Land Use -- background and issues

Eastlake’s affordability livability, and character threatened by unbalanced City policies .

The Eastlake Community Council thanks Seattle Times’ Pacific Magazine for its sensitive Sept. 15, 2016 article about how the current frenzy of development is blocking views in Eastlake. While the article focused on how homeowners and renters are losing their own views, we would emphasize that also being lost are public views from parks and sidewalks. And of course, the loss of views is one of many consequences of hyperdevelopment. As outlined in this section and the sections in the column at right about parking, HALA, and the Comp Plan, there are many other losses: in the sacrifice of affordable rentals are being sacrificed; the loss of yards and large trees; the loss of street parking from overbuilding and because the City no longer requires parking in new residential or office buildings. And so on.

How City land use policies affect new projects in Eastlake, and how you can get involved

City policies are fueling a land rush more destructive than any in Eastlake’s 130-year history. How did they get so bad? Not by accident–in fact mayors and city councilmembers have wanted this result. The claim is to increase housing affordability and reduce car ownership and use, but the impact is to reduce affordability and upset the transportation balance. What are these reckless changes and how to reverse them?

All residential land in Eastlake has been zoned low-rise multifamily since the first zoning in the 1920s. (Houseboats are single-family zoned). Multifamily projects can also be built on some commercially zoned land. For the current zone of any lot: http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/Research/Zoning_Maps/default.asp. While Eastlake has experienced a steady expansion of multifamily housing, until the past few years the pace of growth was kept within reason by stable City laws and regulations.

In recent years, the Mayor and City Council (almost all of whom live in single family zoned areas insulated from these changes) have increased allowable building height, bulk, and scale and reduced required yards, fire safety, elevators, on-site parking, and public and environmental review, and eliminated limits on the number of living units for each lot. The Eastlake Community Council rallied the neighborhood and worked with others across Seattle to fight these changes (see, the Sept./Oct. 2010 Eastlake News, in the section at right), sometimes staving off worse ones.

In these changes, our elected officials ignored and undermined neighborhood plans they claim to support (Eastlake’s plan, also on our web site and the City’s, seeks to preserve our scale, character, and diversity and to re-use existing structures rather than wipe them away). They turned Eastlake’s “low-rise” designation almost into a “mid-rise” zone without admitting it. The speculative frenzy they encouraged is eating up Eastlake’s most affordable units, its older apartments. It is blocking views, eliminating trees and open space, and endangering on-street parking.

Parking . Eastlake’s land rush is worsening the already fierce competition for on-street parking places. Eastlakers are among the highest users of transit and bicycles, but motor vehicle parking isn’t just a frill. Whether or not one owns a car, visitors’ and service vehicles need a place to park; and our local businesses can’t survive without on-street parking. Eastlake is inherently short of on-street parking, hemmed in by Lake Union, the Ship Canal, and I-5. There are few parking spaces on Boylston Ave. E., and Eastlake Avenue has a peak-period, peak direction parking restriction.

Over the objections of ECC and groups in other neighborhoods, in 2011 the Mayor and City Council eliminated a generations-old requirement for new residential buildings to include on-site parking. They claimed that our bus service allows excellent alternatives to driving, and that the real estate market will ensure that new buildings have enough on-site parking. It did not matter that Eastlake’s bus service is not all it should be, and is vulnerable to cuts from King County Metro’s ongoing budget crisis; or that developers have a short-term profit motive to free ride on the common resource of on-street parking and exit with their windfall before the insufficiency of parking becomes most dramatic.

For much more detail on parking issues in Eastlake, please click in right column on this web site’s parking page.

Ditching public and environmental review. State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) requirements for transportation and environmental analysis and for public notice, comment, and appeal have helped ensure that new building projects are sustainable for Eastlake and acceptable to the public. So of course the Mayor and Council have exempted ever-bigger projects from these requirements, including projects in the maximum residential zone (L-3) that have 8 or fewer units despite their very real impacts on the fragile streetscape.

Housing goals: bait and switch. Eastlake’s overheated construction is sacrificing human scale, open space, views, and affordability despite our long ago having reached the housing targets agreed to with the City. Seattle’s 1994 Comprehensive Plan and the 1998 Eastlake Neighborhood Plan, established a 2014 target of 380 additional housing units, and we reached that target 15 years early–faster than any neighborhood except Wallingford. The Comp Plan promised neighborhoods reaching their housing targets a pause to allow parks, streets, and other improvements to catch up and for consultation between the City and neighborhood about whether further housing increases would be sustainable.

By the time Eastlake reached its adopted housing targets, the Mayor and City Council (of course!) had repealed the promises in the Comp Plan, and without public participation or livability improvements, have steadily raised our housing targets so we never catch up, with no pause to weigh the sustainability of future increases. The City is like the Peanuts character Lucy who snatches away the football whenever Charlie Brown (Eastlake) is about to kick it. Until an honest system of housing targets is established, the moving targets will continue to damage our neighborhood’s livability and its trust in government.

Towers threaten lake views. Over the opposition of ECC, other community groups and our iconic ally the Space Needle, the City Council in 2013 largely passed Mayor McGinn’s vast increase in allowable building heights south and southeast of Lake Union to 400 feet on Denny, 240 feet north to Mercer, 160 feet between Mercer and Valley, and a 40 foot increase to 125 feet near the Lake Union shoreline along Fairview Avenue North south of Galer Street. Views and sunlight have been privatized, with heights near the lake higher than along much of the downtown waterfront! The Mayor and City Council failed future generations that their predecessors had thought of in protecting to this point visual access to our precious lake amidst the city.

Mixed results in 2015 from City Council in responding to needed adjustments in how Land Use Code addresses low-rise housing development

In October, 2014, thanks to the efforts many neighborhood advocates including ECC, the Department of Planning and Development proposed to the City Council excellent reforms to the Land Use Code that would roll back disruptive “unintended” changes that (over opposition from ECC and others) the City Council had adopted regarding the low-rise zones (townhouses, apartment and condominiums). Unfortunately, DPD worked with Councilmember Mike O’Brien (chair of the planning and land use committee) on what they characterized as “tweaks” or “minor” changes to the October 2014 proposals but turned out to be poison pills that thwarted needed protections for neighborhood livability and character.

For details, see the City Neighborhood Council’s table of changes and comments, alerts by Livable Ballard and Seattle Speaks Up, and a summary of issues and recommendations by neighborhood advocates.

Following are the citizen proposals that, for the most part, the City council turned down, some of them narrowly: (1) Eliminate exemptions for additional 4’ of height allowance for a partially below grade story; (2) Require minimum 3.5’ side setback (so there is a meaningful side yard); (3) Set a standard for height of street-facing façade to ensure that the structure is no higher than 44’ above the sidewalk within 12’ of the street; (4) Include unenclosed exterior stairs, hallways and breezeways in the floor-area-ratio calculation, with no exemptions allowed; (5) Include floor area of loft spaces, or any finished interior space with a floor-to-ceiling clearance greater than 36” in the gross floor area calculation; (6) Establish a 0.85 rounding threshold for density calculations for all LR zoned lots regardless of lot size; (7) Require design review (streamlined or better) for all new developments that include at least three units; (8) Require minimum 15’ setback at front of property; and (9) Require minimum 17’ setback at rear of property (reduced setbacks are reducing yards to a point when only the smallest of trees are feasible.

Micro-housing. The Eastlake Neighborhood Plan supports affordable housing, but in in a way that is safe and sustainable, such as with the “small efficiency dwelling units” allowed under the Land Use Code and regulated by DPD Director’s Rule 6-2004. Instead, in the past few years, two Mayors and the City Council were promoting “micro-housing” (trademarked by one developer as “apodments”). Per square foot, these buildings have much higher rents and profits than apartments but they lower the actual rent often with inadequate or no kitchens, substandard bedrooms, no on-site parking or loading, and inadequate fire exits. Too often, residents absorb additional costs because of the need to dine out, and because of the lack of on-site laundry facilities.

Some microhousing projects exploited a loophole (created by the Department of Planning and Development in consultation with developers and cleared with the Mayor and some City Councilmembers but not brought to public for discussion). It misused the Land Use Code’s allowance of boarding houses with up to eight separately leasable units and a shared kitchen, by combining many such “boarding houses” into one building but claiming only one official housing unit per “boarding house.”

The effect of this charade was to evade a whole range of important requirements by getting in under thresholds that would normally apply to their dozens of separately leasable units: (1) SEPA requirements for environmental and transportation analysis and for public notice, comment, and appeal (2) design review based on citywide and neighborhood standards; (3) the requirement that each unit in a building over three stories have two fire exits, not just one; (4) the requirement for an elevator, ensuring accessibility by people with disabilities; (5) sufficient bicycle parking, because they are required to have only one bicycle parking space per official housing unit, not per each separately leasable unit; (6) far more separately leased units were resulting than the moderate increases that the Mayor and City Council (who refused to do an environmental impact statement to back up their claims) said would occur after their 2011 changes in the multifamily portions of the Land Use Code; and yet (7) these increases were not counted toward the neighborhood’s housing target, which is based on official units, not separately leasable units.

The developers were piling on these projects because the loophole greatly reduces their requirements; but these requirements are needed for livability and public safety. The City Council began to consider public concerns, but it refused to pass a moratorium on these projects while it looked at improved regulation. Worse, the legislation it was considering from two Mayors and the Department of Planning and Development would have cemented into place the existing misguided microhousing policies, and would have worsened them in important ways. DPD ignored extensive public input that objected to earlier outlines and drafts of its proposed legislation.

On Oct. 29, 2013 along with other organizations and individuals citywide, ECC appealed to the City’s Hearing Examiner the very weak reasoning and even weaker legislation that DPD was proposing to address the negative neighborhood impacts of microhousing. For documents about the appeal, go to the Hearing Examiner’s web site. While this appeal was not ultimately upheld by the Hearing Examiner, it uncovered crucial documentation that helped convince the City Council to reject the DPD legislation and craft its own. ECC was able to work with a coalition of other neighborhood groups throughout Seattle to turn the City Council around on microhousing.

Coalition gets City Council to curb some congregate and microhousing abuses

A citywide coalition of neighborhood groups including the Eastlake Community Council prevailed against a developer coalition to stop Mayor Murray and the Department of Planning and Development from exempting microhousing and congregate housing projects from land use and public health rules that apply to apartments. The City Council on Oct. 6, 2014 unanimously passed Ordinance 124608 which prohibits boarding houses with tiny, kitchenless sleeping rooms such as in the controversial 2371 Franklin Ave. E. project.

The new law redefines microhousing units as being “small efficiency dwelling units” which are not allowed to be less than 220 square feet (compared to the previous average of 150 square feet). Each must have a kitchen area with a sink, separate from the sink in the bathroom (a requirement called for by the King County Board of Public Health). Existing boarding house units and the new efficiency apartments would each be allowed only one restricted parking zone (RPZ) permit for on-street parking. The projects would no longer be exempted from design review or from public notice, comment, or appeal under the State Environmental Policy Act when the same size as a proposed apartment or condo building.

The new law continues to allow “congregate residences” with smaller sleeping rooms and shared kitchens, but greatly increases the square footage required for the kitchens and other common features, including bicycle parking. It also prohibits congregate housing in the low-rise residential zones (including all of Eastlake’s residential zones) unless owned by a college, university, sorority, fraternity or other non-profit, or unless licensed by the state to provide on-site supportive services for seniors or persons with disabilities. Projects like the controversial 2820 Eastlake Avenue congregate housing project that is now under construction cannot be repeated in Eastlake and other neighborhoods. The new law also limits RPZ on-street parking
permits in congregate housing projects to one per sleeping room.

It was not a good sign that Mayor Murray refused to sign the ordinance; he did not attempt a veto because the City Council passed it unanimously and would easily have overridden it. Murray then appointed a Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Committee with inadequate representation
from neighborhoods. In the past, affordability has been the excuse for weakened regulation and for redevelopment very destructive for Eastlake and our remaining affordable rentals. ECC will be watching this situation very closely, as developers are already trying to undo what we have achieved. ECC is supportive of efforts to expand affordable housing and believes that these efforts will be most successful if they involve early and continuous cooperation with neighborhoods.

The October 2014 reforms in microhousing policy show what is possible when the Eastlake Community Council works with other neighborhood groups across the city. Without these changes in the law, projects like 2371 Franklin and 2820 Eastlake (both of which became poster children citywide for the abuses under the old law) would have been repeated in Eastlake and elsewhere. ECC thanks its board member Linda Alexander, who is also a developer and attorney, for her key role on an advisory committee that convinced the City Council to make these historic changes. And we thank all who contributed to ECC’s land use fund, which is crucial in supporting our efforts to promote wise land use policies and projects. Donations are more needed than ever and can be made on-line at http://eastlakeseattle.org or by check to the ECC and mailed to ECC at 117 E. Louisa St. #1, Seattle, WA 98102-3278.

ECC gets improvements in 2820 Eastlake Ave. project

While the October 2014 improvements outlined above that ECC helped achieve in microhousing regulation are most heartening, it was disappointing that the City Council waited several years to make them and in the meantime refused to adopt a moratorium, allowing oversized and ill-equipped projects to go forward unregulated. Faced with this situation, and with the legal help made possible by many generous donors, the Eastlake Community Council in May 2014 launched administrative and court challenges to a seven-story project at 2820 Eastlake Ave. for 113 “congregate” bed-bath units (none with its own kitchen, and with only two undersized “shared” kitchens) on a site that would otherwise allow no more than 14 apartments. ECC filed a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) appeal and a Superior Court filing regarding the project.

But donations did not keep up with the legal costs, and ECC found that a loophole in City law (closed by the October legislation, which was not applicable to this project because it had applied under the old and inadequate laws) allowed outright these bed-bath units without their own kitchens or on-site parking–even unlimited legal spending could not stop the project. So ECC got proactive, negotiating a favorable deal for dropping the cases, with the developer agreeing to the following enforceable improvements: (1) convert five bed-bath units to apartments by adding their own kitchens; (2) convert four bed-bath units to shared kitchens, including three new ones and an expansion of one of the two originally proposed; thus there will be a shared kitchen on each floor except on the fourth (alley level) floor where it is a “wet bar” (no stove); (3) provide tenants three covered parking places around the clock in the Eastlake Center building across the street; (4) provide an on-street loading zone on the north side of Hamlin St. and (5) move mailboxes from the 4th floor (adjacent to alley) to the first floor entry courtyard (adjacent to Eastlake Avenue).

While not earth-shaking, these changes were the best the neighborhood could get without the stronger law, now adopted, which will apply to future projects. (The developer refused ECC’s efforts to add kitchens to all the bed-bath units and to provide at least some on-site parking and loading spaces.)