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Originally published April 25, 2011 at 9:57 PM | Page modified April 25, 2011 at 10:24 PM

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City allows taller buildings for south-downtown areas

The Seattle City Council on Monday approved sweeping zoning changes for south downtown designed to balance preservation of several of the city's most distinctive ethnic and historic neighborhoods while adding taller residential buildings meant to attract more in-city residents.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Seattle City Council on Monday unanimously approved sweeping zoning changes for south downtown designed to balance preservation of several of the city's most distinctive ethnic and historic neighborhoods while adding taller residential buildings meant to attract more in-city residents.

Buildings up to 24 stories could go up in Japantown, north of Jackson Street, where previously 15 stories were allowed. Heights up to 15 stories were approved south of King Street in the Chinatown International District and on Dearborn, where eight stories had been the maximum.

But the council kept the current, lower building heights along the main corridors of Chinatown and Little Saigon, while also rolling back some proposed height increases in Pioneer Square.

"The approach was to look at the heights and say, 'What's great in these neighborhoods that we don't want to lose?' and 'What do we do so we get more people living here?' " said Sally Clark, chair of the Committee on the Built Environment, which has been working on the proposal for the past year.

Under the new plan, developers could qualify for the maximum heights only if they also provide community benefits such as open space, street improvements and affordable housing.

The proposals for taller residential buildings had widespread support among Chinatown International District community groups, which hope to revitalize a neighborhood that has struggled with the recession and the competition from Asian markets and restaurants throughout the region.

"We're using this time during the down economy to prepare the map and rules so when the next wave of development comes, we get the density and character we want," Clark said after the hearing.

But the plan to add height to the Pioneer Square Historic District generated controversy and attempts at compromise right up to last week.

Some developers and the Downtown Seattle Association urged the council to adopt building heights up to 18 stories in Pioneer Square, while preserving the main historic corridors along First Avenue and Jackson Street at 10 stories. Currently the entire district is between about six and 10 stories, and new buildings aren't allowed to be more than 15 feet taller than adjacent buildings.

They argued that anything less than 18 stories doesn't pencil out financially and would not be adequate to jump-start development and attract new residents and businesses to a district that has seen little of either over the past decade.

They pointed to the Pearl District in Portland as an example of a neighborhood that successfully mixes historic buildings with tall, modern condominiums, offices and retail space.

Clark's committee in the past two months approved heights of up to 14 stories east of Occidental Park and near the Smith Tower.

But preservationists fought those height increases, arguing they could threaten the character and cohesion of the city's first neighborhood. They said new development in the surrounding neighborhoods, including a 600-unit apartment building on the north lot of Qwest Field, could bring more people to the area without threatening the historic district.

"We have a stewardship responsibility" to protect Pioneer Square, said Councilmember Tom Rasmussen. "Some have asked whether 10 or 20 or 30 feet makes a real difference. I think they do."

Councilmember Tim Burgess said he would have liked to "inch up heights in Pioneer Square without causing harm," but said the issue can be revisited to see if the zoning and development incentives are attracting new construction and residents.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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