PLUZ Considers Refinements To The Downtown/SLU Rezones


The rezone proposals for Downtown Seattle and South Lake Union (SLU) could be getting a handful of refinements. The Seattle Planning, Land Use, and Zoning (PLUZ) Committee will take up discussion on the proposal and possible amendments to it. The PLUZ Committee could also take votes on amendments and the full bill, sending it to the full City Council. The bulk of the proposal is focused on rezoning most parts of Downtown and South Lake Union to unlock affordable housing provisions built into Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program. Once passed, new developments in those areas will generally have to contribute toward affordable housing development either through voluntary construction of such units or paying a fee to the City to fund new affordable housing.

A variety of technical amendments to the ordinance are proposed, most which are targeted at bringing it up to date with recently passed land use ordinances. Councilmembers are also considering a handful of other amendments to address technical topics like “combined lots” and “assumed lots” as well incentivizing participation in MHA and construction of family-sized units.

Areas proposed for rezone under the Downtown and South Lake Union proposal. (City of Seattle)
Areas proposed for rezone under the Downtown and South Lake Union proposal. (City of Seattle)

“Combined Lot” Revisions

In certain Downtown zones (DOC1, DOC2, and DMC 340/290-440), it is permissible to transfer development capacity from one lot to another on the same block. This allows the receiving lot to increase its total development capacity, but also has the effect of reducing how much floor area of the receiving lot that would otherwise be subject to participation in incentive zoning absent the combined lot. The City processes such “combined lots” only if the applicant demonstrates that a significant public benefit will be provided. The Land Use Code outlines a variety of public benefits, which include options like landmark preservation or setting aside space for a grocery store or public community center.

The amendment would eliminate short-term parking and improving building massing as qualifying public benefits. It would also clarify the option related to housing requiring such housing to be affordable housing and exceed the standards of the MHA program. Other technical changes would require applicants to provide a detailed written report of the public benefits and the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) to process such requests as a Type II administrative decision appealable to the Hearing Examiner.

Opt-In Provision To MHA

Two new sections could be added to the MHA-Residential and MHA-C chapters to allow vested land use applications to opt-in to the MHA program. Approximately 40 developments proposed within Downtown and South Lake Union have not yet reached construction. These provisions would allow such projects to voluntarily participate in MHA by complying with the MHA requirements for any extra floor area that would otherwise be subject to MHA if the project were new.

To qualify, the project must have been vested to the City’s Land Use Code before the effective of the opt-in provision added by ordinance. A qualifying project must also have received its required Design Review Recommendation, though the Recommendation need not have been completed prior to the effective date of the opt-in provision. Any changes made by adding square footage would be exempt from additional design review so long as the overall design is consistent with the original design review approval. Additionally, the changes can’t necessitate further development standards departures from the Land Use Code.

In essence, this proposed amendment would expand the MHA program to incentivize projects already in the development pipeline to contribute toward the city’s affordable housing supply.

Family-Sized Units Incentive

The open space amenity area requirement for incentivized family-sized units in the University District. (City of Seattle)
The open space amenity area requirement for incentivized family-sized units in the University District. (City of Seattle)

According to data by the Office of Planning and Community Development, apartments in Downtown and South Lake Union are severely lacking family-sized units. 20% of apartments have two-bedroom units and less than 1% have three or more bedrooms. An incentive for family-sized units could get an add, but given existing development regulations widely in place, the incentive would be narrower than in other areas. Since residential floor areas is generally exempt from maximum floor area calculations, the amendment would target commercial square footage. Extra floor area for commercial uses would be permitted if a developer provides at least ten dwelling units with two or more bedrooms. The dwelling units would have to be provided with direct access to an outdoor amenity space, similar to the recently approved University District urban design and zoning proposal.

Transportation Management Program Requirement

The City typically requires development of a Transportation Management Program (TMP) whenever a large commercial project (100,000 square feet or more of commercial uses) is proposed to mitigate significant transportation impacts. Under an SDCI rule, a TMP can also be required for other large projects when subject to environmental review or otherwise required by the Land Use Code. A likely amendment would subject more projects in Downtown and South Lake Union to a TMP, which could be modeled on a similar provision passed as part of the University District urban design and zoning proposal. The goal of the TMP requirement would be to reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips in new developments. Developers would be able to propose things like information campaigns on modal options, provision of subsidized transit passes, and on-site bicycle storage for tenants.

Tower Separation

Fifth and Virginia tower next to Escala. (Perkins + Will / City of Seattle)
Fifth and Virginia tower next to Escala. (Perkins + Will / City of Seattle)

Tower separation has been a recurring topic for Downtown development in recent years. Escala residents vigorously raised concerns with an adjoining tower proposal over a very modest tower setback (effectively the existing alleyway) in Belltown. In June, the Downtown Residents Alliance filed an appeal against the proposed Downtown and South Lake Union rezones on grounds of similar livability concerns only to later drop the appeal. The proposed ordinance, however, would only modify rules for vesting a tower project based upon existing tower separation regulations, not revise the underlying tower space requirements.

An amendment would partially address tower spacing concerns by developing a comprehensive resolution section in the ordinance stating the City Council’s intent to review the issue further as part of a wider urban design framework, which could include:

  • Development of a new option for developers to achieve extra building height in the DOC2 zone in exchange for increased setbacks from existing residential structures;
  • Review of established right-of-way management policies and strategies and ways to revise them to maximize the use of alleyways;
  • Exploration of how existing streets can be put to use as green space and public and how more Green Streets could be developed; and
  • A wholesale look at the existing urban design strategy for Downtown and updating it, including revisions to neighborhood design guidelines.

“Assumed Lot” In South Lake Union

A technical amendment related to “assumed lots” could be introduced, which is specific to South Lake Union. In a recently passed omnibus bill, the Land Use Code was amended allowing some mixed-use developments to modify the calculation for floor area. The issue with the provision is that it could have unintended consequences for urban design, particularly upper-level development standards (e.g., podium height for towers) in South Lake Union. The amendment would limit the scope of “assumed lots” to only the SM-SLU 85-240 zone instead of all SM-SLU zones.


The rezones if adopted promise some positive outcomes. Development in South Lake Union would be able to achieve greater absolute densities relieving some pressures for additional property aquisition and development in the long-term throughout Seattle and the region. It also could result in the development of 2,100 or more rent-restricted affordable housing units in the next 10 years, which is more than a third of the city-wide goal for the MHA program.

Central Staff Memo – Downtown-SLU – 3-21-17 by The Urbanist on Scribd

Related Articles

Downtown/South Lake Union Rezones: Five Key Takeaways

A First Look At The Downtown And South Lake Union MHA Rezones

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Stephen is an urban planner 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. Stephen lives in Kenmore and primarily covers land use and transportation issues for The Urbanist.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Why mandate tower separation at all? People don’t own their view.

It seems like a rule designed to benefit the tiny number of people who live in high rises… Really just the people who live in Escala, since the CBD area already doesn’t seem to have much tower separation.

Stephen Fesler

While aesthetics are often a matter of personal taste, there are objective reasons why tower separation should be mandated. The question, however, rests on how to best do that and while balancing other public objectives.

Matt the Engineer

I’d argue these objective reasons are imposed on property owners and eventually condo owners and apartment tenants (who have to pay the mortgage/rent) without input from them as to whether this is something they value (and therefore making these more subjective than objective reasons). A developer that thinks their tenants will value a setback is welcome to provide one. A renter that values a setback would pay more for a unit with one. The only way to determine how much value someone places on setbacks is allow for a range of them in the marketplace.

This is an issue that goes to the heart of what I feel makes a city beautiful and interesting. Zero lot lines was how we used to build cities, with wonderful results.

Towers in a park are ugly and greatly reduce the function for both the tenants and those around. I wrote something about this, but could probably write much more. The platonic ideal of city in my mind is something like our International District but taller, with 15′ wide storefronts, narrow streets, and buildings pushed right up against each other.

Stephen Fesler

Suggesting that others may pay the regulatory cost for a regulation isn’t in itself a compelling nor convincing reason to not regulate. If there are good reasons to do so, and especially when there are good public benefits that result from a regulation, that outweighs not doing so, then it may be wise to regulate. This is why we protect critical areas, designate landmark structures, discourage building on very steep slopes, and require street improvements associated with a development—it’s even why we set speed limits and impose car tab taxes to build light rail. This is something the unpopular authoritarian in the White House doesn’t grasp. As I pointed to, there are good objective reasons to consider such regulations for towers and there are ways to offset the impact of regulatory costs.

In any case, Seattle’s development code generally allows zero-lot-line development in commercial zones. It’s incorrect to suggest that it encourages towers-in-the-park (a la Le Courbusier). What it regulates is the separation of structural heights at certain heights. It doesn’t prohibit podiums, which typically fill in heights at or below five stories, but may go further up depending upon zone and an associated upper structure.

Matt the Engineer

Take a look at any recent commercial building downtown, and you’ll fine an empty windswept plaza. This is certainly encouraged by the code, both by FAR maximums and by specific requirements for outdoor plazas for commercial buildings downtown if you want to built full height.

The examples you give all have public benefits. The most you can say for a public benefit of setbacks is more sun on the sidewalk in the summer. But the square footage of building we’re losing for that benefit is immense, and that’s reflected directly in the cost of rents and mortgages. It’s also a huge waste of our buildable space – we only get one chance at each lot every hundred years or so.


The fact that regulation X yielded a poor result is not an argument against regulation Y.