stations.”
Under the new version of the bills allowing more apartments near transit, a potential fourplex just outside a transit corridor would have to include four parking spaces, which might push a homeowner or developer to consider a different type of building altogether—like a single-family home.
Housing advocates are in broad agreement that it’s essential to eliminate parking minimums as part of this year’s housing bills. “If the bill doesn’t do that, local parking mandates will force developers to build more parking than communities need, and that excess parking will undermine the state’s goals to create transit-oriented communities that give residents good alternatives to cars,” Dan Bertolet of the Sightline Institute, the Seattle-based think tank, testified at a committee hearing on SB 5466 this week. A 2021 paper by a researcher at Santa Clara University showed that when Seattle reduced required parking near transit in 2012, developers built 40 percent fewer parking spaces, translating to around 18,000 fewer stalls and over half a billion dollars in reduced housing costs.
Though it’s still early, efforts to weaken parking restrictions are already becoming a trend. This week, the house and senate housing committees approved both House Bill 1110 and its counterpart Senate Bill 5190, which require cities inside the Seattle and Spokane metro areas to allow fourplexes on all residential lots, and sixplexes close to transit. But both chambers did so only after approving a new version that allows cities to require at least one parking spot for each housing unit for areas away from transit, when the previous version only allowed them to require one spot per lot. That means a potential fourplex just outside a transit corridor would have to include four parking spaces, which might push a homeowner or developer to consider a different type of building altogether—like a single-family home.
Even as that bill passed its senate committee with his vote, one of its Republican sponsors, Sen. John Braun (R-20, Centralia), said he isn’t ready to vote “yes” when it gets to the Senate floor, suggesting there’s more bartering ahead on the Senate. A majority of Republicans in both chambers oppose the bills in the name of maintaining local control—as opposed to supporting them based on developers’ private property rights, a traditional conservative position.
With the proposals to eliminate parking minimums getting the most vocal pushback from local leaders, and many lawmakers apparently listening to those concerns, these urbanist provisions might be the first casualties as deadlines approach and leaders in both chambers look to create compromises to reach a deal.