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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.


9 Responses leave one →
  1. JoshMahar permalink
    April 4, 2011

    Thanks David, this is really great summary for us laypeople. A couple of questions/comments though:

    – What exactly is the difference between rowhouse and townhouse? Is it simply the configuration of the units on the site or are there some actual technical differences?

    – I’m glad that developers have the option of doing some smaller units, but it seems that some incentives for bigger units would be good too. For example, even though San Francisco is far from affordable, it would be even less so there weren’t so many 3-6 bedroom units with shared bathrooms and living areas. Bigger units are also valuable for families looking to stay in the city but who want a little more space than the typical 2 bedroom offers.

    – I’m glad that parking requirements are out but you’re absolutely right that it will have little impact on actual parking construction. Restricting bundling would have been a lot more courageous.

    • April 9, 2011

      A rowhouse is a subcategory of townhouse. A rowhouse is required to have the pedestrian entry on the street face and can have only one unit between the street face & the back of the lot. Townhouses have more flexibility as to how the units are arranged on the site.

      As for big units/small units/parking/no parking…I think the best thing we can do at this stage, from a legislative point of view, is to get the code out of the way & let developers build to the marketplace. If there’s a demand for these types of housing & they can be built profitably, then they’ll get built. If there’s low demand, or that demand can’t be met while turning a profit…well then legislating otherwise through the land use code isn’t going to make it happen.

  2. April 4, 2011

    Just wanted to thank you for publishing this and give an extra shout-out to David as well as Brad Khouri AIA (Chair of the AIA Seattle Multifamily Housing Code Task Force) and Brandon Nicholson AIA who also spent countless hours on behalf of AIA Seattle to promote this legislation, which passed in December 2010. It was nearly a three year effort and included many players. Congrats and thank you to Councilmember Sally Clark who led the way in her committee and sponsored the legislation. You can find AIA Seattle’s position statements on this issue and other info here: Onward…

  3. Matt the Engineer permalink
    April 5, 2011

    Great summary. I can’t wait to see what a Seattle-style rowhouse looks like.

  4. Valerie Knepper permalink
    April 15, 2011

    You mentioned the City’s elimination of the parking requirements for multifamily housing in urban centers and urban villges. Good move, I agree with the comment that unbundling would have been a good step. Can you provide a link to the code language re parking – we at MTC are doing a lot of work with locals on refining parking requirements, always looking for new examples of implementation. (email to my address would be best, if possible)


  5. Karina permalink
    March 4, 2013

    If a rowhouse is not in the area of urban centers or urban villages, does that mean the rowhouse still has parking requirement? And what is the parking requirement of this? One parking space per unit?


  6. September 16, 2013

    great blog it was very helpful.

    Karin I am researching this info and so for what I’ve gotten from it is yes 1 space per unit.

    I also would like to confirm if I am right or wrong on the following….

    Does this FAR thing mean a 5000 sqft lot with LR2 zoning. I can have up to 6500 sqft of living space? I use 5000 x 1.3 because i read if you meet certain green energy guidelines you can have 1.3 FAR and unlimited density (min 250sqft/unit).

  7. David Moehring permalink
    November 11, 2016

    It’s been several years since the rowhouse evolution into the Seattle housing market. Have we seen the improvements in housing densities and diverse ownership as desired, or has Seattle continued on a path of over-sized, overly dense, environmentally irresponsible, and profit-driven (double-your-investment) development?

    We’ve seen several indicators that would suggest that Seattle has not understood the ramifications of its zoning code.

    First, the City’s Council Bill 118683 amended amending policy to remove language regarding “protecting” designated single family areas that are predominantly in single-family residential use. The City HALA recommendation refers to single-family neighborhoods that should be filled with duplexes, triplexes and stacked flats. Although increased density with low-rise and midrise zones is encouraged, the elimination of single-family zones will lead to urban plight to areas outside of Seattle. Residents of single-family homes will seek communities and neighbors that accommodate their preference for a private family setting and a back-yard with trees. A blend of residential densities has done more to sustain diverse and stable communities. As a compromise, allowing backyard cottages and accessory dwelling units (ADU) within single-family lots will support mixed income affordable housing in close proximity to transit and walkable retail amenities. Mixed-income communities are not possible in 1200 to 2000 square foot 3-bedroom homes selling for over $500,000.

    Second, although low-rise zone density limits (SMC 23.45.512) have modified the rounding rules in August 2015 to allow only 3 rather than 4 townhouses on a typical 6,000 SF or smaller Seattle lot, they have not reduced the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) and increased the private amenity areas accordingly. As such, developers are continuing to build larger and less-affordable homes taking up the same amount of space with a reduced number of dwellings.

    Third, developer applications for rowhouses in order to bypass the limits established for townhouses is abusing zoning intent. Rowhouse classification allow the developer to get around maximum area requirements— where the lowrise density limit used to be 2000-1600 sq ft per unit, the current LR1 zone has rowhouses at “no limit”. Moreover, the code states “Rowhouses are attached side by side along common walls with each rowhouse directly facing the street with NO OTHER PRINCIPAL HOUSING UNITS BEHIND THE ROWHOUSES.” Yet, developers are subdividing lots in half, building rowhouses along street frontage, and building townhouses on the rear parcel.

    Many residents are concerned on multiple levels— beyond the preservation of what we have — about the over-density within residential communities. They sometimes do not have the tools to react to their concerns. The city’s residents, planners, architects, and real estate community needs to unite to defend a sustainable Seattle: one with diverse housing options, affordably-sized, while preserving our green canopy and environmental critical areas. Do let me know of any opportunity for the community to address the many land-use issues with the blinded or overwhelmed City Council.

  8. November 26, 2019

    The article is bright and clear, with no additional worthless
    facts or else. The speech is equally brilliant and vibrant, so
    the further I read, the more I do like it!

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