Councilmember O'Brien left office on December 31, 2019. This website is for archival purposes only and is no longer updated.

Update on the lowrise legislation

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Last week in the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee (PLUS Committee), we voted out the lowrise legislation that we have been deliberating over for the past couple of months. The bill 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.

For background on what the bill is all about and what changes it proposed to Seattle’s lowrise multi-family zoning code, check out my blog post from April of this year.

I’ve received numerous calls and emails with concerns over the rate of growth and scale of development throughout our city, but in particular in our lowrise zones. Many people are calling for the City to slow down growth and development altogether. Others just want a say in how this growth is impacting the look and feel of the neighborhood. While I believe this bill helps address some of concerns about development being out of scale with what we anticipated in our lowrise zones, I believe we must allow for additional growth and development to accommodate the job and corresponding population growth Seattle is experiencing.

One of the primary reasons I support new density in the lowrise zones and our urban villages is due to the environmental and sustainability benefits of putting more people closer to the amenities they need: jobs, schools, retail and recreation. In denser areas, people travel less to access these amenities, they do more walking, biking and transit trips to get there and they burn less fossil fuels. If we stop growth in Seattle, that means more people in cars commuting to all the great jobs, parks, restaurants and more that make Seattle such a great place to be.

In our last meeting on The PLUS Committee on June 16, we considered eight amendments to alter the bill before moving it out of committee (nine were proposed but the final amendment was not moved for a vote because the adoption of an earlier amendment made it irrelevant). You can learn more about those amendments by checking out the Council Central Staff memo and appendix from our last committee meeting.

Of the eight amendments that we considered, the PLUS Committee voted to accept three of them.

  • Clarify rules about exterior hallways: The Committee voted to include all unenclosed exterior stairs, hallways, and breezeways in the Floor Area Ratio calculations, which will have the effect of slightly reducing the bulk of buildings with these corridors and simplifying the code by treating all such corridors the same.
  • Change rounding rules: The Committee voted to apply a higher rounding requirement—up from the proposed 0.5 to 0.85 on all lots in lowrise zones. This will make it more difficult for developers to get more dwelling units on their properties that they otherwise would be allowed, by subdividing their lots.
  • Add side setback for rowhouses: The existing code does not include side setbacks for rowhouse development, but the Committee voted to add a 3.5’ side setback for projects adjacent to structures other than other row-houses to allow for landscaping, basic maintenance around the building, as well as the possibility of windows.

The amended bill will now move on to the Full Council on July 6 for a vote. That will take place at 2pm in Council Chambers, and if you are unable to make it but want to provide comment, you can email the entire City Council at

If you have comments, questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me at


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Comment from Jerome Fitzmaurice
Time July 3, 2015 at 1:14 pm

I live in Phinney Ridge where a developer recently tore down a craftsman house on N. 73rd street and put up a 3 floor square post-modern montstrosity. It towers over all the craftsman houses in the neighborhood. My first question was: How did this happen? My second question was: How did the City approve of a structure so contrary to the wonderful craftsman aesethic of the neighborhood? How can we stopped this disaster from happening again?

Comment from Kathleen
Time August 18, 2015 at 9:38 am

My 2-block area — the 3600 block of Courtland and 36th streets in the Mt. Baker area of Seattle — has approx. 40% of its land now in active development. On virtually all of these lots, a single-family home or duplex is being replaced by 3-, 4- or in one case a proposed 5-townhouse development (Project # 3020636) on a standard lot — a five-fold increase in density!
The effect is that a nice neighborhood of SFHs and duplexes is being turned into a concrete jungle — losing trees, open space and general livability as well.
This is an urgent need as these projects seem to be getting approval — including waivers to avoid density and parking requirements — without any understanding of the cumulative effect on the neighborhood.
I am not opposed to development. I am asking that the development be reasonable and measured — not the rampant and seemingly unchecked frenzy that it appears to be right now.

Mike, can you help with this?

Comment from Ashley Black
Time August 18, 2015 at 2:02 pm

When cities grow, they get denser. But that density need not make neighborhoods less charming, less livable. Having grown up in San Francisco, I’ve seen something of how good city planning and careful consideration to livability keeps a city among the most beautiful in the world in spite of high density. In San Francisco, the neighborhoods have curbs, set backs from the street, landscaping, nothing is allowed to be built without parking. Because everyone, including city planners and the city council, care about the City. And no one would allow anything to be built that didn’t keep the neighborhoods livable and safe.

Here, growth is being addressed quite differently. Consider Project #3020636. Five row houses crammed onto a lot where currently an extremely small home now sits. Trees will be uprooted, including a large old growth tree and a plum tree that people come by every summer to photograph because of its brilliant beauty in bloom. No set back, no landscaping. No fire access!!! All waived. One must ask why? As if this weren’t enough waving of the rules for a single developer, the donation of city property, part of a lovely landscaped hill climb, will be paved over for a sidewalk so the developer doesn’t have to use his own land to build access to the houses. Yes, the city planners have decided to hand over city property to the developer. Yes, the city planners have decided to allow something to be built which will not be accessible to fire engines, thus endangering the neighbors.

Consider, the San Francisco metropolitan area has 850,000 more people than the Seattle metropolitan area. And it fits all those people into an area that could fit into the Seattle area 2.3 times. There is plenty of room to grow in Seattle without cramming buildings into such density that we build ready made ghettos.

People visit San Francisco and walk its many neighborhoods and say, “My favorite city.” People walk the neighborhoods of Paris, a far denser city also committed to careful planning, and say “The most beautiful city in the world.” In five years, what will visitors say of Seattle? Will anyone even want to come here?

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