City Hall

City Hearing: Speakers Oppose Five-Story Building in Dense Neighborhoods

At a city hearing about a potential rollback of building heights in low-rise zones, speakers decry densification.

By Erica C. Barnett January 15, 2014

Last night, in the packed cafeteria of Lowell Elementary School on Capitol Hill, 200 or so folks showed up to weigh in on a potential change to the city's zoning rules that would effectively reduce maximum building heights in parts of the city zoned low-rise-3 (or, in planning jargon, LR-3).

Back in 2010, the city's Department of Planning and Development adopted new zoning rules that allow developers in LR-3 zones to bundle together various "bonuses" that enable them to build taller than three stories. Developers get bonuses for things like building "butterfly" roofs; they can also build taller if a building is on a sloped lot, putting one story partially underground.

The result is that a few buildings have gone up in LR-3 zones that are as much as five stories tall, including at least one on Capitol Hill that's also a microhousing development—basically, the apotheosis of the sort of development some (some!) single-family neighborhood types like to hate. (I previewed last night's hearing here). 

City officials were walking into a minefield: A neighborhood meeting, prompted by neighborhood protests (Capitol Hill Seattle has background here) over building heights and too many new people, many of them young, lower-income renters, moving into and changing the "character" of their neighborhood. 

As one might expect, the hearing was heavily weighted toward the pitchforks-and-torches crowd. DPD's Geoff Wendlandt didn't even manage to finish explaining the ground rules—"We're not here to talk about microhousing or parking," but about the specific changes DPD made in 2010 and how they might be changed—before people started shouting him (and each other) down. "You're destroying our neighborhood!" one man yelled from the back.

Similarly, when Wendlandt tried to explain that "LR-3" doesn't automatically limit buildings to three stories—"That's just the name of the zone," he said—he was shut down by loud laughs. 

(Mike Podowski, DPD's urban planning supervisor, didn't fare much better with the crowd, who got shouted down when he asked speakers, again, to stick to the subject of the meeting and not focus on why they don't like microhousing or why they think all new apartments should have parking. "Can we talk about the height of the aPodments?" one guy shouted, prompting loud applause.)

The public comments were fairly chaotic, with people shouting out from the back of the room and talking over people who waited in line to comment. One woman who did make it up to the mike, who identified herself as a 40-year resident of Capitol Hill, compared demolition of single-family homes for multi-family buildings to "Warsaw and Dresden" and arguing that "there are homes here that were built with trees that no longer grow." 

Sure, that seems like a reasonable comparison. 

Other speakers suggested collusion between DPD and developers (one homeowner, a woman who said she'd lived on Capitol Hill since 1969, said DPD had failed to give public notice for the meeting—not true, and kind of an ironic coming from someone who obviously found out about the meeting) and demanding to know "how many meetings" DPD planned to hold with developers, and why they wouldn't be open to the public. 

A few speakers did argue in favor of the 2010 changes, as well as density in places like Capitol Hill more generally.

One young man (video here), who said he moved to Capitol Hill from his small town, where "I wouldn’t dare get caught dead walking down the street holding hands with another man," said that "to restrict growth whether either because of fear of change of fear of losing our parking spot, really, I think, goes against our culture of inclusiveness, against what makes Seattle what it is, what makes Capitol Hill what it is."

"By restricting growth we’re essentially telling people you can only live here only if you have enough income to get a mortgage on a single family home or pay crazy high rents because there are just so many more people looking for apartments here than there are apartments in the market.

DPD plans to make a recommendation to the council about lowering heights in LR-3 zones in the first quarter of this year. 


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