The race is on by developers to get permits for Seattle towers because under rules to preserve views and daylight, the first big project OK’d on a block can force the next one to downsize.
The race is on among developers to get permits for towers in boomtown Seattle so they won’t be hindered by an obscure zoning rule that sets up winners and losers.
The city’s tower-spacing rule, which governs a large swath of downtown, was adopted nearly a decade ago to preserve views and daylight in an increasingly dense downtown. The rule’s impact and limitations are only now becoming evident in today’s commercial land rush.
In Seattle’s Denny Triangle, the 40-story Kinects apartment tower soon will rise above its concrete foundation along Minor Avenue between Stewart and Howell streets. An adjacent property, however, has no rumbling cement trucks or a construction crane because its owner lost the high-stakes race for a city permit.
As the two neighboring tower projects moved through the city’s various permitting hurdles in 2008, “We were biting our nails,” said architect Mark Simpson, who designed Kinects Tower for developer Security Properties. “We ended up beating them out.”
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Finishing first meant that Kinects Tower could be the biggest and tallest that city rules allowed on the block — 100 feet wide and 440 feet tall, in this case — and that nobody could build a tower within 60 feet of it. The project next door would have to be smaller and slimmer, only about 38 feet wide.
“There are very few 38-foot wide, 400-foot tall towers in the world,” Simpson said of the neighboring project. “My guess is it became increasingly unfeasible.”
As high-rise developers rush to get their piece of the boom, more clashes are expected.
“It definitely pits developers against each other,” said Jason Dardis, president of architecture firm Ellumus in Bellevue. “Whoever gets their tower permit first wins and everyone else loses out.”
In one pending situation, Antioch University and Clise Properties each seek to build two, 40-story towers — a total of four towers — on a Belltown block bounded by Sixth and Seventh avenues and Bell and Battery streets. That’s right across the street from Insignia, a new twin-tower complex of about 700 luxury condominiums.
Antioch, which owns the block’s western side, has proposed 982 residential and hotel units, while Clise wants to develop 746 residences and 184,000 square feet of office space.
Both are racing to get through the city’s review process. Clise is in the lead. If it gets its permit first, Antioch would be forced to downsize its project dramatically.
Dennis Meier, a strategic adviser with the city planning department, said the director can grant a waiver from the tower-spacing rule, but hasn’t faced a situation yet where that’s been needed.
The Antioch-Clise tower race “is potentially going to be a case where we will see the rules tested,” he said.
Zoning code of 2006
When the city overhauled the zoning code in 2006, it allowed developers to build denser, higher towers in downtown’s mixed-use areas.
But to prevent streets from becoming walled corridors that block out light and views, and make pedestrians feel like they’re in a wind tunnel, the city required that new towers over 160 feet high be 60 to 200 feet away, depending on the part of downtown, from other existing or permitted ones.
“The idea was to maintain some degree of openness,” Meier said.
Similarly, when the city rezoned South Lake Union in 2013, it granted developers the right to build above the previous height limit of 85 feet, but also capped the number of towers per block at two and required a 60-foot setback between them.
Seattle, like San Francisco, has embraced the Vancouver model of tower design “to create high-density while still enabling light and views to permeate a dense ‘urban village’ neighborhood,” said Alan Michelson, head of the Built Environments Library at the University of Washington. “The podium design with a thin, transparent tower is and has been the model for South Lake Union and Rincon Hill in San Francisco.”
A 2010 study that looked at seven U.S. and Canadian cities found that New York, San Francisco and Boston all require a buffer between towers in some areas. Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver in Canada all have minimum spacing between towers. Chicago was the only one that didn’t have any tower-spacing requirements.
As one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities, Seattle has a downtown that’s now a magnet for construction. As of July 1, about a dozen tower cranes were up in downtown, mostly in South Lake Union and Denny Triangle, according to the state.
Antioch says it’s excited about the potential of its Belltown property because a lucrative sale could help the university embark on new academic projects, said Bill Groves, the school’s lawyer.
“We suddenly became aware that this is ground-zero for Amazon’s development,” Groves said. “We’re looking for a way to work with the city and Clise to come up with the best project for this property. Building (towers) is probably the best use.”
A deal between Antioch and an investor fell through after the city told the investor’s land-use attorney that the first project to get a permit on the block would force the second project to modify its scale.
Without a waiver from the city or cooperation from Clise, Antioch could only pursue two towers with a much smaller area on each floor — 7,500 square feet instead of 10,700, according to a filing with the city. That would be a loss of up to 185,000 square feet, but Groves said its tower project would still be economically viable. Antioch is close to a final deal with another investor, he said.
Clise President Richard Stevenson declined to comment about the site.
Developers need approval from a multitude of city departments before they are entitled to build a project.
Even small delays by either side can lead to being second in line for a tower permit and huge lost opportunities, as one developer found out the hard way in Denny Triangle where the Kinects Tower is now under construction.
In mid-2007, an architect representing developer Eugene Gershman, of GIS International, filed a preliminary application with the city for a hotel and residential tower at the southeast corner of Stewart Street and Minor Avenue, records show. That October, the team met with the city’s design review board to discuss variations on a 400-foot tall tower.
The same month, Security Properties’ architecture firm, Bumgardner, filed its master permit application for Kinects, records show. It had already met with the city’s design review board twice.
In May 2008, the city issued a master-use permit for Kinects Tower. Construction began earlier this year.
Gershman, who never received a master permit for the site, sold it in 2013 to a Chinese investor for $5 million, records show. Last June, an architect for the investor talked with the design review board about a 42-story tower project called Daola (pronounced “DOW-la”), records show.
The tower-spacing rule has forced the site’s owner to revise the project’s size and scale, said Bill Hsu, a Bellevue attorney for Daola.
“I imagine most tower developers that are not first-in on any block are confronting this issue,” Hsu said.
Some residents of other downtown areas where the tower-spacing rules don’t apply wish they had such restrictions. They say they live in fear of having a tower built a stone’s throw from their window.
At Escala, the 271-unit condominium tower built in 2009 at the corner of Virginia Street and Fourth Avenue, residents are upset their block was excluded from the tower-spacing protections that apply across the street on Virginia.
The floor-to-ceiling glass facade that gives residents natural light could soon face a wall, or curious neighbors, just 16 feet away across the alley on Escala’s east side.
“We could be surrounded by towers if the zoning is not amended,” said John Sosnowy, 73, whose northeast corner unit now gives him views of the Space Needle and the Westin.
Across the alley from Escala, New York-based Douglaston Development plans to demolish three buildings along Fifth Avenue, including the Icon Grill. The developer proposes to build a 45-story apartment and hotel tower that includes two floors of retail space.
Also on the block, at Fifth Avenue and Stewart Street, San Francisco-based Stanford Hotels has proposed building Altitude Sky Tower, a 500-foot blockish tower with 509 residential or hotel units above retail space.
“We’re determined to use every means we can to reduce the negative impact,” Sosnowy said.
Residents have hired former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck to lobby City Hall. They plan to show up in force at city hearings on the project and haven’t ruled out litigation.
Such big-box designs are “offensive to anyone who cares about the future of downtown Seattle,” Sosnowy said.
It’s possible to buy the air rights for a neighboring block — meaning the property can’t be developed above a certain height.
But only two downtown condo buildings — Cristalla and 1521 Second Ave. — have bought air rights to protect their views, said Marco Kronen, a Windermere real-estate broker who specializes in condominium sales.
Even in places where the tower-spacing rules are in effect, developers aren’t bound by them if their project is next to a tower issued a permit under the old zoning code prior to the 2006 changes.
For instance, that means Enso Condominiums’ west-facing views in Denny Triangle will be blocked by a 40-story residential tower being built by Clise Properties at 2202 Eighth Ave.
“As development continues you’ll see more of these types of clashes happening,” Kronen said. “It’s like keeping your head in the sand if you don’t expect views to change in a growing, thriving city like Seattle.”