Understanding the University District Rezone

Since 2011, the city has been working on a plan to rezone the University District as part of the long-term strategic effort to grow it into another “urban center.” That plan is now in its final stages, tentatively set to come up for a vote by the Council some time in January.

The proposed rezone  plan is large, complex, and controversial. Let’s look at what it entails, and what the issues are.

First: the rezone is just one piece of the larger plan to create a new urban center. That plan involves public investments in parks, public transportation, and pedestrian walkways; community initiatives around economic development, public safety and youth employment; private development; and careful coordination with University of Washington’s long-term planning. There’s lots of good things in there, most notably the arrival in 2021 of a light rail station at 43rd and Brooklyn which becomes the center of gravity for “transit-oriented development” in the surrounding area.

So why a rezone? The biggest force driving it is the growth in population and jobs in the city. Rather than let it spread randomly around the city, the plan (expressed through the HALA recommendations) is to concentrate much of it in denser “urban centers” and “urban villages” that have excellent access to public transportation and can also serve as their own vibrant communities. Rezoning adds  more development capacity and places it where it can best be served.

The U District’s rezone is a product of five years of work, over 90 public meetings, and endless iterations. The city planners have collected the accumulated written feedback here. They say that throughout the process the feedback has been consistent: one third of the people strongly favor rezoning to increase density and building heights; one third strongly oppose it; and one third agree with the basic idea but have specific concerns around one or more of:

  • whether there will be sufficient public space for the increased population;
  • preservation of historic landmark buildings;
  • supporting social services, childcare, and other amenities and services;
  • displacement of existing residents and small businesses: either directly as buildings are demolished to make room for new ones, or indirectly through “economic displacement” when their current location is no longer affordable;
  • losing the special nature and character of the U District, and especially the section of University Way lovingly called “The Ave.”

Some of these concerns are beyond the scope of the rezone itself but should be addressed by the rest of the “urban center” plan. Of the ones that the zoning can address, the city has boiled down the feedback to three key guidelines:

  1. Maintain low density north of NE 50th Street;
  2. Provide reasonable breaks and transitions between higher and lower density areas, i.e. “step down” the zoning rather than have abrupt changes;
  3. Give special consideration to the Ave.

And that brings us to the specific zoning changes that are being made. It’s helpful to think of the U District as four subareas:

The “Core” is the heart of the U District, and where the new light rail station will be. It is the area best suited to see increased density, and it is where the most significant changes in zoning happen.

The “North tier” is an area abutting low-density, single family residential areas. As such it will be a step-down area that will see some height and density increases but nowhere near what is being planned for the Core.

The “West edge” is a transitional area between the U District and neighboring Wallingford; it is an “enclave of student housing” according to the city. It also is right next to Interstate 5. The rezone plan intends to allow for student housing to increase (and increase in density) in this area.

The “Ave” is the main pedestrian and shopping area; it’s also the buffer between the U District and UW campus. What happens here is one of the most contentious issues surrounding the whole rezone plan. Back in the 1950’s, there were department stores on the Ave, but the opening of Northgate Mall and University Village pulled those stores away. The area has had its ups and downs since then, including rising and falling crime rates. Through all of that, it has maintained its funky character that attracts a certain brand of shops, cafes, restaurants — and patrons who love it for what it is.

OK, so now it’s time to look at the exact zoning changes being proposed. This is where the interpretation gets hard, because it seems like a mess of obscure codes — and it is. But we can walk through what it all means and demystify much of it.

Let’s define some terms here.

“Commercial” means businesses: stores, shops, restaurants and cafes, professional offices.  “Residential” means places where individuals and families live.

“Neighborhood commercial” (or “NC” in the codes) means either a small building with a storefront or offices, or one with commercial storefronts/offices at street level and residential space on upper floors.

“Mixed use” (SM-U) means a mix of commercial and residential buildings within that zone. It can also mean a mix within a single building: commercial in lower levels of the building and residential in upper levels. There are lots of different “mixed use” zoning designations across the city, with small differences in the restrictions, and several have been created specifically for the U District; thus SM-U stands for “Seattle Mixed-use U District.”

“Single family” (SF) means a building that only a single family can occupy, mostly standalone houses. “Multi-family” means an apartment or condo complex where multiple households all have separate spaces in the same building.

“Lowrise” (LR) generally means a height limit of 35 feet. “Midrise” (MR) is 35 feet to 85 feet. “Highrise” is anything taller than 85 feet.  By city code, in most buildings a floor must be at least 13 feet in height, and in practice in most midrise and greater buildings have floors somewhere between 14 and 15 feet in height. This is handy for doing a quick conversion between building height and floors.

A zoning designation is usually a combination of a use restriction and a height restriction. For example, SM-U-85 means “mixed use, with a height limit of 85 feet.” Sometimes the designation includes two numbers, which are height limits for different kinds of buildings (e.g. SM-U 95-320 means mixed use, with a 95 foot limit for a purely commercial building and 320 feet if it includes a residential highrise).

That’s enough to give you the basic skills to read the zoning map and understand the gist of what you can and can’t do at a given site.  You can find handy guides here for more of the details, and the authoritative source (and final word) is the official Land Use Code.

So what does the map say? Several things:

  • Much of the “core” area will be approved for building heights of 240 or 320 feet. 240 feet is about 15 floors; 320 is about 22.  As a reference point: the UW Tower, which sits in the core, is 325 feet tall and has 22 floors.
  • The “west edge” is approved for midrise buildings up to 85 feet.
  • The “north tier” is largely “neighborhood commercial” today; for commercial buildings the allowable height increases from 65 feet to 75 feet, and for mixed-use residential buildings it goes to 240 feet, though it tapers down at its north edge to 55 feet as a transition to the lowrise zones surrounding it.
  • The Ave height limits increase from 65 feet to 85 feet.

For the west edge and the north tier, there isn’t much that’s complicated about this; you either like having taller buildings and more density there, or you don’t.

For the core and the Ave, it looks on the surface like there could be big changes, but there’s a lot of context around the new zones that mitigate it.

For the core area, it really isn’t as simple as saying that you can build a building up to 320 feet in height, because the zoning also has rules about floor area — both the total square footage of the building, and the maximum for any given floor.

(get ready for some math)

The total allowable square footage for a building is based upon the size of the lot it is being built upon. The zoning designation includes a “floor area ratio” (FAR) — basically a multiplier.

Multiply the square footage of your lot by the FAR, and you get the total square footage you are allowed to have in your building, across all floors. A typical lot in the U District is 103′ wide and 40′ deep, so with a FAR of 4.75, your building could have a total of 19,570 square feet of floor area. If you wanted your building to take up the entire lot, that gets you about five floors — far less than the theoretical maximum of 22 in a SM-U 320 zone.

But wait — there are two numbers there, a “base” and a “max.” Any building can be built up to the “base” FAR. But it turns out that there are a number of things that you can do to earn a higher FAR and thus more floor area in your building, through the Incentive Zoning program that will be rolled out as part of rezoning the U District. Incentive Zoning, as the name implies, is meant to reward developers for doing things that benefit the community as a whole. That might be building a pedestrian corridor in the middle of a block, setbacks on “green streets,” providing open space, or providing child care facilities either in the building or nearby (in fact, for non-residential buildings, 65% of additional FAR must be earned through provisioning of childcare facilities).

Another Incentive Zoning option is “Transfer of Development Rights,” (TDR) through which a developer who owns another property in the U District that contains public open space, historic landmarks, or historic masonry buildings and chooses not to build it out to its full allowable FAR can transfer that extra FAR to another property (a list of eligible properties is here).

Through the Incentive Zoning options, a developer could increase the FAR for their building up to the maximum FAR specified in the zoning designation. They can’t earn additional height beyond the limit in the zone, but they can build a fatter building, or enough extra floor area to build closer to the maximum height.

Oh, but wait, there’s more. In order to stop the Core from filling in with tall, fat buildings that completely block out the sun, there are some more limits. First, a building can have a maximum width and depth of 250 feet — so even if you bought up a series of adjacent smaller lots and combined them to make a bigger one, the base of your building can’t be larger than 250×250. If your lot is smaller than that, then you can build the building to take up almost the whole lot — but only up to 45′ in height. Above that, the building must get skinnier.

Also, there must be a minimum separation of 75 feet between highrise buildings. And floors above 45′ must be set back farther from the street.

And then there are a set of design standards that must be met, including “setbacks” from the street to allow for pedestrian flow (but not too far, because we want the storefronts to “activate” the space, make it interesting, and invite people to come in), breaking up long ground-level stretches of buildings that are simply blank walls, and active uses for frontage (75% must be active use, 60% must be transparent windows and doors). The design standards are exacting, and sometimes maddeningly complicated, which is why it often takes months and several iterations to get a design approved.

Does your head hurt yet?

So while in theory there could be many 320-foot-tall highrises in the core area, in practice it’s going to be very difficult to build them. In fact, the city’s analysis shows that with current land prices,  residential highrises are not currently feasible, and commercial highrises might be feasible in some specific circumstances.

As for the Ave, the big question is whether raising the height limit from 65 feet to 85 feet will change the buildings, the character, and the affordability of space there. Certainly small business owners are concerned, and have voiced those concerns to the city and the City Council. Many today enjoy “naturally affordable” (i.e. older) retail space that they rent, and are concerned that they will be displaced if their landlord sells out to a developer who wants to tear it down and build a new, bigger (more expensive) building.

On the other hand, as the zoning map shows, most of the Ave is currently zoned for heights up to 65 feet — and yet there are almost no buildings that tall, and few developers trying to tear down existing buildings to build taller ones. The City believes this is because property along the Ave is broken up into many small lots with different owners, so the return on a development project there would be low. It’s anyone’s guess whether increasing it to 85 feet will add enough value to spur additional re-development.

Which begs the question: then why re-zone it?  Because of another program: Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA). The city has been running a voluntary “pilot” version of this program under which developers can increase the height restriction for their building in return for setting aside residential units in the building as affordable housing, or paying into a fund to create or preserve affordable housing at another location. Now the city is making that program mandatory with customized requirements for each area of the city, but must re-zone properties with greater allowable heights in order to activate the affordable-housing provisions.

They could leave the zoning as it is today, but then any further development along the Ave would not generate more affordable housing through the MHA program. MHA is a big priority for the city, and the Council and Mayor want to roll it out as broadly as possible.

The debate about the Ave is a highly contentious one, largely between people who like it the way it is, and those who don’t. Some believe that redevelopment will help to revitalize it, and bring some changes with public space and activation that will also dampen down some of its seedier aspects. Others believe that redevelopment will lead to displacement of existing small businesses, both directly and indirectly as properties are torn down and replaced with more expensive ones. At the end of the day there is no decision that will make everyone happy. In a hearing earlier this week Council members Johnson and O’Brien expressed some interest in bringing the 85-foot limit back down a bit along the Ave, though Johnson also said that if they did that, he would want to increase the height restriction elsewhere so as not to change the overall development capacity in the U District.

Small business owners who oppose the rezone complain that while a displacement analysis has been done for residential property, one hasn’t been done for commercial property, and they are pushing the Council to delay the re-zone until that analysis can be done.  The city staff and the Council don’t seem warm to further delays, particularly given the five years and 90+ meetings that the city has conducted to-date and the multiple hearings the U District rezone has already had in front of the Council. They understand that there will never be consensus on rezoning for the U District, and at the end of the day the City Council will simply need to make some policy decisions, codify them in new zoning rules, and accept that there will be people angry at them for doing so.

The city’s belief is that the U District urban center plan will generate a significant amount of housing — both market rate and affordable — in a “transit-oriented development” fashion.

They also believe that given the existing additional capacity already in place there, displacement will happen regardless of whether the rezone is enacted. So in their minds, the better choice is to rezone and gain the benefits that come with it while doing the best they can to mitigate the effects of displacement.

Council member Johnson, the chair of the Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee, plans to consider amendments to the proposed zoning ordinance at his committee’s next meeting on January 6th, and then hopes to pass a final version out of committee on January 19th so the full Council can enact it into law.


  1. My comment can seem a bit of a sidebar as it refers to this point in the introductory remarks. “…the plan (expressed through the HALA recommendations) ” But, it is important to understand the underlying basis for the Urban Village strategy. The Urban Village strategy is how Seattle came up with how to organize growth to more efficiently allocate resources within the city. Seattle established it in our first Comprehensive Plan in the mid-90s, and it was verified with our newest iteration of our Comprehensive Plan passed just this past fall.

    Ironically, the HALA up zone proposals, while showing off the Urban Design Frameworks proposed from downtown, calls for zone wide up zones Urban Village or no. Besides not being the underlying framework for how we focus development, HALA is probably one of the very worst examples of it. The maps are of the Urban Villages, because the city have been doing planning and taking measures for those ares for 20 years. There is a purposeful sidestepping and making invisible the fact that unplanned growth will have major impacts on many non-Urban Village areas with zone based up zones which do not include any of the required Neighborhood Planning and Urban Design Framework efforts.

  2. Great explanation of the zoning proposal! While I see the analysis of how the Ave might not change much, The concerns about the Ave and small businesses also recognizes that when an area gets ‘hot’ as we will see with development in the core area, there is an effect to adjacent areas.

    From one point of view ‘that is just bidness’. From another point of view, these business owners are not tearing down their building and charging higher rents. Those are events that have nothing to do with the goods and services that have a market such that they are successful businesses. The challenge, in my view, is how to help the existing businesses stay in place or nearby at lower rents with move out/move back help. My values as far as small local businesses are concerned is that it’s something our city should do and hasn’t done to date.

  3. Nicely done, SCC. One note — th legislation doesn’t create a “new” urban center. The U District has always been designated an Urban Center in the City’s constellation of villages, hubs and centers.

    1. Thanks.

      I didn’t say that the legislation designates a new “urban center.” I said that there is an ongoing plan to create an urban center, meaning building out the bricks and mortar and the community. I’m sure you will agree that the hard work of creating an urban center isn’t designating it in the Comprehensive Plan; it’s actually building the thing over decades.

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