Chapter 23.45 Multi-Family: Parts 1 and 2, Lowrise

The multi-family code starts out with a reference to a chart later on in the code which tracks uses that are permitted, conditioned, or prohibited. Charts are supposed to make things easier. This chart is not as helpful as it should be and it’s an example of what I would call reference excess that runs throughout the code. The code has far too many internal references that are hard to find and confusing.

Part 1 starts out indicating that single family structures can exist in multi-family zones and allowing cottage developments which aren’t multi-family buildings. But here’s an example of the reference excess:

Development standards for single-family structures

A. In Lowrise zones, except for cottage housing developments permitted in Lowrise Duplex/Triplex and Lowrise 1 zones according to subsection 23.45.005.D, single-family structures are subject to the development standards for ground-related dwelling units, except as provided in subsections 23.45.005.C and D below, and except that open space shall be provided according to the provisions for single-family structures in each zone, in Section 23.45.016.

These happen to be references to things that are just down the page. It makes some sense to say “cottages are allowed under the rules over here and over here, provided that they meet the standards listed over here.” And I understand that the are Client Assistance Memos that try to make this more user friendly and that land use attorneys have to have something to do.

I’ll talk about this later once I am done reading the whole thing, but there is a sense that, as one former director of DPD put it, trying to change one thing is like pulling a lose thread on a sweater. Soon the whole thing unravels. And that is largely because the code is far too byzantine.  To borrow a phrase, it is out of scale and too bulky. But more on that later… Simply put, free standing houses clustered on multi-family lots are allowed with certain limits. On to lowrise.

Lowrise uses are designated and constrained by several variables, standards, and requirements:

Density
Height (includes roof top features)
Lot coverage
Structure width and depth
Modulation
Setbacks
Screening and landscaping
Open space
Light and glare
Parking

Let’s start with density, height, and lot coverage. It is important to note that I can’t confirm whether any of these photos is indeed built out to the code. There could be stuff about the site I took a picture of that is odd or the buildings might be non-conforming. I also didn’t get a laser out to measure whether the building fit the specs of the designation. So these are for illustrative purposes only and to get a sense of what’s out there in these zones.

Lowrise Duplex Triplex (LDT)
Density 1 unit per 2,000 square feet
Height 25 feet
Lot Coverage 45 percent

LDT Atlantic and 21st

The LDT designation works for me. There aren’t many zones around Seattle that are LDT. I would guess that’s because this is not a popular form. I think of duplexes and triplexes as something someone owns out in the ‘burbs for extra income from the rent. Who actually lives in these things? I think we need to look at more LDT on the edges of single family or even perhaps encourage more conversions of existing large house into duplexes. There are, obviously, a lot of those around already.

Lowrise 1 (L1)
Density 1 unit per 1,600 square feet
Height 25 feet
Lot Coverage 50 percent

L1 E Spruce and 18th

The L1 I saw tends to be larger buildings that look like former single family houses converted to multi-family use. I don’t think I saw anything that looked like new construction or something that was developed specifically for L1. I think this picture is an exception to that, because this is new construction. Again, this looks great for changing things up in single family without fundamentally changing the neighborhood.

Lowrise 2 (L2)
Density 1 unit per 1,200 square feet
Height 25 feet
Lot Coverage 50 percent

L2 24th and E Denny

When I saw these two buildings I thought, “this is how we are going to get the density we need.” Since we have so much single family (more than 65 percent of the land is single family), we’re going to have to put more growth in and around those areas. The L2, when done well, really does fit well in and around single family. Each of these looked as if they had about 8 units. That’s at least 8 people living in what might, in some other areas, be one house.

Lowrise 3 (L3)
Density 1 unit per 800 square feet
Height 30 feet
Lot Coverage 50 percent

L3 34th and Spring

As I mentioned before, I didn’t dig deeply into each site I checked out. But this is zoned L3 and it has an apartment look to it. This is something that I think most of us are familiar with and often dials up when we think of multi-family housing. It looks far less like a single family house and more like communal living. It’s also not all that attractive. It isn’t a town house and it seems to have more people living there than the L2 building earlier in the post.

Lowrise 4 (L4)
Density 1 unit per 600 square feet
Height 37 feet
Lot Coverage 50 percent

L4 20th and E Denny

The L4 is the most dense and apartment looking of all the L designations. This could be subsidized housing as covered under the code which has a few different stipulations that apply. In any event, this designation is also the most jarring transition from single family in the lowrise category. I’m not sure how I feel about more blocky apartment buildings popping up around town. It seems to me that once a certain level of density is reached the best option becomes mixed use. However, there are some really great mid- and high-rise buildings out there (I live in MR).

Here’s a something else important to note about lot coverage:

2. For all other structures, the following lot coverage limits shall apply:

Lowrise Duplex/Triplex — Thirty-five (35) percent.
Lowrise 1 — Forty (40) percent.
Lowrise 2 — Forty (40) percent.
Lowrise 3 — Forty-five (45) percent.
Lowrise 4 — Fifty (50) percent.

3. When townhouses and other structures are located on the same lot, the lot coverage shall be calculated as follows:

a. Divide the number of townhouse units by the total number of units on the site, and multiply this figure by the percentage of lot coverage allowed for townhouses in that zone; and

b. Divide the number of units in all other (non-townhouse) structures on the site by the total number of units on site and multiply this figure by the percentage of lot coverage allowed for all other structures in that zone; and

c. Add subsections A3a and A3b above, which equals the maximum lot coverage.

This gets us into town houses. And if these paragraphs don’t make your head hurt then you’re either a land use attorney or a developer who has built in the L designations. It gets rather complicated and I can’t say that I can easily do the math, get the visuals, and understand what kind of things are possible or limited in each slice of the L designation.

But unless I am totally off base (a distinct possibility) lots of things can happen within the L designation within the density, height, and lot coverage limits. I can build free standing cottages, a triplex, a 8 unit apartment building, or a set of town houses. Here’s a graphic from a City presentation on the changes recently passed to the multi-family section of the code.

The townhouse has drawn the most fire lately from single family neighbors who say they don’t like the way townhouses look. I’ve always believed they don’t like townhouses because they bring more people and change things in the neighborhood. There are certainly some ugly townhouses out there. But is that reason enough to fight the concept? I don’t think so.

What the multi-family code creates is a series of boxes in which developers are challenged to profitably fill with living spaces for people. The challenge is that the boxes don’t always make sense when the living space gets squished with parking and open space requirements. Hence ugly designs that work financially, but aren’t all that appealing to the eye. The same can probably be said of apartment buildings, cottages, and duplexes. Turning a lot that is zoned L2, for example, into a profitable project and create innovative and great design isn’t an easy thing to do . I haven’t even (and won’t) detail requirements for setbacks and roof tops.

Recent amendments went through to address this challenge. I haven’t spent a lot of time with those changes. I may ask for a guest post from someone better acquainted with them. But I can say that from the LDT, L1, and L2 designations are time tested and old fashioned ways of putting more people on a lot or two. Lots of single family neighborhoods already have these housing types adjacent to them.

Part of the proposal, as I understand it, was to streamline the multi-family code to create more flexibility on things like set backs, parking, and height. In exchange, the proposed projects would go through design review. I was really skeptical of this because of my skepticism of design review. But I can see how putting some of the hassle at the front end of the development process of multi-family zones might make it more profitable and better designed in the longer run. I look forward to seeing how that plays out.

Taken together the lower density multi-family zones seem like they could be a work horse for plowing new growth into the fabric of the city in a way that doesn’t completely blow up single family neighborhoods. And if we carefully put these designations together with the tools in the single family designation–PUDs, DADUs, CHPD, and RSLs–we could gracefully begin the transition away from single family dominance.

The problem I see is that we have a way of putting innovation to death through a thousand cuts. What are the roofs gonna look like? What about parking? I hate bricks? The siding makes that building look fat! And on and on. When all is said and done we need more build out of L1-3 with an eye toward more creativity and less worry about staying inside the box.

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3 Responses to Chapter 23.45 Multi-Family: Parts 1 and 2, Lowrise

  1. Pingback: Capitol Hill Design Review: New project needs support | Seattle's Land Use Code

  2. Jerry Vanhulle says:

    What does 50% lot coverage mean? I looked at the L2 property at 24th and Denny on Google Maps, and that property takes up nearly the entire lot.

  3. Eric Aiken says:

    I have the same question. How is lot coverage calculated

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