Simply put, an incentive zoning program would give developers a chance to increase return on their investment and reduce costs in exchange for providing some public benefit the City is unable or unwilling to provide. The City’s Living Building Program is essentially just that, allowing departures from zoning limits in exchange for producing buildings that meet a high standard for lowering energy use and creating fewer environmental impacts.
On Monday, the Seattle City Council is considering amendments that would extend the life of the program and allow for more flexibility in meeting the requirements of the program. The changes would allow the Stone34 project to move ahead, building a project in Fremont that would be a showpiece of green building. The Council should move forward on this without any hesitation. The program is limited (only 12 projects can be built) and departures have to be approved by through the design review process.
This is pretty simple.
But of course opposition has cropped up from neighbors near and far. What are they opposed to? The opposition is, typically, worried about change. Most of the opponents (and of course they’ll say this isn’t true) are simply worried about something different on the corner of 34th and Stone. If Willy Wonka was proposing a Snozberry Factory on 34th and Stone, somebody would find a reason to oppose it, no matter how many snozberries they were promised.
The substance of the opposition, however, is all about the idea that this is a developer give away, or that it’s too big, or out of scale etc. etc. There is absolutely nothing new in the language or phrases found in what opponents to the project say. It’s big-buildings-will-block-sunglight-from-my-garden variety NIMBYism, the heart of which is fear and self preservation.
The disturbing thing is that fliers are cropping up all over the city, as NIMBYs in other neighborhoods like Capitol Hill start to make common cause, one outcome of the pandering done by Council on regulatory reform (see Mike O’Brien). When the Council cooperates with NIMBYism, it spreads.
The Living Building Program is a true incentive zoning. There is nothing requiring developers building a project on this site doing what Skanska is proposing: a building that exceeds industry standards for green building. In exchange for adding some additional costs for making the building lower impact and more efficient, the City grants departures from the code to give the developer more flexibility. That’s how an incentive program should work.
I have come to truly dislike Seattle’s version of incentive zoning, a program that essentially adds costs to projects that are asking to build more housing. As I’ve said many times, what we need to positively affect housing price is more supply and less development costs. Incentive zoning is no incentive because it tends to decrease supply—or at least not add to it significantly—and add more costs to projects.
The proposed amendments are entirely consistent with the broader agenda of making buildings better. It’s maddening to hear NIMBYs and anti-growth advocates say, “I’m for density, I just want good density,” then oppose projects like Stone34.
Well, all you folks who flood comment sections with comments about how you love density but just want better designed buildings should shut the computer off, get the bus or your bike, or, if you must, your unicycle, and go tell the Council to make this amendment happen. This is your chance to turn comments into action.
The City Council’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability (PLUS) committee has scheduled a public hearing for Monday, July 9, 2012 in the City Council Chambers, 2nd floor, Seattle City Hall, 600 Fourth Avenue. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m.