Last Monday, the Seattle City Council took up discussion on citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) rezones at the Select Committee. While the rezones will primarily target existing commercial and multifamily areas, single-family zones in urban villages would also be rezoned to increase development capacity and require affordable housing contributions from new development. Some urban villages would also receive boundary expansions and rezone other single-family areas.

Historic Resources Addendum to MHA Rezone FEIS

The Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) provided an update on work to wrap up an addendum to the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). In late November, Seattle Hearing Examiner Ryan Vancil ordered OPCD to consider historic resources but otherwise affirmed the adequacy of the FEIS. Since then, OPCD has conducted full analysis of impacts that MHA rezones could have on landmarks and historic districts.

Example of new maps for FEIS with inventoried historic resources. (City of Seattle)
Example of new maps for FEIS with inventoried historic resources. (City of Seattle)

OPCD took stock of designated landmarks by the Landmarks Preservation Board, eligible sites and historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places, and inventoried other historic resources. Revised maps identifying these areas and places will be published as part of the addendum to the FEIS. OPCD will also include recommended mitigation measures that the city could implement to protect historic resources.

The review process of historic resources means that the city will formally recognize two new historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places. These new historic districts include the Ravenna-Cowen North and Mount Baker Park Addition.

To mitigate impacts to historic resources, policymakers could consider the following strategies:

  • Urban village expansions for historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places could be reduced or eliminated. This would afford more protection to historic districts by keeping more intensive development pressures out.
  • If there are concerns about with designated and eligible landmark sites and areas, the city council could consider lower MHA rezone development capacity increases to reduce pressure for redevelopment.
  • Exemption thresholds under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) for demolition of structures that are at least 50 years old could be revised. This means that environmental review under SEPA could be triggered any time such demolitions are proposed, regardless of a development proposal. Revising SEPA exemption thresholds would require separate legislation from the MHA rezone bill.
  • The City could choose to fund a thorough historic resources survey and inventory program, which could help facilitate a proactive approach to landmarking and district nominations rather than reactive, project-based system currently operating in the city. This would necessitate funding and separate legislation from the city council to complete.

Councilmember Rob Johnson expressed conceptual support for passing a companion resolution on follow-up actions to implement some of the recommended mitigation measures once the MHA rezone policy decisions have been made and the legislation is ready for final passage. Those decisions could affect what mitigation measures the city council should choose for separate action.

OPCD expects to complete the historic resources analysis by the end of January, which would pave the way for the city council to adopt MHA rezones. The city council has signaled the final adoption of the rezones could occur in March.

MHA Rezone Amendment Concepts

During the meeting, the city council was briefed on a slate of policy questions that could turn into amendments to the MHA legislation. The primary ones include the following:

  • Floor area ratio limits in Lowrise zones. The proposed MHA legislation would simplify floor area ratio (FAR) limits in Lowrise zones. Instead of having different FAR limits for apartments, rowhouses, townhouses, and cottage housing, the FAR limits would be consolidated to be agnostic on incentivizing any particular housing type. As an example, townhouses in the Lowrise 1 zone are given a 1.2 FAR limit while apartments are given a 1.0 FAR limit right now. However, the existing paradigm of incentivizing different housing types with higher or lower FAR limits could be retained, albeit with higher absolute FAR limits as part of the MHA rezones, if the city council desires the policy.
  • Density limits in Lowrise 1 zones. The proposed legislation would fully remove dwelling unit density limits for cottage housing and apartment developments in the Lowrise 1. It would also revise existing limits for rowhouses and townhouses. Rowhouses and townhouses could be allowed to one dwelling unit per 1,350 square feet of site area on lots that are less than 3,000 square feet in size. These changes could tilt the scales to put other forms of housing on par with rowhouses and townhouses from a density standpoint.
  • Pitched roofs in Lowrise zones. Under existing regulations, a pitched roof is only allowed to exceed the maximum height limit in Lowrise zones by five feet if the roof does not exceed a pitch of 6:12. This can present a problem for townhouses based upon their building width forcing roofs that must be 7.5 feet to 10 feet in height to meet the pitch requirements, but this exceeds the extra height limit allowance. A possible amendment could provide more realistic expectations for flatter roof types with a minimum 3:12 roof pitch.
  • Apartments in the Residential Small Lot zone. The MHA legislation would allow for apartments in the Residential Small Lot zone if they contain three or fewer dwelling units and limit the density to one dwelling unit per 2,200 square feet of site area for all allowed residential types. The provision, however, could have the effect of encouraging other housing types (e.g., cottage housing or townhouses) instead or underbuilding. A possible amendment could remove or modify the cap on dwelling units allowed in apartments while still being subject to the general density limitations of the Residential Small Lot zone.
  • Maximum unit size the Residential Small Lot zone. The MHA legislation would establish a maximum size limit on individual dwelling units at 2,200 square feet. The purpose is to prevent McMansions from being built on small lots. However, the provision could preclude existing homes from obtaining limited expansions. Possible amendments could provide exceptions to allow construction of a second story on a existing one-story home or other limited expansions in other situations.
  • Floor area ratio incentive. In the Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District new developments can increase floor area ratio maximums by up to 15% if a character structure is retained or at least 50% of the gross floor area for housing unit is set aside as affordable. The proposed legislation would remove the affordable housing incentive, which could result in many more character structures being voluntarily retained in the cultural and arts districts. An amendment may be brought forward to keep that incentive even if it may mean competition with the preservation goals and some double dipping under MHA requirements for affordable housing.
  • Preschool uses. In certain sections of the Land Use Code, preschool uses are incentivized, but the term is narrow in scope. Another term, “child care center” is used that includes several types of facilities, such as preschools, daycares, and other institutions that provide care for children for fewer than 24 hours per day. This term would incentivize a broader set of facilities to be created for children.
  • Parking and loading in Rainier Beach. The MHA rezones will create a new custom zoning district for Rainier Beach, referred to as Seattle Mixed-Rainier Beach (SM-RB). This zoning district is proposed to allow surface parking at the front of buildings, two-way curb cuts, and up to 50% of a site to be covered by surface parking. This tends to run counter to similar zoning districts by allowing a suburban form of development in an area served directly by light rail. Possible amendments may revise this to encourage more pedestrian- and transit-oriented development forms.
  • Incentive zoning in Highrise zones. Under existing regulations, developments in the Highrise zone in First Hill can participate in the incentive zoning program to attain additional floor area. Developers can achieve all of the additional floor area by providing affordable housing or up to 40% of additional floor area through a mix of Green Street improvements, purchase development rights from historic landmarks, and public open space in addition to contributing 60% of additional floor area to affordable housing. The MHA legislation, however, would require all additional floor area to participate in normal MHA requirements and other incentive zoning program options, except that affordable housing contributions only would not be eligible to satisfy the incentive zoning program requirements. Possible amendments could retain a similar incentive zoning program option for additional floor area to the existing one or go a different direction.
  • Support for small businesses. Similar to development regulations in the Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District, regulations could be established to promote and preserve small, locally-owned businesses in new development. A potential amendment may be narrow to limit the frontage width of ground floor commercial spaces or requiring some small spaces on the ground floor. Application of the regulations may on be in Neighborhood Commercial zones and areas with Pedestrian designation.
  • Timing of fee payment. Some developers want to further delay the timing of MHA fee payment. Under current law, fees are due at the time of building permit issuance, but developers of smaller scale projects would like this to be further delayed or amortized.

MHA Rezone Discussion to Continue

Today, the Select Committee on Mandatory Housing Affordability will take up discussion on possible amendments to site-specific zoning and urban village boundaries for Council Districts 4, 6, and 7. The source of amendment proposals could be by individual councilmembers or members of the public. The discussion is anticipated to continue to a follow-on meeting this Wednesday (January 16th) for Council Districts 1, 2, 3, and 5. The city council will hold a public hearing on the totality of the “citywide” MHA rezone legislation, including changes to development regulations, on February 21st at 5:30pm. All of the meetings will be held in the Council Chambers at City Hall.

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.