Micro apartment buildings throughout the Wallingford Urban Village? It’s possible under new zoning recommendations recently released by the City. Even though Mayor Ed Murray has left office, his Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda or HALA lives on. The HALA upzones (known as Mandatory Housing Affordability or MHA) are being championed by our own District four City Council member Rob Johnson, who is chair of the City Council’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning committee.
A key part of this housing agenda is zoning changes to allow for larger, denser developments throughout the City. In exchange for allowing developers to build more lucrative buildings, the City is requiring developers to pay into an affordable housing fund or build affordable units on site. (My guess it that developers will all choose the in lieu fee option and close to none of the affordable units will actually be built on site.) The in lieu fee option will result in several years delay until the new affordable units are built while our older, more affordable housing stock is being torn down to build luxury units.
Last year, the City released its first draft zoning maps for the urban villages affected by the upzones. The Wallingford Urban Village saw significant changes in its zoning, which currently includes a large amount of single family zones, but under last year’s proposed changes would have gone to Residential Small Lot up to Low Rise 3 (five stories with mico apartment buildings possible). And, of course, no parking.
Since that initial draft zoning map release, the City has released its Final Environmental Impact Study (FEIS) to look at the impacts of its proposed zoning changes. The Environmental Impact Study compared different scenarios:
Alternative 1 – No change in zoning.
Alternative 2 – Mandatory Housing Affordability or MHA (the upzones straight up). These are the first draft zoning maps that were released in 2016.
Alternative 3 – MHA upzones with a twist – less density in areas with affordable / cheap housing but MORE density in areas like Wallingford with more expensive housing, or as the City likes to say “high access to opportunity / low displacement.”
Preferred Alternative – Somewhere in between 2 and 3.
The Environmental Impact Study is supposed to study alternatives to evaluate which one will accomplish the City’s goal with the least impact. But despite there being countless ways to address our housing affordability crisis, the City chose to only study upzone “alternatives” as if upzones are the only option available.
Deep in the Appendix of the Environmental Impact Study, after scrolling past pages and pages of how good their outreach (*cough* propaganda) has been, you can find the new zoning changes for Wallingford on page 136 out of 406 as your computer counts it (or page 62 as written in the text of the document). To save you the trouble of finding this yourself, I have “un-buried” the documents for you here (if you are confused by what you see on the maps, there is further explanation as you scroll down):
In Appendix H, are the “clean” zoning maps, this is the one for the Preferred Alternative:
The City is proposing to remove all Single Family zoning inside the Urban Village boundaries. In the “Preferred Alternative” Maps, the smallest jump up in zoning from Single Family to Residential Small lot has been removed. Most of the Single Family Zones would increase to Low Rise 1, 2 or 3. What do all of those designations mean? To see the City’s explanation, click on this link, and scroll down to “MHA Development Examples.” But the quick and dirty explanation is this:
Single Family (SF): A Single Family house, one accessory dwelling unit allowed
Residential Small Lot (RSL): Splitting up lots, cottages, etc.
Low Rise 1 (LR1): Three story apartment buildings, row houses
Low Rise 2 (LR2): Four story apartment buildings, townhouses
Low Rise 3 (LR3): Five story apartment buildings, row houses
When reading the zoning maps above, the zoning designation on the left is the current zone and on the right is the proposed upzone, i.e. “SF / LR2” means your zone is currently Single Family and the City wants to change it to Low Rise 2. Now if your property is down hill from the new development, the wall next to your house might be higher than what is listed above. And flat roofs, which are common now, make the property feel higher than a slanted roof. As far as I can tell, micro apartments would be allowed in any of the Low Rise zones. And no parking is required inside the urban village boundaries.
Unfortunately, the different alternatives pit one area against another or one neighborhood against another. In the Preferred Alternative, some of the area between Stone Way and Aurora justly gets some relief from the massive zoning increases seen in Alternative 2. But on the other hand, the Preferred Alternative removes all Residential Small Lot zoning in favor of more significant increases.
Proposed zoning changes are most dramatic inside the Wallingford Urban Village, but areas outside of the Urban Village are not off scot-free. With the exception of Single Family and Low Rise 1, every other zone (Low Rise 2, 3 commercial…) will see at least an additional one story of allowable height. In the case of Low Rise 1 the height is remaining the same but increased density (more, smaller units) will be allowed. Look for the shaded areas on the last map above to see if you are in or near one of these zones. The same is true if you’re inside the Urban Village but your zone is staying the same. It’s actually not, it’s rising to allow for an additional floor.
Confused yet? I know my head’s spinning just trying to get this right to explain it to you. I’m not an expert, I just spend way too much time reading about this stuff (ask my husband).
Some changes are a slight improvement over what was initially recommended. In Low Rise 1, for every four “small” studios that are built, developers will be required to build one “family-sized” unit of at least 800 square feet and two bedrooms. Not suitable for a large family, but this is an improvement and will allow for more options for small families or roommates to split costs. It’s difficult to decipher what counts as “small,” but my best research indicates that if the apartments are over 400 square feet then the family-sized unit requirement goes away.
Ideally Low Rise 1 would be all family sized housing and greater than 800 square feet to accommodate larger families. Currently Low Rise 1 usually results in townhomes and does not allow for micro apartments. The new recommendations would allow for either a building of three 220 square foot studios for every one 800 square foot two bedroom or a building full of 401 square foot studios. A slight improvement over previous recommendations that would have allowed all 220 square foot studios, but still not something that integrates well into a single family zone.
My commentary? As I’ve said before, there are no reports out there that justify Seattle needs these massive citywide zoning changes to accommodate our population growth. These upzones allow the City to charge developers fees to build affordable housing, but it also incentives tearing down our most affordable housing stock at an increased rate. The City has failed to show us that the end result will be a net increase in affordability.
Mayor Ed Murray persistently dismantled the authority of everyday residents to have any meaningful say in how our neighborhoods grew while replacing it with endless meetings that gave citizens no real power. If the City were to work with the neighborhoods in true neighborhood planning efforts, such as we had in the 1990s, I’m confident that we could accommodate growth without neighborhood character being sacrificed at an urbanist alter. This current development boom is making corporate developers very wealthy while the rest of us look around at our city and wonder what the hell happened? It doesn’t have to be this way.
- The final decision on these zoning recommendation will be made by the City Council. Email all of the City Council members at [email protected] and let them hear your voice.
- Land Use Bulletin for the release of the Final Environmental Impact Study (FEIS)
- City of Seattle HALA information. Sign up for HALA newsletter to stay informed.
- City of Seattle City Council website. Sign up for agendas from the Land Use, Planning and Zoning Committee. Contact City Council members and read their blogs (Council member Lisa Herbold’s blog is particularly informative).
- Wallingford Community Council provides a different perspective to counter the City’s pro-HALA stance. Sign up for email notices regarding land use issues, attend meetings or become a member.
- Land Use lesson for the day: “Micro Apartments” and “Apodments” do not appear to be defined in the land use code as far as I can tell. The technical term is Small Efficiency Dwelling Units, or SEDUs, which are legal in all Low Rise (LR) and Neighborhood Commercial (NC) zones and are a minimum of 220 square feet.
- Want background on HALA? Read this blog post I wrote last year to explain what the heck is going on.