Monday, December 13, 2010

Multifamily Development Regulations Need Further Analysis


November 22, 2010

Councilmember Sally Clark, Chair, Committee on the Built Environment
Members of the City Council
600 Fourth Avenue
Seattle, Washington   98124-4749

Subject:  Multifamily Development Regulations Need Further Analysis

Dear Councilmember Clark and Members of the City Council:               

For many years concerned citizens and neighborhood organizations have drawn the City’s attention to problems associated with rampant townhouse development in our low rise zones.  These cramped “4 pack” projects typically provide inadequate access and open space, and they destroy rather than enhance the established development patterns of our neighborhoods.   In places they cover whole city blocks.  They stand in stark contrast to the dense livability envisioned by the Urban Village strategy underlying our City’s Comprehensive Plan.  And they are a testament to what misguided development can do to our communities. The Seattle Community Council Federation, a coalition of community groups throughout the city of Seattle, offers the following comments on these important issues.

The Federation has argued that many of these undesirable projects are the result of lax administration such as a willingness to ignore access easement requirements.  But the Nickel’s administration chose a major rewrite of the multifamily code which, after an independent analysis by independent teams last year (the ‘black hat/white hat’ exercise) initiated a further rewrite in the hands of Council.

Trying to rewrite the development rules for the city's most affordable housing class that covers almost 6 square miles spread throughout our city is a challenging task, but one that should acknowledge the variety of conditions under which it will be applied.  While the overhaul generally attempts to encourage development in designated “areas of change” (our Urban Villages), it does not ensure that infill respects ‘context’ in our “areas of stability” (outside of the Urban Villages) where predictability and consistency of neighborhood building forms are most desired.

We recognize the tremendous effort that has gone into this process, and acknowledge improvements have been made over the last several months.  But we are concerned that the final stages are being driven more by schedule than results and that additional work necessary to resolve real problems will not be allowed.  Despite earlier indications that another independent ‘black hat/white hat’ review would be undertaken, it seems that COBE is intent on asking for passage as soon as possible.  We think this is a mistake and will net a flawed code despite the years of effort.

What follows are what some examples of the most pressing issues that are imperative to address in the final legislation to avoid a variety of unintended consequences.

Abandonment of Urban Design Principles

We want to make it clear that we assert that some very specific faults remain with the code which would be clearly shown if an independent ‘black hat/while hat’ review exercise were undertaken.

1.     Focusing on building types and the removing the public from the review process makes it likely that existing and intended development patterns will be ignored and neighborhoods with inconsistent streetscape characteristics and yard patterns will result.

The conversion of front and back yards to minimal setbacks, and the elination of side setbacks for end rowhouse will result in the placement of buildings incongruous with its neighbors.   This will also introduce privacy and security failures.  Respect of development patterns is a clear Comprehensive Plan goal, particularly outside of Urban Villages. 

2.     The upzoning of LDT à LR1, and L1 à LR2 and L3à L4 (LR3) in Urban Villages, coupled with removal of parking requirements in Urban Villages, will result in over-densification when green building bonuses are used. [1]

A few simple examples will best illustrate this dramatic flaw (see attachment for more):

o      A 5000 sq ft lot zoned LDT in an Urban Village is now limited to 3 units and would be flats or townhouses with legal access provided perpendicular to the street.  The proposal would force use of the certified green bonuses to retain 3 townhouse units, but could allow 3 rowhouses each with an accessory unit above, yielding 6 units - a 100% increase in unit density.
o      A 5,000 sq ft lot zoned L1 in an Urban Village previously would allow 3 units, most typically townhouses with their own parking.   Now as an LR2, if built green, the project could include 12 small apartments (~500 sq ft) with no parking provided – a 400% increase in units.
o      A 5,000 sq ft lot zoned L2 outside of an Urban Village is now limited to 4 units and if unit lot access easements were enforced they would likely be flats or the lot would be combined with another to gain enough area for the access.  The same potential as noted above (12 units) is possible if the proposed sharing of parking can be arranged.  This is a 300% increase in units.

3.     FAR as the overriding bulk/scale control will yield unpredictable lot coverage results and exacerbate the loss of the clear delineation between low-density MF zones and high-density zones.  All zones now can yield a variety of density and building type outcomes.

Floor area ratio is a general planning bulk and scale tool for identifying project capacity where established patterns of open space and building placement make little difference.   Applying it to low scale residential building types with fractional differentiation for various conditions is not appropriate.  It might be easy to discern the difference between a building of FAR 2 and one of FAR 3, but not the difference between 1.2 and 1.3.

By choosing to use FAR as a way to incent or disincent certain building forms, rather than clearly allow or disallow, means profitability will rule what buildings are built and how they cover the lot. This defeats one of the primary objectives of land use regulations—the investment security of having a rough idea of the future of one's immediate vicinity.

Instead, specific building types, as identified by Neighborhood Design Guidelines should be considered.  Also, specific building forms should be tied to zones as is being done elsewhere in the country.   This ensures that the higher density projects are produced in appropriate places and that permeable open space is promoted elsewhere in compensation.[2]

Parking Requirements

Removal of parking requirements for projects in Urban Villages does not recognize real issues with severe parking problems in some neighborhoods.  With likely Metro service cuts we will see street congestion exacerbated.  Many neighborhoods are extremely concerned about the shortsightedness of these rules, and believe that this change in fact only externalizes development cost to the broader community by placing parking on the street.  At the same time, these cars will compete with spaces that could be used by customers of small businesses and other visitors to the community.  More granularity is needed in the determination of where parking should be required or exempted. At a minimum, a multi-unit project should require some shared parking if the area is already at an over-parked state (residential Parking Zone).  

Design Review

Design review and citizen participation are being dramatically weakened or removed with the use of SDR.  We are adamant that a strong design review process is the citizen’s right based on our Comprehensive Plan[3] and is necessary to develop quality infill in the multifamily zones by providing the developer with flexibility and input from the community.

The Design Review process however is already weakened by the ‘stacking’ of Boards with industry professionals who in review of their contemporaries’ projects are unwilling to seriously critique or pursue concerns voiced by the community, and is further made ineffective by Director rulings that allow unacceptable departures from the code.  While perhaps ultimately in the project’s favor, it is a costly process and time-consuming process and one that only induces mistrust or contempt in our city agencies.

We believe that a strong citizen-based regularly-monitored design review processes (ADR, SDR, and DRB), along with recognition of extant neighborhood plans and sound codes will yield the best outcomes for our city.  We would like to see more citizen staffing on Boards and, when development is more active, more Boards to ensure that projects may be reviewed in a timely manner.   We also insist on the right to appeal decisions made by the Director concerning projects of 4 or more units in our neighborhoods.


We object to the abdication for any responsibility in this legislation for the recognized Unit Lot Subdivision problems, including questionable access easements and optional CC&Rs.  We remain concerned about how these multi-building projects with shared streetscapes and building elements will be maintained and whether there remains the potential for blighting.  CC&Rs (Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions) should be required for all multifamily projects with shared areas and easements in order to address issues related to insurance, maintenance of common areas, building upkeep.


The proposed legislation reflects an underlying disregard for the built environment and urban design elements of our neighborhoods in exchange for freedom of design for a project on a lot. Your cover letter dated October 18 states one of the goals for these amendments is to “Generally maintain the current overall scale and density of Lowrise zones”. 

Yet these zone redesignations and code changes replace a clear delineation of densities and intensity of use from low duplex/triplex through the more intense larger-form structures with many units. We now have the possibility of
1.     similar sized buildings, building types and similar unit densities throughout all the lowrise zones regardless of zone designation, and 
2.     loss of predictability about the number of units and unit size in all lowrise zones, and
3.     an abandonment of urban design principles disturbing the existing characteristics of our neighborhoods, including yard and streetscape patterns.  

A neighborhood is left with little certainty of how much can be built and what it will look like. 

We are NOT against density, particularly in Urban Villages.  What we strongly object to is the loss of gradation and the increased potential for incongruous development, the loss of targeted densities through zoning, and the potential disregard for extant conditions that would affect how projects are added to our communities.

We assert that the issues that remain with the proposed legislation are critical, represent divergence from our Comprehensive Plan, and yet are fixable.  Please allow the additional public analysis necessary through a similar exercise to the black hat/white hat’ effort last year that uncovered the variety of flaws with the original Nickels proposal.  We must complete this task and allow refinement to correct these significant errors.

Thank you for considering the views of the Seattle Community Council Federation.  We look forward to hearing back from you soon.

Jeannie Hale, President
3425 West Laurelhurst Drive NE
Seattle, Washington  98105
206-525-5135 / fax 206-525-9631


[1] Appendix B, the map of these upzones, belies the declaration that there is “no upzoning.”  It took several years of costly “remapping” by petition to resolve a similar deception in 1988 through 1991.

[2] This is consistent with the Comprehensive Plan  “Yards and Open Space” Policies LU36 & 37, and  “Environment” Policy LU10: “Strive to increase the amount of permeable surface and vegetative cover in the city in order to mitigate the heat island effect of developed areas, control storm water flows and reduce pollution.” 

[3] LU 55: Employ a design review process to promote development that:. . . Allows for diversity and creativity in building design and site planning.

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