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The Roosevelt Rezone Dustup: Simple Issue Uncovers Complex Questions

2011 June 12
by Chris Fiori

Only in Seattle does a seemingly benign rezone proposal in a relatively sleepy area for development raise discord that rises all the way to the top of a City Hall agenda. In a City facing major, vexing policy decisions (such as not-to-be-named transportation projects), the proposed rezone itself should be a relative no-brainer, if there is broad-based support for the underlying policies driving the process.

On its face, the rezone plan is a logical, diligent, response to local initiative and adds additional capacity around a future transit station. The degree to which many diverse, pro-sustainable development interests have come out against a SEPA DNS (repeat: since when does anyone pro-development oppose a DNS?) for a rezone nonetheless, suggests that adjustments to several key planning policies may need some consideration.

Roosevelt is one of the few places in town where a neighborhood group has supported adding density and, although minor in scale, changing some single-family zoning to more intense uses.  DPD, meanwhile, has published a very thorough analysis of the rezone, painstakingly documenting the rationale for each of the rezone changes in light of current City policies. While the rezone adds just 20% more zoned capacity (according to the analysis), the rezoned capacity would amount to approximately 2,000 new units, which, until the Roosevelt Station opens in ten years and provides 15-minute service to downtown Seattle, is plenty of capacity for now.

The most likely outcome of this rezone debate will be moderately increasing maximum heights to 6-8 stores between 12th and 15th Avenues, and between 65th and 66th, but stopping short of the locally reviled “towers” with 125’ heights as proposed by the Roosevelt Development Group.  Much of the remainder of the proposal will likely remain intact.

The more interesting aspects of this debate are the ongoing subplots that typify broader Seattle land use policy questions. These include:

  • How do we successfully balance the need for local participation in planning with a balanced regional growth perspective? The Roosevelt debate pits neighborhood stakeholders (largely existing residents) with those who arguably are supporting the interests of future residents, and, generally speaking, “smart growth” principles that are valuable to a much broader group of stakeholders. Should the 2012 Comprehensive Plan update seek to re-examine the degree to which land use planning power is vested in neighborhood plans?
  • How can we better balance planning considerations with market realities? Good planning tends to capitalize on market trends with positive externalities, rather than attempt to drive a market that is not viable.  Many of the proponents of increased density above the planned rezone capacities seem to think that all additional zoned units of capacity are equal, be they mid-rise stacked flats, high-rise stacked flats, townhomes, or single family homes, with each added unit of capacity reducing demand for units elsewhere, presumably in sprawling suburbs.  However, these products all have different supply and demand dynamics.  Seattle may in fact have plenty of development capacity for small, vertically stacked units but a shortage of affordable larger units (this speculation is a good subject for another post). If that statement was in fact true, adding larger units via “L” zones would tend to reduce sprawl more than adding capacity in vertical development above 65’. Is there a way that we can better align market realities, zoned capacities by unit type, and growth targets that are embedded in City policy making as directed by the Growth Management Act?
  • Is Seattle ready to consider any major changes to single-family zones? The Roosevelt rezone debate is being played out against the backdrop of policies favoring the near-absolute protection of single-family zoned areas, focusing debate at on adding additional height in areas already zoned for mixed-use and multi-family.  Some additional heights in these areas are sensible, anchored by strong urban design principles and market support. However, keeping 65% (at last estimate) of the City’s total land mass locked up in single-family zones places an incredible burden on mixed-use zones to build out to perceived maximum densities. The cottage housing ordinance was a step in the right direction, but figuring out how to yield more units, particularly two and three-bedroom units, in areas within easing walking/biking distance of transit stops will require a re-visitation of single-family zoning policies. What other rezoning criteria could be enacted that would revitalize and support moderate density neighborhoods while adding to the City’s stock of 2-3 bedroom units near transit?


Chris Fiori is a Senior Project Manager at Heartland, LLC, a real estate consulting, investment, and development firm based in Seattle. Chris is a Roosevelt-Ravenna resident, and recently finished serving on the Seattle Planning Commission.

Disclosure: Heartland manages an LLC that currently owns a Roosevelt-area development site.