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Seattle Multifamily Zoning Update Digest

2011 April 4
by David Neiman

< In Seattle's Central District, an example of lowrise multifamily housing that interfaces well with the street; photo: Seattle DPD >

(Note: This post by David Neiman originally appeared on Seattle’s Land Use Code, a blog for code nerds recently launched by uber-nerd Roger Valdez.)


On April 19, 2011, Seattle’s new Multi-Family code comes into effect. Five years in the making, it’s a huge step forward for multi-family housing in Seattle. It has many good features, but it is a product of the DPD wordsmith factory, so lending itself to easy summary isn’t one of them. In no particular order, and with no attempt to be comprehensive, here are some noteworthy things about the new code:

FAR (Floor to Area Ratio).
Say goodbye to lot coverage, say goodbye to density limits. FAR is the new method of measuring and regulating overall development potential. FAR = Gross Floor Area / Lot Area (if that helps). The FAR allowed is variable depending on the zone, the housing type, and certain project features can earn you FAR boosts & FAR exemptions. This approach is very straightforward, easy to measure, & easy to tweak in the future.

One thing about FAR is that it’s very important to get the right number, and it just so happens that it’s not particularly easy to figure out what that right number is. In most of the studies that I saw during the code development process, it seemed clear that the wheels start to come off the cart for most ground-based housing types above an FAR of around 1.2. Below that, they tend to have fairly generous open space, above that they start to get a little heightenbulkenscaley. In most instances, the new code allows FAR of 0.9 to 1.2 for townhouses & rowhouses, depending on zone & project features. That looks about right to me.  Apartments can get up to FAR 2.0. More on that later.

New Housing Types
One major goal was for the code to get out of the way & allow a multiplicity of traditional housing types to be developed—cottages, townhouses, rowhouses, apartments, condos, live-aboves, and everything in-between. One item that was high on everyone’s wish list was to get more small apartment development into the mix. To this end, apartments have been given more FAR, and have been given an extra story of height as well (in order to have somewhere to put all that extra building area). I’ve seen a lot of interest from small scale infill developers who want to take a crack at doing some small apartments, but we’ll have to see how many actually go forward. If you’re an apartment developer, you can pick up a piece of NC-zoned land today for about the same price as an L-3 property, but the NC land has no setbacks, requires less open space, less green factor, and has twice the allowable FAR.  So…we’ll have to wait & see.

Rowhousing is now possible under the new code. In an attempt to get things kick-started, they’ve sweetened the pot with some FAR bonuses that are not given to townhouses. That particular move strikes me as a bad idea. I can’t think of a public policy reason to prefer one type of ground-based ownership housing over another. Small time developers move in a herd & find a groove very easily. It’s very easy to accidentally skew the market where all of a sudden the answer for every site is a rowhouse.

Parking requirements have been eliminated in urban centers and urban villages, which is where the majority of L-zoned land is located. This is one of those issues where it was absolutely the right thing to do, the political risks associated with it are huge, and the political upside of doing it is almost non-existent. Bottom line: Sally Clark has got some major cojones.

What people will do with this new flexibility remains to be seen.  Townhouse builders are very reluctant to take units to market without a private parking space. Apartment lenders want to see a parking ratio of about 0.7 to 1. Ironically, the guys that are stuffing rooming house rentals into townhouses might end up being the ones doing the zero parking development, and all of their stuff is developed using loopholes in the code that existed before parking requirements were eliminated.

I expect to see a degree of change enabled by the new parking requirements. An extra unit here and there, an occasional congregate housing project, but I’d be surprised to see wholesale transformation in how new buildings are developed.

There’s no incentive program in the new code, so the primary feature that affects affordability is the removal of density limits. The new code doesn’t allow more actual building mass on the site than the previous code, but it does allow you a lot more flexibility about how you chop up that building mass, which allows developers that potential to create a larger number of smaller units. Look for average unit size to go down and average unit price to go with it.

Density Limits

In the previous code, Density Limits were one the primary means of regulating development potential. In the new code they have receded in importance.  They are used primarily as a way of encouraging developers to follow an incentive path. The same features that get you higher FAR gain you either more density, or a waiver of the density limit altogether.

Green Factor
Green factor is the rubric the city uses to determine how much landscaping is required on your project. The concept is nice – it’s a flexible menu that you can pick and choose from.  You have to score x points but you get to decide how best to do that.

The problem with green factor is that it was designed for commercial buildings. Commercial buildings don’t have a lot of open space, and what space they have is generally a quasi-public shared amenity, mostly ornamental in nature. When they rolled out green factor for housing, they doubled the required score (since housing has more open space to work with), which puts pressure on the open space to become heavily planted with trees, shrubs, groundcover and the like. Spaces like this make great habitat for micro-fauna but less so for large mammals, particularly the kind that like to barbecue & play catch with their children. The way that GF has been rolled out in this code seem unrealistic to the way people live & doesn’t accommodate the ordinary prerogatives of the people who are going to own these units, which will be do whatever they damn well please with their private open space.

I hope that DPD will eventually take a second look & scale back green factor for housing.  If they ignore it, we may get a situation where enormous amounts of time and money are spent designing, documenting and reviewing the green factor compliance for landscape designs that very quickly become lawns, decks and patios.

More density, smaller units, project type diversity, less parking, more process… coming soon to an Urban Village near you!


David Neiman is a Seattle-based architect, and as a leader of the Congress of Residential Architects’ (CORA) Northwest Chapter, has been a tireless advocate for meaningful updates to Seattle’s multifamily zoning.