by Susanna Lin
The city has released draft MHA zones Click here to view the proposed zoning changes. Click on the pull down menu to view the map you are interested in viewing. Under this draft proposal, there would be no single family zoning left inside the urban village boundaries. The website includes instructions on how to interpret the map, which I recommend you read. In general, when you look at each zone on the map, our current zone is on the left and the new proposed zone is on the right (Example, LR1 | LR2 (M)).
In Wallingford, for example, the most dramatic changes, where the city wants to change some of the Single Family (SF) zones to Low Rise 3 (LR3), are mostly found west of Stone Way. Anyone remember that time when the city told us that zoning changes would just be “one more floor”? Well, this zoning change increases the height limit from 30’ to 50’ (and if you read further, the end product may be even higher). In general, 10’ is equal to one floor so a 50’ building is usually five stories high.
More common are blocks that are going from Single Family to Low Rise 2 (LR2), with a height “limit” of 40’. These zoning proposals can be a bit confusing to wrap your head around. The city is really changing the zoning twice. For example, the draft map shows a change from SF to LR2. But in addition, the defining characteristics of LR2 are also changing to allow for increased density, in the case of LR2 the heights will increase from 30’ to 40’. So first they change the zoning, then they also change the definition of the zone.
As if that was not enough, these specifics that define each zone in regards to height and setbacks are not as set in stone as you might think. Developers can request height “bonuses” for such things as being partially below grade, roof features, or green building components, although it is questionable how green these buildings really are in the end, but that’s another story (get it, “another story”?) And just so developers know how to take full advantage of these height bonuses, the city has kindly distributed instructions…
Notice that the height limit is 40’ but it says: Total perceived façade height from sidewalk level is about 57’. Nice job, city officials. Very transparent. Are you confused yet? Maybe that’s the point.
Setbacks are definitely not set in stone either. Say you live in a SF zone now that the city wants to upzone to a LR2 with a 40’ height limit. Your road has a bit of an incline and since the proposed development next to you is “partially below grade,” your SF home is next to the 57’ side of the building. Now the LR2 zones are supposed to have a minimum 5’ setback from the neighboring property line. However, the developer has the option of going to the city and asking for a “departure” from the building code so they can build right up to the property line. And it is up to the reviewer’s discretion whether or not to approve it. Add that the building may want to put its dumpsters in the back right near your property and the “livability” of your charming craftsman bungalow has gone out the window. Think I’m being dramatic? That exact scenario happened at a design review I recently attended. At least we still have design review for now, but if the Mayor has his way design reviews like that would not even happen (but again, that’s another story).
In addition, no parking is required at all for any developments inside the urban villages. This is not a new change but will likely be more apparent with large upzones. And all multifamily and commercial zones citywide will receive zoning changes as the city adjusts the parameters for each zone, so there’s plenty of changes happening outside the urban villages, too.
1305 E. Mercer St. is an example of what would be allowable in proposed LR2 zones. The city is proposing many blocks of SF be upzoned to LR2 in the Wallingford Urban Village.
With our current zoning, Wallingford has a development capacity to add an additional 1,857 units but is expected to only need 967 units in the next 20 years. When pressed, city staffers will admit that zoning changes are not needed for our expected growth. But upzones are required for implementing Mandatory Housing Affordability or MHA as a part of the Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). MHA came out of the “Grand Bargain” agreement between the city and developers. It requires that developers be given increased zoning capacity and in exchange, they will pay towards affordable housing. Zoning changes are not needed for our expected growth, but they are needed because of the deal that the city made with developers.
If we are already zoned to accommodate density, then what will be our new development capacity with the upzones? Developers will not nicely spread out their projects across the city to keep growth manageable. They will build where it’s the most profitable. If a “hot” neighborhood gets exploited by developers and built out to our new capacity, what is the plan for the schools and the sewers and other infrastructure needs to keep up?
For all the community engagement and outreach the city brags about at every meeting, there are still a lot of people who have no idea what is happening. If the city is truly as committed to public outreach as they claim, then they need to send a mailing to every person who lives in an area with proposed zoning changes and very clearly state what is being proposed. It needs to be honest, and clear and not heavily coated in pro-HALA propaganda.
This is usually the point where I tell you what to do next. But we’ve been writing emails to our officials, we’ve given public testimony at meetings, we’ve filled out useless online surveys. City Hall has heard us. They just don’t seem to care. So what do we do next? This article suggested an uprising against citywide upzones is brewing. Maybe that’s what we need?