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Controversy Erupts Over Zoning Law Exemptions

Kate Elston

Dozens of people packed the Seattle City Council chambers Monday evening for a public hearing. They were there to discuss a proposed building and how it fits into an ordinance intended to promote sustainable design. KUOW's Kate Elston reports.


The building would be an office space at 34th and Stone Way in Wallingford.

Lisa Picard is with that project's development group. Here's how she describes the building.

Picard: "A really well textured building that represents the character of the community. And also that is within scale of the community."

And here's how Vincent Lyons, a former Seattle city planner, describes the building.

Lyons: "It would look like a very inappropriate mass."

He was one of dozens who urged city officials not to pass the ordinance.

Seattle already exempts developers from certain zoning codes if they meet environmental standards. This new ordinance would extend those exemptions — it would let developers build up to 10 feet higher.

Lyons and others say the move would lead to taller, more intrusive buildings across the city.

Seattle is trying out the Living Building Certification Program. That's the brainchild of a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable buildings. A project can get certified as a "living building" by doing things like recycling storm water, but in Seattle developers only have to meet part of the living building standards. And so some worry developers will reach just a few of the guidelines in order to build higher. That's the fear with the building on Stone Way.

Still, that building would have to use 75 percent less energy and water than other structures to qualify as a living building and get those exemptions.

So far only one Seattle structure — the Bullitt Building on Capitol Hill — has completed the challenge.

Linda Clifton says that's not enough. She's on the Fremont Neighborhood Council. She supports the extended height limits, because she says it will encourage more green buildings.

Clifton: "This building provides an excellent example of sustainable green market–rate development, an example Seattle needs and can be proud of."

Lisa Picard from the developing firm says that green structures need the extra height. She says a building that uses less energy needs more sunlight — which means bigger windows, which means larger floors, which means the whole thing needs to be built higher. She says if Seattle wants to embrace green structures, it needs to embrace change.

Picard: "Every site in the city, needs to accept this special deign consideration to building green buildings."

Amanda Sturgeon is with the Living Building Challenge. She says Seattle's take on the program, including this new ordinance, doesn't reflect the program's spirit.

Sturgeon: "The point of our program is that it's hard to meet, that it's setting out really high expectations and goals. It's not intended to be a mainstream program."

The City Council will review the ordinance later this week with a possible vote at the end of July.

I'm Kate Elston, KUOW News.

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