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Last summer, the national pharmacy chain CVS decided to enter the Seattle market, building new stores in Lower Queen Anne, Wallingford, and West Seattle. This turned out to be surprisingly controversial; many residents felt that CVS’s cookie-cutter suburban designs had no place in their dense and growing urban neighbourhoods. In response to feedback from neighborhood groups, the West Design Review Board rejected CVS’s Queen Anne proposal, and the Seattle City Council passed an emergency rule to establish the city’s first minimum density requirements.

Minimum Density Rules

Traditionally, the Seattle zoning code has used floor area ratios to restrict high-density development. Floor area ratio (FAR) is a measure of how intensively a given parcel of land is being used. It is generally defined as the total amount of floor area located on a parcel divided by the total square footage of the property. For example, a 60,000 square foot building on a 20,000 square foot lot would have an FAR of 3.0. This could be a three-story building covering the whole lot, or a six-story building covering half of the lot.

The council’s new rule turns this tradition on its head, using FAR as a minimum, rather than a maximum. Any project in a designated pedestrian retail area (also known as a pedestrian zone) that adds or removes at least 1,000 square feet of floor area space must satisfy a minimum FAR standard, determined by the height limit of its zone (as seen in the table below). In addition, the new rules do not count parking areas as floor area. A high minimum FAR encourages denser development, forcing developers to build up if they want to build at all.

Minimum Floor Area
Height Limit30'40'65'85'125'160'
Minimum FAR1.51.5222.52.5

The Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) is working on refining the emergency legislation adopted by the Council into a permanent policy. DPD expects to reach their first milestone in April, and to approve and adopt the final rules in September.

As The Urbanist previously covered, DPD is also working to expand the scope of the city’s pedestrian zones. This effort is particularly interesting in light of the new minimum density rules. Minimum density rules only apply in pedestrian zone overlays. Currently, the city only has 33 pedestrian zones, but DPD’s expansion effort could more than double the total size of pedestrian zone overlays. As a result, the DPD project also has the potential to double the number of areas with minimum density requirements. This is especially important in instances where mom-and-pop businesses or developers for chain stores consider redevelopment or expansion. These type of uses often opt for low-intensity development, even when their properties would allow for a lot more density.

The Rules Are Working

Some time after the West Design Review Board rejected their initial plans, CVS came back to the board with a new proposal. Because their Master Land Use Application came two months after the new rules, CVS’s new building was required to achieve a minimum FAR of 1.5. And in fact, it does exactly that; it features retail on the ground floor, office space on the second floor, and underground parking. (The proposed building is also much more visually interesting.) The strength of this proposal demonstrates that the minimum density rules are already achieving their intent.

If you’re interested in learning more about the minimum density rules or getting involved, please check out the DPD page for the project.

Article Author

Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.