Monday, September 1, 2008

A Non-Fix for Megahouses

Rare Two-Subject Hearing —Monday, September 22, 2008

Notice appeared ONLY & ONCE in a Land Use Bulletin now archived

Why so under the Radar?

At 5:30 PM on September 22nd, the Council is holding a two part hearing, the first on land use code amendments called "Sustainable Single Family," the second part on the 2008 Comprehensive Plan amendments. The Plan is to adopt both prior to the coming break for budget review.

Ever since 1990, the permitted height in Single Family height has exceeded that permitted in the three lowest Multifamily zones but all correction attempts fell on deaf ears until Concilmember Conlin's positive response to a draft prepared by Sunset Hill Community Association to make the Single Family height consistent with that of the three lowest Multi-family zones.

Alas, the Executive gutted Councilmember Conlin's proposal to a token fix comparable to it's current proposed Townhouse Fix (a.k.a. Multifamily Update); then, inexplicably, after proposing to raise the height of three lowest Multifamily zones to match the existing Single Family height, decided to leave the matter as is.

At go to "Mayor's Recommended Ordinance," 23.45.514 Structure height (currently page 101).

Not-quite. A fast moving Single Family Mega Non-fix has pushed aside the Townhouse Non-fix and advanced under the radar, most likely even the radar of the Council. Other than Central Staffer Michael Jenkins referral to a single now archived LU Bulletin, the only other evidence that the matter is on the docket is two PLUNC meeting videos, the last being the last subject on Aug 13 at

Is Councilmember Conlin aware of the SNAFU? Hard to tell. When informed just before he left town for several weeks, he assigned the matter to staff, who referred the matter to PLUNC Chair Councilmember Clark. There it sits. Where you ask? At On the fill-in form at "Council Bill" type in 116275.



  1. For consistency through time, CB 116275 can adopt the height in the lowest MF zones that encourages pitched roofs—a welcome limiting factor in the out-of-control townhouse sitings.

  2. For contextual change, CB 116275 can improve upon the current height averaging that, little used now, would be necessary to be fair to neighbors of existing megahouses and older mansions. In fact, the averaging, after improving, needs adopting in the three 25' height zones of MF, on the same basis--fairness and contextual form-based design standards.

  3. The old, averaged-grade way of measuring heights on sloped lots preserved views, but it's not necessary to return to that if the limited downhill increase of CB 116275 were offset with a similar limited uphill reduction.

  4. Meaningful limits, not token ones, are needed on impervious lot coverage.

If you email this writer at, I will send you draft alternative text. I will also send you the alert in printable Word doc format. (Together with this HTML it is probably too big for some of your systems.)


These brand new houses in the first row ARE NOT megahouses, their third stories are in an attic, or they have none.

The remodeling and new house in the second row ARE megahouses, their third stories are not in an attic.

There are other indications that Single Family zoning protections, hard won in the 1980s, are in the Executive's sights. Under guise of a Townhouse Fix, the general provisions for rezone criteria are scheduled to be gutted as well. One change encourages upzones within walking distance of any neighborhood service, such as a park. Lack of definition is intentional and throughout the rewrite of criteria for each residential zone.

This spring the Planning Commission as a part of an Affordable Housing Initiative offered this 2008 Comprehensive Plan amendment:

Reexamine LU591 to determine whether the criteria for rezoning single family-zoned land should be adjusted.

1 LU59 states, "Permit upzones of land designated single-family and meeting single-family rezone criteria, only when all of the following conditions are met: The land is within an urban center or urban village boundary; The rezone is provided for in an adopted neighborhood plan; The rezone is to a low-scale single-family, multifamily or mixed-use zone, compatible with single-family areas; The rezone procedures are followed."

This month the Executive decided to delay removing comprehensive plan policy LU59 until a following year.

Planning Commission June 26th minutes at "Commissioner Kaplan asked DPD staff to expound on their recommendations for amendment 21 [DPD rewrite for 2008 of #1 and #9 Commission's Affordable Housing Initiative]. Mr. Hauger stated that the Comp. Plan must be updated in 2011, and that DPD will start at the end of 2009 to do so. [Post Election.] He suggested that some elements may be updated significantly, and so the Commission may want to defer future amendments until that process has been completed. Commissioner Finrow suggested that Mr. Hauger brief the Commission on the update process in the coming year so the Commission can best make its decision on how to move forward with the remainder of Comp. Plan amendments in its Affordable Housing Action Agenda. [Including removing LU 59's restriction on upzoning SF areas that meet SF criteria]."

Seattle's Housing "Problem" and the Actions and Inactions that Perpetuate It

We all want affordable housing. Efforts to achieve it make matters worse. Non-experts and old experts recognize that second order change takes counterintuitive reevaluation of what we are doing to perpetuate what is happening. Most of the cascade below stems from a single erroneous assumption that the solution is to encourage redevelopment far in excess of existing conditions. Holding fast to the erroneous assumption is far from benign.

1. Megahouses are overly doable in Seattle (too much height—out of character blockage of light and outlook; too much impervious surface—dwindling natural infiltration, flash flooding, and dying marine life).

2. Megahouse-site shoppers outbid those interested in current use , this inflates Single Family land values.

3. This places houses protected by single family zoning outside the reach of even present owners.

4. This encourages the Executive to endorse insane packings of townhouses in all Multi-family zones.

5. This inflates Multifamily land values.

6. This makes an endangered species of any modest housing that is unprotected by single family zoning

7. This inspires the Seattle Planning Commission to suggest downzoning industrial lands and doing away with the protection of single family zoning, both in the name of affordability.

8. Yet:

The Seattle Planning Department reports that, between 4/2000 and 4/2008, approximately one net new housing unit was built for each net new person. (Data obtained from PLUNC member.)

The County reports, see that Seattle has developable capacity over three times that needed to meet official long range growth targets.

The State Office of Financial Management at reports yearly population estimates for 2008 that when tabulated show that the 4/2000— 4/2008 trend is exactly the opposite of the Regional Plan 2000—2040 just adopted. Vision 2040 increases the targets for five metro cities, and decreases those of small cities. See Go to Part II, page 22.

9. Neatly sidestepping all evidence that raising land prices squirts growth outward and that just producing the cement it would take for wholesale redevelopment is as large as the carbon footprint of cars, the Executive aims to redevelop anything that stands still.

No Councilmember or Mayor ran (or thinks of running) on a platform of ripping down and throwing in the trash as much as we can as fast as we can, building unlivable stuff, then having to rip out and trash that. What is much more fruitful would be a platform of aiming for long term appeal and then getting to serious work making sure that all the green-washed excuses for business-as-usual do not do away with the "long term" itself.

Anna Nissen 8/31/08

Nissen/Nissen Architect

Livable Seattle Movement

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