“The table is now set and the developers will have a feast”
Council Comments From The Lowrise Legislation (CB 118385) Debate
July 6th, 2015 by Councilmember Rasmussen: (Click here for original text)
“There has been a great deal of interest in the lowrise legislation voted on by the Council today, which was passed by a 8-1 vote. I was the lone “no” vote. Below are my edited remarks from today’s Full Council meeting, which explains my opposition to the bill:
“My remarks will cover three key subjects relating to this Council Bill:
First: The original intent of this legislation;
Second: The legislation that is before us today; and
Third: I will comment on forthcoming recommendations from the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee which we sometimes call HALA.
1. Original Intent
“This legislation was originally proposed to carry out the intent of the Lowrise (LR) Zone Code that was updated in 2010.
The LR zone was to be a Multifamily Zone that serves as a transition between the Single Family zone and the more dense midrise and highrise zones. It is to be the least intense multifamily zone, with a limit of 3 or 4 story buildings.
But what we saw was that some provisions of the new code allowed developers to construct buildings 10’-15’ higher than intended. The result is that today there are buildings that tower over their neighbors; and more townhomes are crowded onto lots than had been intended.
At the request of Councilmember Clark, the former Land Use Committee chair, the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) drafted legislation last year to ensure that development was consistent with the goals of the LR zone.
In 2014, after months of research, community meetings, and consultation with developers, architects, and neighborhood volunteers DPD produced very good legislation.
Last fall that draft legislation was appealed to the Hearing Examiner by some developers, and the Hearing Examiner ruled against the developers.
Unfortunately, that legislation was not introduced to the Council.
2. CB 118385
“The bill before the Council today (CB 118385) was introduced by Councilmember O’Brien, the current Land Use Chair, with some of the provisions of the original 2014 DPD version intact.
But this is not a clean-up bill and does not “fix the problems.” It is weaker and undermines the intent of LR zone. This bill will continue to allow taller and bulkier buildings than were intended for LR zone.
Because of that I introduced 8 amendments in committee to bring the legislation in line with our original vision for this zone.
Three of the amendments passed and that is an improvement, but is not good enough. I had hoped that my colleagues would support and bring forth other amendments but that has not happened.
The bill as amended does not restore the intent of the 2010 legislation.
To have a city with diverse neighborhoods with rich cultural history and which supports retaining neighborhood character requires thoughtful and complex planning, with more density in some neighborhoods than others.
We have zoned the City to accommodate greater height and density in the mid-rise and the high-rise zones and we should continue our policy of having the LR zone be a less dense multifamily transition zone between single family and more intense multifamily zones.
With this legislation however, the table is set and the developers will have a feast with more demolition of older affordable apartments and homes, to build more expensive housing resulting in more displacement of renters in a zone that was to be the least intensive multi-family zone. And for that reason I will be voting no.
3. Forthcoming HALA Recommendations
“My third area of comments is directed to the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee (HALA).
It appears that the weakening came after some members of a HALA subcommittee commented upon the DPD legislation. This is very concerning because the HALA charge includes recommending strategies on both affordability and LIVABILITY.
The HALA subcommittee’s comments to this legislation didn’t balance livability and greater density. Balancing the two would have looked like the 2014 DPD version.
Future Growth / Conclusion
Opposing sides have sought to turn discussion of this legislation into a question of whether you are for or against density or growth. To be clear, I support density and growth – but we do not have to bulldoze our neighborhoods to increase density.
People who have concerns about this legislation have been called NIMBY’s by some developers’ advocates, but that characterization is a tactic to discourage participation and to avoid discussing the issues.
More legislation will be coming this year related to growth and affordable housing.
Councilmembers, we must do more than allow people to speak for only 1 or 2 minutes at a hearing on this issue.
We must make sure that everyone is provided the opportunity to provide meaningful involvement in planning and in accommodating growth.
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The History of the Issue – by Seattle Speaks Up
In 2010, the Seattle City Council changed the land use code to allow buildings as tall as 54 feet (5+ stories) to be built throughout our lowrise multi-family neighborhoods (termed Lowrise 3 or LR3) in growth areas. For many decades before that, Seattle’s strict zoning code limited LR3 buildings to a maximum of 30′ (3-4 stories), preserving the green, human-scale character of our urban neighborhoods and making Seattle one of America’s most livable big cities.
While the City Council’s intentions may have been good, it is now clear that the 2010 code changes incentivized the demolition of established neighborhoods, the displacement of thousands of longtime residents, rapid gentrification, the destruction of our architectural heritage, and the decimation of our urban tree canopy. Neighborhoods once famed for economic, ethnic and cultural diversity are being replaced by an affluent monoculture. Developers feigning concern for affordable housing are rapidly demolishing our stock of older, affordable housing and replacing it with far more expensive units marketed to well-heeled clients.
To address these concerns, in 2013 a group of neighbors formed Seattle Speaks Up and posted an online petition asking City Council to scale back on destructive aspects of the 2010 Lowrise Code changes. You can see the text of our original homepage here and the text of our Petition to Save our Neighborhoods here. Our petition has accumulated nearly 1500 signatures. We were joined soon thereafter by the neighborhood group Livable Ballard, whose related petition now has well over 1000 signatures.
Based on the concerns raised by signers of the SSU petition, DPD drafted corrective legislation in Spring 2014 to address some of these unintended consequences. While this proposed legislation did not address all of the neighborhood concerns, it was an important step in the right direction. In late 2014, before the corrective legislation could be voted on by City Council, the developers’ lobby (Smart Growth Seattle) sued the city. This small group of developers wanted to block the corrective legislation proposed by DPD, claiming that it would force up the cost of housing. DPD successfully defended its proposed corrections: its top planners argued in sworn testimony that the proposal would have no measurable effect on the cost or affordability of housing, that it would have no measurable impact on traffic, that Seattle had zoned capacity far in excess of what it needed to accommodate future growth, that buildings permitted under the 2010 revisions were “disrespectful”, and that the changes proposed by DPD were minor and routine. In effect, DPD’s top people swore that the developers’ claim that we are attempting to choke off the supply of housing was spurious and without merit. From DPD’s sworn testimony, it is clear that we have plenty of buildable land in the Multifamily Zones. It is also clear that the only thing really at stake here is the developers’ margin of profit.
The Hearing Examiner ruled against the small group of developers and agreed with DPD. Thus, the way was cleared for the corrective legislation to go to City Council for a vote – or so we thought. (Click HERE for the Hearing Examiner’s Finding and Decision.)
Litigation having failed, the developers reverted to the tried and true path: a backroom deal. Members of the Mayor’s already developer-friendly Housing Affordability & Livability (HALA) Committee formed a “sub-group” composed almost exclusively of developers and their allies to work on “zoning issues”. This group, working closely with Councilmember Mike O’Brien, then proceeded to almost completely gut the proposal that DPD had successfully defended in court. The result was the eviscerated legislative proposal brought before the PLUS Committee on June 2nd, 2015.
Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, recognizing the inadequacy of Councilmember O’Brien’s proposal, introduced 8 amendments to the eviscerated version of the bill. Those amendments restored critical provisions that had been stripped out of DPD’s original May 2014 proposal.
Ironically, some Councilmembers tell us that DPD is now adamantly opposed to the proposal it defended in court, claiming that it would adversely affect the cost of housing. This complete reversal of DPD’s position suggests that either DPD is being disingenuous now, or that its top planners gave false and misleading testimony under oath before the hearing examiner.
In the June 16 2015 committee vote on Rasmussen’s 8 neighborhood-friendly amendments, 3 passed and 5 failed.
Rasmussen received some support from Councilmembers Licata and Godden. Councilmembers O’Brien and Bagshaw voted entirely against neighborhoods, and Council President Burgess voted against all but 1 of the 8 amendments supported by the neighborhoods. Click here to see the exact vote tally and a description of each amendment.
Perhaps most disappointing, Councilmembers Harrell and Sawant, likely intimidated by the power of the developer lobby, did not show up all. They were the only Councilmembers not to cast a vote on this crucial issue.
The bill, including the 3 amendments that passed, went to the full City Council for a vote on July 6th 2015.