City Council Spars Over Woonerf in South Lake Union


Last Tuesday, the Seattle City Council Transportation Committee discussed the creation of a woonerf along 8th Ave between Harrison St and Thomas St in South Lake Union. The woonerf (a living street designed to slow traffic and prioritize pedestrian activity and green space) would be part of a public private partnership between the City and the developer, Vulcan (Paul Allen’s real estate company, which owns much of the neighborhood).

Vulcan is willing to enter into agreement with City to develop the block as a woonerf in the spirit of the South Lake Street Concept Plan. The plan, adopted in 2013, calls for a 16-block area in the southwest corner of the neighborhood near Denny Park to be preserved for primarily residential development.

The woonerf development agreement calls for a raised, curbless  street with a preserved, dense tree canopy; wide sidewalks to accommodate multiple activities; and furniture including tables, chairs, and custom concrete seating. Current City code would only require Vulcan to make minimal improvements, such as repaving the sidewalk and installing a five-foot wide planter strip.

The block of 8th Ave between Harrison St and Thomas St as it is currently utilized

As part of the agreement, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) would waive street use fees for the project (valued at $527,000) in exchange for Vulcan assuming the full cost of the project ($2.1 million) saving the City $1.6 million. Street use fees are applied to construction that interrupts the right of way, such as equipment storage on the road or sidewalk.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien voiced concern over the project’s departure from the adopted 2013 plan for the corridor. The 16-block area was rezoned to discourage commercial development, with the commercial Floor Area Ratio (FAR) being reduced from 4.5 to 0.5—equivalent to approximately half a block of commercial development on the ground floor, or a small corner shop.

The South Lake Union Street Concept Plan

Vulcan submitted their application two months prior to the implementation of the new zoning code, exempting them from the strict residential requirements. O’Brien expressed that this may be a “fatal blow to any future residential development,” thereby sinking the vision for the entire area. He said he feels that the City is giving away public right-of-way to become a “corporate office park” as opposed to a “vibrant residential community.” He then suggested reallocating funds to a residential project, and expressed that he is not prepared to support the project at this time.

Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, appearing to try and assuage O’Brien’s concerns, pointed to the residential development that has already taken place in the rezone. He also emphasized the mixed-use nature of the zoning, though this perhaps overstates the half-block allocation per development.

The Committee agreed to hold the proposal until the next meeting to receive further comment from the Department of Planning and Development (DPD).

If you would like to get involved, you can submit public comment and attend the next Transportation Committee meeting on Tuesday, January 27th at 9:30 AM at City Hall.

UPDATE: The Transportation Committee has postponed a follow-up discussion on this issue until Tuesday, February 10th at 9:30 AM.

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Ben is a Seattle area native, living with his husband downtown since 2013. He started in queer grassroots organizing in 2009 and quickly developed a love for all things political and wonky. When he’s not reading news articles, he can be found excitedly pointing out new buses or prime plots for redevelopment to his uninterested friends who really just want to get to dinner. Serving as the Policy and Legislative Affairs Director, Ben primarily writes about political issues.

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Chad Newton

View termination – a concept almost forgotten in urban design – should be considered for this proposal.

Denny Park was designed, long ago, with paths from each of the four corners of the park converging on a focal centerpiece, such as a fountain, statue or monument. The centerpiece would not only be the center of attention for the park, but is located to terminate the view from southbound 8th Av N. It seems this centerpiece is not built, but could be added in the future.

This woonerf proposal adopts a curved wandering streetbed, which would distract or hide the view at the south end of the street – the center of Denny Park – on this block and every block to the north.

I support a woonerf here, but it should be designed with the terminating view in mind.

Aleksandra Culver

I’m worried that FAR is being overused. It seems like the sensible thing to do here is to restrict commercial development to the ground floor and below, and to require that upper floors are residential. This would effectively eliminate office buildings, while still allowing for grocery stores, restaurants, and other retail uses that are part and parcel of living in a city. But you can’t really achieve this by setting a maximum commercial FAR, since there’s nothing to stop developers from putting the commercial space at the top.


I agree.


This is a very interesting post. First of all, I never realized that the city changed the zoning in this area to encourage residential (versus commercial) development. This leads me to a bunch of questions. First of all, does this apply to retail? Second, if I understand FAR correctly, isn’t this a crazy way to encourage the construction of new residences? Let’s say I’m thinking of building a 12 story building, with half of it commercial, and half of it residential. That would be illegal, right? What about a six story building with ground floor retail? Like a lot of zoning regulations, it seems to be misguided and likely to backfire.

Second, where exactly is the commercial development supposed to occur? Bellevue? Kirkland? Renton? How does that benefit the city (or anyone)? Doesn’t it make sense to have commercial development in the part of the city where a lot of it already exists (and a lot of people already live)?

It seems to me that if the city really wants to encourage more residential development in this area, then they should create a “residential to commercial” minimum ratio for the area. Set this to two and you end up with a six story building with two commercial stories and four residential stories. Or maybe the building is twice that big, and you end up with eight residential floors.

But if the city is going to fight commercial development in the area, this seems like a lousy one to fight. The nearby 400 Dexter Ave is an 11-story commercial building, 325 9th Ave N is 12 stories, and neither one will add a woonerf. Speaking of which, this seems like a perfect place for one. 8th will never be a through street (for cars or transit) and this would put an end to folks trying to slide over from Dexter when traffic gets nasty. It connects really well with Denny Park, and is already fairly shaded. It could use more retail, and the city should encourage that, instead of freaking out because there is one more office building in the area. I’m with Rasmussen on this one, there are a lot of residential buildings going up and a few already there. It isn’t like parts of downtown (which have interesting office buildings, but close down at night because they lack housing).