North Seattle Land [Ab]Use bike ride recap

the ride would have been safer with bike lanes

Last September, I led a 30-person deep bike ride from Ballard to Wallingford for the Urbanist. Ages ranged from 4 to mid-70s, we had family bikers, cargo bikers, and my wife hauled a friend who couldn’t ride because she had recently been hit on their own bike. It was an opportunity to talk about the history of zoning and land use in North Seattle. I was approached to lead a North Seattle variation of Merlin Rainwater’s ‘Redline Ride’ — which my family took part in last spring. (I wrote about that excellent excursion here). There were a number of questions about how to obtain more info on these issues, and a number of people who weren’t able to join have asked for information as well, so I’ve put together a quick recap with links below.

I think of Seattle as really having two distinct phases with regards to land use: pre-1923 zoning ordinance (PZO), and post. Many of the neighborhoods and business districts we love so much were built before a zoning ordinance was written. The 1917 Seattle Building Ordinance was the last passed before the 1923 zoning ordinance, and it was a beautifully succinct document that covered land use and building code, and if you subtract the advertisements, it’s a stunningly massive 200 page tome. As reference, today’s Seattle Building Code is roughly 770 pages, and the land use code is probably close to the same. Neighborhood design guidelines are not included in either of those.

Pre-zoning Seattle, multifamily housing was legal literally everywhere. Today, it is illegal almost everywhere. Height was regulated by street width (a method similar to Japan). The city was broken down into districts A-D, which had corresponding limits on height and building cladding, going from most fire-resistant, to least. Generally, everything north of Denny, South of Holgate, and east of Broadway was the 4th district (D), which allowed any type of building. The 1923 zoning ordinance, which Harland Bartholomew had a hand in crafting, introduced single family zoning and made it illegal to building multifamily housing in most of the city (much more than is legal today, though). With the onset of the automobile, parking requirements were eventually introduced, then over the decades, revisions to land use regs saw increasing setbacks, reduced lot coverage, density limits, and reduced height limits. Norm Rice’s Urban Village strategy took hold in the mid 1990s, with ‘neighborhood planning’ that was largely dominated by landowners and homeowners, severely limiting where new housing could go, and what it could look like. A 25% affordable housing requirement in the Urban Villages was killed by homeowners. And despite claims (almost exclusively by homeowners) of neighborhood planning being democratic, less than 2% of Seattle’s population today had any hand in crafting it. The results are highly inequitable, and our housing shortage today is largely because of it.

Ballard Ave

ballard pre-zoning, 6 story masonry buildings were legal

PZO: The historic core of Ballard pre-zoning was listed as 3rd District which permitted fireproof buildings, mill buildings up to six stories, ordinary masonry buildings, one story frame business buildings, and two story frame dwellings. It is interesting to note this means 6 story buildings would have been legal in most of Ballard. Warehouses, lofts and workshops all allowed 100% lot coverage on any lot.

ballard height limits w/ 1923 zoning ordinance

’23 ZO: Most of Ballard Ave zoned for commercial, with everything along the water being zoned for manufacturing (today, we label it Industrial). All of Ballard Ave and the waterfront were zoned for 80’ tall buildings. Market was zoned for 65’ tall buildings.

ballard zoning today

Today: None of Ballard Ave or the waterfront are zoned for 80’ tall buildings. Ballard Ave is zoned for 65’ tall buildings, but development potential is limited due to historic designation. Much of the Ballard Urban Village is still zoned for 65’ tall buildings. The taller buildings we’re seeing today are not really out of step with what was legal a century ago in Ballard.

Ballard Ave

PZO: The historic core of Ballard pre-zoning was listed as 3rd District which permitted fireproof buildings, mill buildings up to six stories, ordinary masonry buildings, one story frame business buildings, and two story frame dwellings. It is interesting to note this means 6 story buildings would have been legal in most of Ballard. Warehouses, lofts and workshops all allowed 100% lot coverage on any lot.

’23 ZO: Most of Ballard Ave zoned for commercial, with everything along the water being zoned for manufacturing (today, we label it Industrial). All of Ballard Ave and the waterfront were zoned for 80’ tall buildings. Market was zoned for 65’ tall buildings.

Today: None of Ballard Ave or the waterfront are zoned for 80’ tall buildings. Ballard Ave is zoned for 65’ tall buildings, but development potential is limited due to historic designation. Much of the Ballard Urban Village is still zoned for 65’ tall buildings. The taller buildings we’re seeing today are not really out of step with what was legal a century ago in Ballard.

North Ballard

PZO: 40’ tall multifamily buildings were legal for all of Ballard north of Market — even north of 65th as there was no single family zoning. Lot coverage varied from 73–100%. Setbacks were 3’, but could be less if masonry or other ‘incombustible or slow burning construction.’

north Ballard, 1923 zoning

’23 ZO: This area was zoned Second Residence District, which allowed 40’ tall multifamily housing — there were no density limits, no limitations on forms of housing. From 60th to 65th, lot coverage was reduced to 35% (45% if corner lot), with 15’ rear/3’ side, and 5 or 10’ front yard setbacks introduced. South of 60th, lot coverage was limited to 60% (70% if corner lot), with similar with 15’ rear/3’ side, and 5 or 10’ front yard setbacks.

north Ballard zoning today

Today: LR1/2 (Low Rise 1 and 2) building height limits vary from 25’ to 35’ by housing type (see City of Seattle Low Rise doc). Setbacks are 5–7’ for front and side yards, rear setbacks vary from 0’ — 15’. There are max façade lengths, which force more complex building forms than previous land use codes required — as well as density limits for all types, and design review as well. The zoning today is less permissive than even what was allowed under the 1923 zoning ordinance.

West Woodland
We stopped on 14th Ave NW, former streetcar route, at Gemenskap Park on 14th, which was funded by the 2008 parks and Green Spaces Levy

PZO: same as North Ballard, there was no single family zoning anywhere and multifamily housing was legal everywhere.

west woodland 1923 zoning ordinance, the diagonal hatch is all multifamily

’23 ZO: 14th Ave NW area was zoned for Business due to the streetcar, and everything east to 6th Ave NW was zoned Second Residence District, which allowed 40’ tall multifamily housing — there were no density limits, or limitations on forms of housing. Lot coverage of the Second Residence was reduced to 35% (45% if corner lot), with 15’ rear/3’ side, and 5 or 10’ front yard setbacks introduced.

west woodland today, massive downzone to single family zoning

Today: 175 acres where dense multifamily housing was once legal, now only allow detached luxury housing. Subsequent land use revisions saw this multifamily land downzoned to duplexes, and ultimately, today, nearly all of this neighborhood is zoned Single Family. Because of this, there are a number of existing, non-conforming multifamily homes that really have little protection from being replaced by a 2 million dollar single family home. Sightline had a really great piece on the hidden multifamily housing in neighborhoods like this, and somehow these neighborhoods aren’t destroyed.

Gilman Park

PZO: same as North Ballard, there was no single family zoning anywhere and multifamily housing was legal everywhere.

gilman park, 1923 zoning ordinance

’23 ZO: 40’ high Multifamily to north and east, largely zoned commercial with 65’ height limit to Leary, and south of Leary, Manufacturing with an 80’ height limit.

gilman park, zoning today — the multifamily is less permissive than 1923, much downzoned as well

Today: Single Family to the north of the park, multifamily just one block east, and two blocks south. South of that is Industrial Buffer with a 45’, and Industrial General w/ 65’ height limit south of Leary, and west for two blocks, roughly. There are two exceptions for housing in the Industrial Buffer zones — artist live/work lofts, and (1) 800sf caretaker’s unit per parcel. Interestingly, because non-conforming housing was allowed to remain in Industrial areas as long as the use never changed — this is how the Edith Macefield house came to be. It was built in 1900 over two decades before the zoning ordinance. Also worth noting — there are many single story retail buildings being built in the Industrial lands w/ 65’ height limits — this seems less than optimal given our housing crisis…

Fremont

PZO: same as North Ballard, there was no single family zoning anywhere and multifamily housing was legal everywhere.

fremont zoning, 1923 ordinance — 80' buildings were legal on the waterfront

’23 ZO: 40’ high Multifamily at northern portion of Fremont Urban Village, Commercial zoning w/ 65’ height limit at N. 36th St, Commercial zoning w/ 80’ height limit south of N 36th, and Manufacturing with an 80’ limit west of 3rd and around the Fremont Bridge.

fremont zoning, today.

Today: The Fremont Urban Village is about 60% of what the city proposed — with all of the area south of the Ship Canal being eliminated, and none of the zoning being changed during the ‘neighborhood planning’ process. The C1–40’ is Commercial zoning w/ a 40’ height limit north of N 36th. The Commercial zoning between the canal and 36th eventually gave way to Industrial General and Industrial Buffer (imagine, we could have had 80’ high mixed use buildings for these blocks…). The LR2 is less dense housing than what was allowed under the 1923 zoning ordinance, but LR3 in the Urban Village is more intensive.

Wallingford

PZO: same as North Ballard, there was no single family zoning anywhere and multifamily housing was legal everywhere.

’23 ZO: 40’ high Multifamily at northern portion of Fremont Urban Village, Commercial zoning w/ 65’ height limit at N. 36th St, Commercial zoning w/ 80’ height limit south of N 36th, and Manufacturing with an 80’ limit west of 3rd and around the Fremont Bridge.

Today: Much of Wallingford has been downzoned from what was legal a century ago. Wallingford Ave was zone for multifamily housing on either side, and south of 36th was also zoned for multifamily housing. This area was downzoned in the 80s by homeowners who wanted to keep students and workers out of their neighborhood. If you’re interested in learning more about the pernicious land abuse in Wallingford, check out my article on Sightline, ‘the Narrowing of a Neighborhood’. Just last year, the anti-renter Wallingford Community Council submitted a comp plan amendment to eradicate half of the Wallingford Urban Village — so we’ve got a long way to go to reverse this land abuse.

The Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History project has a section on Racial Restrictive Covenants with a few interesting notes on North Seattle.

“The maps suggest little difference in the demography of Wallingford, where no covenants have been located, from the demography of Ballard, Loyal Heights, and Greenlake, where they were common. This reemphasizes the point that social enforcement of segregation was every bit as important as legally enforcing deed restrictions. (Emphasis mine)”
bikes galore, foto by doug trumm

The ride ended at Gas Works Park, with an impromptu (but poignant) statement by Merlin Rainwater, who had lead the redline ride through the CD, about how these issues worked in parallel to create and exacerbate segregation. It’s important to understand how this legacy affects land use today — and specifically, how keeping affordable housing from 85% of the land where housing is legal — is compounded by this history. Eradicating single family zoning, as Minneapolis just did, won’t solve our housing crisis. But it is one of many steps needed to start down that path.