living-building-pilot
Living Buildings Pilot Program, courtesy of the Department of Planning and Development.

The PLUS Committee chaired by Councilman Mike O’Brien held a meeting on Tuesday, available on the Seattle Channel. In attendance were Department of Planning and Development (DPD) staff, a few citizens who gave public comments, and Councilmembers Burgess and Licata. The meeting had three items on the agenda:

  1. A briefing by DPD on the Living Building and Deep Green pilot programs
  2. Proposed amendments to the downtown zoning along the waterfront
  3. An update on area planning in Ballard and Delridge

Agenda Item 1: Briefing on the Living Building and Deep Green Pilot Programs

Two DPD staff briefed the Council on Council Bill 118080, which relates to land use and zoning amendments to sections 23.40.060, 23.410.12 and 23.90.018. The amendments would revise the Living Building program & Seattle Deep Green Pilot program, adopted by the City to facilitate and encourage the development of buildings that would meet the Living Building Challenge or Seattle Deep Green, an alternative program with slightly reduced sustainability standards. The amendments proposed by DPD would put the Deep Green program on hold to give DPD time to specify the program’s requirements and clarify flexibility in allowable exceptions. Their intent with the Deep Green program is to align it more accurately with the recently updated Seattle Energy Code. DPD raised issues such as requiring a third party to assess projects for compliance and increasing the maximum penalty for projects that fail to pass from 5% to 10% of construction costs.

Rob Harrison, a local architect and green building advocate who wrote on this topic for Citytank last year, spoke at the meeting and derided the punitive nature of the pilot program. He suggested (and I would agree) that the City should reward those who wish to participate rather than punish them if they participate and don’t comply. This approach may have discouraged participation in the program, as only two buildings have been part of the program (the Bullitt Center and the Brooks headquarters) while one remaining open spot in the program remains unfilled.

waterfront
Seattle Waterfront, courtesy of the City of Seattle.

Agenda Item 2: Downtown Zoning Downtown along the Waterfront

DPD is proposing an amendment to the DMC-160 (Downtown Mixed Commercial) zone, which includes Alaskan Way and Western Ave. In the context of supporting the waterfront vision, this amendment’s objective is to emphasize residential use and other active uses like hotels along this portion of the waterfront. The City wants to enhance the pedestrian environment in this part of downtown in preparation for the changes coming to the waterfront. I am encouraged that they see the great need to activate this soon-to-be front door to the city with lots of residents, hotel patrons, and shoppers. The proposed changes to the Land Use Code include:

  • Limiting non-residential FAR to the current base of 5 with no allowances to exceed it
  • Raising the minimum FAR limit for hotels from 7 to 8

Discussion centered on hotel use and DPD’s intention to treat it more like housing from a code perspective to spur development that promotes evening activity in the area. Beyond FAR adjustments, the proposal would change Alaskan Way and Western Ave from Class II to Class I pedestrian streets, leading to higher standards for transparency, more stringent blank wall limits, etc. In other words, a better pedestrian experience. Finally, there would be some minor adjustments to bulk and mass standards to try to improve the pedestrian scale. I didn’t agree with everything DPD raised—for example, I’m not sure why it’s necessary to limit non-residential FAR in order to spur residential development—but overall I was pleased with the amount of attention DPD staff gave to the pedestrian experience. Downtown Seattle certainly hasn’t always gotten the ground-level, human-scaled experience right—it has its share of towers-in-a-windswept-plaza—but it’s positive the City is at least now making decisions based on how to enhance the street level experience.

ballard-urban-design
Ballard, courtesy of the Department of Planning and Development.

Agenda Item 3: Area Planning and Community Development

DPD gave a brief synopsis of neighborhood-level planning currently underway in Ballard and Delridge. In Ballard, the City is partnering with the Ballard Partnership for Smart Growth to study several issues, such as Sound Transit’s Ballard-to-Downtown High Capacity Transit studies, community concerns about large-scale development on Market St, and whether neighborhood employment growth is keeping pace with residential growth. Discussions and meetings are ongoing.

delridge-updates
Delridge, courtesy of theDepartment of Planning and Development.

The discussion of Delridge was brief and fairly vague. The Delridge community is interested in partnering with the City on more planning work to address neighborhood concerns. Parts of the Delridge neighborhood are food deserts, which the community would like to address for health and accessibility reasons. Beyond that, the DPD laid out three abstract objectives:

  1. To create great neighborhood places
  2. To improve health outcomes
  3. To build community capacity to take action

Conclusion

Of the three agenda items, I am most intrigued by the proposed downtown zone amendment. The waterfront project has certainly caused much chagrin to the urbanists in the city (primarily due to the tunnel) but there are still some very positive aspects to the project. It is imperative that we end up with a waterfront that is more walkable, vibrant, and active.

Nick Etheredge is a first-time contributor to The Urbanist. He’s a former Mechanical Engineer looking to transition into a career in urban design and planning. He loves cities and loves Seattle.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a non-profit that depends on donations from readers like you.

4 COMMENTS

  1. The Deep Green issue is really interesting. Traditionally we model and construct green buildings with the intent of saving energy, which sometimes works and occasionally doesn’t. The problem isn’t so much the modeling, but the amazing complexity that goes into the modeling and construction, and cities and standards agencies have to rely on a large number of professionals to each act toward efficiency when financial pressures are in the opposite direction. The current trend is toward using meters after your building is constructed to decide how green your building is, rather than computer modeling before it’s built. The problem with this, as Harrison suggests, is that you can end up removing the incentive to start the process in the first place.

    What we really need is a set of incentives to join this system before the building’s been designed (this is the easy part, and done well – allow them to build higher, etc.), but then another set of incentives based on performance. I’m not sure what power the city has for future incentives, but it could include anything from tax breaks to a lower utility rate to something simple and cheap like making some well-advertised list of most efficient buildings in Seattle. This last one might actually be quite valuable – it could be a great sales or lease bullet point to be the 3rd most efficient building in the city.

    • Good points Matt. My previous work was as an Energy Modeler usually working to achieve LEED certification. A couple things about modeling strike me as a bit odd: one is that energy models aren’t predictive of energy use, like you said. You make a lot of human behavior assumptions, but if someone leaves the lights on all weekend, your prediction goes out the window.
      The other thing that struck me as odd was how little attention the LEED rating system gives to building context. Someone had a great quote like “LEED architecture without good urban design is like cutting down the rain forest with a hybrid bulldozer.” Too true.

      • Yes, we can’t predict how a building will be used – but that’s not the builder’s fault. In a way we should care more about the model than the results when you’re looking to reward/punish a builder. Incentives for how a building is used are already built in to energy prices.

        I suppose in an ideal world we’d test the building under standard conditions – the first 85F day we turn on all of the lights, plug in a standard amount of equipment, set the t-stats to 75F, and measure the energy use for the day. Then do that again in the middle of the winter. Compare to your model, and reward appropriately. Of course that’s a pretty labor-intensive test, and I’m not sure who would pay for it.

        • Labor intensive indeed. LEED does have an Enhanced Commissioning credit for commissioning work that goes above and beyond, though it doesn’t look like it’s pursued very often. I’m all for methods and systems that make buildings more efficient. If you have the capital to go full bore with VRF, triple paned glass and daylighting, go for it. But I also know there’s plenty of “gizmo green” out there and not enough dense, walkable mixed use neighborhoods. Lots of ways to skin a cat.

Comments are closed.