Publicola has run two editorials about proposed increases in height proposed for Pioneer Square, one supporting smaller increases in height the other supporting bigger increases. Knute Berger at Crosscut makes a case that the Seattle City Council needs to be careful of what it does in Pioneer Square, and Jon Scholes pushed for even more height than is currently on the table in a post on Citytank. I signed a letter encouraging more height and heard from at least one person that we might be backing the wrong horse. It is a tough issue. But I think I’ve made up my mind on this: more height is better and we need citywide Transfer of Development Rights for historic buildings.
Roughly speaking, the way TDR for historic buildings works is that a building that gets listed can sell the development rights to the City. The City can put those TDR credits on the market and get paid back when a developer needs more density or height somewhere else in the city. It makes a lot of sense because it preserves the historic property and it also captures the increases in zoning. Before leaving office, former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck pushed to get $1,000,000 for the historic TDR program. I don’t think it survived the budget process.
But even if had, the current program doesn’t cover Pioneer Square and the development capacity can’t be transferred anywhere in the city. The Council should pass the bigger increases in height recommended by the Committee rather than the DPD recommendation. But it should also put money in the fund for a TDR program that allows the transfer of capacity citywide. That means finding some money and it also means changing the existing program. These things are worth doing as part of this zoning change.
The other downside to this proposal (besides needing to find the money and having to craft a significant code change) is that if it works, it might remove some of the stated benefits of the rezone. The whole reason why the upzone is needed is to add some more life into the district. If the property owners get paid not to redevelop then we don’t get the benefit of the additional height, which is more people and more economic activity. Presumably, all the benefits of the additional height would go somewhere else.
But I still think this can help. Historic TDR won’t buy every square foot of additional development capacity, but it can help in some places that matter most. In some places the new development potential will far outpace the city’s ability to buy the status quo using TDR. On some parcels however, this program could help tip the scale as the district starts to change. And if the program can be used for properties adjacent to listed buildings it will help even more.
Secondly, the city would be investing both in improving Pioneer Square and promoting more housing in other parts of the city through buying and selling some of the additional development capacity it creates with a rezone. When the economy starts to recover that capacity could be worth more than the city paid for it. And remember the program would be helping preserve historic buildings and the district at large.
Lastly, the Council is suffering yet again from its indecision. We need to favor good planning and economics over fears about who might make a windfall from those good decisions. Too often the Council tries to second guess the motives of property owners and whether they will be helped by additional height. What does that have to do with good land use planning? If a property owner bought property wisely and now stands to gain from an upzone who cares, as long as that upzone has broader benefit.
Saber rattling letters like the one from the State’s Historic Preservation Officer don’t help either. As Councilmember Burgess pointed out in his comments last week Dr. Allyson Brooks couldn’t quantify the impact of rezones and their potential impact on the delisting of Pioneer Square as a historic district. Dr. Brooks plays an important role in this discussion and she shouldn’t be ignored or taken lightly. But the Council has to be bold on this one.
Are we risking Pioneer Square’s status as a historic district by changing the zoning here? Absolutely. How big a risk are we taking? Hard to tell. But it does not appear as though the middle of the road recommendations offered by the committee last week are going to unravel the district. And what if they do? Well, we should have thought of that years ago when considering other land use decisions. Perhaps if we’d have upzoned some areas earlier we wouldn’t be here now. But we discussed, and talked some more, and waited. And the Council hasn’t made TDR a priority.
The longer we wait, the demand for more housing and economic development will only increase not dissipate. The risks to the district from development pressure will only grow, and soon we might be faced with even more pressure from property owners to redevelop. There has to be a balance. A historic district without any people, viable business, and housing isn’t worth much to a city as one that has those things.