SMC 23.49 Downtown Zoning: “they built their gods a brazen pillar/high as the sky”

As I have pointed out, downtown zoning and land use discussions often become the occasion for Seattle’s various groups to work out their differences. To be honest I am somewhat surprised by difficulty of the intellectual question ‘why is downtown the place where Seattle battles?’ In some ways the answer is obvious. Here’s my take on 23.49.

First, the code might be the longest and most complex chapter. If it happens in another zone, it happens downtown. But things like animals, strippers, setbacks, trees, and open space all get mixed up here. Stir in Transfer of Development Rights, incentive zoning, historic buildings, and tower spacing and you’ll see how downtown land use gets complicated and controversial.

Here’s a quick survey of some of the issues that have found their way into the downtown code.

Height–As I suggested in my last post about Pioneer Square, usually in downtown there is nowhere to go but up. So much land is already unbuildable because it’s got something on it already that is generating plenty of revenue, is historic, or has something else happening underneath it or near it that makes building it out difficult.

Historic landmarks–You don’t have to look far in downtown to run into a building that has protection as a landmark or could have protection. This isn’t a bad thing, but the fact is that previous generations did a lot of really dumb things with great buildings in the name of progress. Preservation is important, but it can take developable land off the table.

Towers–There are limits on the hight and width of towers the rise up off the base of large office and residential buildings. The thinking here is that nobody wants dark canyons running through downtown. Putting spacing between towers preserves light and views. But it reduce developable space.

Roofs, alleys, and setbacks–Like other designations, downtown zones have lots of rules about the what happens at the edges and ends of buildings. Whether a buildings is residential, commercial or a mix of both the code has a lot to say about their form and function.

On the street–Entrances, exits, curb-cuts, sidewalks, and street trees are all proscribed in the code which is no surprise. But remember downtown is mostly built out, so these requirements have to be met on sites where the is sometimes not a lot of room.

Uses–Downtown has every imaginable use from day shelters for homeless men to high end hotels; bars and restaurants, night clubs, and entertainment venues. All these uses are addressed in some way in this chapter. There is even a section on animal day care (come to think of it, animals in the city would make a great post).

Transportation–Trains, trolleys, buses, boats, taxis, bikes, feet, trucks, wheelchairs, and….oh yeah, cars, all move around downtown creating huge potential for moving people in and around downtown. This also creates lots of potential conflicts and storage challenges too. Where do all the cars go when they aren’t being used?

Incentives–There are at least three incentive programs in the code to trade additional density for public benefits in housing, open space, and child care. These are way too complex to open up here, but I have always liked incentive zoning. But to me what makes the most sense is a negotiated process to exchange density for any number of benefits. The city has limited these too much I think. The incentive zoning program will be the subject of the another post.

Transfer of Development Rights (TDR)–Another really great idea in the code established mostly for downtown is the city’s TDR program which allows the movement of development capacity from one sight to another. This means, usually, an owner who is able to develop a particular site sells her right to develop to someone else who needs additional development capacity. The problem with TDR is usually brokering between the sending and receiving sites. All sites aren’t created equal, so even if I can find a sender and a receiver, the price and the zoning have to be right for the receiving site. I could be wrong, but I don’t think this is happening all that much.

Parking–I touched on it earlier, but car storage is a big deal downtown. I’ve gotten into lots of discussions about parking taxes and transit other places. Bottom line, in my opinion, is that parking lots are a waste of space downtown. Ideally we’d focus on building out our downtown with housing, retail, and commercial use–not parking. But we’re not there yet. So parking remains a hot issue downtown.

Strippers!–I’ll never forget the day I was downtown at the Seattle Municipal Tower when all the strippers came down to get their licenses. I need to figure out when that day is. In any event, all manner of adult activity goes on downtown and you’ll find the code has a very modest section on adult cabarets. It is not anywhere as titillating as the conversations from the late 1980s led by Seattle City Councilmember Jane Noland. Those hearings must have been packed, if you know what I mean.

These and other factors all combine to form the context of downtown development. Each area has its advocates and champions, aggrieved parties and those that might make a few extra bucks here and there based on a land use decision. Views will be blocked, noise will be made, and earth will be moved.

Seattle may not have moved both heaven and earth to build its downtown, but it certainly moved earth. I don’t have a clear way through to making downtown zoning less complex. Maybe it’s not possible or desirable. But one, here again, has the distinct sense that we have forgotten the point of land use policy: to make a better city.

I’m going to quote Knute Berger at length:

A much-quoted figure is that the “re-grading” of our original hillsides and dumping the fill into Elliott Bay (which created a lot of new developable land in Belltown, the Waterfront, Pioneer Square, SoDo, the industrial area, and elsewhere) moved an amount of earth equal to the diggings of the Panama Canal. If nothing else, that stat, correct or not, gives a sense of the massive scale that our city-builders intended, and what it took to create a place where a modern city could sprout. But apart from the engineering involved, as Graves points out, a key ingredient in making it work is glossing over the details of landscape reformation and to sculpt what came after with a sense of mythology about its inevitability and livability. She writes, “Seattle’s history is the history of making the artificial seem authentic, turning what’s become merely normal into something ‘natural.’ ”

So aside from one of the greenest cities in America being shaped by human forces that devastated the natural environment in ways we would not even consider (and indeed are trying to reverse) today, we have also worked hard to create a history that tells a happier story

I think Berger has this right. I would go a bit further in saying that when it comes to our city and downtown especially, we have to remember that this is not our city. This city belongs to the past and the future. We are simply on our way from the past to the future. I’m not suggesting we don’t preserve what’s important or that we can avoid conflict when making big decisions. But it is important to remember that we are always making the past for the future. We can’t just keep things the same or even, in many ways, control what happens to downtown.

I think we’d be best served by a full and complete review of downtown zoning that encouraged both preservation but inspired creativity. We’ve massively transformed our city before and we can do it again. Why not have the goal of eliminating all cars from downtown streets by 2020. Let’s do that and see what happens. I know, I know. It’s not gonna happen. I suggest you tell me your reservations in person at the top of Denny Hill.

Here’s downtown by designation:

Downtown Office Core 1 DOC 1
Downtown Office Core 2 DOC 2
Downtown Retail Core DRC
Downtown Mixed Commercial DMC
Downtown Mixed Residential DMR
Pioneer Square Mixed PSM
International District Mixed IDM
International District Residential IDR
Downtown Harborfront 1 DH1
Downtown Harborfront 2 DH2
Pike Market Mixed PMM

And downtown by the numbers:

And here’s what’s out there:

DOC 1 6th and University

DOC 2 6th and Pine

DRC 6th Avenue and Pine

DMR 1st Avenue between Lenora and Blanchard

PSM 1st Avenue

IDM Jackson and Maynard

IDR Maynard and Main

DH 1 Alaskan Way

DH 2 Alaskan Way

PMM 1st Avenue between Stewart and Virginia

I am going to close this post with the last two stanzas of Robert Browning’s Love Among the Ruins because it’s my blog and I can.

But he looked upon the city, every side,
Far and wide,
All the mountains topped with temples, all the glades’
All the causeys, bridges, aqueducts,–and then
All the men!
When I do come, she will speak not, she will stand,
Either hand
On my shoulder, give her eyes the first embrace
Of my face,
Ere we rush, ere we extinguish sight and speech
Each on each.

In one year they sent a million fighters forth
South and North,
And they built their gods a brazen pillar high
As the sky
Yet reserved a thousand chariots in full force–
Gold, of course.
O heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
Earth’s returns
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best.

Barney Millers view of Seattle

This entry was posted in 4. I don't understand. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to SMC 23.49 Downtown Zoning: “they built their gods a brazen pillar/high as the sky”

  1. Pingback: Chapter 23.58A Incentive Provisions | Seattle's Land Use Code

  2. Pingback: 23.91 Citation– Hearings– Penalties: Clean up your act! | Seattle's Land Use Code

  3. Kevin Lai says:

    Does anyone know what’s the zoning designation DMRC 656515 stand for?

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