Slightly Demystifying Zoning Not Really

Zoning is one of the big topics in Seattle right now. We’ve been bogged down in a multi-year – I am not joking – process by which we figure out ways we can change zoning and other rules and programs related to housing so that we can make Seattle more affordable and livable. At one point, it looked like we might change the zoning on large swaths of Seattle to re-legalize pretty non-dense, by world city standards, increased housing density in much of the city. That upset a lot of people. So they went back and did some stuff and recently released some recommendations to expand where we (in theory) incentivize more affordable housing with a package of recommended zoning changes to go city-wide with. It includes a very handy map on the proposed increased zoning density and easily lets you compare existing zoning to the original proposals and the new ones.

Here in Seattle, we have a lot of fancy dandy maps. You can see current zoning in an interactive map here or in static PDFs. One thing you’ll immediately note is just how much of Seattle is “Single Family”. This is theoretically one house per lot with a limit on how many unrelated adults can live in the same dwelling. In theory “mother-in-law” units (“accessory dwelling units” or “detached accessory dwelling units”) are allowed, but the restrictions make them very hard to build. Vast portions of the city are zoned for single family but have non-conforming (but grandfathered) features (duplexes, multiple accessory dwelling units). But if you tear them down, you can’t rebuild them the same way.

Anyway, it got me thinking about how one even figures out how things have changed. The house my family lives in is near the future Judkins Park light rail station (opening 2023!) on a lot zoned LR2 or “Lowrise 2” which allows multi-family housing. A number of lots in my neighborhood have had older (and very small) single family homes torn down and turned into row houses or very skinny detached houses. On our little block four lots on either side of the street (out of I think sixteen five years ago) have been turned into these kinds of houses: 15 (if I’ve counted right) new units in place of 4. In a single family zoned area, your only option if you tear down a small old house is to build another house, usually a very large and expensive one and still only housing a single family.

It’s great our neighborhood is getting more density. It’s already within walking distance of lots of great transit (though less so on shops and such). In 2023, it will be a five minute walk to a light rail station (it’s about a 15 minute walk now to Mt Baker or Beacon Hill stations). But it had me wondering: how long has my neighborhood been higher density? How has it changed?

First, here’s a picture of the current zoning in my neighborhood:

screenshot of zoning map

North is up. The future Judkins Park light rail station will be about where the blue I-90 shield is. My family’s house is in that brownish area just to the south and east of that station. The brown is a mixture of LR2 and LR1 zoning. LR2 closer to Rainier (why not LR3?) We’re in LR2. The dark yellow or orange is commercial, specifically C1-40 and C1-65. The latter number indicates the height limit (I think). Despite its name, commercial zones do allow residential buildings. The light yellow is single family, usually SF5000 meaning that (conforming) lots are at least 5000 square feet. If you zoom out a bit, you can see that the strip between Beacon Ave (where Beacon Hill light rail station is) and Rainier Ave (where Mt Baker station is) is overwhelmingly single family, even though pretty much every residence is within a 15 minute walk to one or two stations.

zoomed out zoning map of north beacon hill

In this map, that I-90 shield is at the top. Beacon Hill light rail station is in the lower left quadrant (right about where the text “Beacon Hill Library” is). The Mt Baker light rail station is at the intersection of Rainier Ave and MLK in the lower right (“L King Jr Way S” is all you can see here). In all that light yellow it is really hard to put more than one family per lot (unless it’s already built that way).

Anyway, the new proposed changes, at least in Alternative 3, don’t to my mind substantially change much. The zones that already allow multi-family are upzoned a bit and most single family lots stay the same, sadly. But then I go back to that history question. I knew our lot wasn’t always “Lowrise 2”. It was single family at one point. When did that happen?

Unfortunately, there aren’t handy maps that let me just say “show me zoning in 1990”. There is a map of 1973. You can view the “index” map and then zoom in on your area. We’re in 52W:

zoning_1973_52W

So, in 1973, our lot was what would be today SF5000, just like my neighbors a couple blocks to the south. When did we upzone? This is where the tricks come in. Mike Eliason on twitter helpfully pointed me at the historical zoning page. Then he pointed out the neighorhood plans page which linked to specific ordinances. I started searching ordinances. Straight keyword searches were no good, but then I noticed the “Index Terms from City Clerk’s Thesaurus” box. Oh! Now we’re getting somewhere! The ordinance that increased zone density around the (then future) Beacon Hill light rail station was passed in 1999. The “index terms” for this ordinance are “NORTH-BEACON-HILL, BEACON-HILL, REZONES, NEIGHBORHOOD-PLANS”.

Thus through some trial and error – my part of the neighborhood has various neighborhood names and apparently its indexed under “MOUNT-BAKER” – I was able to find Ordinance 115606, “AN ORDINANCE rezoning portions of the I-90 Area” passed in 1991. There’s a PDF scan of the text. In it, there are maps! My part is LR2 in these maps. But it’s not totally clear – is this all existing zoning and it’s only the variously marked through or stamped over zoning names that indicate changes in zoning? Did it actually change in 1991? It doesn’t seem like it changed at this time.

But there’s some interesting text:

WHEREAS, Ordinance 113858, adopted March 8, 1988, requested the Executive to implement a multi-family work program to develop and analyze permanent amendments to the multifamily code and requested that Executive recommendations include zoning text amendments and legislative mapping changes for the 1-90 area and other areas of the city;

If I poke around at other ordinances indexed with “REZONES” around this time frame, there are a bunch. A bunch of them invoke it being an emergency, mentioning this same ordinance, like this one:

AN ORDINANCE rezoning portions of the Queen Anne Hill neighborhood and declaring an emergency.

WHEREAS, Ordinance 113858, adopted March 8, 1988, enacted interim controls on development in lowrise multi-family residential zones for a period of one year and called for the Executive to implement a multi-family work program to develop and analyze permanent amendments to the multifamily code;

I’m not sure what’s up with the emergency bit. Zoning changes do not seem like an emergency but maybe that was necessary to invoke certain rules? If you poke around in the actual ordinances in 1990/1991, they are mostly little piecemeal downzones. It’s hard to actually screenshot, but have a look at a couple maps:  115512 (Queen Anne), 115197 (North Seattle).

Anyway, let’s go look at ordinance 113858:

AN ORDINANCE adopting City-wide emergency interim controls in the Low Rise 3 (L-3) Low-Rise 2 (L-2) and Low-rise 1 (L-1) multi-family residential zones in the City of Seattle and declaring that emergency conditions exist in those zones throughout the City and by adding a new Section 23.45.0065.

Oh. Interesting. Emergency conditions exist in multi-family residential areas?! I am just going to go copy and paste a whole bunch of this text so you don’t have to go to the PDF because it is amazing (some light editing because the copy/paste is unsurprisingly imperfect):

Section 1. Declaration of Emergency. The City Council of the City of Seattle finds that, since the adoption of the multi-family residential provisions of the Land Use Code in August 1982, new multifamily residential development, evidenced by the number of permits issued and the amount of preissuance activity and inquiries to the City’s Department of Construction and Land Use, has occurred and will continue to occur throughout the City. This development has resulted in unanticipated impacts and conflicts with the City’s planning goals and its overall health, safety and welfare. These impacts and conflict have been manifested in several ways, including the following:

i. New multi-family development throughout the City’s neighborhoods has resulted in achievement of greater densities than were anticipated in the Final Environmental Impact Statement prepared pursuant to the State ‘Environmental Policy Act (11SEPA11) to support the adoption of the multi-family code;

ii. Some neighborhoods of the City are experiencing densities under the multi-family low-rise residential designations which are significantly greater than those permitted under the previous zoning and greater than the capacity which the neighborhoods and available streets and public services can absorb;

iii. In many instances, new multi-family low-rise housing has been constructed which is out of scale with the character of the affected neighborhood;

iv. Higher activity levels within multi-family areas have resulted in additional traffic congestion upon streets with, insufficient capacity, parking shortages in multi-family zones and p king spillover into adjacent zones and neighborhoods, resulting in hazards of poor emergency access and sight distances and increased difficulties for the enforcement of parking codes;

v. The unanticipated greater densities and development potential allowed by the multi-family residential code have in many cases created excessive incentives for rapid demolition and redevelopment leading to the undermining of neighborhood stability. in some cases affordable single-family and multifamily housing has been displaced;

vi. A large number of SEPA appeals of new multi-family developments have been filed by community groups seeking use of the State Environmental Policy Act to control density, bulk and scale, parking and other land use impacts created by development allowed under the existing regulations. These numerous SEPA appeals have served to reduce the certainty of the development allowed under the existing regulations and have evidenced widespread dissatisfaction with the existing regulations.

vii. The City Council has been advised that mapping errors may have occurred in the multi-family rezone process.

THEREFORE, the Council finds that the low-rise residential multifamily code provisions must be reevaluated.

Okay, so back in 1982 they upzoned and now in 1988 folks are very upset that there was actual housing being built in those properties. So they (a) massively limit new construction in those areas of the city, and (b) authorize studying the issue and targeting parts of the city which results in 1990/1991 a bunch of piecemeal downzones. Ironically, of course, this 1988 limit on construction was justified on environmental grounds:

… finds that an exemption under SEPA for this action is necessary to prevent an imminent threat to public health and safety and to prevent an imminent threat of serious environmental degradation through continued development under the existing regulations.

Anyway, I still don’t know when our lot was upzoned to LR2. So let’s go find that 1982 law. I ended up going to a summary list of all 1982 law. The likely candidate here is ordinance 110570. Turns out it isn’t index under “REZONES”. Anyway, the title:

AN ORDINANCE relating to zoning and land use; adding a new Subtitle III to Title 23 of Seattle Municipal Code (Land Use Code) and repealing Section 24.98 to establish platting requirements; adopting an Official Land Use Map for all residential zones; adding a new Chapter 23.45 and new Sections 23.34.36, 23.34.38, 23.34.40, 23.34.42, 23.34.44, 23.34.10, 23.86.12, 23.86.14, 23.86.16, 23.86.18, 23.86.20, 23.86.22 to provide for multi-family zones in Title 23; and amending Sections 23.16.02, 23.30.10, 23.54.10, 23.54.20, 23.54.30, 23.76.06, 23.76.30, 23.84.04, 23.84.06, 23.84.18, 23.84.20, 23.84.30, 23.84.32, 23.84.36, 23.84.38, and 23.86.06 of Title 23 to conform to requirements of the multi-family provisions in Title 23.

It’s a 361 page PDF. Oh my god. It immediately points me at several other ordinances: 110669110793 and 110939. The last one has long tables of “Plat” designations (sections of the city) and their existing zoning and new zoning but these are corrections. Aghhh!

Okay, let’s go back to the historical zoning page. It points to the full record of the 1980 municipal code which does contain maps. In 1980, all the zoning was in title 24. In 1982 it was all re-codified and organized into title 23 and that’s when “Lowrise” appears in ordinance 110381. First, let’s look at 1980. In title 24 of the 1980 code, if I scroll down to the maps and find my “Plat”, it’s clearly still single family, marked “RD 5000”. That becomes “SF 5000”. But back to the various 1982 bills. This is where I get stymied. There’s an Exhibit A which appears to be the new zoning map in 1982 and I can’t find it.

But I’m not sure I need it. It’s clear that by 1991, the zoning was LR2. But the story I’m constructing here is:

  • There was a massive rationalization of zoning in 1982 that simplified the kinds of zones and also increased density in parts of the city.
  • In 1988, people were upset that some changes happened and densities were restricted temporarily.
  • In 1990 and 1991, a bunch lots were downzoned permanently. I’m guessing a lot of the downzones came from community pressure.

That sounds really familiar. As does this summary of community feedback included in one 1991 ordinance:

The Maple Leaf Community Council, and several citizens, have requested Lowrise I for the trailer park site. They are concerned about parking and traffic impacts on the narrow, congested streets in the area, worsening the existing drainage problem, and the lack of transition between more intensive development of the trailer park site and the adjacent low scale residential area.

The property owner wanted their property to remain Midrise. The council downzoned all the way to Lowrise 2. This is what the zoning looks like today:

Screen Shot 2017-11-15 at 10.57.12 PM

The lot downzoned in 1991 is still LR2 today (to the east of the center C1-65 area in this image). It still will be under Alternative 3 of the “city-wide” MHA upzones.

But at least I sort of answered my question and learn a bunch about some past attempts to re-zone the city.