If you take the Route 44 bus all the way to the end of the line in Ballard, you’ll find yourself at the intersection of NW Market Street and 32nd Ave NW. Apartments buildings surround the intersection, but if you walk 150 feet west on Market Street, away from Ballard’s heart, you’ll have a single-family home on your right and townhomes on your left. Market Street is the boundary between urban housing and low-density single-family detached buildings. Lee Olsen lives on the wrong side of Market Street and he’s not happy about it, “To put us out here on the Elba Island is bullshit.”

Lee’s referring to the detached single-family zoning his house lies on and his use of the word “island” isn’t too far off. When he walks out his front door he faces townhomes and duplexes, made possible by the low-rise residential zoning designation across the street. If he walks left or right, he sees more multi-family housing at the end of his block. Townhomes, and apartments bookend the block. He’s surrounded​ on three sides by multi-family zoning but his block is zoned for detached single-family buildings.

Townhomes and apartments surround the block on three sides.
Townhomes and apartments surround the block on three sides.

More townhomes are under construction in the neighborhood and it’s easy to see why. The 44 bus runs frequently during peak hours and Route 17 provides express service to downtown. The historic district in Ballard is only four blocks away. In less than fifteen minutes, you can walk to the public library, Adams Elementary School, the grocery store, the Ballard Locks, and Commodore Park. The sandy beaches of Golden Gardens are a 10-minute bike ride and Discovery Park is only a 15-minute bike ride.

Olsen’s neighbor, Scott Brown, is also supportive of upzoning and has been advocating for years. He’s been working on a way to be closer to his mother and originally thought building another structure on his property could be a solution. When townhomes started getting built in the neighborhood, he also realized selling his property and buying something closer to his mom could be a solution. Ideally he’d like to stay in the neighborhood he loves, near his wife’s existing job but without an upzone that isn’t a very plausible option.

He began talking with his neighbors, attending planning meetings, speaking with councilmembers, flyering his neighborhood, and even looking into the contract rezone process. These efforts appear to be making some progress. A contract rezone is out of the question since it would cost north of $10,000 and require an amendment to the Comprehensive Plan (including the Future Land Use Map), but Brown has successfully engaged his neighbors. He says that most of them support the upzone but two neighbors disagree.

One declined to comment for this article but the other, Adrian Lipp was willing to chat. Lipp lives on a different block, north of Olsen and Brown, across the alley. He’s lived in his single-family home for 17 years and is surrounded by single-family zoning. Lipp’s skeptical of Brown’s efforts and sees him attempting to change their neighborhood for his own benefit, pushing the cost of change onto neighbors like himself.

How The City Considers Zoning Changes

Generally, there’s very limited opportunity to rezone property because the City typically does it systemically, targeting areas that are prioritized after years of study and feedback, in accordance with comprehensive regional planning. Unfortunately for Brown, those opportunities only happen occasionally and he just missed one. His efforts and comments came too late in the Ballard Urban Design Framework process to have an impact.

Fortunately for him, the city is discussing something called HALA, a list of recommendations that includes rezones. The City Council is currently waiting on an environmental impact study before a vote on rezones–called Mandatory Housing Affordabilityin Ballard. The policy requires new construction to contribute to affordable housing. If the study shows what the Council expects, they will likely vote to rezone portions of Ballard in the fall to increase development capacity and generate affordable housing. Planners indicated the study will provide two alternatives for Ballard, one of which includes rezoning Brown and Olsen’s block.  

The Ballard rezone is a tiny piece within a multi-decade process to set requirements on new development. The rezones and affordable housing requirements are being done concurrently to protect the policy against lawsuits and generate the most affordability. The City Council already implemented the policy in Downtown, South Lake Union, and the University District. Initially, the policy was attacked from different constituencies. Developer lobbyists and their sympathizers feared it would kill development. NIMBYs said the policy was being pushed by developers and the rich. They also said it would destroy neighborhoood character and displace people.  

Other groups were very supportive and many academics who study these types of policies generally support them. In fact, Seattle is already seeing successes where developers are scrapping their old plans and opting to pay for affordable housing. This means Seattle is getting more market housing and affordable housing dollars, both of which wouldn’t have existed without the policy. So far, it appears to be a win-win-win for urbanism, environmentalism, and affordable housing.

Whether or not the final HALA rezone includes Brown and Olsen’s block depends on the solution adopted by city council. The council could adopt an alternative released in the study or a hybrid and the feedback received from the public will determine that. 

What Zoning Is Fair?

Seattle’s Urban Village designation is primarily meant to indicate where growth should occur in the city. The designation typically surrounds areas with amenities, such as schools, businesses, and frequent transit–areas like Scott Brown and Lee Olsen’s block. It’s not clear why their neighborhood isn’t included in the Ballard Urban Village. Regardless though, the line for the Urban Village is drawn at 32nd Ave NW adjacent to their block.

The block is surrounded by multi-family zoning and just outside the Ballard Urban Village. (City of Seattle)
The block is surrounded by multi-family zoning and just outside the Ballard Urban Village. (City of Seattle)

To Lee Olsen, this is deeply unfair. He says, “they’re taking $300,000 from me,” referring to the higher price-tag his home would have if he lived in the low-rise residential zone. “I have one to five years to sell,” since he’s expecting to move in retirement. Olsen’s not rich and has a slightly stereotypical working-class life in Seattle. He started working at 15, spent time on the docks, and then worked in the grocery business for 25 years. He’s fortunate to have been a union member and have a pension, but an additional $300,000 would have a huge impact on his life. He’s also not wrong about the estimate. A parcel that allows townhomes across the street sold in May for a little over $300,000 more than a home on his block, which sold in August of 2015 but isn’t zoned for townhomes. If he can save money during retirement,  he’d like to help an independent mechanic get started on their own business. When I mentioned that the upzone would implement Mandatory Housing Affordability he appeared to have mixed feelings. He thought about it for a minute and then remarked that the cost would come out of his pocket since he’s a landowner.

To Adrian Lipp, who opposes the rezone, the existing zoning is fair because that’s the neighborhood he bought into and it’s been that way for years. Adrian is also working class and happens to have a very “Seattle” profession. He’s a mechanic on historic boat motors. This work allowed him to buy a house in the type of neighborhood he wanted, a single family zone. 

Lipp is right that the area has been zoned single-family for some time, at least since 1995. It’s also true that as late as 1980 the block was zoned for multi-family housing. Sometime between 1980 and 1995 it was changed to single-family. In fact, Olsen suggests the change happened after he bought his home in 1988, although records with the exact date couldn’t be found.

Zoning for the block in the 1980s allowed multi-family housing. (City of Seattle)
Zoning for the block in the 1980s allowed multi-family housing. (City of Seattle)

Lipp also sees his neighbors’ efforts as costing him. When I met with Lipp, he and friends were enjoying a beautiful sunny day on their back porch. He thought taller buildings could impact the openness and light of his backyard and porch. Considering how nice it was on the porch, it was easy to understand why this would concern him.

However, some nuance is warranted. A low-rise zoning designation would actually have a similar height limitation as existing zoning; there is only a five-foot potential difference in heights. The biggest difference is setbacks but Lipp’s property is across an alley so there would be a minimum of twenty feet between the edge of his yard and any new structures. Perhaps most importantly, stopping a rezone doesn’t stop change. Two blocks north of Lipp’s property there’s a brand new home. It’s a McMansion built out to thirty feet tall, the existing height limit in single-family zones. 

ew single-family construction has basically the same height limits as Lowrise 1 townhomes.
New single-family construction has basically the same height limits as Lowrise-1 townhomes.

Lipp also expressed concerns that the new housing doesn’t add much density or affordability. It’s sort of easy to see why he thinks this. Each new townhome has fewer bedrooms than existing single family homes. As for affordability, a townhome sold in 2014 for $629,000, not a price accessible to lower incomes.

But yet again, there is nuance. Typically four townhomes are built on a parcel that fits only one single-family home. The recently built townhomes have three bedrooms each, creating 12 bedrooms on a single-family-sized parcel. The single-family homes have four to five bedrooms, which means the low-rise residential zoning adds density, at least 7 bedrooms. Observations about traffic and parking corroborate this.

The concerns about affordability are also nuanced. The HALA rezones will require new construction to contribute to affordable housing. Right now, the aforementioned McMansions are being built with no contribution towards affordability. Even the old, existing single-family homes aren’t helping affordability. One on Brown and Olsen’s block sold in 2015 for $689,000, $60,000 more than the aforementioned townhome.

Lastly, the side of the block currently zoned for townhomes has a lot of old duplexes. If Brown and Olsen’s block isn’t rezoned, it’s much more likely the duplexes with renters will be the primary target for developers. However, if their block is rezoned, developers might purchase Brown and Olsen’s homes at a lower price than the rent-generating duplexes, possibly protecting those renters from displacement.

Lipp also mentioned a common complaint, more housing will worsen parking in the neighborhood. Perhaps surprisingly, Scott Brown mentioned the same complaint while advocating for the upzone. Brown bought into the neighborhood because it was a quiet, mostly single-family neighborhood. He said he knew his neighbors and felt comfortable with his daughter playing in the front yard or street. In fact, changes from the additional townhomes across the street helped clarify the situation for Brown. “The street changed as people built more,” Browns said, “we wouldn’t have moved here if this was here.”

While the neighborhood is no longer the one he bought into, he doesn’t oppose development. Instead, he just thinks it’s fair for him to have options. There are a lot of single family neighborhoods to choose from in the region and if he could afford to move he might be able to live closer to his mom. Alternatively, multi-family zoning might even mean he could stay in the neighborhood and build a place for his mother on the same property. Both Olsen and Brown agree that it doesn’t make sense their neighbor can sell their house for a much higher price and change the neighborhood but they can’t do the same.

Remarkably both Scott Brown and Adrian Lipp worry about similar changes. Regardless of the zoning, the neighborhood will change. They’ve just come to different conclusions about the best solution.

Soon the rest of the city will get a chance to provide input. The conversation among Lipp, Brown and Olsen regarding property values, density, parking, sunlight, and aesthetics will be expanded to consider the city’s larger goals regarding affordability, transportation, and how to plan well for growth.

Lines between single-family and multi-family zones exist all over the city and similar conversations are happening everywhere. It’s clear there is a lot of disagreement about what is fair.  The conversations are personal and each person’s preferences impacts their neighbors. Planning exists to balance the private interest of each owner with what’s best for the neighborhood and city. Generally speaking, that’s why the city is pursuing the HALA recommendations. Specifically what those changes look like will be up to the City Council,  which is expected to vote on changes in the next few months. 

27 COMMENTS

  1. We have an opportunity for the city to create additional housing at no cost to the taxpayer, and a majority of homeowners and neighbors on the block who support it, and we need help to get it done. The 3200 block of NW Market St has 10 single family homes surrounded on 3 sides by multifamily. On our block, the west end of NW Market St, just northwest from the Ballard Locks, there are 26 LR-1 town homes, 19 LR-1 duplexes and triplexes, 33 apartments, and 1 NC-1 Senior Center.
    We are proposing to HALA to recommend a rezone of our 10 single family to multifamily to provide equitable property rights with the rest of the block for owners and provide additional housing for the city. This is one of those rare occasions when a serious problem has a perfect win-win solution. There are a few homeowners that are on the next block up the hill that oppose this because we are currently a buffer for their view down and across lower Ballard, but the vast majority who actually live and own on our block support it, and the city needs the housing. Our block was originally zoned consistently multifamily, but a homeowner on the next block just up the hill worked within the city government to have just these 10 homes down-zoned, to protect his views.
    If you support us gaining equitable property rights on the block while enabling additional housing for the city that the vast majority of residents on the block actually supports, we could really use your help with comments to HALA and city council.
    Thank you Owen for helping us get the word out about the housing opportunity on the 3200 block of NW Market St. We appreciate the support your readers can provide with making HALA and city council aware of the importance of making the most of “low hanging fruit” opportunities like this when they arise.

  2. “It’s a McMansion built out to thirty feet tall, the existing height limit in single-family zones.”

    It is not a “McMansion.” A “McMansion” is when a cookie cutter developer builds 50 giant homes on small lots with 3/4 different floor layouts. This is a single home designed as such and is the only one of that design.

    I’d say its even a stretch to call it a “Mansion” as that property appears to be about 3000 sq feet. My 1931 Tudor has 2600 sq feet and no one calls it a “Mansion”

    This particular house (which I ride by daily on my bike) is also not a typical “big square box” house and is at least craftsman style design-wise.It also fits in perfectly with its neighbors which are mostly fairly large houses on hills with views of the water in a very pricey part of town. Also most houses this size have an “almost ADU” built into the basement, increasing density. I haven’t seen the design for this house, but will be checking it out if they have an open house when its done.

    Note: I’m not disagreeing the the article and I am pro-density. But throwing around negative stuff just for the sake of being negative seems counter intuitive, especially when these types of homes typically are built to add density (with the ADU) if the owner chooses to.

    • You’re right that McMansion is an imperfect use in this situation, since I don’t really have design issues.

      The house is really large, >3,400 square feet inside, 343 square feet of deck and then about another 700 square feet for the garage. The house also appears even larger from the street because it’s on top of a graded hill.

      The primary point in relation to the article is that it’s not ‘affordable’ and the size is large enough to be comparable to townhome construction. In the future I’ll consider a different word for this type of construction if you have a better term.

      • I see nothing wrong with the term McMansion, and I’d disagree that it can only be used to describe cookie cutter homes. Our language, isn’t that rigid, and we, as its users, can influence how the words are used. In my opinion, McMansion is great word to describe the type of housing that our rigid SF5000 zoning is incentivizing developers to build on lots in our SF5000 zones. The vast majority of these new homes are priced over $1.2M, and I’ll be very surprised if that new home, isn’t listed for at least that much. The “mansion” component of the word isn’t just about the size, but also the price, relative to other housing alternatives. If a lot could have 4 townhouses priced around $700K each, or a single large expensive home priced over $1.2M, there is nothing wrong, at all, with using the word McMansion to describe that home, in the wider conversation of housing affordability in Seattle. It isn’t intended as an indictment of the developer, or architect, or the new owner, rather, it is an indictment of those that insist we keep SF5000 zoning all over our city. Unless Ben (or somebody else) can propose a better word that explains so clearly this situation, I’d argue to keep using the term. I certainly will.

        • Yes, but the “Mc” part comes from “McDonalds” meaning they’re all over the freaking place and all look the same. That’s not the case here. “Mc” might apply to the “ugly” box houses but this one fits its street perfectly.

          And while I agree this (and others) are particularly large houses, this entire street is littered with HUGE houses, some of which are old Craftsman and Tudors that are 80-90 years old. This street overlooks the water on top of a hill and has/will always be “rich people housing.” There is a pair of 80s mansions (one bright yellow) a few blocks north of this house that is way uglier and larger, but the blog doesn’t mention it.

          So I get the general disdain about housing (especially on this blog) but to compare this house to the other one in the article is disingenuous at best. Go drive up 34th and take a look at everything else on the street if you don’t believe me.

          • Do you have a better word, that so clearly describes the phenomena, when it comes to the density debate in Seattle? If it is the “mc” part you object to, then would you object to MiniMansion?

          • Ok, “expensive large house.”

            A “McMansion” is a specific thing. If you want a word to describe another thing, find one. Don’t use an existing word that means something else.

          • That misses the point though, which is that a certain class of these are not just large (I’d say bloated) but larger than today’s demographics suggest people need and really want. I’d argue that our rigid SF5000 zoning is incentivizing developers to build bloated homes, because it is how they can best maximize their ROI. There is nothing wrong with a builder maximizing their ROI, the issue is that our SF5000 zoning gives them no alternatives. If we did give them alternatives, they’d build more townhouses, or single family clusters, in the $600K-$700K range (4 per lot), instead of these houses. Given that, I think it is fine to use some term that carries with it, more information than “large SF house”. And I think McMansion has caught on as that term in our urban conversation. MiniMansion or BloatedHouse might also work…

          • I agree with you completely. I’m building an ADU in my basement.

            My points were 1) this is not a “McMansion” and 2) comparing the SFH in this article with one of the most expensive streets in the area is not a good comparison.

            He should have picked a house on a similar lot on a street without a view, somewhere that should be rezoned. Rich people are always going to build on property with waterfront views/etc.

          • I feel like I’m repeating myself so this will be my last comment:

            1. Thank you for raising the issue about design. I’m not terribly negative on the design of this building so I could see how that doesn’t fit the “Mc” part of McMansion, making the word imperfect. However, the design can be criticized and the house would blend in perfectly in virtually any suburban tract housing development. So I’m also don’t completely agree that it is beyond criticism for design.

            2. As both Glenn and I have repeated, “Mansion” indicates very large and expensive. These are the primary points that are raised in the article and why the word is at least partially appropriate.

            3. The house is a perfect comparison because it’s brand new and it’s within 2 blocks of the area under focus. This indicates that it’s likely indicative of what would be built in that area, which is the whole reason the house is mentinoed –
            to indicate what will be built should there be no zoning changes. There are no brand new houses that are closer which indicate some other style would be built.

            4) To your last point about rich people building giant houses with views, that’s exactly my point as well. If Olsen or Brown sell their house without a zoning change some rich person is going to build a giant McMansion with a view.

            Overall, than you for reading. The point about design is definitely relevant and perhaps deserves further exploration.

          • The argument about affordability and options is the core of the discussion here, and should remain focused. Yes, there’s a big house there now. No, perhaps it’s not technically a McMansion. But it did replace an older, four bedroom home and replaces it with yet another, bigger (but perhaps same number of bedrooms) home. Additionally, the original home was sold for $1.2 million, torn down, and replaced with an even bigger house that will likely house one family. The worrisome points of this story should be that homes may still get torn down, neighborhood “character” may still change, but we will see nothing in the way of allowing more people to move into the neighborhood or the preservation of affordable housing stock for aspiring homeowners if we continue to double down on our single-family housing districts.

          • “But it did replace an older, four bedroom home and replaces it with yet another, bigger (but perhaps same number of bedrooms) home. ”

            No, it didn’t. This lot was part of the one next door and was their (empty) yard.It has been empty since the house on the (original) lot was built in the 1940s.The house next door still has the original corner address of “6700 34th st” (or whatever the address is) as they haven’t re-addressed either lot yet. It should be 6702 or 6700a/b

          • Ah you’re right, it was a boundary line adjustment that offloaded the remaining parcel.

            My main point that the article is not about the building itself, but about the fact that one zone limits development options while still potentially doing nothing to prevent the worrisome encroachments on the “character” (light, views, etc.) of the surrounding neighborhood, still stands.

          • You make a good point about how design relates to the word “McMansion.” However it’s perfectly apt to use the house as an example in the article. It illustrates what is being built. The article is making a point about the size and affordability of what’s likely to go into the neighborhood with no zoning change.

          • And I’m saying its not really in the same neighborhood. You have one street full of HUGE houses with great views on a hilltop and then the edge of another neighborhood full of townhouses with no view on the edge of the urban village.

            Yes, the street should be upzoned, but you should have compared it to something on 56th or 54th a few blocks east, not to the north with a view of the bay

      • The entire street is on a graded hill and (as I stated below) there are tudors and craftsman on this street that are just as large as this one. I just think using this house to compare to the tiny house in the article (though technically only a few blocks away) is a bit disingenuous because this particular street (which ends at Sunset Hill Park) is literally 90% giant houses on the top of a hill with an overview of the water. The west side near the water has a straight view and every house on the east side is on a hill to put their sighline over the other houses.

        I agree we need more housing, but this comparison is terrible. Also: since it appears you have looked at the plans, can you comment on the possibility of a “ready made ADU” in the basement (separate mini-split, wet bar with stove hookup, separate entrance)? Pure curiosity on my part, but all the big houses up here I’ve looked at in open houses lately have had them.

      • And I’ll repost this:

        Yes, but the “Mc” part comes from “McDonalds” meaning they’re all over the freaking place and all look the same. That’s not the case here. “Mc” might apply to the “ugly” box houses but this one fits its street perfectly.

        There are literally ZERO “McMansions” in the city. Zero. They only exist in the suburbs where builders buy up 50 acres and build 150 giant houses on them with 3/4 different layouts. Google “McMansion” and take a look at any of the sites that come up.

        Its just a large house. Its too small to be a mansion. If you’re going to write for a living, learn to use words with the proper definitions.

          • From your link:

            “In suburban communities, McMansion is a pejorative term for a large “mass-produced” dwelling, constructed with low-quality materials and craftsmanship, using a mishmash of architectural symbols to invoke connotations of wealth or taste, executed via poorly thought-out exterior and interior design.[1]

            This house is not mass produced and it is not suburban. And again, I agree with everything in the article except this word. It is not “used broadly” and Owen is not correct on the word’s definition.

          • You either didn’t read very far or you’re disingenuous. Either way, you’re wrong. Owen’s usage is considered fair.

            Further commentary on McMansion is hereby off-topic and comments will be deleted.

  3. Predictable Disagreement And Surprising Agreements When Using “McMansion” in Single-Family Zoning – Wow all the comments directed on the word “McMansion”, is that what the article is really about or did everyone miss something?

  4. It’s kind of amazing how often people are up in arms about upzoning from single family, when their neighborhood already has plenty of multifamily development. Heck, I live in Licton Springs and it’s packed to the gills with apartments and condos and townhomes and it’s plenty “quiet”… Because (1) there’s nothing to do except for a park; and (2) it’s near Aurora so there’s “suspicious activity” that keeps people indoors. But still, quiet, even though it’s pretty darn dense.

  5. The DEIS is out, and rezoning the 10 single family homes on 3200 block of NW Market St to low rise multifamily is in Alternative 3, but not Alternative 2. If you support rectifying the inequitable down-zoning that was inflicted on these ten homes, and providing the city more housing on a block where the vast majority of homeowners and neighbors on the block actually want the lots in question to be upzoned, please provide feedback now. Rezoning these ten homes on our block should be included as low hanging fruit in both Alternative 2 and Alternative 3, not just Alternative 3. It is a great opportunity, and now is the time to make it happen. Please provide feedback to HALA and city council on this if you support us. We have been told we need a lot of positive support to get it done. Here’s a link to the DEIS:

    https://www.seattle.gov/hala/about/mandatory-housing-affordability-(mha)/mha-citywide-eis

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