This afternoon during the Seattle City Council's weekly full council meeting, council member Richard Conlin introduced new legislation that would add minimum density requirements for developments in certain pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods. Sound familiar? I wrote recently about developments planned in Wallingford, Queen Anne, and West Seattle that are plopping big boxy one-story buildings on busy corners where neighborhood residents are begging for mixed-use buildings with some residential on top—and I mentioned that Conlin, as the land-use committee chair, is uniquely poised to take up these neighborhoods' cause.
Now he's doing it. The legislation (a PDF of which is here) would change city code to implement minimum density for projects going up in Neighborhood Commercial zones that are in urban centers, urban villages, and near light-rail stations. The mechanism would be a minimum floor area ratio, or FAR, which is a way of determining how much of the allowable density and height a building is using—on a basic level, if you build a one-story building the size of the lot, that's a 1.0 FAR. (The Wallingford pharmacy project neighbors are fighting has a .49 FAR, meaning it isn't even one story's worth of building because it leaves such a gargantuan parking lot out back.) Conlin's bill would require anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 FAR, depending on how tall buildings are allowed to be in these zones.
The legislation is set to be voted on in next week's full council meeting, and he's putting it forth as emergency legislation that requires a 3/4th vote of council and will go into effect immediately upon receiving the mayor's signature. The urgency, says the text of the bill, is because "without emergency interim measures inappropriate development could be allowed that is incompatible with the standards eventually adopted by the city," since the council is "currently studying" changes to code that may result in similar new standards—and in the meantime, a few big projects (namely, those chain pharmacies rumored to be the city's first CVS locations) may go up under older, less-strict standards that allow for under-development. Specifically, while two of the aforementioned crappy buildings are far enough through the design process to be untouchable by new legislation, the West Seattle site, as far as I know, is not, and neighborhood activists have been lobbying for emergency legislation for just that reason—so that a bill can be passed before new sites have a chance to start the process that'll lock them into current rules.
When I interviewed Conlin a few weeks ago, he said, "I can pretty much guarantee you that I'll have a majority on this, and possibly unanimous." Let's hope he's right, because if he has the seven votes he needs to pass this, it'll be a big victory for fans of urban density. (Though surely there are those who will say it doesn't go far enough and those who say it puts extra burden on developers, waaaaaaah).
It's early on in the process yet, but I'll be reporting on this debate on Slog throughout the week.
UPDATE: I just talked to bill sponsor Richard Conlin, who says that he's "not optimistic" that this will be able to block the West Seattle development. His office "did a lot of research on this" with DPD, and the rules for when a project is locked in to current city codes make it appear that the West Seattle pharmacy may already be what's called "vested," i.e., tied to existing rules and basically untouchable by new rule changes. "We think all three of them are vested," he tells me.
But he's quite optimistic about the bill itself, saying he's "pretty confident" he's got the votes. And whether they can use this emergency legislation to block these particular projects isn't his only concern.
Passing it is important for two reasons, he says. One, it heads off future under-developed projects. I asked if he knew of any specific ones. "I've heard a couple of rumors, but nothing definite," he says. But that's exactly the problem with land-use changes, because of vesting and other rules: "By the time you find out the developments are there, it's too late." So city hall ends up having to close the proverbial barn door after the horse has bolted. "But there's still people trying to come in, so we have to close it," he says.
Second, and specific to these three projects, Conlin says the bill could prompt the developer to "negotiate." If they hear "a clear statement on the part of the city and the neighborhoods" that the current plans are not okay, maybe they'll want to rethink things.
Will the development community be annoyed at new restrictions? Sure, he says. But actually, he thinks they'll come around. "We're saying to people: We want you to make more money"—since taller buildings with more tenants should prove more valuable real estate. And now, while the economy is improving, "is the time to tell them, 'Be bold. Think about the future.'"