o·ver·wrought Adjective /ˈōvəˈrôt/ In a state of nervous excitement or anxiety. As in “she was too overwrought to listen to reason.” Said of a piece of writing or a work of art;Too elaborate or complicated in design or construction
This is perhaps the most overwrought section of Seattle’s code (at least so far). There are probably a lot of reasons for this. But the most obvious is that this is where uses start to mix, and intensity and density increase as well. The NC designations have significant height, scale, bulk. The developments at the higher densities mean more people, more noise, and more activity. It is, along with industrial land, where there seems to be the most tension and efforts to deal with multiple interests.
It’s hard to know where to begin. So I will start with a couple of passages, copied and pasted, from this section of the code. Here is a section on height:
The height limit for structures in NC zones or C zones is 30 feet, 40 feet, 65 feet, 85 feet, 125 feet, or 160 feet, as designated on the Official Land Use Map, Chapter 23.32. Structures may not exceed the applicable height limit, except as otherwise provided in this section. Within the South Lake Union Urban Center, any modifications or exceptions to maximum structure height are allowed solely according to the provisions of the Seattle Mixed Zone, subsections 23.48.010.B.1, 23.48.010.B.2, and 23.48.010.B.3, 23.48.010.D and 23.48.010.E, and not according to the provisions of this section.
Once again the code is saying something like “you can be this tall except where you can be taller (see multiple other parts of the code).” I understand that the code wasn’t written for beach reading. But the problem is that things get added in and changed in a way that makes them even more complex and difficult to make sense of. Part of this is the process through which the code gets amended. I’ll look at that later, but it needs to be reconsidered.
Here’s another section that covers FAR and height limits:
B. Except as provided in subsections C, D and E of this section, maximum FAR allowed in C zones and NC zones is shown in Table A for 23.47A.013.
Table A for 23.47A.013: Maximum Floor Area Ratio (FAR) Outside of the Station Area Overlay District
30÷ 40÷ 65÷ 85÷ 125÷ 160÷
1. Total permitted for a single-purpose structure containing only residential or non-residential use. 2.25 3 4.25 4.5 5 5
2. Total permitted for any single use within a mixed-use structure n/a n/a 4.25 4.5 5 5
3. Total permitted for all uses within a mixed- use structure containing residential and non-residential uses. 2.5 3.25 4.75 6 6 7
C. Maximum FAR allowed in NC zones or C zones within the Station Area Overlay District is shown in Table B for 23.47A.013.
Table B for 23.47A.013: Maximum Floor Area Ratio (FAR) in the Station Area
30÷ 40÷ 65÷ 85÷ 125÷ 160÷
Maximum FAR 3 4 5.75 6 6 7
This isn’t jumbled because of formatting. That’s the way it looks in the code. I don’t expect John Q. Public to be able to read the code over a lunch hour and be able to understand all this stuff. And it is true that the people that are supposed to know how to do development in these areas know what they’re doing as do the people who are on the regulatory and permitting side. But seriously.
2. Other uses or circumstances. Screening and landscaping is required according to Table D for 23.47A.016:
Table D for 23.47A.016
Use or Circumstance Minimum Requirement
a. Drive-in businesses abutting or across an alley from a lot in a
residential zone 6-foot-high screening along the abutting or alley lot lines; and A 5-foot-deep landscaped area inside the screening, when a drive-in lane or queuing lane abuts a lot in a residential zone
b. Drive-in businesses, other than gas stations, in which the drive-in lane or queuing lanes are across the street from a lot in a residential zone 3-foot-high screening
c. Garbage cans in NC1, NC2, or NC3 zones, or associated with a structure containing a residential use in C1 or C2 zones 3-foot-high screening along areas where garbage cans are located
d. Garbage dumpsters in NC1, NC2, or NC3 zones, or associated with structures containing a residential use in C1 or C2 zones 6-foot-high screening
e. Gas stations in NC1, NC2 and NC3 zones or, in C1 and C2 zones, across the street from a lot in a residential zone 3-foot-high screening along street lot lines
f. Mobile home parks 6-foot-high screening along all lot lines that are not street lot lines; and Along all street lot lines, a 5-foot-deep landscaped area or a 5-foot-deep planting strip with street trees
g. Outdoor sales and outdoor display of rental equipment, abutting or across an alley from a lot in a residential zone 6-foot-high screening along the abutting or alley lot lines
h. Outdoor sales and outdoor display of rental equipment across the street from a lot in a residential zone 3-foot-high screening along the street lot line
i. Outdoor storage in a C1 zone; or Outdoor dry boat storage in NC2, NC3 or C1 zones in the Shoreline District Screened from all lot lines by the facade of the structure or by 6-foot- high screening; and 5-foot-deep landscaped area between all street lot lines and the 6-foot-high screening ( Exhibit C for 23.47A.016)
j. Outdoor storage in a C2 zone abutting a lot in a residential zone; or Outdoor dry boat storage in a C2 zone in the Shoreline District, abutting a lot in a residential zone 50-foot setback from the lot lines of the abutting lot in a residential zone and screened from those lot lines by the facade of the structure or by 6-foot-high screening ( Exhibit D for 23.47A.016)
k. Outdoor storage in a C2 zone across the street from a lot in a
residential zone; or Outdoor dry boat storage, in a C2 zone in the Shoreline District, across the street from a lot in a residential zone Screened from the street by the facade of a structure, or by 6-foot-high screening
l. Parking garage occupying any portion of the street-level street-facing facade between 5 and 8 feet above sidewalk grade A 5-foot-deep landscaped area along the street lot line; or Screening by the exterior wall of the structure;or 6-foot-high screening between the structure and the landscaped area ( Exhibit B for 23.47A.016)
m. Unenclosed parking garage on lots abutting a lot in a residential zone A 5-foot-deep landscaped area and 6- foot-high screening along each shared lot line
n. Parking garage that is 8 feet or more above grade 3.5-foot screening along the perimeter of each floor of parking
o. Outdoor areas associated with pet daycare centers Screened from all property lines by the facade of the structure or by 6-foot-high screening between the outdoor area and all property lines.
I love attorneys, especially land use attorneys. And I think planners and lawyers and all the folks who have to figure this stuff out should have high paid, steady employment. But there is a point when one has to question what the outcome we’re trying to get here. I think the answer is something along the lines of “you can’t just let people build whatever they want or you’ll have total chaos.”
But here’s a counter theory. At a certain point one has to give into the idea that (as a brilliant colleague of mine in grad school reminded me) omniscience presupposes omnipotence. That is, if we believe that we can know everything then we must assume we can control everything. That’s no way to run a railroad or govern anything. We can’t know everything and we can’t control everything. If we loosen our grip on what gets built will there be bad outcomes? Sure. But we need to decide whether what we have now gets us where we want to go and whether its worth taking a few more risks.
Before I go any further it is important to note that here, almost more than anywhere else, use and standards are both in play. Everywhere else it’s been what kind of residential use is going on and the standard was density, height, and lot coverage. In the NC series that’s true too, but there are lots more uses to consider, things like medical or strip club, or gas station versus retail. As we start mixing uses, those uses become much more difficult to manage.
Anyway, let’s look at what’s going on with the NCs.
Seattle’s single family neighborhoods abound with NC1 on their edges. In my old neighborhood of Beacon Hill, this form was just about all that was around with the exception of a few larger apartment buildings. My understanding is that what makes these stay single story and single use is the parking requirement. If you put housing here there is no place to put the required parking. Maybe we should get rid of the parking requirement for redevelopment of these lots.
I always thought the kind of thing in this picture also wouldn’t work because of parking minimums. But that’s a fair amount of housing. As I mentioned before this could be some kind of conditional use or a contract rezone or something. But the map shows it as NC2-40. While it isn’t very attractive to me, I think it does a fine job of bulking up the corner. A closer look at reducing parking requirements to incentivize and perhaps putting more of this designation at the edges of single family neighborhoods.
The big kahuna of the NC zone. This is what I think we conjure up most when we think of NC. Lot’s of units, underground parking, with some kind of shoppy retail or restaurant use on the ground floor. I think it’s this form that tends to draw the most angst from single family dwellers and even people already living in neighborhoods zoned this way. It seems to represent the worst in design and the most cynical profiteering of all development. Just sayin’.
Here’s my proposal for the NC zone:
1. Change the name of the zone–this might seem silly but it matters. What does “Neighborhood Commercial” mean exactly. I don’t have an outstanding idea yet, but how about “Neighborhood Mixed Use.”
2. No limits with a net–if ever there was a place to do what I have called “zero based zoning” this is it. In all areas currently in this zone the new projects could be proposed without any reference to the code whatsoever. Zero based zoning would mean that the developer could propose whatever worked best at that site. The net would be a front loaded community process with a strengthened design review. If the developer could win over the neighborhood and the design review committee, the project would get permitted as proposed as a contract rezone, regardless of height, bulk, scale, or landscaping.
3. No parking minimums–the only parking that should be required here would be whatever the market or neighborhood required. An aggressive, well financed, and neighborhood savvy developer could pull off a bigger project with less parking.
4. Clean it up–part of the above would be contingent on fixing the code as it exists and making it more simple. A single designation with a maximum height and FAR makes sense. If the zero based approach doesn’t work, then the developer, city, and neighborhood could fall back on a simplified Neighborhood Mixed Use code.
I don’t have the numbers to back this up, but my feeling is that a lot of NC is sitting around under capacity largely because of parking requirements and lack of parcel assembly. That second point is important. Often ownership patterns are broken up and new development doesn’t happen. But the the two things are related: bigger lots are needed because of the need for more parking.
Finally, single family neighbors and neighbors in general simply need to be told that their input on these projects will be drastically limited. This is a political issue. It’s just like the tunnel. The decision has been made: it’s going to be 85 feet so get over it! Way too much time is spent fighting over this stuff. If the City Council doesn’t like the zone then downzone it. Otherwise make it easy to make it do what the zone allows!