Changes to Lowrise zoning regulations

April 30th, 2015

On Monday, the Council will introduce a bill that makes several changes to the multi-family code to ensure that new development in Lowrise zones is at-scale with the neighborhood, while continuing to produce significant new housing throughout the City.

Background

In 2010, the City Council adopted a comprehensive package of changes to the multi-family code. Lowrise zones are our smaller-scale, multi-family zones where we see rowhouses, townhouses and smaller-scale apartment buildings. Lowrise zones cover about 10% of the City (by acre). LR1, the least dense of the Lowrise zones, is often located adjacent to single family areas and in areas outside urban villages. LR3 is the densest of the Lowrise zones and is generally present in urban villages and centers, near frequent transit, and in popular growing neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Ballard. Here’s a map of all the low-rise zones.Lowrise map

Between September 2011 and September 2013, 414 projects were permitted in Lowrise zones creating 2,376 housing units – largely townhouses, rowhouses and small apartment buildings.  In 2014, an additional 310 projects with 1,918 housing units were permitted in Lowrise zones.

The Council heard concerns from residents that buildings in LR3 zones were taller and bulkier than expected and the micro-housing projects were popping up  without any opportunity for neighborhood input or design review. Several Councilmembers agreed and in response, Councilmember Clark asked Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to take a second look at the code regulations and what was being produced in Lowrise zones. That research also revealed several additional issues related to townhouse and rowhouse development in LR1 zones.

In May 2014, after several months of research and community meetings, DPD published a Director’s Report and draft ordinance that recommended several adjustments to the City’s Lowrise zoning regulations.

Council review of the legislation was delayed through the summer and fall of 2014 as SmartGrowth Seattle appealed DPD’s environmental review for the bill in order to delay its implementation. In late October of 2014, the Hearing Examiner affirmed DPD’s findings.

In January of 2015, Councilmember Clark and I asked members of the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee to weigh in on DPD’s proposed bill.

Changes proposed in the Current Bill

The legislation, as introduced, does not include all of the changes proposed by DPD in 2014. Rather, it focuses on a few key provisions that I think best address the concerns that have been raised. Those provisions are:

  • Establish an upper-level setback on street-facing façades. The setback would be 16’ at a height of 44’ in a 40’ zone, and 12’ at a height of 34’ feet in a 30’ zone: The setback will ensure that a building, seen from the street, is at the expected scale of the neighborhood. Behind the setback, a building could go higher on sloped lots. Some limited projections, such as bay windows, eaves, and gutters, could project into the setback, and open railings and predominantly transparent parapets would also be permitted up to a height of 4’. Departures from the upper-level setback could be considered as part of design review if the designer demonstrates there is a better way to address building scale.
  • Place limits on the use of clerestories: The proposed changes would allow clerestories on 30% of a roof, rather than on the full area. This is to ensure that this design feature is available to let light into top-story units without creating opportunities for the construction of a de-facto extra story.
  • Change rounding rules and density limits in LR1 zones: In the least dense, LR1 zones, developers have been gaming the rules in a couple of different ways in order to increase the number of units they can construct. The first is subdividing 5,000 square foot lots into two 2,500 square foot lots, which allows them to round-up density limit requirements and build four townhomes, rather than the three that would be permitted on a 5,000 square foot lot. The introduced legislation applies a 0.85 rounding requirement to lots less than 3,000 square feet to close this loophole.

The second practice that involves the building of two or more rowhouse units (which do not have a density limit) in front of two townhouse units on subdivided 5,000 square foot lots where only three townhouses would have otherwise been allowed. For lots measuring less than 3,000 square feet in size, this legislation creates a new density limit for rowhouses (1 per 1,600 square feet of lot area) and also applies the same revised rounding requirements to rowhouses as it does to townhouses.

Both of these changes to the LR1 zone are consistent with the intended density that was legislated in the multi-family code changes in 2010. While they may result in a few less units being built per year, the trade-off will be better design and predictability for neighborhoods.  The impact of these changes on housing affordability city-wide should be minimal.

  • Clarify rules about exterior hallways: In the Lowrise zones, exterior hallways (imagine a 1950s era motel) are exempt from FAR. Several projects have been permitted with quasi-exterior hallways that have open air lattice work at one end of the hallway, but are otherwise fully enclosed. This legislation clarifies that hallways with walls on both sides are included in FAR and hallways that are more than 50% open on one long side are exempt.
  • Add design review threshold for LR2 zones: In addition to the changes studied by DPD, this legislation adds a design review requirement for projects in LR2 zones similar to what is currently in place for LR3 zones. This will require projects in LR2 zones that include more than 8 dwelling units to go through the full design review process.

Provisions that are not advancing

There were several possible options that DPD did environmental review on that this legislation does not advance. The most significant of these proposals was to remove an FAR exemption and additional 4’ of height for partially below-grade story apartments. The FAR exemption and height often make it possible for basement units to be included on steeply sloping lots. While these units in newly constructed buildings are not often affordable to low income families, they are generally the most affordable units in a building. Additionally, basement space often includes laundry rooms and other building services like bicycle parking that enhance livability but otherwise compete with rentable space in the rest of the building. I believe the upper-level setback requirement addresses community concerns about scale of buildings and that these provisions are not necessary.

Schedule for consideration

The Planning Land Use and Sustainability Committee will deliberate on the Lowrise legislation at the following meetings, all of which will be held in Council Chambers at 600 4th Avenue, 2nd floor.

  • Tue 5/19/15, 2:00pm: Committee briefing and discussion
  • Tue 6/2/15, 2:00pm: Public Hearing
  • Tue 6/16/15, 2:00pm: Commission discussion and possible vote

 If you have comments, questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me at: mike.obrien@seattle.gov.


Creating a more pedestrian-friendly Seattle

April 21st, 2015

Today the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability (PLUS) Committee voted on a CB 118327 which establishes a new “pedestrian designation” in 40 neighborhoods throughout Seattle.

A pedestrian-designation is a tool to support the development of walkable business districts in the City. The local businesses that make up our business districts bring the people and create the sense of community that makes our neighborhood businesses districts great. This legislation helps create the physical conditions for businesses to establish and cluster together in a way that neighbors can walk between them on foot.

What is a p-designation?

A pedestrian or “p-zone” designation is a zoning designation for an area that the City is trying to foster pedestrian-oriented retail districts. The p-zone establishes rules about the use and form of buildings in that area.

We’ll start with use.  Buildings that front a principal pedestrian street must have commercial uses that activate the street on 80% of their ground floor. This is typically retail, coffee shops and restaurants. In this legislation the Council expands the allowed uses to including some additional services that people like to see in their neighborhood business district like small scale office (no more than 30 feet wide), schools and childcare centers. The regulations also prohibit some uses like surface parking lots and drive-through businesses in these areas.

The p-zone also requires some elements about form. These components require transparency (e.g., windows not obscured by product or signs) so that people can see in and out of the building, overhead weather protection for rainy days and limit driveways along principal pedestrian streets.

Where are these areas?

The City already has many neighborhoods with pedestrian designations – you can probably picture these neighborhood business Districts like the heart of Ballard, Capitol Hill, areas around all of our light rail stations in South Seattle and many more. In 2012, as part of the regulatory reform legislation, the Council adopted a map of 60 areas that they asked DPD to study to determine whether adding a pedestrian designation was appropriate. After their review, DPD recommended a designation for 37 of those areas.

Here is a link to the map of existing and proposed “p-zones.”  Please note, the map does not include the additions passed by the PLUS Committee, discussed below.

Council’s changes to the proposed ordinance

The PLUS Committee reviewed this legislation over the course of four committee meetings, including a Public Hearing. The Committee approved adoption of all 37 areas recommended by the Mayor, with a small modification to the proposed zone in Magnolia. In addition, the Committee made a few additions:

  • Added a pedestrian designation in Greenwood between 81st and 83rd Ave;
  • Added a pedestrian designation along N 34th St in Wallingford;
  • Added a pedestrian designation on Jackson between 23rd Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way;
  • Strengthen requirements for live-work units to require a business-license be on file with DPD for each unit (note: this applies outside of p-zones as live-work units are not allowed in p-zones).

More walkable, vibrant business districts

Collectively, these changes create a built environment that supports lively neighborhood business districts throughout Seattle. In some areas—like the four-corner nodes along 15th Ave NW at 65th, 70th, 75th and 80th—walkable retail districts are not yet realized. In others—like 32nd and McGraw in Magnolia—a great business district exists and the pedestrian designation will help it thrive as new or re-development occurs in the future.

No two neighborhoods are the same in Seattle, which is why we studied sixty areas in detail. This legislation is a step in the right direction to help our diverse neighborhood business districts grow and thrive while promoting more walkable neighborhoods.


My reflections on the People’s Tribunal on the Juvenile Justice System

March 30th, 2015

This past weekend I attended the People’s Tribunal on the Juvenile Justice System, hosted by Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC), Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) and their community partners.

It was an inspiring day. Several hundred activists, concerned neighbors and community leaders came together to deepen our understanding of the systems that result in the mass incarceration of youth of color in our community and to envision a new way forward.

In the morning, leaders broke down the systems that contribute to mass incarceration: schools that fail to teach and support students of color, a social service system failing to meet the needs of students and families, and an economic system that profits off of incarceration. We heard powerful stories from people of color who have been imprisoned from a young age and forced to navigate the criminal justice bureaucracy that leads to recidivism.

In the afternoon, the room shifted to creating hopeful vision of a different future with real alternatives to incarceration. Community-sourced ideas included school discipline changes to end the school-to-prison pipeline, culturally relevant healing centers, restorative justice programs, mentoring programs, culturally appropriate mental health services, youth employment opportunities, and much more. What the youth are calling for is an alternative vision of a juvenile justice system that is made up of networks of programs, institutions and communities committed to truly serving and supporting youth of color in Seattle.

This week, King County is expected to release an initial report about a racial impact analysis of their proposed Children and Family Justice Center—a rebuild of the court and detention facility at 12th and Alder in Seattle’s Central District.

I am hoping the report includes:

  1. A new vision for ending incarceration of young people in our community. King County has reduced the number of youth in detention by about half over the past decade. Could we reduce that number be zero in the next 10 years? With real vision, commitment and community partnership, we could.
  2. A plan to authentically engage and accept the leadership of communities of color who are stepping up to help craft solutions. Community members in the room on Saturday were crafting a vision and People’s Plan to move forward. Neither City nor County government is equipped to dismantle a criminal justice system without the leadership of communities who live through it every day. EPIC presented data, stories and facilitated discussion in a way that was healing and empowering. These community leaders are clearly part of the solution, not the problem.

The press, the City and mainstream institutions will likely turn their attention to the County plan over the next week. As we do so, I am also going to be listening to communities most impacted by the County’s plan to hear how to advance their powerful work from this weekend.


The Trans-Pacific Partnership

March 16th, 2015

The United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries — including Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam — are  currently negotiating a significant trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  The reach of this trade pact will likely extend beyond the 12 countries, as negotiators intend to be able to add countries to the agreement down the road.

Seattle City Councilmembers do not get to vote on United States trade policy. But the City of Seattle and the State of Washington are two of the most economically trade-dependent cities and states, respectively, in the country. Seattle in particular is home to numerous internationally recognized companies, which heightens our interest as a City Council in this new trade deal.

Proponents of the TPP say the deal is needed to expand opportunities for American workers and businesses by lowering barriers to getting our products to Asian markets. And yet, Seattle is currently prospering quite well under the current trade policies in place; we’ve got some of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and have some of the most successful companies in the world headquartered in our region. So we must be certain that any changes to the way things are done now will actually result in the outcomes we want—improving conditions for our workers and protecting our natural environment.

While proponents also claim the TPP will be the most progressive trade deal in U.S. history, the deal has been negotiated completely behind closed doors, with only members of Congress able to receive briefings on its contents. Further, the White House is asking Congress for Trade Promotion Authority, commonly known as “Fast Track” authority, which would allow the TPP to be negotiated and finalized with no opportunity for Congress to amend it and strictly limiting the time and procedures under which it would be debated. It would restrict Congress to a simple yes or no vote on the deal with no opportunity to make amendments.

The only drafts available to the public are via WikiLeaks, and what we see in these leaked drafts of the TPP raise serious concerns about the ability of local governments like the City of Seattle to enact local labor and environmental standards in line with our own policies and standards. United States Senator Elizabeth Warren’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post highlights grave concerns over the “Investor-State Dispute Settlement” provisions included in the draft TPP.

She writes:

The name may sound mild, but don’t be fooled. Agreeing to ISDS in this enormous new treaty would tilt the playing field in the United States further in favor of big multinational corporations. Worse, it would undermine U.S. sovereignty.

ISDS would allow foreign companies to challenge U.S. laws — and potentially to pick up huge payouts from taxpayers — without ever stepping foot in a U.S. court. Here’s how it would work. Imagine that the United States bans a toxic chemical that is often added to gasoline because of its health and environmental consequences. If a foreign company that makes the toxic chemical opposes the law, it would normally have to challenge it in a U.S. court. But with ISDS, the company could skip the U.S. courts and go before an international panel of arbitrators. If the company won, the ruling couldn’t be challenged in U.S. courts, and the arbitration panel could require American taxpayers to cough up millions — and even billions — of dollars in damages.

Given Seattle’s role in advancing some of the highest labor and environmental standards of any city in the country, such as new minimum wage law, we could be a prime target for these ISDS suits. These ISDS provisions were included in prior trade deals such as NAFTA, and to date multinational corporations have launched over 550 challenges against 98 different countries, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development 2014 report on ISDS.

If you don’t buy Senator Warren’s take, even libertarians at the Cato Institute are concerned about ISDS:

ISDS grants foreign investors the right to sue host governments in third-party arbitration tribunals for treatment that allegedly fails to meet certain standards, such as new laws, regulations, or policies that might have a discriminatory effect on foreign investors that reduces the value of their assets. Certainly, investors – and in this context we’re talking mostly about multinational corporations (MNCs) – should have recourse to justice when these situations arise. But under ISDS, U.S. investors abroad and foreign investors in the United States can collect damages from the treasuries of their host governments by virtue of the judgments of arbitration panels that are entirely outside of the legal structure of the respective countries. This all raises serious questions about democratic accountability, sovereignty, checks and balances, and the separation of power.

I do not think we can risk granting fast track authority to the President given what little we know about the TPP, especially since what little we know (e.g., ISDS) causes such concern. So tomorrow in the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee, I am proposing a resolution co-sponsored by Councilmember Sawant that opposes fast track and raises serious concerns about the TPP as we understand it today. With all due respect to the White House, proclaiming something is progressive does not make it so. Transparency and democracy are key value for progressive politics, and should be for our progressive policies as well. Fast track goes against those principles.

The resolution we are proposing does three things:

  1. It says the Seattle City Council opposes “Fast Track” authority for the TPP and instead requests that the President and Congress carry out a fully transparent and inclusive legislative process for consideration of the TPP.
  2. It urges President Obama and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership to advance the interests of workers, to maintain the sovereignty of local governments, to safeguard our environment, to improve the quality of life in all countries that are signatory to the agreement, and to ensure the absolute sovereignty of U. S. courts and not agree to arbitration outside of the normal judicial process.
  3. It says that if these principles are not adequately addressed in the final Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the Seattle City Council will urge our Congressional delegation to vote to reject this trade agreement.

I am pro-trade. And I believe the U.S. can negotiate truly progressive trade deals. But for that to be the case, it must be done transparently, and it must always strive to lift standards for workers and the environment here in the Pacific Northwest and across the globe, not subjugate those standards to the profits of multinational corporations.


A bold step to help address homelessness

January 14th, 2015

As we reach the end of the ten-year time frame set out in the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, there are still more than 2,300 people on our streets each night in Seattle. These figures are especially heart-wrenching during these colder, wetter winter months in Seattle, but the fact is we simply don’t have enough shelter or low-income housing capacity to house very person who is homeless. To address this challenge, we need to solutions that meet people where they are at, provide a safe place to be at night and offer services to support people getting back on their feet.

So today I stood with my Council colleagues Nick Licata, Sally Bagshaw and Bruce Harrell in support of Mayor Ed Murray as he unveiled a proposal that helps create more safe options for people to lay their head at night. The Mayor announced the opening of an additional 50 shelter beds in Downtown and another 15 beds in Capital Hill specifically for homeless youth. Critically, the Mayor also announced new encampment legislation that builds off previous legislation developed under the leadership of Councilmember Licata. This proposal allows for regulated encampments on private and city lands and couples that “safe place to be” with access to services and supports that people experiencing homelessness might need to get back on their feet. I am thankful the Mayor brought this proposal forward and I look forward to getting the support of Council in this bill.Encampment legislation announcement

Since joining the Council, I have participated in the One Night Count of our unsheltered population three times, and I am getting ready to spend another night outside doing it again next week.  I’ve gone out with Heroes for the Homeless to deliver fresh socks and warm cup coffee to people living in their vehicles. And I have met with numerous people experiencing homeless, including sadly many young people in our city who are forced from their homes under often tragic circumstances.  All of these experiences have led me to become an advocate for more solutions and opportunities for homeless people in Seattle.

It is why I helped start the Road to Housing program, which helps people living in their vehicles get back into housing and utilizes a very similar model as this encampment legislation: safe place to be, access to services, and the support someone needs to get back on their feet and into housing. That program continues to demonstrate this model can work, and I am eager to support a similar approach in this legislation.

Encampments are not the magic bullet to ending homelessness in our city, but they do offer a partial solution to people in dire straits by giving them a safe place for the time being. I don’t think any of us up here want to see a tent in an encampment as anybody’s final destination either, but it can be a stop along the way on the path to greater stability, especially when we pair that place to be with access to a case worker and some support services for the individual.  We want to see people moving through encampments on their way to housing, and I believe that’s what most folks in encampments want too.

This encampment proposal is about meeting people where they are at and hopefully working together towards a path to greater stability. It also expands options for someone who wants to hold on to their possessions or live with a partner or a pet.

This proposal also helps address concerns that neighbors and businesses raise about homeless people sleeping in doorways or in unregulated encampments in parks or other public spaces. I strongly believe that if we want to tell folks “you can’t be here” we also need to say where you can be, and this proposal gives us more options.

This proposal will be transmitted to Council shortly and will run through the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee that I chair (and that my colleague Nick Licata also sits on). City Council will want to dig into the details of the proposal, no doubt, but I’m hopeful that my Council colleagues will join me in embracing this progressive, pragmatic approach to homelessness in Seattle.


2014 in Review

December 30th, 2014

What an exciting year it has been to be a Councilmember in Seattle. We passed historic legislation to raise wages for over 100,000 workers in the City and saw the voters support two progressive initiatives to establish a universal preschool program and expand transit service in Seattle. There is so much more to be proud of, so I am writing to today with a look back to some of the things we have accomplished together this year in the areas of planning and land use, sustainability, transportation and social justice. Thank you for sharing in these highlights with me and happy holidays to you and your family.

PLANNING & LAND USEStarting in 2014, I became chair of the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee. This is an interesting time to be in this role, as Seattle is the fastest growing city in the country. The crux of most of our land use discussion right now is how does Seattle grow – adding density, new housing and new jobs – while maintaining affordability and all that makes Seattle such a great place to live. This is the guiding question for me and my work in land use. Here are some of the highlights from Committee this year.

  • Workforce Affordable Housing – Since 1981, Seattle voters have approved and implemented one of the most impressive public housing levy programs of any city in the country to build affordable housing in Seattle. But that only serves the lowest-income households, leaving many people who work in lower-wage jobs—like fast food workers, retail workers and others in the service sector—struggling to find a reasonably affordable place to live in the city. I believe affordability is the greatest challenge we face right now, and I have been working hard to find solutions for people don’t qualify for HUD or Section 8 programs, but who don’t make enough to afford the current market-rate units being built.
    • In October, Council passed the Linkage Fee Resolution, which sets out a new path for the City by ensuring that new development better mitigates its own impacts on affordability. It asks that developers either build 5% of their new units at affordable levels or pays into the city’s housing fund. The Linkage Fee would apply to all new commercial and multi-family development and can be used to help fund new workforce affordable and family-sized units. Read more about why the linkage fee is important in a recent guest editorial to the Seattle Times.
    • In September, Council passed Resolution 31547, which did two important things to help find more housing options in our city. First, it committed the City to participating in the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Regional Equitable Development Initiative (REDI), which aims to purchase property now around future transit stations in order to preserve some affordability and be able to incentivize future community development opportunities. Second, the resolution calls for a review and report on Seattle’s development regulations regarding accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and detached accessory dwelling units (DADUs), also know as “backyard cottages,” to look at new ways to provide housing options for more people in our existing neighborhoods.
  • North Rainier Rezone (aka Mt. Baker rezone) – This rezone of the area surrounding the Mt. Baker Transit Center will set the table for future development around the light rail station to help bring jobs, housing and various commercial uses to that neighborhood. 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.
  • Small lots & Microhousing – In both of these high-profile issues, I strived to strike a balance with the competing interests of neighborhood activists and density advocates, with legislation that allows these new innovations in housing development to continue in the City, while also addressing some of the major concerns raised by opponents.

SUSTAINABILITY – In addition, my committee also leads the Council’s efforts around sustainability. Below are some highlights from our work in 2014.

  • Oil trainsFor me, 2014 will be remembered in part as the year we saw a drastic increase in oil transport by rail through the City of Seattle. In March, Council passed Resolution 31504 asking the City’s Office of Emergency Management and the Seattle Fire Department to report to review and, if needed, update the City’s incident response plans for the increasing risk imposed by oil trains. These departments reported their findings in September, and I am working with the Mayor’s office to continue to explore how Seattle can protect itself in the event of an oil train catastrophe. I have also been working with the Mayor’s office and my colleagues on Council in asking the State and Federal Governments to step up efforts to regulate this growing threat to our public safety, property and environment.
  • Duwamish cleanup – The Duwamish River is an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site, and we recently received the final Record of Decision that mandates the City’s responsibility in clean-up. Throughout this process, I have been working with South Park and Georgetown communities to explore how we can create more livable, healthy and safe communities along Seattle’s only river. We have much work left to do on the Duwamish in 2015 and beyond.
  • Advanced Green Lake cleanup — Green Lake is Seattle’s most popular park and one of its great swimming destinations. So this year in the 2015 budget, I worked with Councilmember Jean Godden to secure funding to speed up the City’s effort to treat Green Lake to deal with toxic blue green algae, which has led to multiple closures over the past couple of years. We now hope that have treatment completed in Spring of 2016.
  • Pollinator health — This year we also worked with local sustainability advocates to pass a resolution ending the City’s use of neonicotinoid-based pesticides on City-owned property in a move to help promote the health of bees and other critical pollinators that keep Seattle blooming year-round.

TRANSPORTATION – In 2014, I joined the Council’s Transportation Committee as vice-chair. Additionally, I joined the board of Sound Transit as a representative from the City of Seattle.

  • Seattle Transportation Benefit District Proposition 1 – I was extremely proud to support, and to see the voters of Seattle support, local ballot initiative STBD Prop 1 this past November. With this new funding, Seattle can help stave off potential future Metro service reductions in our city and expand the level of transit service for the residents, workers and commuters of Seattle. A robust public transportation system is essential to the future of this city in order to meet our economic, livability and environmental goals.
  • Sound TransitAs a member of the board, I am working hard to help gather support for a new ST3 funding package to go to voters in 2016. We need the support of the legislature in Olympia to make it happen, and I hope you will join me in building the public and political will needed to build out the regional transit system we need.
  • The Sound Transit board also recently adopted Sound Transit’s new Long Range Plan, which includes, among many other things, routes to Ballard & West Seattle that are so desperately needed to help move the growing number of people to and from those popular, but harder to reach neighborhoods.
  • Bike & pedestrian safety – The budget that City Council recently approved included tens of millions of dollars in new and improved bike and pedestrian infrastructure to help implement our Bike and Pedestrian Master Plans. Council also passed legislation to implement a new bike sharing program, Pronto, with 500 bikes and 50 stations to help provide one more way of getting around town. Since the program, is not yet operating citywide, I sponsored new funding in next year’s budget to help plan for bike share expansion to Southeast Seattle. BREAKING NEWS: Just as the newsletter was going to print, we learned that the bike counter on the Fremont Bridge just passed 1 million trips for the year!

SOCIAL JUSTICE – What a year for social justice in Seattle! From the fight for $15 to a new preschool program, 2014 will go down in the history books for Seattle. I am both honored and grateful to be able to play a small role in the movement for social justice in Seattle, and I look forward to future progressive wins in our city.

  • $15/hour Minimum Wage – Who could have guessed when fast food workers first walked off the jobs in May of 2013 that they would be celebrating the victory of a $15/hour minimum wage in Seattle just one year later? I was proud to be the first elected official in Seattle to participate in those early actions when I escorted one of the first courageous striking workers, Caroline, back to her job at Taco Bell to make sure she was welcomes back for her shift and was not retaliated against for exercising her right to strike. One year later, I was even more proud to vote in support of raising that courageous young woman’s wage. It was an historic victory won by workers who took matters into their own hands and organized for the right to earn a living that lets them live in the city they work. Major kudos also go to Mayor Ed Murray and Councilmember Kshama Sawant for their leading roles in the effort. For my part, I strengthened the enforcement provisions in the final legislation to make sure business were following the new rules. I also supported additional funding in the budget to accelerate $15/hour for City employees because I feel City should lead by example and pay all employees a living wage.
  • Office of Labor Standards – In addition to this big win, the City also created a new Office of Labor Standards to ensure that our progressive new laws for workers—Paid Sick & Safe Leave, Jobs Assistance in Hiring (“ban the box”), Wage Theft, and Minimum Wage—are all being followed. Councilmember Nick Licata deserves credit for getting the ball rolling and Mayor Murray for making it happen. For my part, I worked to secure $1 million for the new office in the next biennium to help strengthen its enforcement work by partnering with community-based organizations to help workers know their new rights and how to exercise them.
  • Priority Hire Legislation – This is an issue I have been working on since 2013 with Councilmember Sally Clark, but we are finally nearing adoption of a new ordinance that would ensure that we are hiring local workers when we are spending our local tax dollars and public works projects.
  • Seattle Preschool Program – This year Seattle voters also supported a new program to provide access to preschool for every child in the city. The first step is a new preschool pilot program that will serve as the basis for a future universal program. The work was spearheaded by Council President Tim Burgess and Mayor Murray, and my office worked to help bring an racial and economic justice lens to the proposal to ensure that the pilot is accessible to the children who most need it.
  • Food Access in Delridge – Early in 2014, my office partnered with the Seattle Women’s Commission to explore food access issues in the Delridge neighborhood of West Seattle.  We put together a report which shows that the lack of sufficient income is the biggest barrier to accessing healthier food, not lack of transportation or grocery stores, as are often reported to be the main issues.
  • Birth Doula Services  – Another big victory for me in the budget was securing funding for birth doula services for low-income women in Seattle. Doulas are trained and certified to provide support to women before, during and in the weeks following birth and are a critical piece of the maternal and child health system, although they fall outside of traditionally government funded public health services. They are tied with increased health outcomes for both mother and child and I was excited to secure the support of my Council colleagues for this funding in the budget.

As you can see, it has been a incredible, busy year here for me and my staff. We are honored to serve you and excited to continue our work with you to bring about a city that reflects our values and embodies our vision of a city that works for our people and protects our planet. Thank you for your engagement on these and other issues throughout the year.

Happy Holidays!


Affordable Housing Linkage Fee Proposal

October 14th, 2014

City Council is currently considering a new way to help fund workforce affordable housing in Seattle. It is called the Affordable Housing Linkage Fee. The basis of the proposal is that the rapid growth and new development we are experiencing in Seattle is causing an even greater need for more affordable housing. This new fee asks new development to help pay to mitigate the increasing demand on our affordable housing stock. I am proposing that we replace our current incentive zoning program with this new housing linkage fee program, which has the potential to significantly grow our resources for affordable housing in the city.

This proposal comes out of over 18 months of work. For the full version of this post—which includes extensive background on how we got here, what our consultants have told us throughout this process of developing this proposal and what we know about our current affordability crisis—please check out this page. For the purposes of this blog, I am going to stick to the recommendations section that deals with the linkage fee proposal.

In order to explain how the change to a linkage fee will bolster our resources for affordable housing in the city, we need to start by explaining how our current incentive zoning program works. From our Department of Planning and Development: “Incentive zoning is a set of requirements that property owners in certain zones must meet to achieve the full potential of their building site. Property owners are required to provide public benefits, such as affordable housing, historic preservation, and open space, in exchange for larger buildings.” To meet the affordable housing requirements, a developer can either produce affordable units in the building they are developing or they can pay into the City’s affordable housing trust fund (in land use terms we call this “producing on site” versus “paying the in-lieu fee” to the trust fund).

The City has had an incentive zoning (IZ) program for commercial buildings downtown since 2001 and for residential buildings downtown since 2006. The program has been expanded to additional neighborhoods concurrently with upzones in Pioneer Square, SODO and South Lake Union, as well as around light rail stations. The fee-in-lieu was increased downtown and in South Lake Union in 2014. After the South Lake Union rezone, the Council adopted Resolution 31444, calling for a comprehensive review of our workforce housing programs, with a particular look at 60-80% AMI households, to better understand how we were meeting the need in Seattle.

The consultant found that while the IZ program has provided significant resources for affordable housing ($31 million from 2001-2013), the program is limited in its ability to provide significantly more affordable housing because (a) IZ is geographically limited in scope and (b) it is a voluntary program even in the areas it applies. So the consultants’ recommendation is simply to expand the geographic scope of the program and make it apply to all commercial and multi-family residential projects. The consultants also recommend increasing the fee, and their analyses suggest it can be done without significantly slowing down growth and development.

The proposal I am putting forward is right in line with the recommendations we got from our consultants. My proposal would replace the IZ program with the housing linkage fee for all commercial and multi-family residential development. The fee would be based on the square footage of the project and would be set at the level required to produce 3%-5% of the units being created at an affordable level. Developers will still have the choice they have today—produce 3%-5% of the units in the building as affordable units (with a 99-year period of affordability) or pay the housing linkage fee. The fee would apply in all urban villages and centers, commercial zones and low-rise zones. The fee will not apply in the single-family zones or to single-family home development. This map shows where the fee will be applied across the city.LinkageFeeAreas

Critics of the linkage fee approach are saying that the broader scope and increased fee will slow down development and prevent more housing supply from coming online in the market. They also say the fee will get passed on to renters. But we have good reason to believe that both concerns will not come true.

First, the report on policy recommendations explains how rents will not increase due to the linkage fee. This is because developers are already charging the highest rents that the market will bear. If developers could raise rents and pass on more costs to their tenants, they would do it already. I do not believe this will happen. The theory is that the cost of the linkage fee—with the predictability of a three-year phase in and the certainty that comes from applying it to all commercial and multi-family residential projects—will actually be built into the cost of the land and not passed on to future tenants. In a competitive market with all developers bidding on a project and paying the linkage fee, the land price will adjust to reflect the market reality for development.

From our review of affordable housing best practices and incentive-/inclusive-zoning programs from around the country, we see that the most successful programs in other cities are mandatory. This creates a level playing field for developers across neighborhood, the city and various housing types, and embeds the cost of the program into the land, so that it is less likely that it is passed onto renters.

Second, the economic analysis conducted by DRA shows that Seattle’s jobs, real estate and development markets are so strong that we could raise our fees significantly without halting the growth we are experiencing. The more modest fees that Council are considering are below the level that the analysis suggests would slow development. So I do not believe we will halt more housing from being built than under our current IZ program.

Now, there is a risk in setting the price of the linkage fee too high, beyond the recommendations of the consultants, because that could lead to a situation where projects do not get built and there is not enough supply being created. In that scenario, rents could go up as available space becomes scarcer. But the economic analysis is convincing—if we get the price right we won’t hinder development and we will significantly increase the resources we have to help meet the growing demand for housing at all levels of affordability.

Next steps

On October 14, the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee recommended adopting Resolution 31551, which asks the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to create legislation based on the linkage fee proposal. The Full Council will vote on the resolution on October 20. The resolution asks DPD to submit a draft of the legislation in June of 2015.


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.