Friday, March 19, 2010

Multifamily Land Use Regulations and Related Issues

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March 18, 2010

Councilmember Sally Clark, Chair, Committee on the Built Environment

and Members of the City Council

600 Fourth Avenue, 2nd Floor P.O Box 94749

Seattle, Washington 98124-4749

Subject: Multifamily Land Use Regulations and Related Issues

Dear Councilmember Clark and Members of the City Council:

The proposed amendments to the lowrise multifamily land use regulations, individually and as a whole represent a 180 degree course-change that can not legally be adopted without first changing the Comprehensive Plan. Adoption in reverse order is contrary to one of the Growth Management Act's (GMA) principal tenets—that development regulations are to be consistent with adopted Comprehensive Plan goals and policies. RCW 36.70A.040 (3) (d). The proposed schedule for adoption strongly suggests another Declaration of Non-Significance, whereas environmentally, as well as fiscally, such a course-change would be inferior to the current plan.

Even before the GMA, the Seattle City Council adopted policy directives to guide major changes in development regulations. Doing so enables deciphering where results and intents disagree to arrive at effective corrections. For instance, the 1988-89 Council addressed bad results from policies adopted in 1981 and regulations adopted in 1982. Citizens reported huge out-of-place apartment buildings. The Office of Long-range Planning calculated median density in, for example, L-3 30% in excess of the density limit prior to the policy promise of slightly lower density through “indirect measures,” which were very similar to those now proposed. The problem was resolved by late 1989.

With all today's precautions, curing a bad outcome is less, not more feasible. As too-tightly packed townhouses proliferated for a decade, huge, unacknowledged risk of community-wide fire growth has accrued. The suspect code interpretations are still staunchly defended. The proposed solution not only makes matters worse but is eerily similar to the 1982 experimentation.

The concerns elaborated briefly below are further documented in the enclosed report prepared by architect Anna Nissen. The report is also online at

The real problem is misidentified, extremely dangerous and would continue. Squeezing in too many townhouses is undeterred by the proposed amendments. And the much bigger problem— the increasing risk of community-wide fire growth—is worsened by allowing all buildings to be built within seven feet of adjoining rear properties and multifamily neighborhoods to be built-out chockablock as illustrated in the Nissen report. The townhouse packs mock the urban village strategy. Permitting ignores evidence that they are as dangerous as they look. A national dialogue has been taking shape in recent years over confirmation that the deadly fires associated with sudden, premature collapse of buildings framed with pre-fabricated wood members are not incidental and are to be expected. Seattle officials still take no heed of that problem, nor of having reimposed the old risk of community-wide fires as neighborhood after neighborhood have been overrun with unsprinklered, too tightly-packed, inadequately accessed buildings, many with pre-fabricated framing.

The following development standards are called out in the current Plan and would be upended as follows:

  1. Context-based evaluation criteria for rezones
    • remove distinction between zone purposes
    • change criteria focus from surrounding character to planning objective
    • increase zoned capacity 28% by text upzoning L-1 to L-2 and L-3 to L-4
  2. Predictable building placement and bulk compatible with existing or intended character as applicable
    • reject compatibility, either existing or intended.
  3. Tangible limits on lot coverage, density, and building width and depth
    • reject tangible limits on lot under 9000 s.f. and increases those limits on lots 9000 s.f.
    • remove limits on assembling of lots (encourages huge buildings in small-scale neighborhoods)
  4. Ground-related housing, open space, functional yards, infiltration of storm water, & fire safety
    • strike “open space” and “ground-related” from the definitions
    • move yards and open space to roof tops, and internal courts
    • hold density superior to fire safety or infiltration of storm water
  5. Context-based height limits and roof forms.
    • reject compatibility with surrounding roof forms and neighboring heights.
To keep this letter short, please refer to the attached list from the Nissen Report for further specifics on how and where the proposed amendments improperly rewrite the Plan. That list references a 6th item —the addition last month of “building types” as a “re-visioning tool” to make sense of the proposed amendments. It too, is not a part of the current Plan. Furthermore, when considered in other cities it is subordinated to contextual considerations and subjected to long, long public dialogues. Denver, for example, began in 2005 and its 4th draft may or may not be adopted this spring ( and

Instead of whitewash, what has gone wrong needs analysis and “learning from failure.”

From a citizen's point of view, the Council, perplexed by overly complex land use regulations, replaced impartial, generalist policy analysts with imports from the department crafting the proposals as well as assessing outcomes. This has undermined the Council's role in setting city policy and masked the hazardous consequences of a decade's worth of evaded design review thresholds, subdivision thresholds, environmental thresholds, and access standards. Even worse, instead of eventual correction, the original folly is about to be parlayed into wholesale destruction of the adopted framework for accommodating growth—Seattle's most innovative thinking—summarily deemed overly restrictive at the exact moment the rest of the nation is rapidly advancing it.

Over on the executive side, the technicians responsible for development of land use amendments, neither skilled in fire risks nor urban design, do not recognize that they proliferated fire risks for a decade and instead characterized complaints as aesthetic preferences. Eventually they settled upon aesthetic relief, i.e., criteria-less Administrative Design Review conducted by those who proliferate the fire risk.

Legislation first enacted in 1994 enables townhouses to be individually sold on “unit lots.” Seattle's present code SMC 23.53.025 sets the width of any necessary access easement and the vertical clearance over it according to the total number of “dwelling units,” not “unit lots” (“buildable” or otherwise), that will be served by the easement. The standards are easy to understand, yet City records provide few clues as to why they are not being applied. Construction permits and subdivision decisions leave to each other (in effect, neither) any check that the dimensional standards for easements are followed. Almost all townhouse developments that share an access easement are divided into certain multiples of units that are then processed in a piecemeal fashion even where they are reviewed – and constructed – contemporaneously. When questioned by the press, officials deem the interpretations permitting the townhouse packs “perfectly legal.”

Do not pass these amendments; do not subject townhouses to criteria-less Administrative Design Review. Instead:

  1. Enforce existing safety standards at once and take a lead role in a national dialogue to rid us of serious, yet avoidable fire hazards created by over-reliance on modern codes, materials, and fire-fighters.

Seattle Community Council Federation

Multifamily Land Use Regulations and Related Issues

March 18, 2010

Page 4

  1. Correct the one or two numerical standards that inappropriately disfavor apartments in apartment zones (see Nissen report at Recommendation).
  2. Make the required once-a-decade review of the Comprehensive Plan meaningful by raising provocative issues similar to what the Mayor is doing with the “Youth and Families Initiative.” Attract significant numbers of residents with the notion of “housing as if people matter” instead of planning abstractions.
  3. Then, the following will fall readily into place:
    • An effective minimum set of multifamily “districts” or overlays
    • A “first tier” of clearer, more fool-proof development standards that promote safety, conserve existing housing, and assure infill that fits in and responds to the greatest unmet need: modest, (relatively) inexpensive housing with long term appeal—Seattle, like most places, once built and conserved it naturally.
    • A “second tier“of design review criteria, guidelines, and process; dependent upon the strong foundation of the first tier, and that are clear and rigorous enough in themselves to put creativity to effective use.
    • Completion of design guidelines for the half of the villages without them.

Thank you for considering the views of the Seattle Community Council Federation.


Your browser may not support display of this image. Your browser may not support display of this image.Jeannie Hale, President Anna Nissen, Land Use Committee

3425 West Laurelhurst Drive NE 206 Highland Drive

Seattle, Washington 98105 Seattle, Washington 98109

206-525-5135 / fax 206-525-9631 206-284-1385

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