The Seattle Multi-Family code has been updated for the first time since the late 1980's. The new code offers carrots and sticks to builders. Some of the carrots are; reduced building setbacks, increased height limits and finally a retooling of the allowable building width depth requirements in favor of a more flexible floor area ratio limit. The sticks are; reduced allowable unit densities and for many projects design review and increased landscaping and green building requirements. Will design review result in better projects? Only time will tell. It is hard to legislate good design but perhaps with more flexibility granted in the design review process better projects will get built. It will come at a price though. I estimate that design review will tack on a minimum of $30,000 in cost and six months to a year in permit time. This aside from creating a scramble amongst builders for previously permitted projects, will ultimately result in increased prices for buyers.
Since the 1980's Seattle has undergone tremendous growth. Particularly in later years, townhouses have become the affordable housing option of choice. In part because of their popularity and often times because of their scale and apparent lack of addressing the street in a neighborly way, the new code takes townhouses head on.
Perhaps the biggest change will be a requirement for design review for two or more townhouse units. One hopes that this will result in townhouses that have units that have primary entrances and glazing that face the street at the ground level. This will now be regulated in a manner similar the way in which it is currently is in commercial zones. Ever wonder why so many townhouse projects have veil fattening pen like fenced yards? It is the old zoning code. The new code will relax the requirements for the separation of open space which combined with the new landscaping requirements should contribute to nicer street-scapes.
Rowhouses will be the big winners under the new code. Requiring no side yard setback and no design review we will be seeing more of these.
Cottage housing will continue to be a popular housing choice for both buyers and builders. Cottage housing offers an affordable housing choice for those who don't need a lot of space and like connection to the earth. Sadly, despite a great number of highly successful old and new cottage housing projects the new multi-family code doesn't make any real concessions to cottage housing. Congregate housing will continue to be allowed in both single family and multi-family zones is becoming a viable option for students, senior citizens and others who don't need or want to pay for a full kitchen.
Seattle Multi-Family Zoning
Here are some highlights of the revised code from the Seattle DPD web page.
- Reduce the number of zones from five to three (LR1, LR2, LR3) for code simplicity;
- Encourage a diversity of housing types among townhomes, rowhouses, cottages, apartments, and auto-court townhomes;
- Require new design features. For example: At least 20 percent of street facing façades must be windows and doors, building materials must be varied, townhouse parking garages must be designed to fit large cars;
- Provide incentives for "green building" and hiding parking underground or at the back of the lot;
- Use the City's "Green Factor" landscaping requirement, which promotes keeping trees or planting new ones;
- Change the lowrise height limits to match the height limit for single-family zones in most cases;
- Allow for shared open space, for larger usable common areas;
- Waive parking requirements for projects in growth areas and within .25 mile of frequent transit service (15 minute headways), allowing the market to dictate the level of parking to provide;
- Waive density limits for certain housing types when good design features are achieved;
- Use a new flexible standard of measuring floor space, "Floor Area Ratio," rather than previously restrictive setback and lot coverage requirements; and
- Streamlined Design Review will be required for townhouses with three or more units, but not for rowhouses, cottages or apartments in multifamily zones