My proposal for new microhousing regulations

August 13th, 2014

As Chair of the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee (PLUS), I recently convened a working group of neighborhood residents—including people who live in or near microhousing buildings—and developers of microhousing to help dig into the micro-housing regulations that were proposed by the Department of Planning and Development earlier this spring. We convened this group because it was clear that neither side, not the neighborhood activists nor the developers, was happy with the proposed regulations. I wanted to hear the issues at the crux of each side’s concerns so I could help navigate a path forward to establish permanent regulations for this type of in-demand housing.

The working group met three times over the past two months, with each meeting lasting at least two hours. As the convener and facilitator, I tried to focus the conversation on specific issues each side were interested in, such as size requirements of the units, when design review is appropriate, parking regulations, and where future microhousing and congregate living buildings should be located. At the last meeting, I shared my proposal for regulating microhousing. It differs from the original DPD proposal in a number of ways, which are nicely framed up in this matrix compiled by City Council Central Staff. A stand-alone document outlining my proposal is available at this link and on the PLUS Committee agenda for today, August 13.

The fundamental change with my proposal would replace the existing model of micro-housing with “small efficiency apartments.” Each of these would be treated as an individual unit for purposes of counting towards permitting, growth targets, fire and life safety requirements, and the like. Along with the requirement that they be individual units, we also provide new flexibility for these studio units to be built smaller, to respond to the changing market demand for small, more affordable units. Below, I will summarize my proposal on some of the biggest issues we discussed in the working group.

How Big and Where Built?

The new requirements would allow small efficiency apartments to be built with an average size of 220 square feet within the building, with individual units as small as about 180 square feet allowed.

In addition, we know there is some share of the market that would like a very small unit and shared kitchen facilities, more like a dormitory than individual studio apartments. My proposal will allow these to continue to be built as congregate housing, but specifies that they can only be built in higher density zones in our urban villages and urban centers. These are the places that most likely have access to transit and amenities to support a higher density community. In multi-family low-rise zones, congregate residences will not be allowed. However, in these zones, small efficiency apartments may be built.

Design Review

My proposal would require most new small efficiency apartments and congregate housing to go through design review, depending on the size of the building, which is measured by gross floor area. For multifamily projects in which more than 50% of the units are small efficiency dwelling units and for congregate residences (all zones):

  • Streamlined Design Review (not appealable) for projects containing 5,000-11,999 square feet of gross floor area.
  • Administrative Design Review (appealable) applied to projects containing 12,000-19,999 square feet of gross floor area.
  • Full Design Review (appealable) applied to projects containing 20,000 square feet or greater of gross floor area.

For multifamily projects in which 50% or fewer of the units are small efficiency dwelling units, the standard Design Review threshold for the zone where the project is located would apply.

Parking Requirements
In Station Area Overlay Districts, Urban Centers, and commercial and multifamily zones within Urban Villages near frequent transit service, no minimum parking requirements would apply. In all other areas, one space will be required for every two small efficiency dwelling units in a building or for every four units in congregate housing buildings.

 

Next Steps

With the working group now complete, the ball is back in the City Council’s court. In today’s PLUS Committee, we are discussing the working group and my proposal for microhousing and congregate housing. We plan to bring it back to Committee for more discussion on Friday, September 5, our next PLUS Committee meeting. For more information on the PLUS Committee, check out our web page.


Setting minimum density requirements in areas where we want density

August 13th, 2014

Today, on Wednesday August 13th, the PLUS Committee will receive a briefing on Council Bill 118167, related to minimum density requirements in the city’s most dense and walkable neighborhoods.

Density helps create better pedestrian environments because it means more people on the street–whether they are coming from home or work, or out shopping in local businesses or eating at local restaurants. More people on the street level helps these community gathering places and businesses thrive, which in turn make for a more desirable pedestrian environment. This density can also help make an area transit-friendly by potentially increasing the number of people who take transit and reducing the number of cars needed (more walking, biking and transit means less congestion, too). Granted, that means our local and state governments need to be doing more to expand our transit capacity, but the point is that transit goes where the people are. Creating dense, vibrant business districts across the city benefits can have numerous benefits to the city.

This issue of minimum density development emerged last year when single-use, low-density developments were proposed in neighborhood business districts better suited for mixed-use development. For example, in the case of a proposed drug store in Wallingford, the single-story pharmacy with adjacent parking lot and drive-through window did not fit the vision outlined in the Neighborhood plan for a more dense transit and pedestrian-oriented neighborhood business district.

As a result of public concern over these developments in neighborhood business districts, interim regulations were enacted on September 16, 2013 to halt similar future developments while the Department of Planning and Development worked on permanent regulations to address the underlying issue.  Now, with the interim regulations due to expire and DPD ready with their proposed permanent regulations, Council is poised to take up the legislation in September. The new regulations largely reflect the interim regulations, with a few additions.

In short, the bill would require that new development in pedestrian-designated areas of officially zoned “Urban Centers,” “Urban Villages,” or “Station Area Overlay Districts” be built to at least half the allowed maximum density or “floor area ratio (FAR)” in that zone.  Projects of lower density (for example, a single story store with a parking lot), won’t be allowed in these areas. Take a look at this map and the bold black lines that designate where these new regulations will apply.Areas where minimum density regs will apply

We don’t want or need minimum density everywhere, but by ensuring we get density in our priority pedestrian-oriented areas, we ensure we are creating great walkable, transit-friendly hubs both downtown and in our neighborhoods.

If you’re interested in the details, here are some additional resources:


Guest blog post: The dangers of gas-powered leaf blowers

July 30th, 2014

[Note: The following is a guest blog post. Let us know in the comments or via email what you think Seattle City Council ought to do about the issues Maddy raises here: mike.obrien@seattle.gov.]

Maddy B, guest bloggerHi, my name is Maddy and I have recently graduated from my senior year of high school. After reaching out to Councilmember O’Brien about the need to regulate the use of gas-powered leaf blowers, he invited me to write this guest blog post to help educate his constituents on what I have learned and what I see as the dangers of gas-powered leaf blowers.

I am really worried about the repercussions of leaf blower use. Thankfully, a study on leaf blower use and its consequences, commissioned by the Seattle City Council, is scheduled to come out in September 2014. I am pleased that the Seattle City Council is taking the risks of leaf blowers seriously and I am hopeful that this study, requested by Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, will get more than a hearing and that it will lead to actual change.

This earth is our home, our bodies are our home. While innocuous and seemingly unharmful, gasoline-powered leaf blowers cause harm to both. Whenever we use these leaf blowers, we trade health for momentary expediency. As leaf blowers push leaves from one place to another, they also spin “dust particles, including herbicides, pesticides, and other contaminants up from the ground into the air” we breathe as reported by the Santa Monica Office of Sustainability and the Environment. However, despite the unsettling idea of breathing in whatever may have been on the ground, the emission of particulate matter from leaf blowers is even more disturbing.

Particulate matter is one of the most harmful pollutants according to the California Environmental Protection Agency. It is so small that it can lodge in the deepest parts of our lungs where our bodies can’t get rid of it. Particulate matter can worsen asthma, bronchitis and other lung diseases and decreases the body’s ability to fight off infection. Recent studies even suggest that exposure to particulate matter can lead to premature death for the elderly.

The irritating noise produced by gasoline-powered leaf blowers is actually, in and of itself, a health hazard for children. Stephen A. Stansfeld and Mark P. Matheson report that adult bodies have developed strategies to cope with extensive, irritating noise but that this ability is not fully developed in children. Although extensive noise can “impair performance and increase aggression” in adults, children’s reading comprehension and long term memory can be negatively affected as well.

And it gets worse. The California EPA records that many gasoline-powered leaf blowers operate on two-stroke engines which are designed in such a way that up to 30 percent of the fuel can be lost unused, as exhaust. The main pollutants of such exhaust include hydrocarbons, which combine with nitrogen oxide to form ozone, and carbon monoxide, a toxic gas that can kill. The California EPA also reports that gasoline powered leaf-blowers emit benzene, acetaldehyde and formaldehyde, a carcinogen which can cause cancer. As the American Lung Association states, “two-stroke engines like lawnmowers and leaf or snow blowers often have no pollution control devices. They can pollute the air even more than cars” which have catalytic converters to convert exhaust into less harmful compounds. This important feature, however, is lacking in a lot of lawn equipment. A study done by the car researchers at Edmunds.com found that two-stroke leaf blowers actually pollute 23 times more carbon monoxide and almost 300 times more non-methane hydrocarbons than a 2011 Ford Raptor. The study concludes that 30 minutes of yard work with this leaf blower would pollute the same amount of hydrocarbons as the 3,900 mile drive from Texas to Alaska in the Raptor.

I am worried by all this evidence. I am worried that we are trading a healthy future for speed. I am dismayed by the damage we are doing to our own bodies, yes, but also for the damage we unknowingly do to others.

About 100 cities have placed restrictions or banned all leaf blower use. It is time for Seattle to follow—for ourselves, our children and the environment. The Seattle Municipal Code on noise control states that “It is the express intent of the City Council to control the level of noise in a manner which promotes commerce; the use, value and enjoyment of property; sleep and repose; and the quality of the environment.” It is time for the City Council to uphold the Municipal Code and ban gasoline-powered leaf blowers.

As much as I hope that the recent look into leaf blower use in Seattle will create change within the law, Councilmember Mike O’Brien told me in a recent meeting that he pays the most attention to issues which have strong community support for them. Therefore, it is time to start organizing. I really do believe that together, we could follow many other cities and ban gas-powered leaf blowers. I have a petition at http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/ban-gas-powered-leaf. The goal is 1,000 signatures by the time the study comes out in September. If you are interested in helping organize or participate in a letter campaign, contact me at banblowersseattle@gmail.com. Please help me. This is very important.


O’Brien, City Council Seek Emergency Order Prohibiting Transport of Flammable Crude Oil through Seattle

July 23rd, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 7/23/2014

 

Councilmember Mike O’Brien

O’Brien, City Council Seek Emergency Order Prohibiting Transport of Flammable Crude Oil through Seattle
First nationwide action by a City Council to call for immediate end to oil train transport near neighborhoods

SEATTLE - City Councilmember Mike O’Brien and all eight of his council colleagues signed a letter calling for the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to issue an emergency order prohibiting the shipment of Bakken crude oil in legacy DOT-111 tank train cars. Bakken is highly flammable and easily ignited at normal temperatures by heat, static discharges, sparks or flames, and vapors which may form explosive mixtures with air and spread along confined areas such as sewers. The Seattle City Council is the first in the country to support the petition, filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club and ForestEthics.

The corresponding letter highlights the O’Brien-sponsored oil train Resolution 31504, which was signed by Mayor Ed Murray and adopted by Council in February. O’Brien’s resolution urged Secretary Anthony Foxx to aggressively phase out older model tank cars used to move flammable liquids that are not retrofitted to meet new federal requirements. Following the explosion of DOT-111 train cars in Quebec, which killed 47 men, women and children, Canada immediately took action to begin phasing-out of the DOT-111 cars.

“Dozens of people have died in crude-by-rail accidents when DOT-111 tank cars were punctured and spilled flammable crude,” said O’Brien. “The catastrophic explosions can be triggered by a single spark and yet they travel on tracks underneath downtown and flanking both Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field. Seattle cannot afford to sit idly by with public safety in our city at risk.”

Earlier today the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed new rules that would phase out the use of the DOT-111 cars in two years. City Council’s letter in support of the EarthJustice petition seeks to protect the public from oil spills and explosions now. According to the letter: “Banning the shipment of highly flammable crude oil in legacy DOT-111 tank cars is necessary to abate the unsafe conditions posing an imminent hazard to human life, communities, and the environment.”

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, areas up to one-half mile or more from an accident site are considered vulnerable. An incident requiring warning, evacuation or rescue could easily affect the more than 600,000 people living and working in densely populated sections of Seattle.

BNSF Railway reports moving 8-13 oil trains per week through Seattle, all containing 1,000,000 or more gallons of Bakken crude. Many of the City of Seattle’s public safety concerns were highlighted in the April 2014 testimony of Seattle’s Director of Office of Emergency Management before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies in the Committee on Appropriations.


The importance of preserving bus service in Seattle

July 17th, 2014

As a board member of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, I am casting my vote today in support of Resolution 12, which would ask Seattle voters to approve a funding package to help retain bus service in the City when Metro starts making cuts next year. If we are serious about our climate goals and want to do everything we can to accommodate the growth we are experiencing in this city, it is critical that we approve Resolution 12.

The data show that more and more people are utilizing different ways of getting around the city.

  • 2012 data from SDOT indicates that Seattle’s population increased by 11%, traffic volumes decreased by 10%, and transit ridership increased by 40% in the past ten years.
  • Commute Trip Reduction data shows that 50% of downtown commuters are getting to/from work via transit, compared to just 27% driving alone.
  • Recent Rapid Ride numbers show that the West Seattle to Downtown use is up 70% over the routes that line replaced. Use is up 39% from Ballard to Downtown.

All of these the data points demonstrate that the work we have been doing for the past decade or so is working—more people are taking transit and other ways to get around than ever, even as the population of the city continues to grow. These stats also tell us that we must continue our progress and not take a step backwards, which is what we would be doing in Seattle if we let these cuts happen. Preserving bus service in Seattle will prevent putting thousands of cars back on the road and making congestion worse.

Finally, the impacts on low-income households that rely on bus service to get to work, to school, to the doctor, to the grocery store or anywhere else around town would be devastating. A lot of debate has gone into determining the best, most progressive funding to help us preserve this critical bus service.  In the end, cutting bus service is the most regressive thing we can do in this situation, so I am supporting this package today.  But our work does not end today. Beyond preserving existing transit service, we need to expand the transit service to meet our current needs and to do so we will need additional revenue sources, including options we are not using today.

By acting today we hold the course for the short-term while we continue to work with our regional partners to secure more sustainable, more progressive, long-term funding that allows us to grow our transit system to meet the growing demand we are seeing in Seattle.


Explaining my no vote on the new taxi, for-hire and TNC regs

July 14th, 2014

Today, I was the lone vote against Council Bill 118140. This bill was worked out by the Mayor’s office in a negotiated deal with industry stakeholders from the Transportation Network Companies (TNCs, such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar), the taxi industry and the for-hire vehicle industry. There was no opportunity for the public to vet this bill, and no time for the City Council to explore the major policy questions inherent in the bill.

My first choice would have been to work the bill longer by referring it back to the Committee on Taxi, For Hire and Limousine Regulations. That motion failed. In the name of public safety and with the support of the insurance industry, I also tried to amend the bill to eliminate the “insurance gap” included in the bill, but that amendment failed as well. I could not in good conscience support the bill that introduces major policy changes with absolutely no public process and that undermines existing state insurance regulations set in place to protect public safety.

I think it is incredibly unfortunate that we are here today with massive pressure to pass a bill that I would hazard to guess few of my Council colleagues have read all 113 pages of. This massive pressure comes in the form of a threat of an initiative from the TNCs. These multi-billion dollar corporations told the City of Seattle that if we didn’t simply rubber-stamp this deal today without any scrutiny, we will face an initiative that writes the law to the sole favor of their bottom lines.

And we feel this pressure because we know that a TNC-backed initiative would likely pass for two reasons. The first is simple and it is why the Seattle City Council became the first municipal government in the country to legalize their operations: people in Seattle want the service that the TNCs provide. The second reason we think their initiative would pass is because of the simple fact that they have nearly unlimited resources with which to put into a campaign to win at the ballot in November.

So given this threat, and given this fear that we could end up with a worse law for consumers and drivers than we have today, why did I vote against the bill and want to spend more time working to strengthen it?

Simply put – we have a legislative process for a reason, and while it is not always the most efficient and doesn’t always yield the best result, it is a public process that allows us as the elected policy makers in this city to weigh in on the most important policy decisions in any one piece of legislation.

Our legislative process is also designed to give the public an opportunity to examine and weigh in on the important policy decisions that we have to make. I am not comfortable moving on a bill that hardly any of us have had time to wrap our heads around, let alone the general public.

I respect the Mayor’s effort to build a consensus from the taxis, for-hires and TNCs around this deal, but that does not absolve us on the City Council of our public responsibility to ensure the deal is a good one for consumers and drivers. In this case, with a massive bill that legalizes a new service and adjusts regulations for an existing industry, there are numerous important policy issues that should be examined and discussed by this body. But under the threat of an initiative we were forced to gloss over numerous significant policy questions. Consider the following policy issues that I feel require further examination.

Insurance

Currently, the State sets the insurance requirements for taxis and for-hires. This ordinance would take that out of the hands of the state and allow the city to grant exceptions to the state requirements, for a “provisional period.” What are the implications of this? Why would we allow weaker insurance requirements than what the state requires? How is the public better served by this change?

If we accept this bill, we are creating a system of confusion that, in the event of a serious accident, could leave victims hanging out to dry while insurance companies are caught in extensive litigation to determine liability. This so-called “insurance-gap” has been identified as a major concern across the country, wherever TNCs operate. The gap exists when a driver is on the app but does not yet have a passenger. The TNCs claim this is not commercial activity and so the driver is covered by her/his personal insurance. The problem is that insurance companies say that being on the app is commercial activity and that personal insurance does not cover any action a driver takes while active on the app, passenger or no passenger.

Insurance professionals have had very little no time to weigh in on this and help inform our thinking. But by supporting this bill today, my colleagues have willingly shirked our responsibility to close this gap and that our own goals for public safety in this industry are being met.

Medallion system

This ordinance fundamentally changes the taxi and for-hire industry by converting vehicle licenses into “medallions,” essentially creating property rights for the owner. Making this change is a fundamental policy change for our taxi industry and that comes with significant pros and cons. Some say medallions are great for owners—an investment that is transferable, will add value, and allow owners to borrow against it. On the other hand we hear that medallions will cement an unjust power structure within the industry between owners and the drivers who lease their vehicles.

Fees

This ordinance introduces a $0.10 fee per ride for TNCs, with the possibility of adjusting the fee to cover the cost of enforcing the regulations pertaining to TNCs. In addition, the fees are not to exceed $525,000 in year one for TNCs. The policy questions we are ignoring here include: what is the basis for these numbers? How will FAS determine what share of its enforcement is for TNCs (as opposed to taxis and for-hires)? What if the enforcement of rideshare regulations costs more than the proposed cap of $525,000? Why isn’t there a similar fee cap proposed for taxis and for-hires?

In-vehicle cameras

We have heard from a number of drivers and passengers that cameras are essential to protecting their safety. We have no real basis for understanding what the real safety implications are for getting rid of security cameras.  But by accepting this bill today, we have lost the opportunity to engage in this debate.

Driver Licensing

Taxi drivers currently have to take days of training before being granted a license. An earlier version of this bill required a 4-hour online training. Now it just requires “a training.” What kind of training, and how much will actually protect passengers? I can’t tell you right now.  According to this bill, anyone can get a provisional license with the right paperwork within 48 hours. The catch is that this documentation is not verified for 60 days. What kind of information could slip by us in the interim? Who will be allowed to drive that shouldn’t be allowed to? We have no way of assessing that at this time. How can we ensure passengers are getting into a vehicle with safe drivers if we pass this bill today?

Enforcement

Many of the penalties in this ordinance may seem comparable to what we required of taxis and for-hires, but we have not had the chance to look at the enforcement adequately given the new realities of the rideshare industry. Overall, it is unclear how the penalties for violating the ordinance are fairly distributed between the companies and the drivers. At what point should the companies be responsible for the actions of their drivers? How can we trust that this is a fair penalty system that will actually deter violations, when it is those who are set to be punished making up their own penalties?

 

Because of we were unable to dig into and resolve these major policy issues, I voted against Council Bill 118140.


The North Rainier rezone

May 20th, 2014

City Council is currently considering a rezone of the North Rainier area surrounding the Mt. Baker Transit Center. Development of the North Rainier area is an issue that the City and community have been working on for over 15 years. The North Rainier Neighborhood Plan was adopted in 1999, and formally updated in 2010. In 2011, the Mt. Baker Town Center Urban Design Framework was adopted, which provided a vision for design of the Rainier blocks near the light rail station in order to try to create a more vibrant business- and pedestrian-friendly environment there. You can learn more background at the DPD’s North Rainier project website.

In the Fall of 2013, the Department of Planning and Development transmitted rezone legislation implementing the changes envisioned in the urban design framework. The Council held an initial discussion on that legislation in November 2013.

This spring, the Council resumed deliberation on the proposal by hosting a public hearing on May 1, 2014, to hear feedback specifically in regards to the rezone proposal put forward by the Department of Planning and Development (links to the ordinance and DPD Director’s analysis and recommendation). In the original neighborhood plan and throughout the plan update processes, the community has consistently called for a plan that yields a true “town center” feel by bringing economic revitalization and a more walkable environment to North Rainier.

I support the North Rainier rezone and think it has the potential to realize transit-oriented development in Seattle. The rezone will set the table for future development that brings jobs, housing and various commercial uses that everyone wants to the North Rainier area. Critically, the plan promotes a more walkable and bike-friendly neighborhood that is better connected to the investments we have made in bus and light rail there.

The rezone itself includes many components, including changes to the height limits of buildings near the light rail station.

  • Expansion of the station-area overlay district to support activation around the transit station.
  • Application of the “Seattle Mixed” zone along Rainier to provide a better pedestrian-oriented environment. These changes also increase heights from 65’ to 85’ on several parcels.
  • Upper-level set-backs and street-level development standards that bring more light onto the street and require transparent street-facing facades along Rainier and parking to be behind retail rather than in front.
  • Increase heights up to 125’ on two blocks where the current Lowe’s store is, to create the potential for a future campus-style hub for a major employer. Lowe’s has a long-term lease on this site, so is not planning to leave anytime soon and has been engaged as part of this rezone effort.
  • Implementation of the incentive zoning program on blocks that are increasing in height to provide workforce housing in new construction.
North Rainier Rezone map

The map of the area to be rezoned (click to enlarge).

At the public hearing, people who spoke for the rezone and against the rezone all expressed a desire for a healthy retail businesses, more good jobs, less traffic through their neighborhood and a place where kids and families feel safe walking.

There are divergent views however on how to achieve this vision. Many folks who want to see this expressed opposition to 125’ building heights along Rainier or MLK. We heard fears that the jobs at Lowes and Pepsi could be lost in part because redevelopment could bring more housing rather than commercial uses.

I support 125’ buildings because I believe they are the key to bringing in a large employer or employers in the Rainier Valley who will bring new jobs to fill up those 10 to 12 stories of offices. I don’t believe we will see high-rise residential develop in this area because of the economics—it is not likely that the rents will support high-rise steel residential construction. We also don’t see low-income housing developed at this scale, as the economics of buildings at four to six stories work better for our non-profit housing partners in the city.

This site is unique because it is two large parcels that have the opportunity to create a campus-style development. Few of these plots of land are left in the city and the rezone proposal has provisions for pedestrian-oriented crossings and open space as part of the development in order to attract this type of development.

I have also heard many concerns that there has been insufficient community outreach to people in the North Rainier area. My staff has counted 44 community meetings in the past five years related to the update of the neighborhood plan, the development of the urban design framework and this rezone. This has been a long and thoughtful planning process and one that does not stop here. After the land-use decisions, SDOT will be working with the community to design and implement the transportation improvements associated with the neighborhood plan (see this slide and memo from SDOT on TOD at Mt. Baker).

I believe this rezone is the culmination of years a planning and a good step towards creating a healthier North Rainier neighborhood where it is safe to walk and bike, where retail succeeds and where new jobs for the Rainier Valley could be located.

We will continue our discussion on the proposal in committee today – May 20 at 2:00pm in Council Chambers and again on Tuesday June 3 at 2:00pm.


Update on Small Lot Legislation

May 16th, 2014

I’m writing today with an update on the small lots legislation. The Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee voted out an amended version of the legislation at our last meeting (May 6), and I will explain some of the main provisions of the amended bill below.

The final bill will be in front of the Full Council for final action on Monday, May 19.

Striking a Balance

There is no question that some neighborhoods are experiencing unprecedented growth. Many of the rules that were created around growth and development happened under different market conditions, and it is time to revisit some of these rules.  In addition to neighbors concerned that seemingly unchecked development is detrimental to their neighborhood character, I have been hearing from those who want more housing options in the city, or homeowners who own property who would like to develop their lots. My main goal throughout this process is to strike a balance.

The proposed provisions, designed to help new single-family developments on under-sized lots fit into existing neighborhoods, is undeniably complex. It represents a compromise among deeply held values. I want to keep our neighborhoods unique and strong, while recognizing that growth and density can add value and vibrancy to a neighborhood.  I think this legislation provides us with a path forward to achieve both those goals. It would prevent the most egregious examples of unchecked development (the “alley skyscrapers”), while allowing property owners to reasonably develop their land in keeping with the scale on their block.

Here is an example of a small lot home that would no longer be allowed under the new legislation:

Small lot home not allowed under new rules

Legislation Details

The legislation closes exiting loopholes in the law, requires new developments to be in scale with the lots on their block, adds new development standards to lots with a buildable area less than 3200 square feet, and allows for remodels of existing homes with limitations.

  • Closing loopholes: The legislation prohibits new single family homes on lots less than 2500 square feet and stops the use of historic tax records and deeds to create new lots. It also prevents the use of “panhandle” or odd-shaped parcels to create a lotthe minimum lot size is calculated based on the largest rectangle on the lot and developers can no longer add a small panhandle behind the neighbor’s property to create a developable lot.
  • Requiring development in keeping with the neighborhood scale: The 75/80 rule requires that new development on undersized lots be at scale with other lots on the same block-face.  In a SF 5000 zone, lots between 3750-5000 square feet (75% of 5,000 SF) can only be developed if their size is equal to 80% of the average lot size on their block. The 100% rule requires that new lots above the minimum lot size (2500 square feet) and below the 75% threshold (3750 square feet in SF 5000) may only be created if their size is equal or greater than 100% of the average lot size on their block.  The City estimates there are 200-300 lots in the City that could be created under this rule.
  • Creating new development standards on small lots with a buildable area less than 3200 square feet: Lots with a buildable area less than 3200 square feet are limited to 22 feet plus five feet for a pitched roof. Developments on these lots will also have new design standards, including a structure depth requirement based on the width of the lot, and requirements related to the placement of windows to consider the interior privacy of neighboring houses. Any new development on a lot with a buildable area less than 3200 square feet will also become a “Type II” land use decision that requires notice to neighbors and an opportunity to appeal to the hearing examiner.  The Council also added language to explore options for providing notice to neighbors for lot boundary adjustments that would be adopted in a separate piece of legislation.
  • Remodeling existing homes: Home-owners may make additions to their existing homes that exceed the maximum height limit so long as their addition is limited to 1000 square feet, or the square footage of their first floor, whichever is greater.

Previous Amendments That Did Not Pass Committee

The following items were removed from the legislation at the last PLUS Committee meeting.

  • Removed proposal that abutting lots be combined – the original proposal required abutting undeveloped lots in common ownership to be developed together, as a single lot,  if their average lot size was less than 3200 square feet.  I supported removing this provision because it unfairly singled out homeowners with adjacent undeveloped lots.  If the same lots were next to each other, but under different ownership, they could be developed.  The other provisions in the legislation ensure that abutting lots can only be developed if they are also in scale with the lots on the rest of the block.
  • Removed proposal for modulation on the sides of houses – the city requires modulation, or change in façade, to provide visual relief and architectural interest in some low-rise and multi-family zones.  Modulation is not required in single family zones, and may be overly burdensome or inhibit good design in these areas.  Design standards related to structure depth and window placement were retained in the ordinance.

Amendments To Be Considered at Full Council Meeting on Monday

On Monday, Mike will propose one additional amendment to help ensure that homes are in scale with the neighborhood.

  • Façade-height requirement – in addition to the new height restrictions, this amendment would restrict the height of the façade, or the part of the house that is facing the street to the maximum allowed height (22 or 25 feet) from the finished grade (often the sidewalk or driveway) on lots less than 3200 square feet and lots with a block face of 30 feet or less.  This provision will help temper the scale of homes built on sloped lots or raised lots by limiting the façade height at street-level.

In addition, the Full Council will consider eliminating the 100% rule on Monday, allowing for only the 75/80 rule on new lots. If this amendment passes, undeveloped lots between 2500 and 3750 square feet can be developed only they were established in the public record prior to 1957.

Thanks for Your Input

I continue to hear from both neighbors who are concerned about the size and scale of new development in their community, and from the people who are moving into these new homes and the people who build them with concerns about new regulations.

I don’t believe all small lot development is inherently bad for a neighborhood. But I don’t believe that it should be allowed to happen without significant checks and balances. I believe that the new provisions the City Council is considering will help new single-family developments on under-sized lots fit into existing neighborhoods. This legislation has been the result of months of community input, and I will continue to remain available to listen to your concerns, as we work on this legislation, as well as further land use issues coming up.

Thank you for your continued engagement.


Let’s Give Seattle Voters a Chance to Save Transit Service

May 12th, 2014

Councilmembers Tom RasmussenMike O’Brien and Sally Bagshaw issued the following statement today:

“Metro bus service is critical to the people of Seattle. It is necessary for those who cannot afford cars and depend on buses to get around. It is essential for our environment that people have multiple options for mobility and it is essential to reducing traffic congestion as well. Too many buses in the city are at capacity, and with ridership at an all-time high we simply cannot afford to lose bus service.

“Seattle voters deserve a chance to preserve bus service in the city and we are committed to giving them that opportunity in November. We are exploring every option available to keep the busses running in Seattle in cooperation with our colleagues on the City Council and Mayor Ed Murray. We are also committed to working with King County Metro and cities in our region to ensure that we preserve and build a strong regional transit system.

“We commend Mayor Murray for his leadership in developing a proposal, which will be released next week. We also commend Keep Seattle Moving for keeping public momentum going to ensure we do not lose the bus service we so critically need in Seattle.

“On Monday, May 19 we will have a briefing in City Council Chambers at 9:30 a.m. to learn more about the impacts of the potential loss of bus service in the City and to learn more about the Mayor’s proposal. We will convene additional City Council meetings as needed throughout the summer to develop a proposal to send to the voters for the November ballot.”

Editor’s note: The City’s deadline for submitting a ballot measure to King County Elections for the November election is August 5, 2014.


Revisiting public financing for local elections

May 7th, 2014

The voters of Seattle recently approved a charter amendment to change the way we elect candidates to City Council. Starting in 2015, Seattle will elect a majority of City Council members by district—seven will be elected by district and two will remain at-large. In my view, the strongest reasons to support the move to districts are to strengthen our local democracy by reducing barriers to running for office, allowing for more competitive races and encouraging candidates to run on more community-level issues.

Running for office requires resources to get a candidate’s message out, which in today’s system means candidates spend a lot of time fundraising instead of time meeting people in their communities and engaging over the best ideas for leading Seattle. In a district based system, candidates will need less money than under the citywide system—which was part of the appeal of moving to a district based system—but the role of money will still be significant in terms of a candidate’s ability to reach voters, and just as importantly, their perceived viability. As Alan Durning at Sightline writes in his excellent article, Dialing for Dollars (a must read):

This money race is the key to selling yourself to voters, because advertising is much of campaigning now, and advertising is expensive. The money race is also how the news media handicap the contest. Your fundraising haul and your polling numbers are the main story the media will report. Media handicapping, in turn, dictates how easy it is for you to raise money. Everyone wants to curry favor with presumptive winners; no one gives to losers. So the more calls you make, the more successful they become.

This has more negative consequences than just distracting candidates from the real work of campaigning. More from Durning:

This means you’re spending hours every day, month after month, year after year, listening to the views of rich people. You develop a sixth sense for how this class will respond to different legislative proposals. They are the people you interact with most often.

Inevitably, this process warps your perspective. Or perhaps more than that, the process itself elevates politicians who are attuned to the rich.

In an effort to counteract this trend, in my last election I raised my first $10,000 from 1,000 donors in $10 increments, and that effort drastically changed who I was talking to and what the conversations looked like. In small events all over the city, I heard from many lower-income folks and college students who said they had never been asked for money by a politician before because they didn’t have much to give, but you can be sure they had a lot to say and some great ideas for what the future of Seattle should look like. And under the current system, their voices are all too often missing.

What if we could take the money race off the table and encourage candidates to focus solely on mobilizing support and leading on issues? I think we can, and am eager to explore the possibility of creating a system to publicly finance campaigns for City Council elections.

In the same election that passed district elections, there was another ballot measure to create a public financing system for at-large City Council seats (you can read a couple of my previous blog posts on last year’s measure here and here). Unfortunately, the measure narrowly lost 49.63% to 50.37%. That is a margin of just 1,426 out of a total 193,664 votes cast in that race. Pretty darn close. I think a big reason for the narrow defeat was due to confusion over how the system would interact with districts based elections, especially since the public financing question on the ballot was specific to at large seats.

Click on the image to view the presentation to the Education and Governance Committee

Click on the image to view the presentation to the Education and Governance Committee

So I am excited that we are again exploring public financing, and that we can look to craft a system to support both the seven district based Council seats and the two at-large seats. The first committee meeting to look at what a hybrid system could look like will be this morning at 9:30am in the Education and Governance Committee. You can tune in from your computer at seattle.gov/councillive, or you can also check out the presentation the Committee will be seeing here.

What do you think: should we ask voters again to create a public financing system for City Council elections? Let me know in the comments or send me an email with your thoughts at mike.obrien@seattle.gov.