Downtown Rezones: Splitting the baby

King Solomon tries his hand at land use policy

I am often taken to task for my obscure cultural references. Well, I didn’t say it he did. Tim Burgess brought up “splitting the baby,” the scene in the 1st Kings 3:16-28 when Solomon solves a dispute between two women arguing over a baby. The terms is often mentioned in the context of City Council decisions about land use, but rarely in a positive sense. What the Council did today is essentially, as Burgess described, dividing the baby, going with a middle of the road solution to zoning questions in Pioneer square.

First, a bit of context. Height is what is at issue here. All the parties involved say the same words about wanting to help “re-vitalize” Pioneer Square. But what that comes down town is what new things can happen there given that a significant chuck of Pioneer Square is locked up with buildings that are historically designated, meaning they can’t be knocked down and redeveloped.

Going higher, therefore, is the only logical place to go to get new things in Pioneer Square. The height is where the economic potential exists and the greatest opportunity for the kinds of return on investment that could create ground level impacts that people say they want.

I was impressed with Councilmember Burgess today as he talked about making land use policy based on “what we want to happen” rather than fretting over “vague risks” that might or might not play out in the future. He characterized the psychology that often grips the Council with land use decisions. As he talked about staying on the low end of height proposed by the Department of Planning and Development (from a variable 100 feet to 120/150 feet depending on lot size) and the bigger heights suggested by the Downtown Seattle Association (180 feet) he quite astutely brought up the fact that preservationists casting doubt on the effect of the possible rezones on the historic designation of Pioneer Square could provide no certainty about their concerns.

Dr Allyson Brooks the State’s Historic Preservation Officer could not answer ”where do we tip over,” said Burgess, from a district that qualifies as building owners for important tax exemptions to maintain their historic buildings, into something else.

Burgess called it right, “no matter what we’re in risky territory.” So then why “split the baby” on height, he asked, trying to take the middle road between the two extremes proposed. Why not ask the question “what do we want in Pioneer Square, what do we want it to become?” In this case, Burgess pointed out, going between the two extremes might result in things staying more or less the same. A point made by developers and advocates of more height.

Here’s the baby we’re talking about:

Existing Zoning in Pioneer Square

And here’s the low end option proposed by the Department of Planning and Development:

DPD's proposal

The DPD proposal would take away variable zoning–a scheme where buildings can be 100 feet tall but not 15 feet higher than neighboring buildings–and allow going as high as 150 feet in some places in exchange for participating in incentive zoning for housing. There seems no question the variable height proposal would limit  a lot of new development.

The other options, proposed in the land use committee earlier this year would allow for more height, but not as much height as the DSA has asked for, 180 feet.

Splitting the "baby" -- the Committee's earlier proposal

Strangely, Burgess opted to do exactly what he had suggested might not be a good idea, going between the two ends. This might seem a contradiction to what he said earlier, but it’s the best way forward. It also put Burgess and Councilmember Sally Bagshaw in opposition to Councilmember’s Clark and O’Brien who favored the DPD option.

Burgess that made the most sensible comments about what zoning should be all about–figuring out what we want and making policies that have the best chance of achieving that outcome, not worrying about vague hazards ahead. But why not go for 180 feet if we’re worried less about some doom and gloom scenario and more interested in land use that will get us where we want to go?


The Wisdom of Councilmember Tim Burgess

The answer lies, again, in Council psychology. Councilmembers worry what if we go too high? Won’t that raise land prices suppressing new development? This issue was raised by Councilmember O’Brien who took a conservative approach. But why does Council worry about future developer’s balance sheets or the pro forma for a project somewhere down the road. Why not create the potential and let the market sort it out?

Council think doesn’t work like that. Typically going for the big up-zone is politically risky even if the market won’t build out to 180 feet in Pioneer Square. What if that market changes, then suddenly 180 feet developments would be possible. Someone might be able to make a bundle of money without having to play with incentive zoning. Hold down the development capacity and force developers to the table to make concessions in the future. All that does, in my opinion, is suppress housing supply which drives up price and that is exactly what Council always worries about: affordable housing.

My belief is more in line with Councilmember Burgess on this one: go with what we want to make happen, rather than what we’re afraid of. While splitting the baby doesn’t go far enough, it is a step in a better direction than the DPD proposal. While Burgess and the committee compromise proposal doesn’t go far enough, he’s at least pushing the committee to stop fretting over what we’re afraid of and to start planning for what we want. That is a big and important philosophical point to make, especially in an election year.

Two final notes. We need to expand Transfer of Development Rights for historic buildings city wide. This proposal allows for TDR to be used in Pioneer Square, which is new. But citywide TDR might make it easier to rezone more of Pioneer Square because all the buildings that can’t be developed could sell their development rights to developers who need more density in other parts of the city. That’s a smart way of capturing the value of rezones in Pioneer Square and transferring that value–and public benefit–to other parts of the city while preserving historic buildings. That’s a win-win-win!

Lastly, there was a rezone as part of this package that switches an areas south of the International District from IG 2 to IC. This is a pretty big deal and didn’t get much attention. But I am going to save that for later, when I get into the industrial designation. Remember, I haven’t even done a full post yet on Downtown Zoning. That’s coming soon.

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11 Responses to Downtown Rezones: Splitting the baby

  1. Pingback: SMC 23.49 Downtown Zoning: “they built their gods a brazen pillar high as the sky” | Seattle's Land Use Code

  2. Matt the Engineer says:

    Can you expand a bit on TDR? What are development rights?

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  4. Pingback: Pioneer Square Zoning Changes: Citywide TDR for historic buildings would help | Seattle's Land Use Code

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