Council nixes talk about building heights, OKs emergency ordinance regarding stepbacks

Any discussions about building height increases in downtown Edmonds are off the table — for now.

A consultant report earlier this year suggested the city consider a 2- to 5-foot increase in the current 30 feet allowed in the downtown BD2 zone. But the council Tuesday night voted 4-0, with two abstentions, to approve a motion by Councilmember Diane Buckshnis that the council not consider any height increases in any downtown business zone “until we do a full review of the entire downtown master plan.”

At left, the map indicating interim designated street fronts in the BD2 zone now in place. At right, the proposed permanent designated street fronts.The blue hatch line on the second map represents the recommended extension of the parcels.

The topic was raised during a staff update about designated street fronts, which prohibit multifamily residential-only units because they require ground-floor commercial space. The council May 24 approved an interim extension of designated street fronts downtown in response to a proposal for a 24-unit apartment building in the 600 block of Main Street, located in the BD2 zone.

After the interim standards were adopted, the Edmonds Planning Board and Citizens’ Economic Development Commission also reviewed them, and agreed that the blue line should be permanently extended to all BD2 parcels, to be more consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

“What that means is, you’d have to have commercial on all ground floors to meet the existing code standards,” Senior Planner Mike Clugston told the council. “You could not have multifamily-only buildings adjacent to those extended map areas.”

Clugston also reviewed the market demand analysis by consultant Otak that had been shared with the council May 24. According to that analysis, while the statistics on commercial office space in downtown Edmonds indicate a stable market, the vacancy rate for downtown’s 425 multifamily housing rental units is 1%, indicating a short supply and high demand.

In its report, Otak recommended that the city not extend the designated street fronts, although the council voted May 24 to do so. The consultant also recommended that the city consider “a minor increase” in building height in the BD2 zone, as well as any other BD zones similarly affected, to create more flexibility for a developer to design a three-story mixed-use development.

Pointing to Otak’s findings that demand for office space “is lagging,” Councilmember Susan Paine said she had concerns about the proposal to permanently add more designated street fronts, calling it a “really vast overreach.”

Speaking to the suggestion regarding building heights, Councilmember Diane Buckshnis noted that the council voted in 2013 to raise downtown building heights from 25 feet to 30 feet. “I have no interest in adding any more height,” she said. Her motion that the council not consider any height increases pending future discussions was approved on a 4-0 vote, with Buckshnis, Dave Teitzel, Neil Tibbott and Vivian Olson voting yes and Will Chen and Susan Paine abstaining.

Councilmember Dave Teitzel suggested it would be worthwhile to further discuss with developers what design options “could work within that 30-foot envelope,” including the possibility of reducing the city’s first-floor ceiling requirements of 12 feet in the BD2 zone and 15 feet in the BD1 zone.

Development Director Susan McLaughlin said she agreed with councilmembers who suggested that the idea of increasing heights should undergo extensive analysis — including feedback from residents — as part of the city’s 2024 Comprehensive Plan update. The reason for including it in the discussion about extending the designated street fronts, she said, is that such an extension locks in the ground-floor commercial requirement until the Comprehensive Plan update is approved.

A public hearing has been set for Oct. 25 to discuss a permanent extension of the designated street fronts, with adoption scheduled for Nov. 15, Clugston said.

Example of a building stepback next to a residential property.

In other business Tuesday night, the council unanimously approved an emergency interim ordinance amending city code, which is aimed at protecting single-family residential neighborhoods in the Highway 99 subarea located across the street from multifamily properties zoned general commercial. The ordinance comes in response to concerns expressed by residents in the Gateway neighborhood, located just west of Highway 99, regarding a 261-unit apartment proposed at 236th Street Southwest and 84th Avenue West.

The emergency ordinance approved Tuesday night specifies that stepbacks be required for multifamily developments located across the street from single-family zones. Planning Manager Kernen Lien explained that under current city code, building stepbacks only apply when they are “adjacent” to single-family residential zones.

A setback is an architectural design element typically applied to the upper story of a development. Usually, any portion of a building above a certain height is further pushed in toward the center of the property.

The interim amendment requires that the portion of the building above 25 feet in height must step back no less than 8 feet from the required street setback, while the portion of a building over 55 feet high is required to step back no less than 16 feet.

The Gateway neighborhood was among those rezoned as part of the Highway 99 subarea plan, which was approved by the city council in 2017. The plan consolidated most of the zoning categories for the Highway 99 corridor into one general commercial designation.

Lien explained that the guidance for stepbacks came from Highway 99 Subarea planning process. The subarea plan makes a reference to stepbacks, but only for those developments with a lot line adjacent to single-family zones. In addition, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was issued as part of the Highway 99 Subarea Plan, but the Planned Action Ordinance that adopted the EIS “doesn’t really talk about stepbacks from single-family homes across the street,” Lien said.

There have also been requests from Gateway-area residents that the city conduct a supplemental EIS due to traffic and stormwater runoff impacts from new development. McLaughlin and Lien promised to discuss those issues further during the Oct. 18 city council meeting.

The council will hold a public hearing on the interim ordinance Nov. 15.

Development Services Director Susan McLaughlin, right, doing community outreach in summer 2022.

Also on Tuesday night, McLaughlin provided an update on community engagement efforts during the summer to launch the city’s 2024 Comprehensive Plan update. Known as “Everyone’s Edmonds,” it featured six-themed weeks based on key topics found in the Comprehensive Plan, including identity, quality of life, economic growth, environment, culture, and livability and land use.

Events were offered each week that corresponded to the key topic, including articles in local media, presence at local events (such as the summer and Uptown Markets), coffee chats, “walk and talks” and panel discussions, and mini-surveys. The goal was to solicit 3,500 comments from the community. More than 8,500 comments were received (600-plus from events and nearly 7,900 from the surveys).

Responding to a question from Buckshnis regarding people frustrated with 140-character limits on comments, McLaughlin said that the goal was to start with succinct, high-level ideas. As the planning process continues, people will have an opportunity to share more in-depth thinking on a range of topics, she said.

The next step will be to catalog and review the comments so that staff can draft a vision statement to serve as the foundation of the plan. The goal is to present key themes to the council on Oct. 18, McLaughlin said.

The plan’s draft vision statement and community values will be unveiled Nov. 5 during a downtown event called Porchfest Edmonds. A website has already been established at

Once the draft statement is completed, the city will solicit more community feedback “to make sure we got it right,” McLaughlin said. The planning process will continue through 2023, with draft plan documents developed toward the end of that year, and the final plan documents adopted by the end of 2024.

The council also:

– Heard a presentation regarding the City of Edmonds Stormwater Management Action Plan (SMAP) to meet federal stormwater permit requirements. (The same information was presented in our earlier story here.)

– Approved amendments to the city’s bicycle parking code regarding e-bike parking and design standards for short-term storage racks.

An agenda item regarding planned updates to the city’s employee reimbursement policy was postponed to a future date.

—  By Teresa Wippel












  1. Thank you Council for tabling the issue of increasing building heights in any downtown business zones. Reviewing the master plan for downtown before making any changes is a welcomed action and an example of taking your role as stewards of our city seriously. Much appreciated. This is good for all of Edmonds.

  2. The motion that the council not consider any height increases pending future discussions is an intelligent and responsible move by the four council members who voted for it. Will Chen and Susan Paine by abstaining couldn’t make that standard of attainment.

  3. I presume the building going up on the corner of 6th and Main follows all the city guidelines. Does anyone know its height? It might help us visualize any proposed changes in height.

  4. I find Mr. Chen’s and Ms. Paine’s votes rather confusing. It makes me wonder if they aren’t really supporting some sort of hidden agenda or special constituency, like perhaps the Democratic Party desire to create greater density throughout the South County area or some of the downtown business interests for having lots of patrons able to walk to their establishments? It was sort of like they really wanted to vote no on Diane’s motion; but didn’t want to get hung with a politically suicidal accusation of being for increasing building heights. Seems like a really strange block vote by two council members with a past over abundance of association with a partisan political party that they are now trying to distance themselves from in the public perception. One abstention maybe? But two is a little hard to swallow as random. Would they both have abstained if AFM and L.J. were still on the Council? Food for though in regards to future elections.

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