If you’ve ever wondered why there are so many badly designed townhouse developments in Seattle, a speaker from the Congress of Residential Architects (CORA) had the explanation at a public meeting sponsored by the Eastlake Community Council on Wednesday, Nov. 11.
David Neiman, of David Neiman Architects, explained the history of multi-family zoning (buildings with multiple residential units in them) and how the design guidelines might change under new codes being developed by the Seattle City Council.
Work on the new code was put on hiatus last summer after the council decided it needed more time to study the proposal and identify potential loopholes. It is hoped that the multi-family zoning will be taken up again in 2010.
The current code was passed in 1989 after a strong negative reaction to code changes made in 1982. Those changes allowed buildings to be erected in many neighborhoods that were much taller than had been the tradition. Neiman explained that the unintended consequence of the 1989 code requirements is a proliferation of the cookier-cutter “auto courts” you see all over the city:
- Four or more vertical townhouses on a single site
- Poor street frontage
- Garages below the living space with a narrow entry from the street
- Most of the ground space given over to cars.
- The open space around the building is poor quality and usually fenced and cut off from the street.
- There’s no easy, natural way for residents to look out and keep tabs on what’s going on in the complex.
As Paige Richmond, co-chair of the ECC’s Land Use Committee, explained, changes in the multi-family code are a big deal in Eastlake because most of the neighborhood is zoned “L-3,” which allows 30-foot high buildings. Although there are many single-family homes in the neighborhood, those homes could be replaced with taller multi-family buildings. Having good zoning and design rules in place is in our best interest, she said.
Neiman said that the new code would replace the current code’s strict setback rules (15 feet at the front of the lot, 20 feet in the back, five feet on the sides) with a new standard: floor to area ratio, or FAR. The formula for computing it is: FAR = total building square footage/total area of the lot. The proposed ratios in the new code for the various low-rise zones would be:
- LDT: 1.0
- L1: 1.1
- L2: 1.2
- L3: 1.4-2.0
You could stack up the building space in any way you want, you just can’t exceed the ratio. Also, setbacks from the edge of the lot would be flexible and would have to meet a seven-foot average.
Any project larger than a duplex would have to go through an administrative design review which would help prevent developers from taking advantage of the code to produce bad designs. That process is still being developed.
Neiman is a proponent of the administrative design review. “Things get better during a design review,” he said.
In September, the results of a “White Hat/Black Hat” study of the new multi-family code were presented to the City Council’s Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee (PLUNC). Three teams (one from the Master Builders Association, one from CORA and one composed of longtime neighborhood advocates) each designed projects that showed the best potential outcomes of the new code and the worst (read the executive summary of that report here or the complete report [13mb] here).
As a result of that exercise, CORA made a number of suggestions to the PLUNC (including a rethinking of the FAR numbers) to help close those loopholes. Further work on the proposed new multi-family codes will have to wait until the new mayor and city council take office next year.
Related links on the multi-family code:
- The DPD’s Multi-Family Zoning Update web site
- An article from the Great City web site about the “White Hat/Black Hat” exercise
- Seattle Channel broadcast of the “White Hat/Black Hat” report to the PLUNC
- What zone do you live in? Enter your address in this map to find out
- CORA Northwest’s blog
- Previous Eastlake Ave. post about the delay in the multi-family code