20 Story Building in My Back Yard?

You may have seen some recent stories in the media about the possibility of 20 story buildings in the Freeway/Tourist zone which is east of I-5 and between 244th St SW and 236th St SW. There is definitely some confusion out there about what the proposed zoning code change means. My intent here is not to discuss what building heights are appropriate, it's simply to clarify what is current code says and what the proposed changes are. The Freeway/Tourist Zone is made up of 6 buildings districts, A through F. This is how the properties are currently being used:

  • A: Mazatlan, Office Depot
  • B: Gene Juarez, Swedish Urgent Care, Studio 6
  • C: Cinebarre, Sterling Savings, Undeveloped Property
  • D: Edmonds School District Property (formerly Evergreen Elementary)
  • E: Apex Driving School, Time Out Burgers, Gabriel's Fire
  • F: Western Ventures Construction and 4 single family residences


I'll focus on Districts D and C as those are the building districts that allow the taller 12 and 20 story buildings.

Prior to 2010 the zoning code allowed for unlimited height in these areas. In late 2010, the City modified the code to do a number of things. It required a 60-foot tree buffer between any new development and residential properties, it required that a road be built to access districts C and D, it reduced the maximum number of stories to either 3 or 4 stories depending on the building district, and it applied some design and other requirements. Building districts C and D were given a maximum allowable height of 4 stories. The code allowed for a transfer of development rights (TDR) program to be used to increase the maximum number of allowable stories which, when used, allowed up to 12 stories in District D and 20 stories in District C.

The transfer of development rights program allows development credits (or “rights”) from more rural areas of Snohomish, King, or Pierce County to be transferred to certain designated areas of Mountlake Terrace in which additional development may then occur, while at the same time providing general public benefit by reducing development and sprawl in rural areas and farmlands. What this means is that a developer would have to own or purchase the right to develop rural or farm land and basically give up the right to develop that land in exchange for higher density development elsewhere. It's as complicated as it sounds and, from what I understand, it is not used very often.

The 12 and 20 story maximums, respectively, in District D and C were a reduction from the unlimited height limit but are the current height options under the TDR program. The common misconception is that the proposed changes that the Council is looking at now are what allows the taller heights. This is not true.

So what is currently being proposed? The proposed 2014 Freeway/Tourist zoning code change has two main parts. The first is that it would specify minimum heights of 3 stories in Districts C and D. The second part is that it would expand options to gain the additional heights in all building districts but most notably districts C and D. The only way for a developer to gain the additional heights right now is to use the TDR program.

The proposed alternative for the extra building heights already allowed under a TDR Program is to require that development create certain other public benefits, beyond what otherwise would be required. Specifically, a code amendment is proposed to allow up to eight stories of development in Building District C or D if one special condition is met and up to twelve stories if two special conditions are met. Above 12 stories in district C would not be allowed if only the special conditions are met, it would require the use of the TDR program. The special conditions are:

  • “Green” building practices demonstrated by meeting a minimum of LEED Gold or similar rating system;
  • Low impact stormwater management techniques;
  • Provision of 100 or more housing units, of which at least 30% are dedicated for 12 or more years to households that earn less than the area median income.
  • Public plaza that is accessible from a public street and includes artwork and landscaping.

These 4 special provisions could each get their own post, and they very well may, but you should now have a good understanding of what the current zoning code says and what the proposed changes are. There have been several comments online and at the public hearing voicing concern over the 12 and 20 story limit. As you hopefully now know, this is already allowed through the TDR program. There has already been some good discussion by the City Council and you can listen to the previous meeting and public hearing here.

The minimum height requirement and alternatives to the TDR program to allow height above 4 stories are important. What that height limit should be is probably debatable, and I expect there will be some good debate at the continuation of the public hearing during the City Council's April 21 meeting.

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