by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Capitol Hill, especially the low-rise residential region east of Broadway, has become Seattle’s poster child for community action in real estate development. In addition to constant input on major projects like the Broadway light rail station and its environs, the community spent much of the past two years pushing back against the larger housing developments being built in traditionally single-family neighborhoods. On January 14 at Lowell Elementary School, the Seattle Department of Planning and Development met to discuss changes to low-rise building codes for such cases.
There have been many grassroots efforts, statements of position, and petitions related to development in Capitol Hill in the past 18 months, but the project that got the attention of Seattle City Councilmember Sally Clark was a petition by Seattle Speaks Up, which gathered over 1,000 signatures of residents concerned about perceived abuses of the existing building code. Councilmember Clark responded quickly and called on the DPD to deliver a report on the subject. In mid-2013 the council met with the DPD and the Office of Housing to address loopholes in the code, but no significant action was taken by the date of Clark’s response to the petition.
The community concerns mostly focused on building height, and other elements of the code that allow developers to modify floor space calculations using things like stairways and corridors, which many people found misleading. Seattle Speaks Up especially pushed for a provision that would reduce the low-rise 3 (LR3, single-family zone) height limit from 40 feet to either 30 or 35 feet. At the time of the meeting, that provision was dropped by the DPD’s plan. Other changes, such as removing allowances related to below-ground floor space and small aesthetic modifications, remain.
Capitol Hill Community Council At-large member Jeffrey Cook, who has been a leading voice in the development reforms movement, updated the council at a recent meeting regarding the DPD’s process. He described the meeting on January 14 as “very contentious,” highlighting the degree of passion that the subject brings out in community stakeholders. He also reiterated Seattle City Council’s decision to continue issuing building permits for the contested developments while reforms are under consideration, saying, “They will not put a moratorium on this height.”
Community members affected by the unexpected size of these new developments often contribute stories of their own experiences at design review and community council meetings. At the recent CHCC meeting, Cook related one resident’s story of a planned rooftop garden in a new development that looks down at her bathroom skylight. According to a recent update, the developer of that structure responded by shifting the roof garden to the other side of the building.
Some developers are beginning to respond to community concerns by offering outreach opportunities. While there have been no recorded meetings at this time, the CHCC and various protest groups continue to encourage residents to reach out to developers in their neighborhoods
At this time, the DPD is only reviewing height and some floor space regulations. Further consideration of other Capitol Hill development issues like rezoning low-rise neighborhoods, recalculating allowable density and reviewing parking availability will have to come at a later date. Because the DPD is reviewing the building code for all LR3 zones in Seattle, considerations for neighborhoods other than Capitol Hill are part of the discussion. Other areas like Wallingford have also seen their own community action groups, though concerns in less dense areas tend to focus on large additions to existing single-family properties or the construction of multiple single-family units on a single plot.
Further meetings between developers, the DPD and the Seattle City Council are expected in coming weeks. The DPD is still on schedule to provide a complete report to Councilmember Clark by the end of the first quarter of 2014.