Retiring city council member Tom Rasmussen—he's not running for reelection in this year's districted races—is evidently intent on going out in a blaze of antidevelopment glory. Already pushing blank-check "neighborhood conservation district" legislation to halt development in single-family zones, Rasmussen set out yesterday to make it more difficult for developers to build in multifamily zones—the stretches of apartment and townhomes in low-rise zones on the edges of single-family neighborhoods in places such as Capitol Hill and Ballard.
Rasmussen arrived at yesterday's Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability Committee meeting with a series of amendments to PLUS committee chair Mike O’Brien’s low-rise legislation to ensure new housing would “fit better into neighborhoods,” Rasmussen said.
O’Brien introduced the original legislation, already an attempt to slow down growth and appease antsy neighbors, in late May. (O’Brien is running for reelection in District Six, which includes cozy single-family neighborhoods throughout Ballard.) But for Rasmussen and the neighbors who showed up yesterday to testify and support stricter rules, O’Brien’s legislation clearly didn't go far enough. Roberta McKenna, a Greenwood resident referred to streets with low-rise apartment buildings as “canyons of darkness,” while a Ballard resident compared the neighborhood’s growth to “cancer”—likening stricter density regulations to necessary “chemotherapy.” Another speaker supporting Rasmussen's amendments said Seattle’s growth needed to be more “organic” as opposed to “Monsanto-ized.”
Rasmussen was not quite as over the top (frankly, it was hard to match the dramatic rhetoric coming from the audience), but he went for it all the same: “Developers will not give a damn about the quality of life of a person who lives next door,” he said.
With the consistent support of council member Jean Godden, who's up for reelection in District Four (which stretches from the U District northeast to suburban Wedgwood and Sand Point), and retiring populist hero and council member Nick Licata, Rasmussen passed three of his eight amendments.
(One losing amendment—that only Godden supported—would have squashed, arguably the only urbanist aspect of O’Brien’s legislation, a green proposal to add superenvironmental passive houses to the list of developments that qualifies for square footage bonuses. It's worth pointing out Godden's support for Rasmussen's oddball amendment—developments with fewer environmental bona fides currently get the bonuses—because there's a potential passive house development in play in Godden's district. Her young, urbanist opponents, Rob Johnson and Michael Maddux, have expressed support for the housing development.)
O’Brien voted no on all of Rasmussen's amendments with consistent backing from urbanist Sally Bagshaw, up for reelection in District Seven, which includes downtown as well as single-family enclaves in Upper Queen Anne and Magnolia.
One of the amendments Rasmussen passed makes developers count exterior walkways, including the outdoor breezeways, as part of the square footage calculation, known as floor area ratio, or FAR; Rasmussen's change would limit the amount of space developers can use to build units. New, temporary council member John Okamoto joined Rasmussen, Godden, and Licata on that one. Rasmussen also passed an amendment—with support from Godden and Licata again, along with Okamoto too—that would require spaces between row houses and adjoining lots.
The third amendment Rasmussen passed—with council president Burgess and Godden and Licata in his corner—was the most significant. It expanded O’Brien’s legislation, which already increases the rounding up threshold in the square footage calculation that allows developers to build an extra unit, by both raising the threshold and broadening the turf it covers. O’Brien’s legislation only governed low-rise one zones (mainly townhome development), while Rasmussen's successful amendment extends it to low-rise two and three zones, which include apartment buildings.
Several of Rasmussen's other amendments to rein in low-rise development failed, though, including: one that would have penalized developers for interior loft development, or clerestories, in the density calculation, another that would have derailed basement apartments, and one that would have created new density limits on row houses. (Even Godden voted against the basement amendment, pointing out that basement apartments are a source of affordable housing; Licata sided with Rasmussen on the losing amendment.)
On top of the hissing that accompanied a string of Rasmussen defeats during the meeting, one livid attendee, who wanted council members to raise their hands during votes, shouted: “I thought you were going to [show] hands! We want to see who did this!”
There were some other people in the audience who (while not crazy about O’Brien’s original legislation themselves) liked Rasmussen's even less. Scott Starr, an architect with SMR, a local company that frequently works with nonprofit low-income housing developers, urged the council not to take up the laundry list of amendments. “Even under the current zoning code, our nonprofit clients avoid low-rise zones. The density limits, parking requirements, and FAR limits make it impossible for them to develop affordable housing in these zones,” he said during public comment. “This locks out a large portion of the city's land for nonprofit developers.”
Roger Valdez, director of Smart Growth Seattle, a pro-development lobbying group which has been adamantly opposed to the code changes since they were first introduced in 2014, said the PLUS committee “hedged its bets with neighborhood angst." He concluded: "The problem is they [the committee] are bargaining away a known good—more housing—for vague benefits like a neighbor's view of the sky."
The amended legislation will go to full council in early July, where it will be interesting to see how antideveloper council member Kshama Sawant, who wasn't at yesterday's committee meeting, votes. The fate of Rasmussen's amendments could be in her hands (along with council member Bruce Harrell, who also wasn't on hand yesterday).
Will Sawant back Rasmussen's extreme amendments (as we've noted, Sawant seems just as much about defending the sanctity of the 65 percent—the disproportionate amount of land that's zoned single-family—as she is about fighting for the 99 percent, who need more affordable housing)? Or will she side with her lefty ally Mike O’Brien?
Let's be honest, though: O’Brien’s original legislation, which already reins in multifamily development with limits on the size of top-floor development clerestories, mandates tougher square footage guidelines, and calls for stricter design review rules, is hardly pro-development.
Rasmussen framed his stand as a check on mayor Ed Murray's Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda task force, the group that's scheduled to come out with an affordable housing proposal later this month; a subcommittee of the HALA sent a letter to council earlier this week opposing Rasmussen's amendments.
"That committee," Rasmussen said yesterday, "does not take its responsibility to include livability among its goals and recommendations. The comments from the committee that were received do not reflect the concerns about livability to the extent that they do about density." He encouraged the committee to reflect on that.
Here's how the votes on the amendments broke down:
Amendment One (including all exterior walkways in FAR density calculations) passed with Rasmussen, Okamoto, Licata, and Godden voting yes versus O’Brien, Bagshaw, and Burgess.
Amendment Two (counting interior loft spaces in FAR density calculations) failed with Rasmussen, Godden, and Licata versus O’Brien, Bagshaw, Burgess, and Okamoto.
Amendment Three (removes Passive House certification as a FAR bonus) failed with Rasmussen and Godden voting yest versus O’Brien, Bagshaw, Burgess, and Okamoto.
Amendment Four (eliminating FAR exemptions for basement units) failed with Rasmussen and Licata voting yes versus O’Brien, Bagshaw, Burgess, Godden, and Okamoto.
Amendment Five (height limits for building facades and setbacks stricter than O’Brien’s) failed with Rasmussen Godden, and Licata voting yes versus O’Brien, Burgess, Bagshaw, and Okamoto.
Amendment Six (expanding O’Brien’s proposed increased rounding threshold to all low-rise zones) passed with Rasmussen, Burgess, Godden, and Licata voting yes versus O’Brien, Bagshaw, and Okamoto.
Amendment Seven (creating a density limit for row houses where none existed before) failed with only Rasmussen and Licata voting yes.
Amendment Eight (side spacing requirements for new row houses adjacent to preexisting properties) passed with Rasmussen, Godden, Licata, and Okamoto voting yes versus O’Brien, Bagshaw, and Burgess.
Josh Kelety contributed to this report.