I have covered a lot of ground in my reading of the code and I have also been writing about related things like Transit Oriented Development. I’m going to jump back into code reading and analysis with a review of Overlays.
All the designations and the chapters that stand alone to regulate things like cellular towers. I’m not exactly on the home stretch yet, since after overlays the Master Use Permit process is staring me in the face. My plan is to cover this section all together, not one overlay at a time. I might go back and cover a specific overlay if it makes sense.
The chapter opens with a nice general purpose statement that sums up well what overlays are getting at.
Purpose. Overlay districts are established to conserve and enhance The City of Seattle’s unique natural marine and mountain setting and its environmental and topographic features; to preserve areas of historical note or architectural merit; to accomplish City policy objectives for specific areas; to assist in the redevelopment and rehabilitation of declining areas of the City; to balance the needs of Major Institution development with the need to preserve adjacent neighborhoods; and to promote the general welfare by safeguarding such areas for the future use and enjoyment of all people.
The next section goes on to state that a project in the overlay areas are “subject both to its zone classification regulations and to additional requirements imposed for the overlay district.” Whenever there is a difference or conflict between the overlay and the underlying zoning “the overlay district provisions shall apply.”
I like the style and the purpose statement as a way of getting at outcomes. The signs and communications chapters have similar, clearly written statement to answer the question “what’s the point?” I’m not sure I agree with the content of the general purpose statement but that’s a different issue. And really, in spite of the high flying sound to the language, most of what is in the statement just reflects the subsequent chapters. Simply put, the purpose of the overlay is to tweak an underlying designation in a specific area for the benefit of some larger goal.
. . . unique natural marine and mountain setting and its environmental and topographic features . . .
This corresponds to 23.60, the chapter on Shoreline District. Like other parts of the code, this chapter is triggered by state legislation, the Shoreline Management Act. There is also a lot of language here that connects to the City’s Comprehensive Plan, which also is required to speak to shorelines.
The Shoreline Management Act was passed in the early 1970s “to prevent the inherent harm in an uncoordinated and piecemeal development of the state’s shorelines.” Since then it has grown its own inflorescence of legal cases, amendments, and legislation. If you want to build next to a shoreline, you’d better have a good attorney. This makes sense and the stated goals SMC 23.60 are laudable for an area like ours with so much water:
1. Protect the ecosystems of the shoreline areas;
2. Encourage water-dependent uses;
3. Provide for maximum public use and enjoyment of the shorelines of the City; and
4. Preserve, enhance and increase views of the water and access to the water.
Every shoreline in the city is part of the Shoreline District and thus subject to the requirements of the underlying zoning designation and the requirements of the Shoreline District.
. . .to accomplish City policy objectives for specific areas . . .
Chapters 23.61 Station Area Overlay District, and 23.71 Northgate Overlay District, seem to stand on their own with a special emphasis on transportation and managing development. In the case of 23.61 we’ve already had some discussion of what is going on (or not going on) with Transit Oriented Development. My impression is that the existing section is rather weak, an artifact of the last big round of station area planning from the 90s. I’ll take a look at that more closely in another post.
As for Northgate, like Roosevelt and Beacon Hill, there are going to be some serious discussions unfolding as that neighborhood gets its station planning going. The Northgate overlay makes sense because of Northgate Mall, a regional attraction that pulls in people and cars from all over the Puget Sound. Shaping what happens there is going to be quite different than a transit station like Beacon Hill which is truly a neighborhood station. Northgate’s future has broader implications for the neighborhood and for the Mall, but the problem there is similar: what are the City’s policy objectives and what is going to do, through the code, to meet those?
. . . to preserve areas of historical note or architectural merit . . .
Chapters 23.66 Special Review Districts and 23.73 Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District are set up specifically to impose greater restrictions for the preservations of the historical districts in the city. The easiest examples come from the International District and Pioneer Square where changes to facades or redevelopment must pass through a special review process not unlike design review to be sure that the changes don’t adversely affect other buildings.
We saw the importance of these districts during the discussions leading up to the proposed rezone in Pioneer Square. The purpose of the special reviews and conservation districts is an important one. We don’t want creeping changes to our historic and cultural districts that undermine the character of those districts. Erosion of that character, especially without intent, arguably, is destructive to the whole city, wiping out a draw for people outside the city as well as people who live here. But that has to be balanced against progress and economics.
Often building owners don’t have the resources to make improvements to their buildings that would meet the standards of the review. So they opt to let their buildings run down. Often their is gaming of the system by owners who claim hardship but really just want to knock down their building and make a bigger profit. But some restrictions can harm the district itself, keeping it in stasis and preventing the kind of growth we hope to see. It’s a tough job to manage this balance when there is a lot of politics and money at stake.
. . . to assist in the redevelopment and rehabilitation of declining areas of the City . . .
Chapter 23.67 passed in legislation in the early 1990s, creates the Southeast Seattle Reinvestment Area or SESRA, which could be the origin of the oft repeated trope “the City promised us no more bad things will be located south of the Ship Canal.” If you’re planning to locate a transit oriented adult theater with tow yard and recycling center within the boundaries of the SESRA think again. Those things, along with others, are not permitted. But if you check out the map, the boundaries are pretty limited.
I wonder if we need this anymore and if it should be updated and merged into a new and improved chapter on TOD. I really don’t like the language “declining areas of the city.” I’m typically not a big fan of pointless optimism, but I’d rather see the language say “areas of the city with the greatest potential for sustainable growth and development.”
. . . to balance the needs of Major Institution development with the need to preserve adjacent neighborhoods . . .
There are the remaining chapters which I put together here, 23.69 Major Institution Overlay District, 23.64 Airport Height Overlay District, 23.72 Sand Point Overlay District, 23.74, and the Stadium Transition Area Overlay District.
The Major Institution Overlay applies to big monsters like the University of Washington that kind of generate their own weather in terms of land use and transportation. Add to that the stadiums, airports, and the decommissioned Sand Point Naval station and you’ll get a sense of these overlays.
I tend to think of these as efforts to appease single family residents who are bent out of shape from the “impacts” of these larger institutional and quasi-public entities. I say quasi-public because in some cases the uses aren’t really public or they have a public component. Some of them, like the University of Washington, are public but are so large as to feel like they are a government unto themselves, with lots of money, their own lobbyists, and lots of political support.
On the other hand, as long as NIMBYism doesn’t take hold, I think it makes sense to hold these large uses to a different standards because they are so big and because that is an opportunity not an impact. We ought to be using the overlays here not as a way to limit impacts but leverage important things like open space, transit oriented development, and important infrastructure to support growth.
I think overlays are a great idea, but they only make real sense if the underlying zoning works. Right now I have doubts about that, so it feels a bit like the overlay is another way to solve problems created by the original code. Why can’t project proposals just stand or fall on how good they are in terms of our broader goals rather than whether they fit into a box we’ve built with code language? That questions can’t and shouldn’t be solved with an overlay. But I do think in some cases, especially when big institutions or transit are making waves, we need to figure out how might might use overlays to create better neighborhoods.
So there you have it. Overlays in a nutshell. As I said, I’ll likely revisit a couple of these later as we plow ahead through the rest of the code and we continue the TOD discussion.