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More On Why The South Lake Union Rezone Should Be Passed Without Further Delay

2013 March 4
by Matt Roewe

NOTE:  The following is a letter by Matt Roewe in support of the South Lake Union rezone that gets into the technical details and provides a nice followup to my letter on the same topic.


Dear Seattle City Councilmembers,

In light of the current council considerations regarding the South Lake Union rezone legislation, I’d like to share my thoughts and concerns as a professional and committed stakeholder in this process.

  1. The proposed legislation is the result of a thorough eight-year stakeholder and technical process: Eight years of public engagement, intensive workshops, a thorough EIS process and a well-received urban design framework all contributed to proposed legislation for the district. Many compromises have already been made since the EIS, including removing height increases in the Cascade neighborhood and panhandle area, and reducing height limits throughout the district.  The council was continuously informed and briefed during the process, and several council members participated and contributed as well. While the council needs to conduct a thorough review of the proposal, I encourage you to seriously consider the results of the stakeholder process as well as the comments from the Planning and Design Commissions.
  2. Timing and economics: Other cities would certainly embrace the fantastic job creation,  improved tax base and vitality we are fortunate to have in South Lake Union. The re-zone is crafted to build on this vibrancy and economic success to ensure a complete, sustainable and diverse community. Also Seattle is one of the nation’s top life science and research markets that needs the support this legislation provides.  Eight years of hard work have gone into this, and it should move forward while the economic momentum is strong.
  3. Tower bulk standards: Towers per block, height limits, floor-plate limits, setbacks, view corridors and floor area ratios have been carefully crafted by DPD to create an appropriate urban form specific to this district and less intensive than downtown zones. The stakeholders who were involved during the eight-year process, the South Lake Union Community Council, the Planning Commission and the Design Commission have all endorsed the current proposal.  These standards are highly technical and appropriately balance the desire for community benefits from additional allowed development with the desire to encourage the very development that has transformed the South Lake Union neighborhood. While I encourage the council to conduct a thorough review, appropriate consideration needs to be given to the thorough process and the recommendations from the organizations who have been intimately involved in the issue and specifically asked by the council for input. Added requirements are likely to result in fewer, if any projects, proceeding and providing the desired public benefits
  4. Incentives vs. inclusionary housing: The proposed legislation highly rewards affordable housing as the primary beneficiary in the incentive program.  As housing director Rick Hooper says, incentive zoning alone will only meet about 10 percent of the desired affordability goal. New construction cannot carry the burden alone. All neighborhoods and Seattle residents need to contribute, and more time is needed to explore and define the appropriate solution. The council should examine affordable housing incentive criteria on a level playing field across the whole city.  While this is an important issue, it should not delay the approval of a single neighborhood’s eight-year process. The current legislation can also have a provision added to accommodate fee-in-lieu adjustments on a regular basis.

In general all of these issues are intertwined with each other. If the rezone criteria and incentives are made too onerous and not taken up by developers, we will simply get less housing in this district. This would be disappointing since one of the greatest concerns of the stakeholders was getting a better balance of residential and commercial development. If we believe in walkable, sustainable urban development that leverages infrastructure investment, we should not create more barriers to developing residential properties in the South Lake Union neighborhood. Alternatively, accommodating future growth in other, less central and development-ready neighborhoods, such as Laurelhurst, Seward Park and Magnolia, will certainly be more difficult and contentious.

The recent reports from Spectrum and Heartland show the lack of consensus on inclusionary and fee-in-lieu programs. Should we consider requiring a single-family home owner adding a detached accessory dwelling unit (this was a recent up-zone) to rent one bedroom out to someone with 60 to 80 percent median income? If not, then why would we ask the more urban, sustainable and responsible form of dense multi-family housing in South Lake Union to be the only one required to be inclusionary? This imbalanced approach must be addressed holistically across the city.

I understand the council wants to secure appropriate public benefit for allowing greater development capacity; however, the proposed legislation already accomplishes this goal. Requiring more will likely cause developers to not take advantage of the added height, and no housing benefits will be realized. Just going to a high-rise construction type can add $50.00 per square foot over wood frame projects.  Further fees beyond those proposed or creating mandatory inclusionary housing are likely to jeopardize the financial viability of any tower project, which effectively means most developments will only build to the current “bread-loaf” base capacity.  No affordable housing will be the outcome.

Already two developers with large sites have decided to only build to the current zoning and not pursue the proposed rezone option. Only two office buildings are in the advanced queue to take advantage of the re-zone. No developer yet has formally proposed a residential tower. That is a strong indication of the limited market for residential high-rise. If the council creates even less incentive, then the eight-year effort by so many stakeholders will be for naught.

Please pass the legislation as proposed. It’s well vetted and balanced.

Matt Roewe, AIA