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Nightlife Handboook
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In this section, we discuss the top five things you must consider before applying for the required business licenses, registrations or permits. Failure to consider any of these key elements could result in serious legal and financial consequences down the road. The key elements to consider are city zoning and parking restrictions, state liquor laws, public health requirements, neighborhood impact, and your business plan.

Zoning and Land Use

Before you open a nightlife establishment, you must be sure you can do what you want in the location you want. Understanding the zoning and land use restrictions of your desired location is the first thing you should research. This handbook is provided so you as the business owner can educate yourself prior to opening your business. Do not expect to succeed if you open a restaurant and later decide to operate as a nightclub in a zone that does not allow nightclubs. It is your responsibility to know what is allowed in your zone, the established use of your business, and to operate within those constraints. Failure to research and follow code standards and/or failure to obtain the required permits could mean future penalties or costly code violations, so be certain you have done your homework.

The process for changing or establishing use permits, certificates of occupancy and zoning designations can be lengthy if a site-plan review is required, so allow time to get this process started before you open for business. For example, you cant turn a storefront or warehouse space into an assembly occupancy without significant additions or revisions to the current building and follow-up inspections by the City.

The Department of Planning and Development (DPD) regulates and enforces zoning and land use for the City of Seattle. DPDs Applicant Services Center will be your point of entry into the zoning and land use process. Because zoning and land use can be complicated, and because each case is unique, we suggest you contact the Applicant Service Center prior to visiting in person so you know what to bring with you for your initial appointment. Call (206) 684-8850 or visit

There are multiple zones where nightlife establishments may operate. Every case is unique and must be analyzed by a DPD zoning/land use specialist. You can research your zoning ahead of time using DPDs online mapping tools at Here you will find the DPD GIS (beta) feature, which is particularly intuitive and easy to use. You can zoom in on a particular area and view them with different layers of interest (base map area, environmentally critical areas, zoning, aerial views, etc.)

The following are brief descriptions of each zone where nightlife establishments may be allowed:

Residential-Commercial RC Allows certain types of commercial uses at the street-level, within structures that contain at least one dwelling unit. Find details about this zone in the Seattle Municipal Code, Chapter 23.46.

Neighborhood Commercial 1 NC1 A small shopping area that provides primarily convenience retail sales and services to the surrounding residential neighborhood, such as small grocery stores, hair salons, and coffee shops. Restaurants up to 10,000 square feet are allowed in the NC1 zone. Drinking establishments up to 10,000 square feet are allowed in the NC1 zone only when conditional use permits are granted.

Neighborhood Commercial 2 NC2 A moderately-sized pedestrian-oriented shopping area that provides a full range of retail sales and services to the surrounding neighborhood, such as medium-sized grocery stores, drug stores, coffee shops, customer service offices, or medical/dental facilities. Restaurants up to 25,000 square feet are allowed in the NC2 zone. Drinking establishments up to 25,000 square feet are allowed in the NC2 zone only when conditional use permits are granted.

Neighborhood Commercial 3 NC3 A larger pedestrian-oriented shopping district serving the surrounding neighborhood and a larger community, citywide or regional clientele; allowing comparison shopping among a range of retail businesses. Land uses include supermarkets, restaurants, offices, hotels, clothing shops, business support services, and residences that are compatible with the areas mixed-use character. Both restaurants and drinking establishments are allowed in the NC3 zone.

Seattle Mixed SM A zone that provides for a wide range of uses, to encourage development of the area into a mixed-use neighborhood. Find details about this zone in the Seattle Municipal Code, Chapter 23.48.

Commercial 1 C1 An auto-oriented, primarily retail/service commercial area that serves surrounding neighborhoods as well as a citywide or regional clientele, such as large supermarkets, building supplies and household goods, and auto sales and repairs. Both restaurants and drinking establishments are allowed in the C1 zone.

Commercial 2 C2 An auto-oriented, primarily non-retail/service commercial area, characterized by larger lots, parking, and a wide range of commercial uses serving community, citywide or regional markets, such as warehouses, wholesale, research and development, and manufacturing uses. Both restaurants and drinking establishments are allowed in the C2 zone.

General Industrial 1 IG1 General and heavy manufacturing, commercial uses, subject to some limits, high impact uses as a conditional use, institutional uses in existing buildings, entertainment uses other than adult, transportation and utility services, and salvage and recycling uses. Both restaurants and drinking establishments are allowed in the IG1 zone.

General Industrial 2 IG2 General and heavy manufacturing, commercial uses, subject to some limits, high impact uses as a conditional use, institutional uses in existing buildings, entertainment uses other than adult, transportation and utility services, and salvage and recycling uses. Both restaurants and drinking establishments are allowed in the IG2 zone.

Industrial Buffer IB Light and general manufacturing, commercial use subject to some limits, some transportation services, entertainment uses other than adult, institutions generally in existing buildings, salvage and recycling uses. Both restaurants and drinking establishments are allowed in the IB zone.

Industrial Commercial IC Light and general manufacturing, commercial use subject to some limits, some transportation services, entertainment uses other than adult, institutions generally in existing buildings, salvage and recycling uses. Both restaurants and drinking establishments are allowed in the IC zone.

Downtown Zones The following zones have complex standards that cannot be easily summarized. Both restaurants and drinking establishments may be allowed in downtown zones. Please check with your DPD zoning specialist to find the information appropriate for each region.

  • Downtown Office Core 1 DOC1
  • Downtown Office Core 2 DOC2
  • Downtown Retail Core DRC
  • Downtown Mixed Commercial DMC
  • Downtown Mixed Residential DMR
  • Pioneer Square Mixed PSM
  • International District Mixed IDM
  • International District Residential IDR
  • Downtown Harborfront 1 DH1
  • Downtown Harborfront 2 DH2
  • Pike Market Mixed PMM

A complete list and details of DPD Zoning Classifications are also attached as Appendix A. Additional definitions and details can also be found in SMC 23.30.010.

Zoning research should be completed before any remodeling or tenant improvements begin. Determine whether the site already has the appropriate use permits, occupancy, and zoning authorization through Seattle DPD. Zoning maps, permit application process details, status of applications and certificates of occupancy, along with terms & definitions can be viewed online at the DPD website,

For a detailed overview of the permitting process, visit DPD’s website at

DPD Permit Fees are based on a number of components that depend on the nature and scope of any given project., and final fees are not determined until a permit is issued. If you are applying for a permit and know the square footage and occupancy of what you plan to build/operate, you can calculate an estimate using DPD’s Fee Estimator available online at

For a listing of all DPD centers and services, including phone numbers, web addresses and hours, visit


You may be required to provide parking spaces or identify available parking in the vicinity of your nightlife establishment. Parking requirements are also set out in the Land Use code and enforced by DPD. Minimum parking requirements are based on gross floor area, and each business is analyzed on a case-by-case basis. Your DPD Zoning/Land Use Specialist will consult with you regarding potential parking requirements for your establishment.

WA State Liquor License

Research the WA State Liquor License requirements before you apply. A liquor license is an endorsement on your State Master Business License. (see Section II for business license information) Routine liquor license applications can take anywhere from 45 days to several months to process, depending on the complexity of your application. The Washington State Liquor Control Board ("WSLCB") will provide you with a customized licensing packet when you begin the application process. Call the Licensing and Regulation Division at (360) 664-1600 or visit their website for complete instructions online at

Review the WSLCB Handbook for On-Premises Liquor Licensees attached as Appendix B, or view it online

In 2009, the Washington State Legislature passed SSB 5367 creating a Nightclub liquor license. Nightclub is defined as an establishment that provides entertainment and has as its primary source of revenue, (a) the sale of alcohol for consumption on the premises, (b) cover charges, or (c) both, and has an occupancy load of 100 or more. While the rules governing this new license have not yet been written, the Liquor Board adopted Interim Policy #06-2009 which provides clarification on the legislation. Read the full text of BIP #06-2009. (also, at Appendix B. 1)

When submitting the WSLCB Addendum to your Washington State Business license, you will be asked to identify the liquor license type you are applying for. (see Appendix C) For more detailed information, visit the WSLCB website at

Keep in mind, you must obtain prior approval from the WSLCB for any change in business ownership pursuant to the requirements set forth in WAC 314.07.080.

Be sure to carefully review City zoning restrictions alongside the requirements of the WSLCB. In every case it is your responsibility to ensure compliance with both City and State laws. For instance, just because you are approved for a liquor license does not automatically mean you can operate in a particular zone.

PLEASE NOTE: The City of Seattle has legal authority to file written objections to either a new liquor license application or the renewal of an existing license. In addition, schools, churches and public institutions also have the option to contest new licensee applications if the establishment is within 500 feet of their entrance.

Public Health, Seattle & King County

All food service within Seattle City limits is regulated by Public Health, Seattle & King County (“Health Department”). Every establishment in the City of Seattle serving hard liquor must also sell food. Prior to applying for licenses to operate your nightlife establishment, you must research and understand the requirements and restrictions of the Health Department and how they will apply to your business. Find information on how to start and maintain a food-serving business in King County on their website at

"Public Health is a resource, so come to us with questions. We are happy to assist you in making your establishment safe. It's better to have questions answered ahead of time, than to find out after the fact that plans or improvements are unacceptable."

- Christopher Skilton
Public Health, Food & Facilities Protection

A site plan review is required for all new permits and permits for locations that have been inactive for over six months. To prepare for your first health inspection use the ‘Plan Guide for Service Plan Review’ check-list, attached as Appendix D or download it from the web at

Your Health Department Permit must be renewed annually by March 31st or penalties will accrue.

PLEASE NOTE: A new application must also be submitted to KCPHD for any change of ownership.

For more information on obtaining KCPHD permits, contact the Food & Facilities Program Section of the Environmental Health Division at (206) 296-4632 or visit their website at

Neighborhood Impact

Know the neighborhood where you intend to do business. Developing relationships with your neighbors, both residential and commercial, is critical to your success. Are there other liquor licensed establishments in the area? What is the proximity to your intended location, and how does the neighborhood interact with the other establishments? Any liquor license application requires neighborhood notification, so it is best to start building those relationships as soon as possible. Get to know your neighbors, address their concerns, and maintain these important relationships.

Consider public safety issues: amplified sound, parking proximity and availability, crowd & line control, litter, etc. Residential and mixed-use neighborhoods have heightened concerns where nightlife establishments are located. Also, if you are considering a location that was previously a nightlife establishment or similar business, investigate and make yourself aware of any pre-existing public safety or other concerns pertaining to the location. Research and plan for minimizing any potential negative impact on neighborhood residents and businesses. We cannot stress enough how important it is to do this legwork as far up front as possible.

Amplified Sound
Mediating the impact of amplified sound is extremely important and can be accomplished by installing double entry doors, keeping windows closed while amplified sound is played, or by installing buffering walls and/or ceilings. Have a sound engineer evaluate your premises, and work with you to establish speaker placement, maximum amplification settings, and other noise control options. More detailed information about mediating the impact of Sound and details on the City of Seattle Noise Ordinances can be found later in Section IV, Maintaining Your Nightlife Establishment

As we mentioned earlier, you may be required to provide or identify nearby parking spaces for your nightlife establishment. Parking in many of Seattle’s popular neighborhoods is at a premium, and consideration for neighborhood parking needs is something you will need to consider and possibly mediate. Contact your DPD Zoning/Land Use Specialist regarding potential parking requirements or issues in your neighborhood.

Crowd and Line Control
See the ‘Best Practices’ list in Section IV.

Neighborhood Business Organizations
Join & become active in your neighborhood business district. We strongly encourage you to join and participate in your local business association, chamber of commerce, neighborhood service center, BIA or any of the community resources available to you in your area. Find information on over 60 of these neighborhood groups on the Office of Economic Development website, or contact the Film + Music office at (206) 684.8504 for a complete list. You can also research, neighborhood groups and services on the Dept. of Neighborhoods website at

In addition to local neighborhood groups, we also encourage you to join the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce (GSCC). The greater Seattle chamber nurtures the entrepreneurial spirit that drives small business owners and is committed to providing programs and services that help you take your business to the next level.

Visit the Chamber website at and browse the services offered to business owners in the greater Seattle area, or contact them at (206) 389-7200,

Police Precincts
Contact and build a relationship with your local police precinct. Maintaining open communication with SPD is vital to your success as a nightlife business.

SPD operates within a framework that divides the city into five geographical areas called "precincts." These precincts define east, west, north, south and southwest patrol areas, with a police station in each. You can find detailed information and resources from each of the five precincts on their websites, including precinct maps, precinct news, and detailed contact information.


Contact Info.

North Precinct
10049 College Way N.
Seattle, WA 98133


South Precinct
3001 S. Myrtle
Seattle, WA 98109

 (206) 386-1850

East Precinct
1519 12th Ave.,
Seattle, WA 98122

 (206) 684-4300

West Precinct
810 Virginia St.,
Seattle, WA 98101

(206) 684-8917

Southwest Precinct
2300 S.W. Webster,
Seattle, WA 98106


Business Plan

A sound business plan and thorough financial analysis are vital to starting and maintaining your establishment.  Ensuring adequate staffing, security, training, equipment and the all-important financial cushion will keep you from having to cut corners that result in risky business practices and ultimately may lead to the closure of the business.

Need help creating a business plan?  Take a look at the following resources:

  • Seattle Community Capital Development (CCD)
    CCD is a non-profit community development organization.  Among their many services, CCD’s Small Business Incubator program offers services to help small businesses grow in healthy sustainable ways.  Their comprehensive business assistance program offers consultation services in all aspects of business and financial management including business plan development.
  • U.S. Small Business Administration Business Plan Assistant

Real Estate: The Triple Net Lease (NNN lease)
At some point in your business plan preparation, you should also familiarize yourself with the concept of a Triple Net Lease (NNN lease).  A triple net lease requires the tenant to pay base rent plus a share of the Operating Expenses (OE) for the leased property. Such expenses typically are itemized within the following categories: Taxes; Insurance; Utilities; and CAM (Common Area Maintenance) charges. Lease costs are less predictable for a NNN lease because the landlord provides an estimate of OE each lease year and adjusts for actual expenses at the end of each year. If expenses are greater than estimated, the tenant pays the difference; if expenses are less than estimated, the tenant receives a credit. REO performs CAM reconciliation for NNN leases annually.  Such leases are common in the Seattle area, and should be figured into your business plan options.

Real Estate: Contingency Clause
If you are purchasing an existing business, it may be wise to do so contingent upon obtaining a liquor license, necessary permits, and satisfaction of compliance with land use and zoning conditions.  There is no guarantee you will be approved for a liquor license, and without confirmation through DPD’s permitting process you may not be allowed to operate within the zone where the building is located. When this major financial commitment is on the line, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Nightclub Safety Plans
In August of 2006, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance requiring all nightclubs (defined for this purpose as “any business open to the public in which liquor is served between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., except where service of liquor is incidental to an event that is not open to the public; and has a maximum occupancy capacity of two hundred (200) or more people”) to file a written Safety Plan with DEA.  A copy of the full Ordinance, including definitions, requirements and penalties, can be found here or on the City Clerk’s website, at: , by querying Ordinance #122474.

If your business is classified as a nightclub by the above definition, you must file a security plan with DEA.  There are monetary penalties for non-compliance with this requirement, so be sure to include this in your pre-opening to-do list.

If you have questions about security plans, or need technical assistance with preparing a security plan, please contact the Film + Music office at (206) 684-8504 or by email at

PLEASE NOTE: The Seattle Fire Code also requires a Fire Safety and Evacuation Plan for any location having an occupant load of 100 or more.  For information on submitting your plan to SFD, contact the Fire Marshal’s office at 206-386-1450 or visit their website at

Nightclub Fire Sprinklers
The 2007 Washington State Legislature changed the definition of nightclubs requiring retroactive installation of fire sprinklers, and extended the deadline for compliance to December 1, 2009.  Under the new law, the requirement to install fire sprinklers will apply to nightclubs, restaurants, taverns and bars in which ‘the aggregate area of concentrated use space that is specifically designated and primarily used for dancing or viewing performers exceeds three hundred fifty square feet (350 Sq Ft), excluding adjacent lobby areas.’   This can be a major cost to your business if it is required and not already in place, so be certain you consult with the Fire Department to determine the status of your location.

To find out whether your business is subject to the nightclub sprinkler requirement, contact the Seattle Fire Marshal's Office at 206-386-1450 or visit their website at

If your establishment is required to upgrade and install fire sprinklers, and you do not already have a fire service connection to your property, the process will go something like this:

  • You apply for and obtain a Water Availability Certificate (WAC), which is your approval to order water service from Seattle Public Utilities (SPU);
  • You work with a contractor and submit your sprinkler plans to DPD for review and approval by SFD;
  • You work with a contractor and submit your site plan to SPU (customer plans must have the approval of SPU Engineering, which is coordinated by SPU customer service);
  • Once plans are approved, you submit a "Water Service Application and Agreement" to SPU and pay for a percentage of services up front;
  • SPU installs services from the water main to the property line;
  • You coordinate with your contractor and SPU to make connections to the new services at the property line.  You are also responsible for all on property plumbing, including the sprinkler system itself.

For personalized assistance, guidance through the process and cost estimates for SPU fire service connection, contact SPU Customer Service at (206) 684-5806. 


Track your progress by following this step-by-step checklist:





















research fire sprinkler requirements



consult the city of seattle nightlife bUSINESS
technical assistance program at 206.684.8504






      (and WA State Liquor License addendum)


















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