The weather is supposed to be exceptional Thursday, but this is important enough to spend a couple of hours indoors, even if it’s nice outside:

The City Council’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee is holding a public hearing to take comments on our revised zoning proposal. The meeting is on May 1, 2014 at 6:00 p.m., in the 2100 Building, located at 2100 24th Ave. South. Please check the Committee agenda a few days before the meeting for more information.

For density opponents, it’s never the right time to allow for growth, and they’ve successfully delayed this action several times while the Rainier Valley suffers. The North Rainier neighborhood is currently a car sewer sitting atop one of the biggest transit hubs in King County, but could become a place to go rather than a place to get through.

Opponents from the adjacent, affluent, single-family Mt. Baker neighborhood (not actually a subject of the rezone) trot out the usual meaningless objections to “scale” and “character,” as well as the “but where will they park?” question straight out of 1965. If density and transit can’t work here, with Link, three (7, 48, 8/106) frequent bus lines (even after coming Metro cuts), transit-dependent populations, and two other bus lines providing 360 degree transit mobility, then it can’t work anywhere.

Dense development near the station will bring jobs to the most economically challenged sector of Seattle, jobs that don’t require a graduate degree. It will provide more accessible housing and retail for the transit dependent. It will also increase transit usage in the city by focusing people and attractions in one of the few places where our transit system will remain robust, come what may. Furthermore, there would be more housing in a part of the city where rents and house prices are relatively affordable.

Here is a useful presentation on the proposed rezone. It is not nearly enough — in ever-livable Vancouver at least double the heights proposed here would go without saying — but would be a huge step forward for the neighborhood, the city, and the region. My report on the most recent of these hearings includes an embed of the (often quite reprehensible) testimony.

We lose these battles when the young people most accepting of density and with the most future at stake decide to blow it off because they think they have better things to do. Don’t let it happen again.

30 Replies to “North Rainier Rezone Meeting Thursday”

  1. The rezone isn’t ambitious enough. Building heights need to be much higher to attain meaningful density and maximize the site as a transit hub. In particular, the Lowe’s, Pepsi, and QFC sites should be 400′ and the other sites proposed for 65′ or 85′ should be 125′ or higher.

    1. I’m not sure what the 400′ zoning would do for the area. It isn’t going to have 40 storey towers any time soon, probably even our lifetimes. There isn’t even the critical mass required to achieve that. Let’s be reasonable by “truth planning”–in other words, even 26 storey towers would be shooting for the moon. Maybe 12 storeys isn’t all that ambitious (it isn’t), but I think being practical is probably better. The fact of the matter is, the area under consideration for rezoning is fairly small, which means that true development potential is fairly restricted in the area regardless of zoning. And, that’s likely not to change given that the Comprehensive Plan is incredibly restrictive as far as the Hub Urban Village goes.

      Rezone Map:

      Future Land Use Map:

      1. The height limits don’t force buildings to max out – they would just allow more options if they were higher. I don’t expect the market to produce towers that high in that neighborhood anytime soon, but they shouldn’t be precluded by restrictively low caps, as proposed.

      2. It’s not as simple as either of you are making out.

        It’s an unnecessary exercise for three reasons.

        1. It would throw off buildout potential numbers in assumptions for future growth. In other words, it would be saying “yeah, 600 units could happen here, therefore, we can provide for less development elsewhere.” When in actuality, we know that the 40 story tower would never be constructed to provide that many units. It would be an excuse to restrict development elsewhere. I can assure you as a planner, going that high with zoning is a terribly dumb idea.

        2. Not only that, the neighbourhood would flip out and kill that before it saw the light of day.

        3. In 30 or 40 years, maybe making that ask for a zoning change would make sense when redevelopment in the 20-year horizon would be possible.

      3. I’m disappointed that “rezone map” pdf that is straight from a DPD site hasn’t been corrected to show the Mt. Baker Light Rail station in the correct location. The station is shown where the ArtSpace apartments are being built. It’s hard to have a planning conversation when the basic maps are wrong and have been for weeks (maybe months).

    2. That said, I think pushing the envelope slightly with the rezone proposal would have been better with higher height limits across most of the area. Maybe 10-storeys, with the immediate area around MB Station with 26/28, cuz why not!?

    3. Zoning is about legal limits, not about the height the market will bear. If we zone 400′ and builders build 120′, the only thing we’ve lost is theoretical capacity. If we zone 120′ and builders chop off three stories to make their plans legal — or if they leave the land vacant or with a standalone Wendy’s or Lowe’s for decades because of the restrictions — then we’ve lost something tangible.

    4. As people have repeatedly pointed out, you don’t need highrises to achieve density. 120′ is fine for residential neighborhoods. What you need is a lot of 120′ buildings, several square blocks of them, not just a few here and there. Then you have a medium-density neighborhood. The same principle scales down. 60′ would also make better residential neighborhoods than we have. The problem is the sea of single-family houses so close to transit stations, and the relegation of lowrises and midrises to very tiny areas.

      Just like a town is not much of a town with only one general store, or a store plus one bar, an urban village is not much of a village with just three linear blocks of mixed-use developments. I keep coming back to Chicago’s north side as an ideal: a 2×2 or 3×3 mile area of 3-10 story buildings, with some one-story buildings scattered in but they are not the majority. That’s what an urban neighborhood needs to reach maximum vibrancy.

      1. Yes to both your statements. I would add that it if developers don’t build to the zoning maximum, the skyline is likely to be a lot more interesting. There are a lot of areas in the city right now that are boring because a lot of the buildings are the same height (and they are the same height because that is as high as you can build them).

      2. Expanses of 3-10 story buildings are quintessentially urban. This is the layout of all the pre-1950s cities I’ve ever been to. (Going taller was very difficult. Going shorter made no sense.)

        Nowadays we’re more sensitive to wheelchair accessibility. This means elevators. This makes 3-4 story buildings more expensive and less effective; you need the same elevators for a 3 story building as for an 8 story building. So that’s an argument for leaning toward the tall side of the spectrum here.

      3. Actually, this is an important point.

        There’s an exception in the ADA for single-family homes, and for residentaial two-story buildings with small numbers of units (I don’t remember the numbers offhand). But on the whole, for three-story and taller buildings, elevators are mandatory.

        If you’re going to go to the expense of putting in a proper, high quality elevator — and for some reason, they *are* expensive — I have read that it’s just not worth it to build a 3 story building, and even a 4 story building is questionable. You really want to go straight to 6 stories.

        Allowing for high ceilings, this means that maximum heights of less than 60 feet aren’t very useful to developers. Developers can correct me if I’m wrong, but this is my impression. 65′ is kind of a minimum.

        (FWIW, it costs far more if the elevators have to be retrofitted. Much better to design the building around standard modern elevators.)

        I also find it bizarre that the areas directly adjacent to Mt. Baker station don’t get the highest height limit, which really they should. If someone can explain to me why the University of Washington Consolidated Laundry should retain a very low height limit, I’d be impressed. But I suppose this is the “North Rainer” upzone so that area is simply being ignored.

      4. Nathanael, you’re absolutely right about the ADA requirements and the exemption. That’s why developers lean toward larger, bulkier 5-8 storey structures. The cost pans out much better with those types of projects whether multi-family, commercial, or mixed-use whereas in between 3 to 5 is dicey. It’s also why they try to avoid skinny type structures. If you can have one project serve 40 units with one elevator versus 15, you’re probably going to go with the former. I’ve asked one of our building reviewers what the maximum number of units are in a two-storey multifamily, but he couldn’t remember offhand. Just said that “it depends”. I imagine it’s pretty low. Also, remember, “single-family” in the International Building Code does not equal the City of Seattle’s “single-family” definition, it’s a bit more broad to include townhomes, rowhouses, and duplexes.

    5. Personally I’d be for no height limits within 1/2 mile of a link station. But that is just me.

  2. I agree, to the extent that I sometimes wonder whther we wouldn’t be better off not rezoning right now if thsi is all teh density we are going to get.

    1. 65′ good, 125′ better. I never expected 40-story towers in Rainier Valley. Vancouver is so much better but we’re just not there yet. In the meantime, 6- or 12-story structures would make a meaningful difference. I noticed early on that the Mt Baker station area has the best transit mobility of anywhere in the valley, or the CD or Beacon Hill for that matter. But only a couple apartment buildings and houses are within a 5-minute walk, and much of the area is parking lots. Any of these proposals would be much better than that — even the current zoning.

      We should ask what developers want to build. Broadway languished for years at 40′, then it was upzoned to 60′ and immediately the 6-story buildings started going in. People said it would ruin the neighborhood, but nearby Bellevue Avenue had long had 6-story buildings and they hadn’t harmed anything.

      In most parts of Seattle, developers are building all the way to the limit, which suggests they’d go somewhat higher if they could. The exception is SLU where some developers have walked away from bonus options because they didn’t think the incentives were sufficient. But that’s a problem at the 400′ level, not at the 65, 85, or 125′ levels. So we should start with what’s the sweet spot for development and is there anything wrong with that level? What works on Broadway may not apply to Rainier. Are developers not building because of the existing zoning limit, or is it just because it’s the ex-redlined district?

      1. “People said it would ruin the neighborhood…”

        If you love Gamestops, Panera Breads and banks, Capitol Hill has become the neighborhood to be in!

        But seriously, the building heights didn’t ruin the neighborhood. Ground level commercial, affordable by only the highest margin, chain business ruined the neighborhood.

      2. Rapid Rider, have you actually been to Capitol Hill in the past 5 years? If you had, you’d know that 80% or more of the ground level commercial in new buildings is filled with small, local business, not the chain businesses that you claim.

        If you bothered to look (and were honest), you might also cite Marjorie, Skillet, Mode Fitness, Healo, Seattle Yoga, Bar Cotto, Anchvies & Olives, Cupcake Royale, Barrio, Rex, High-5 Pies, Cure, Shibumi, Dilletante, Vivace, etc, etc

        Why don’t you come visit us some time. You might find that that our neighborhood is far from ruined. A great many of us believe that recent development has made it better than ever.

      3. Harold +1. I lived in Capitol Hill for nearly a decade ending in the early 2000’s. It it a far more awesome neighborhood now than it was then — only the smudgiest nostalgia lens would make anyone think otherwise.

      4. @Harold I’ve worked on Capitol Hill (Pike-ish and Broadway-ish) for about 10 years. That’s great that you can name a bunch of workout places and overpriced, douchey restaurants (really, Barrio?!?, surprised you don’t mention World of Beer too) amongst a couple actually decent places, but I highly doubt the 80% stat unless you count the old commercial spaces too.

        If that’s the way the neighborhood is moving, then so be it. Obviously people are patronizing these new places and buying condos despite the disappearance of the so-called classics.

  3. Part of this effort needs to be educating the Mt. Baker folks. I live in Mt. Baker and when the petition was going around, people were saying that Lowe’s will be immediately developed into a 13-storey building. Upon hearing this, people imagined that, before the end of 2016 a 13-storey building the size of the entire Lowe’s facility, plus parking lot, would go up. This is not the case, and most people wouldn’t have much of a problem with what will actually get built on that site if/when whoever owns the Lowe’s lease decides that it is no longer profitable and it gets developed.

    The Mt. Baker folks need to be educated about what will actually happen there and why that happening is good.

    1. I would recommend going through a masterplanning exercise. But that takes a lot of work. Something along the lines of the University District Urban Design Framework, but far more in depth and yet simpler, e.g. Form-based coding.

    2. Not just the Mt Baker folks. People in Columbia City and Lakewood/Seward Park are all riled up too. For some reason telling people that Lowe’s and the Pepsi plant are going away is really motivating to people. Personally I don’t get it. The McClellan/Rainier area is probably the best transit access in South Seattle. Why not put more density there? Also, who is to say that Lowe’s wouldn’t be part of a new development? They have stores in other urban areas. Why not South Seattle?

      Also, someone else started a petition in support of the rezone

  4. It always amazes me how planners are willing to sacrifice Lowe’s, which provides an oasis for what will become a home supply desert in SE Seattle, yet no one dares touch the UW laundry area. It also amazes me how we don’t support higher buildings in exchange for keeping more of a tree canopy. Must we put everyone in a mid-rise with a view of no more than 80 feet outside each window while increasing the microclimate temperatures?

    1. Well I’d redevelop the UW laundry lot before Lowes if it was up to me. For that matter there is no reason a Lowes or Home Depot couldn’t be accommodated in a larger development with smaller retail and housing on-site as well.

    2. Consolidated UW Laundry is a state facility, so nobody except the state can tell it to change. And given that laundry is a long-term need and it’s already a “consolidated” facility, it’s doubtful the UW will surplus it or rebuild the laundry in the next two decades. It’s the same problem we had with a Link station at the HUB: the UW said no and that was that.

      There can still be a large hadware/lumber store in the lot but it should have things around it. Costco now has at least two locations in multilevel buildings, one in Vancouver and one in DC (Rosslyn). Our own Northgate North has several big-box stores stacked on top of each other, making them more pedestrian-friendly and compact. At minimum put the parking lot in the back of the store, or in the center of the block surrounded by buildings (as Avalon Meydenbauer/Safeway in Bellevue has done). These big-box buildings are only made for a thirty-year lifespan and are built cheaply, so rebuilding it is no big deal.

  5. I’m not sure if it is still the case, but up until at least 12 or so years ago there was a section of SE Portland that essentially had no zoning limits at all. It had (and still has) a fairly odd mix of industrial, commercial and residential in a fairly tight space. It might have had some sort of restrictions on the type of industrial activity (ie, I don’t think anything over 1,000 gallons of explosive chemicals were allowed, or some such).

    Does Seattle have any areas with those types of loose zoning restrictions?

  6. A sampling of property owners publicly declared in favor or opposed to the rezone (from the two ipetition petitions), mapped with the somewhat creepy wonders of easily searchable property records:

  7. I live just a couple of blocks from Franklin HS, am in support of the upzone, and sadly couldn’t make it to the meeting last night. But I am intensely interested in hearing about what happened and can’t find any news about it anywhere. Did anyone go that cares to share? Thanks.

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