by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
“Bottom line: I never envisioned or intended that developers would be able to achieve five stories in LR3 zones. I think five stories is too big a change in height and scale for the LR3 zone.”
That’s a quote directly from a memo that City Councilmember Sally Clark sent to Diane Sugimura of the Department of Planning and Development on October 18, 2013. The “LR3” concept to which Councilmember Clark is referring to is short for Lowrise Multifamily Zoning 3, a specific kind of development zoning that covers, among other areas, much of Capitol Hill. The interpretation of the current LR3 codes, established in 2010, by some developers has been the source of much tension in the city over the past year. In our own neighborhood, the debate around LR3 use often goes by the shorthand of “aPodment” or micro-housing development because many of the properties in question are micro-apartment buildings with the aPodments brand.
On January 14, the DPD will hold a public meeting to discuss changes to lowrise development codes. City officials will ask for input from the community about corrections to the code, specifically seeking comments from residents of areas zoned as LR3. In Capitol Hill, a significant portion of residential space near Broadway, 15th Avenue East and other mixed-use thoroughfares fall under LR3 zoning.
The current lowrise zoning codes came about in response to rapid growth in Capitol Hill and other areas deemed “urban centers, urban villages, and station area overlay districts.” Currently, our neighborhood fits in the “urban village” category, though it will soon also include a station area overlay with the light rail station on schedule to open in 2016. Many residents believe that micro-housing developments are too tall and densely populated for the neighborhoods in which they are built.
Alterations to existing building codes are already underway in the Seattle City Council. On December 11, 2013, the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability (PLUS) committee voted on various parts of the regular “omnibus” series of corrections to current DPD codes, but those are minor changes that clarify wording and eliminate typographical errors. The most significant clarification in the latest omnibus was a provision that exempts rooftop greenhouses from height limitations on single-family lots. The project to revise lowrise zoning regulations will be more specific and far-reaching, including changing regulations that define floor space and “dwellings.”
In addition to reviews of lowrise zoning codes, the DPD is also continuing its long-term analysis of a “living building” and other sustainability-focused alternative development codes. This process began in large part thanks to the construction of the Bullitt Center in Capitol Hill, an office building considered Seattle’s first carbon-and-energy-neutral commercial property (the city’s Technical Advisory Group holds monthly meetings at the Seattle Municipal Tower to provide public updates on the Living Building Project).
Capitol Hill isn’t the only neighborhood that has seen controversy related to the lowrise zoning. An activist group called One Home Per Lot actively petitioned the PLUS committee about developments in LR1 and LR2 zones that found home-owners and developers building multiple, slender houses on single-family lots. The City Council put a moratorium on this behavior in 2012, which was extended through 2013 in preparation for legislation that would make the prohibition permanent.
In the area east of Broadway, several micro-housing buildings have gone up over the past two years, leading to vocal opposition from community groups and the Capitol Hill Community Council. In April of 2013, CHCC member Jeffrey Cook spoke to The Capitol Hill Times about the perceived impact of micro-housing in the neighborhood. As well, a letter from the CHCC’s letter asked the Seattle City Council to put a halt on all micro-apartment developments until legislation could be drafted to address resident concerns. City Council never instituted a moratorium, but promised incremental action in mid-2013 as micro-apartment developments continued construction.
The meeting on January 14 (which will take place at 6:30 p.m., at Lowell Elementary School) will be the first of several steps that will end in an overhaul of the current zoning codes. In her October memo, Councilmember Clark demanded that the presentation of legislation to the council be no later than the end of 2014’s first quarter. Outgoing Councilmember Richard Conlin was the chair of the PLUS committee. His vice-chair was Tim Burgess, while Mike O’Brien took the remaining seat with Clark as the alternate. The PLUS committee will become directly involved in changing lowrise codes following a public review and a final report from the DPD. The council will analyze the DPD report and vote on a new piece of legislation by spring of 2014.
Further public meetings with the DPD are in the works, though none have been officially scheduled apart from the upcoming gathering on January 14. The office also encourages residents, builders and developers to send feedback through DPD Senior Planner Geoffrey Wentlandt.