Retiring city council member Tom Rasmussen is proposing a parade of amendments today that make city council member Mike O'Brien look like an urbanist again. Sort of.
O'Brien, a former Sierra Club leader, has (even despite yesterday's anti-Shell heroics) frustrated many of his green supporters over the last year and a half by ushering through legislation to limit pod apartments, slow infill development, and most of all, put a fee on new development to fund affordable housing, which density advocates think will discourage development and raise prices for renters. (He also supported legislation that capped ridesharing.)
O'Brien's latest legislation, up for a vote in his land use committee today, would limit density in low-rise developments (multifamily developments on the edges of single-family neighborhoods) by tweaking the math in the floor area ratio (FAR) equation that would end up giving developers less square footage to build on. The change would raise the threshold that allows builders to round up when calculating the amount of square footage they can develop in LR1 (low-rise one) zones. (O'Brien's legislation doesn't currently change the rounding threshold in LR2 or LR3 zones for denser developments like apartment buildings.)
Developers got O'Brien to back off on a number of other changes to the code, though, that would have subtracted the potential space for development by making builders count things such as stairways, corridors, breezeways, and basements in the allowable square footage calculation, thus giving them less space to build actual units.
Rasmussen's amendments bring all those changes back—plus add a couple new ones about lowering height limits and increasing setback rules that would shrink the development potential even more. Rasmussen also extends the rounding threshold change to LR2 and LR3 zones—and would apply it to more developments in any zone by raising the minimum on the size of developments that would be subject to the higher standard.
Rasmussen's office has not responded to a request for comment, but O'Brien's office tells PubliCola that O'Brien opposes Rasmussen’s amendments and will likely vote no on all of them—there are nine Rasmussen amendments in total—with the major exception of applying the tougher rounding standard.
Several members of the mayor's Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee, including Sightline director and environmentalist Alan Durning, sent a letter to the council yesterday urging them to reject Rasmussen's amendments writing that they will result "in less housing development in Seattle's multifamily zones and urban villages... Ironically, these are the very same places where our comprehensive plan dictates that we should plan for growth."
The HALA members have framed the vote as the first test of the HALA committee; O'Brien's legislation, though not precisely what the HALA committee members wanted, does reflect the HALA committee's efforts to amend an earlier, more draconian draft of the legislation. Rasmussen's changes reject HALA's input. Their letter concludes: "Council Bill 118365 contains the first HALA recommendation to come before council. It is a small but significant test of our ability to summon the political will to do what is needed to plan for our future and create neighborhoods that are more equitable, affordable, and open to all people."
Today's meeting is scheduled for two o'clock. If council member Sally Bagshaw, arguably the last urbanist standing on this council, shows up, that could be a sign that Rasmussen's amendments will get shot down. Bagshaw is not a member of the committee, but developers are urging her to show up and provide a critical committee vote to block Rasmussen's amendments.
Another Rasmussen amendment has drawn a protest letter from green architect Rob Harrison; Harrison, you may remember, is the smart do-gooder who got the city to pause on its headline-grabbing plan to build a park on the blighted property across the street from Roosevelt High School and consider building affordable housing there instead. In particular, Harrison wants the city to build what are known as passive houses on the lot; passive houses, Harrison's specialty, are superenvironmental houses that score better than the environmentally acclaimed LEED Silver buildings when it comes to carbon emissions.
Currently, O'Brien's legislation adds passive houses to the list of green developments that can get a bonus in the square footage equation. Rasmussen would take passive houses off the list.
In a letter to council yesterday asking the council t0 reject Rasmussen's amendment, Harrison wrote:
I spoke with council member Rasmussen at length today (thank you!) and understand that his motivation for the amendment lies in responding to single-family home-owners either in or adjacent to LR zones who object to the height and bulk of buildings built to current LR zone standards. These homeowners believe that any additional green building incentives will only increase the number of buildings that go after those incentives, and therefore their objections.
The objection appears to be against granting any additional paths to additional FAR at all, not against Passive House as an incentive specifically. Some may think that Passive House is "modern" and therefore objectionable, but Passive House is an energy performance standard, not a style of building. Any style of building can achieve Passive House levels of performance, though it is more difficult with some styles.
Passive House is already codified by the City as a pathway to Priority Green. These pathways should be consistent across City programs. It would be extremely unusual for a project that undertook Passive House certification to not also include other green building strategies that meet or exceed the threshold for Priority Green.