Updates to the Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District

Sunset Electric Apartments, 11th and Pine, Seattle WA
Sunset Electric Apartments by Joe Wolf on Flickr, licenced under Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0.

John Feit, President of PPUNC, provided a brief overview of the Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District. The overlay district deploys an incentive program to encourage building character preservation in the Pike/Pine area of Capitol Hill, while allowing for growth that is balanced and geared to a mix of urban uses. The overlay district was created by the Seattle City Council in 2009 under the leadership of Council Members Tom Rasmussen and Sally Clark. The City Council saw the potential for growth in the Pike/Pine Corridor, but wanted to use incentive tools to avoid turning the area into an extension of downtown, instead, maintaining the unique character of the area. Initially the Overlay District gave height incentives, such as an extra floor of height, to projects that preserved the façades of “character buildings” (generally, buildings constructed prior to 1940).

The purpose of the meeting last night was to discuss what has been learned since developers had access to the overlay district incentives, and to recommended adjustments to the land use code in order to better achieve the original goals of the overlay district. The new proposed legislation aims to improve the preservation of the area’s existing character while continuing to accommodate growth.

The meeting attracted a pleasant group of people close to the motivations and outcomes for the overlay district. In addition to Seattle City Council Member Rasmussen, President of PPUNC, John Feit, and Dennis Meier of Seattle DPD, the meeting was attended principally by those directly affected by development incentives, including representatives from Capitol Hill Housing, Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, a Central District business association, representatives from various local developers, and a few private owners. The mood of the meeting was so supportive and constructive of the updates to the overlay district that jokes were made that maybe microhousing should have been put on the event description.

The original rules for the overlay district were somewhat loose, and allowed developers to combine parcels into large projects that took full advantage of the height incentives. Meanwhile, developers only did the minimum to meet the letter of the law. In several cases, a single façade was preserved, while other character buildings that were part of the assembled parcels were not. According to Mr. Feit, projects such as Sunset Electric, which is approximately 1/8 block, were more what the Overlay District aimed for, as opposed to the Mercedes Benz dealership project (600 E Pike), which is substantially larger, and will fill about 2/3 of the block. The proposed legislation aims to update the code, such that beyond following the letter of the law, future projects will be closer to following the spirit of the law.

There was substantial discussion that touched on areas beyond the look and mass of the buildings in the overlay district. The code as it exists encourages small retail spaces (<2000 sq. ft.) and there was strong support at the meeting for continuing the advocacy for smaller spaces that attract denser retail uses, and which are more affordable to diverse tenants by based on a smaller space costing less in total, assuming that the cost per square foot holds more or less. An interesting view expressed by Mr. Feit was that through communication with the parties involved in the overlay district, new developers to the area can be given good advice about “what works here”. Additionally, those developers can be encouraged and given the tools they need to convince their financiers that things such as character, street experience, and diverse use are more likely to benefit the building and contribute to the project’s success than space for “another bank”.


An interesting takeaway from this meeting was that seemingly everyone there understood urbanism. There were excellent discussions about how PPNUC and DPD can encourage smaller retail spaces, mixed uses, and building variety. Discussions also shifted technical at points, involving inquiry about floor area ratio (FAR) for the various categories of buildings (e.g. residential, commercial, mixed, etc.) and ways of boosting FAR via overlay district and infill development incentives.

Overall, there seemed to be a general understanding that preserving the character of the area is an important policy goal, but one that involves major costs (into the hundreds of thousands for the simple-sounding preservation of a building’s brick façade). The goal of the overlay district incentives is to add height incentives in a manner that achieves the goal of preserving the character of the area, while making sure that the overall project pencils out. I enjoyed listening to the genuine dialogue that occurred between the officials, developers, and community leaders, and would strongly encourage interested readers to likewise participate in future discussions.

Brendon is a PhD Candidate in Analytical Chemistry who enjoys the casual study of societal concerns. After 8 years of living in South Florida, dreaming about living in the Pacific Northwest, he made the move and hasn’t looked back since. Brendon is an enthusiastic advocate for the spontaneous connections that happen more in dense areas, and wants more people to be able to experience the joys of urban living. Aside from urbanism, Brendon loves coffee, beer, and talking about science, especially when combined in one sitting.

Ballard to Downtown Seattle Results


Ballard LRT Corridor Alternatives

NW Seattle Residents Prefer Tunnels

The Ballard to Downtown High Capacity Transit Study results are in: people that attended meetings and provided digital feedback want Option D!

The public identified Corridor D as its favorite corridor with a commanding 76% of the votes. Like the Denver Broncos’ 8 points in Super Bowl XLVIII, none of the other options reached into double digits as a percentage of the total responses. These numbers are fantastic! Beyond the hugely numeric endorsement of the tunnel option, the paltry “support” of the other options is a gigantic indicator of a public that would likely oppose anything less. I’m sure this isn’t lost on Sound Transit (ST) or the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT). The tune appears to be “NE Seattle will have fast, uninterrupted, reliable transit (sic. tunnel) from Downtown to Northgate–We (NW Seattle) want that too.” Other large takeaways from the final report:

Provide Fast and Convenient Connections

  • Travel time improvement, ridership, and reliability were identified as the three most important factors in evaluating rail options between Ballard and Downtown Seattle. Most participants strongly believed that tunnels, due to grade separation and lack of disruption to other modes, allow for faster and more reliable transit than at grade or elevated options.

Anticipate future growth now

  • The majority of public input indicated that the cost of constructing a new rail line should not be a concern. Rather, the corridor that provides the best opportunity for Seattle’s future growth and development should be prioritized.
  • A large proportion of comments encouraged Sound Transit and the City of Seattle to consider a new Ballard to Downtown Seattle rail line in the context of other proposed rail projects (perhaps/very likely Ben’s “Option 9” here and here.)

Anticipate Future Growth Now…

…In Ballard. Why? Because it is the responsible thing to do. We all know that Ballard is a desirable neighborhood to live in–but just how desirable? Take this metric for example: the 2004-24 Comprehensive Plan anticipated growth of 1,000 housing units in Ballard. Ballard doubled that target in 2013 with over 2,000 units added–11 years ahead of schedule. In terms of new housing units, between 2000 and 2010, Ballard is only bested by the Denny Triangle and Belltown neighborhoods citywide. These and other awesome metrics can be found in the Ballard Existing Conditions Report.

The Joy of Tough Choices


Picture 8

“You keepin’ me smilin’ with that deep sexy voice o’ yours,” says a gravelly ball of waning energy on the 358. She’s over forty, mixed race and short, from places I can’t figure.
“Oh gosh,” I say, trying not to blush. “It’s not that good!”
I’m terrible at taking compliments. As a child I couldn’t stand my rosy cheeks, and for a long time thought there must be some way of peeling them off to take them back to normal, the way everyone else’s were. Never ended up getting around to that.

“Yeah it is!” she exclaims. “You should be a radio guy. Should be a DJ.”
Time to change the subject.
“How’s your day been?”
“Uuhh. Busy.”
“I hope in a good way!”
“Uuhhh,” she proclaims.
“Oh no! You got a chance to relax comin’ up?”
“Oh yeah, Friday!”
“That always makes it easier. Even if you’re busy now, when you know when your next chance to just sit around and stare out the window is. You’ve got that waiting on the horizon.”
“Yeah. I got to get ready for Seahawks!”
“There you go.”
“I’m tryin t’ decide whether to make gumbo.”

She said it as if it was a difficult decision. I burst out laughing as we cross Marion Street.

I’m saying, “well, of course! The answer’s yes, you know that!”
She chuckles, adding, “well, my hubby want jambalaya.”
“Ooooohhhkay, I see.” Recognizing the gravity of the situation. “We do got a dilemma on our hands,” I say, pretending to be very serious. “I thought this was between gumbo or no gumbo.”
“Oh yeah that’d be easy. This,”
“That would be a big piece of cake. No contest! Case closed!”
“You got that right.”
“This’ a little more complex right here.”
“Oh yeah!”
“A tough life choice indeed! We got some figurin’ out to do!”
She laughs with her eyes and voice, a husky, fluttering ray of light and rising sound, her exhausting day forgotten.


North Rainier Rezone Passes Committee

Depiction of North Rainier rezone. Credited to Department of Planning and Development

On Tuesday, the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability (PLUS) committee passed through legislation that would rezone around the Mt. Baker light rail station. The most discussed change from this proposed legislation is an increase of height limits to either 65, 85, or 125 feet directly around the station. Though the changes would affect the station overlay district (a fancy way of saying that the area considered accessible by foot to the station) and consequently require street design that is friendly for pedestrians.


It has taken nearly 6 years to get to this point. Most of the area is currently zoned between 55 and 65 feet. The effort aims to create a ‘town center’ around the station that will be walkable and support multi-use commercial activity as well as residential. The current area looks like this:

Mt Baker Station

It is not considered a very walkable area and this is readily apparent from the Google Map above, but if you need convincing, take a drive in Google Street View. In the above image, the area around the station is dominated by parking lots and consists of numerous roads with four or more lanes, and many of those roads don’t make a grid. All of these factors add up to an area that doesn’t encourage walking. Meanwhile, the proposed rezone is as follows:


The Opposition

Those voicing concerns about the rezone process were mostly focused on the issue of height. Council member Bruce Harrell primarily wanted to reduce the increased height limits. Specifically, Harrell’s proposed legislation would have only increased the Lowe’s plot to 85 feet, rather than to 125 feet.To put this in perspective, this is the difference between an 8 and 12 story building.

The dialogue from most residents opposing the change suggests that:

  • They support a rezone
  • They want to put off the rezone until some other action is taken first
  • They think the rezone will destroy jobs in favor of residential housing

It’s not exactly clear how rezoning will destroy jobs in the area. First of all, Lowe’s has a long-term lease on the site, so they’re going nowhere soon. A rezone could enable significant employers to locate in the area, especially if some council members’ idea about a college campus comes to fruition. In the interim, there’s a lot of undeveloped land that would likely be preferred by developers first. Many of the current businesses aren’t exactly big employers and much of the new development will allow new businesses. If this area is not ready for more housing, it’s hard to make the case that any place ever would be ready for housing. The area has excellent transit connections, a lot of underutilized land, a nearby school, is close to downtown, and is in a valley (reducing the visual impact of tall buildings).

Next Steps

The new zoning proposal was passed out of committee with a 4-1 vote. Bruce Harrell was the only dissenter. The full council will consider the legislation on June 23rd. We strongly encourage the council to pass the legislation and specifically include the area in the square orange box in the rezone.

What A Micro-Housing Stakeholder Group Can Achieve

Example of micro-housing. Courtesy of the Seattle Department of Planning and Development.


Micro-housing (often referred to as apodments) are small units, which are usually less than 300 square feet in size. They tend to be occupied individually (like studios), but without a kitchen or kitchenette. Units are may be grouped around a common space and share a kitchen with up to 8 other units. Over the past few years, these units began popping up around Seattle and gradually garnering strong and vocal backlash. The units are possible under current zoning because they are considered similar to congregate housing. Examples of congregate-like housing include multiple unrelated people living in a single-family home, assisted living centers, or college dormitories.

The pros

This type of housing provides an option that currently is rarely available in the market place, especially at the price range being targeted. Individuals choosing this option are seeing a number of advantages such as:

  • The chance to have a private space without roommates
  • The chance to live in a new building
  • Costs in high-rent neighborhoods between $500 and $700 a month
  • The chance to live closely to a large group of people without the responsibility of cleaning common space
  • A standard lease that is legal, ensuring protection under the law rather than depending on unofficial agreements

The cons

Opponents have a large range of complaints, which include common ones like:

  • The units will bring unsavory people to the neighborhood
  • The increased density will make it harder to find (practically free) street parking
  • The buildings are ugly
  • No one can/should live in such small spaces
  • This isn’t a good solution for cheap housing

The first four complaints are blatantly specious, but have ignited a fire under council to pass regulations that differentiate this type of housing from the single-family homes that are (unofficially) used in the same way already.

Proposed regulations

All of the proposed changes will make it more expensive to build micro-housing. This leads one to ask whether the proposals aim to provide better, more affordable housing or to prevent micro-housing. A few of the regulations that are especially bad:

Where we’re at now

During the Planning, Land-Use and Sustainability (PLUS) committee meeting yesterday, a vote was expected on some of the micro-housing rules but instead a decision was made to form a stakeholder group. The stakeholder group will be tasked with determining the best way to regulate this new type of housing. The group will likely consist of about 10 members representing various interest in the debate and will draft new regulations regarding this housing type. It’s hard to say what this means before seeing the make-up of the stakeholder group. With that said, it seems unlikely that the vocal opponents of micro-housing will be the only voice. Additionally, throughout the debate there has been very little influence from people who live in these buildings. Their feedback should prove critical for considering regulation and this will give them a voice.

What the stakeholder group should consider

There’s no doubt that micro-housing isn’t the only, or even the best solution for affordable housing in Seattle. In a perfect world developers would be building units three times the size of micro-housing and charging the same, if not less. In the world we live in, the most affordable, new housing being in Seattle is micro-housing. Any regulations passed should seek to preserve or expand this value. The stakeholder group should consider:

  • What regulations can be changed to make micro-housing even more affordable;
  • How we ensure that enough micro-housing is built to meet demand; and
  • If there are regulations that can make micro-housing more livable without affecting the cost.

We look forward to moving this beyond debate and more thoroughly considering how to structure a city that builds a lot of varied and affordable housing. In the mean time, let’s not kill the projects we are building that are affordable, but instead seek to enhance their value.

Northgate Pedestrian Bridge Open House


Bridge Alignment Options

Yesterday, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) held an open house on a potential pedestrian bridge for Northgate. The bridge would serve residents on both sides of I-5 at Northgate, but with the primary purpose of connecting pedestrians and cyclists west of Northgate to the future light rail station. The open house provided the public an opportunity to discuss all of the design options on the table with SDOT.

SDOT outlined several criteria in deciding what a final bridge design should incorporate, but three in particular were emphasized for public comment:

  1. Connectivity
  2. Design opportunities
  3. Safety concerns

Many reasons were given to justify the need for this bridge, including long-term demand in the community for a new connection across the freeway, expanding the train station walk- and bike-sheds, and boosting the usefulness of the planned bicycle Greenway along 100th Street.

The bridge alternatives under consideration each have four different components, with each component containing a number of options for positioning and visual design choices. The components for the bridge alternatives include:

  • The ramp near North Seattle Community College;
  • A segment crossing the freeway;
  • Another segment connecting to the light rail station; and
  • An additional ramp descending to the street level on the east side of the freeway.

Three model bridges were provided displaying each of the designs under consideration for the bridge span (as seen below): a tube shaped bridge, a cable supported bridge, and an arch supported bridge. The bridge designs incorporate features to deter items (or persons) from being dropped from the bridge and create a visually interesting structure internally and externally.

Bridge Option 1

Bridge Option 2

Bridge Option 3

SDOT and Sound Transit have secured $10m of the $25m required to complete the project. The two agencies have teamed up to seek an additional $15m from the Federal government under the USDOT’s TIGER grant program. If the grant funding effort fails, SDOT and Sound Transit say that there are a number of alternative funding avenues being considered, including guaranteed funding attached to a future infrastructure funding levy (presumably the next Bridging the Gap measure).

Support at this event appeared to be strongly in favor of this project. However, there were some concerns raised about connecting infrastructure like the Greenway (currently unfunded), safety at the Meridian Avenue N crossing (west of the bridge and entirely unprotected), and the potential increase in parking challenges if people choose to park on the west side of the freeway and then walk to the station.

Public comment is encouraged on the project with final comments due by June 16th. You can contact the project lead, Art Brochet, directly via e-mail.

Mister Tony


Picture 2


“Hey hey, how’s it goin’?”

“The man of the hour! Good to see you, my friend. How’s it been today?”

Tony is the vet mentioned here, where I designate him as “Grizzly Tony, beer-guzzling panhandler extraordinaire.” That was two years ago. Today he and I are still doing our thing. I still spend large quantities of time smiling up and down the length of Rainier Avenue, and he still pulls down long hours working along Rainier with his cardboard sign.

I know it might sound incongruous to describe panhandling as work, but it’s tougher than one might think. Certainly it’s not hard to picture the difficulties of being outside for long hours for minimal return; what’s more difficult to imagine is the psychology necessary. You have to diminish your sense of identity until you hit a place where you can present yourself publicly in a state of abject failure. You know you have dignity, but to choose to show yourself to the world in a way such that they’ll see you as having none… a number of homeless friends I know don’t panhandle for this reason. They don’t want to wrap their heads around that frame of mind if they can help it.

As for Tony, I don’t think he cares that much. He’s an educated man, a vet, and he likes to booze it up. Caucasian is a misnomer; his skin is red now, tanned from daylight exposure and bleached a rosy hue, that swarthy quality that comes with too much alcohol. He has a knack for being able to talk to anyone, and his past, involving work in all sorts of disciplines, gives him a starting point for conversation with most people. I first met him on the 4, when I heard a voice augmenting my announcements.

“We’re closin’ the back doors,” I’d say.

“Now we’re closin’ the front door, we’re about to close the front door,” he’d say in his gravelly voice. I see my announcements as pertaining to matters of importance along the route- the stops, asking them to hang on, et cetera. He saw them as me simply verbalizing everything that the bus was doing. He found the idea hilarious (which it is!), and added to it in the spirit of comic exaggeration.

Me: “Here we go!”

Him: “bus is moving forward, everybody!”

“Next stop is 4th and James,”

“We’re drivin’ through the green light here, folks,”

This was in 2009, when I was still somewhat new to driving downtown routes and the folks who use them. I knew getting all uptight would be a mistake, though. The trick here is to flow with, rather than against. “You should be doin’ my job!” I holler out. “Sound like a pro!”

“Makin a left turn, makin a left turn here, everybody pay attention left turn,” he’s saying. It’s my turn to augment him.

“Makin that left turn on James, stoppin’ by the courthouse.”

“Bus is about to open the doors, watch out,”

A block later, I’m saying, “almost at 5th avenue, by the Municipal Court, Muni Tower, Jail…”

“Jail?! Holy cow, I wasn’t even gonna say jail!”

We’ve been on good terms ever since. What I find most amusing about him is how serious he can keep his face when saying silly things. He has a comedian’s ability to keep a straight face. Throughout the above he generally wore his poker face like a champ; but he’ll always break down at the end and respond in kind to my “good to see ya.”

Back to the present. We’re on Rainier and McClellan inbound, and I’m asking him how he’s doing. “Soaked to the skin, man,” he says. “Soaked to the skin, they got so much rain comin down out here…”

“Where you goin’ now, you goin’ home?” I think he likes me because I treat him without pity, as just another guy, with only a few small differences in life choice and circumstance separating us. An equal, in other words.

“Goin’ a go see my fiance.”

“What? Congratulations!” I say, turning around. “That’s fantastic!” I think I’m more excited than he is. Friends know I’m easily thrilled. “You got one up on me, man. I hope one day I can tell you I’m goin’ a go see my fiance!”

“She’s alright,” he deadpans.

I can’t help but laugh. He continues with, “I gotta go get her some beers.”


“Yeah, she drink different type a alcohol than me.”


“Yeah, I drink PBR, she drinks buttercups.” In that serious tone, as if this is a particularly dour issue.

“Gotta keep the lady happy, that’s what they say,”

“Don’t want a woman trippin’ on ya,” he says, in a tone so humorless I find it comical.

“Gotta get those buttercups.”

As he settles in behind me, I hear the chatter continue. He’s telling a story, and I hear intermittent smatterings amongst the wet pavement and rolling wiper blades–“ATF,” “had my clothes on,” “fiance,” “shooting down here,” “mulberries.” Then I hear the echo of unconcealed truth in his tone as he tells someone, “oh, no no. I could never afford a real ring. I c’afford a Cracker Jack ring, that’s about it.”

Baugruppen: Sizes Vary by Manufacturer


Editor’s Note: This is Part 5 of a series on Baugruppen, private owners collaboratively building affordable multifamily projects. Read Part 1 or check out the series.

While I may have a slight affinity for homogenous, Soviet-bloc housing (panelák!)–it’s only because they’re ripe for Passivhaus retrofits! However, diversity in the built environment is a positive thing. In materials, yes, but also in form and typology.

Baugruppen fit the bill here really, really, well–as they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, infills or housing estates. Conceivably any project size could be possible, and there are examples ranging from just two units (e.g. Tuebingen’s Kristall) to over a hundred. That being said, there does seem to be a ‘sweet spot’ regarding the number of units–and that seems to range around 15-30 units. I assume this is mainly owing to the difficulties of financing larger, more complex projects and decision-making in larger groups.

photo: wohnportal-berlin


An interesting aspect with larger schemes is that they may be divided into separate buildings (sometimes conjoined, sometimes not), with different firms authoring different aspects. This allows for variability with a given framework, while still maintaining a healthy amount of density. One example of this is Dennewitz EINS, which is being spearheaded by dmsw architekten (haus a), roedig.schop (haus C) and sieglundalbert: Architektur (haus b).

A large project in planning, also with multiple firms (Deimel Oelschläger, dmsw architekten & ZOOM architekten), is the ambitious Newtonprojekt, a 100-unit plusenergiehaus (e.g. beyond net zero) settlement in Adlershof (Berlin). The project will feature a diverse cross section of residents and a variety of housing typologies in 9 buildings with ample green space. Project specs and write up with renderings.

photo: via deutsches architektur forum user backstein

The R50 is an 18 unit, 7-story BG just around the corner from Checkpoint Charlie. The project, by Heide & Von Beckerath, sports a community room (ground floor) and roof terrace. I’m actually enthralled by this project, the images are stunning–floor-to-ceiling glass, yet still space for insulation! An interesting interview with Jesko Fezer of ifau on gentrification issues and process at urbanophil, and a short documentary with English transcript.

The 7-story, 11-unit baugruppe on Strassburger Strasse 39 (Prenzlauer Berg) is another project exuding confidence in the middle of the city. It consists of a variety of unit types, and is a solid, urban building–Seattle should be copying this. Designed by zoom architekten, it also has a small maisonette to the rear of the lot, separate from the main house. Courtyard glazing is extensive with nearly full-width balconies. Really dig the color play on the glass panels on the street facade (perhaps a nod to sauerbruch + hutton?). The project also includes a retail space on the ground floor.

While some may see BGs as being in direct competition with developer-driven projects–many BGs operating in the free(er) market (e.g. Berlin) seem to occupy a different space, generally working with smaller or awkwardly shaped lots developers may not be interested in, as they entail higher risk or less profit. They also address issues of affordability better than a lot of developer-driven projects. I’m incredibly impressed with the variation in apartment types/sizes/configuration, and as of now I’m pretty convinced there isn’t a better model for urban living than this. +1 BGs.