Aerial photograph depicting the Duwamish River and the Greater Duwamish.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell Proposes Major Industrial Land Zoning Changes

by Guy Oron

(This article was originally published on Real Change and has been reprinted under an agreement.) 

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell has proposed a major package of industrial land use reforms meant to preserve access for ships, manufacturing, and logistics while also expanding what kinds of businesses and residential uses can happen on the outskirts of those areas, marking the first major change since the 1980s.

Seattle’s two main industrial areas are in the Duwamish River Valley and the strip of land between Queen Anne and Magnolia known as Interbay. Under current zoning laws, these lands can be used for a variety of industrial and commercial uses, ranging from more traditional industry, such as maritime uses, manufacturing, and logistics, to newer uses, such as storage units, big box stores, rock-climbing gyms, and office headquarters for large corporations. 

The new zoning paradigm would divide industrial lands into three different zones. The bulk of industrial lands would be rezoned to Maritime, Manufacturing, and Logistics, which would be set aside for more traditional industrial uses that benefit from close proximity to key logistics centers, such as the Port of Seattle, freight rail lines, and Fishermen’s Terminal — an important freshwater port for fishing vessels. In a press release, Harrell’s office wrote that this designation would help shield this land from “the encroachment of other developments, such as mini-storage and big box stores, that are incompatible with industrial and maritime uses.”

The second type of industrial zoning would be Industry and Innovation, which would be dedicated to a mix of denser industrial facilities for things such as research and development, technology, and office space. The land would be maximized for commuters, near existing and future light rail stations, bus lines, and bike lanes.

The third category of industrial lands would be Urban Industrial land. On the boundaries between Seattle’s current industrial lands and residential neighborhoods, such as Ballard, Georgetown, and South Park, this type of zoning would allow for a mix of residential, commercial, and light industrial uses. This land is intended for industries that can seamlessly integrate into urban environments, such as breweries, art spaces, and small-scale food manufacturing.

The zoning changes would also redesignate certain enclaves of industrial land in Judkins Park, South Park, Georgetown, and Ballard as non-industrial mixed-use areas that may be best used for other purposes.

The new effort follows many years of stakeholder roundtables commissioned by previous mayors. The most recent iteration of these stakeholder groups issued a report in June 2021. Harrell’s proposed package of reforms largely aligns with the 11 strategy recommendations the stakeholders made. Harrell’s office also claimed the zoning changes would create an estimated 35,000 new jobs and 3,000 new homes over the next 20 years.

Ray Dubicki, a managing editor at The Urbanist who has followed Seattle’s industrial land use for years, said the reforms were a welcome update for the city’s out-of-date land codes.

“Seattle [has] got two manufacturing industrial centers: the Duwamish and Interbay,” Dubicki said. “The important thing to note is that the plans for these regions were written in the ’90s, so they are 20 years old. The city has changed around them, but these are still the controlling plans for things that are happening, even though the goals of them are completely different than anything we have today. They don’t mention anything about earthquakes; they don’t mention anything about climate change. They really reinforce a whole lot of truck traffic. And they de-emphasize equity and recognition of how much pollution has fallen onto the shoulders of neighborhoods of color.”

Dubicki says, in his opinion, the industrial lands proposal is broadly positive. 

“I think the plans that they have come up with are fundamentally good,” he said. “It’s intentional about what we want to see in industrial lands. It really knocks out not just big box stores, but really all of those storage places, like mini-storage, that just eat up so much land.”

Another highlight of the rezoning package is the Urban Industrial zones, which could increase the livability of the city, Dubicki says.

“There’s no real reason that you couldn’t have, in our current methodology of building stuff — with 3D printers, small manufacturers, stuff like that — is really turning us back to a lot of allowance for new types of industry and manufacturing, really close to residential,” Dubicki said. “And frankly, I would love to be in the penthouse apartment over top of a brewery: It would solve me a whole lot of transportation problems, as well as keep me fed for most of the time. But that’s really the kind of zoning that’s going to be looked at in Ballard, which is pulling a barrier down between hard industrial and hard residential. And so that I find very exciting.

“And I think that’s one of the very good aspects of the types of zones that they’re proposing,” he continued. “Whether or not everybody’s going to be able to afford the two-bedroom penthouses over top of breweries is going to be a different question. But it’ll save some of us on Ubers.”

Dubicki also says he wishes some aspects of the industrial lands proposal were bolder in mitigating the reliance on freight truck shipping and increasing the use of rail freight shipping instead. 

“The City could really emphasize electrification. … They weren’t talking about greening the [truck] fleet at all,” he said. “And there’s a lot of benefits to greening the fleet.”

Dubicki also hopes that the City would consider identifying new zones to meet the high demand for industrial lands in parts of north Seattle, such as along Aurora Avenue and Lake City Way and near the new light rail stations.

Another aspect that could complicate the passage of the package is the simultaneous push for other land use changes. These include transit-oriented development around new light rail stations; plans from big institutions and public development authorities, which are not set by the City; and the comprehensive One Seattle citywide plan that will be finalized in 2024. Dubicki says the City would have to reconcile the industrial land rezoning with these three other initiatives for the reforms to be successful.

It will now be up to the Seattle City Council to review, amend, and vote on the industrial land zoning reform package.

Guy Oron is Real Change’s staff reporter. A Seattleite, he studied at the University of Washington. Guy’s writing has been featured in The Stranger and the South Seattle Emerald. Outside of work, Guy likes to spend their time organizing for justice, rock climbing, and playing chess. Find them on Twitter @GuyOron.

📸 Featured image by Alex Garland.

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