Last Thursday’s North Rainier Zoning meeting (background here) drew a couple of hundred people and perhaps 60 commenters in spite of the unseasonably warm weather. There was a short presentation by the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) followed by over 90 minutes of public comment. DPD envisions the Lowe’s site, with the tallest proposed heights and the source of much angst, as not just housing, but hopefully a corporate or educational campus.

Perhaps someone will have the fortitude to go through and count the comments, but my impression was the pro and anti speakers were roughly evenly split, with the clearest division between longtime residents (mostly opposed, and speaking early) and people who have been there less than 10 years (mostly in favor, and speaking late). It’s a good example of how fixed transit investment builds its ridership through a natural process of sorting: people for whom rail is an important amenity are disproportionately likely to settle near stations.

The most common theme in the comments — whether “yes but” or “hell no” — was the thirst for an economic development strategy for the Rainier Valley. With the gruesome economic history of the Southeast, many fear that without a conscious plan the storefronts will be empty and what jobs do exist in this neighborhood won’t be replaced. It’s an understandable desire, but some of the people calling for “quality jobs” at a headquarters like Amazon’s might be careful what they wish for. After all, a global employer won’t simply hire the Franklin High School class of 2015: they’ll recruit globally, and many of their employees will choose to bid up rents in the Southeast. I take a relaxed view of gentrification, as opposed to displacement, but others do not.

Beyond that, the criticisms were so varied that the Council will have trouble finding ways to improve the plan in the eyes of the community. There were complaints that there wasn’t enough affordable housing, or that the Rainier Valley already had enough of it. Some thought the war on cars had gone too far, and others that high speeds still made our streets unsafe. Developers are simultaneously losing their shirts on empty TOD and making obscene profits at the expense of residents. And lastly, some argued that the retail and service jobs from storefronts weren’t good enough, while others passionately argued to preserve the retail jobs at Lowe’s.

The other opposition thread was complaint about outreach. Of course, project opponents never think it’s time to move on until (absurdly) every last citizen is well-informed. Nevertheless, Rainier Valley Post editor Amber Campbell (who didn’t take a position on the upzone itself) pointed out that her very-plugged-in publication has had only intermittent notification, suggesting DPD is missing some low-hanging fruit. But there is a cost to delay: the time lost is time where more people who seek housing in Seattle have to go elsewhere, people don’t have jobs, and the temporary advantage that the Rainier Valley has in transit quality slips away.

Thanks to the people who came out on a nice night to participate in the process.

26 Replies to “North Rainier Zoning Meeting Report”

  1. Tried to attend but the 48 wouldn’t cooperate. I waited 20 minutes in the U-District and gave up.

    (Another case where ST2 Link would’ve helped significantly.)

    1. Theoretically, if your bus was 20 minutes late, other 48’s would be late, as well, and you wouldn’t have to wait 20 minutes, especially when before 6 PM it’s 10 minute headway. You should have used OBA, and you could time your wait better.

      Could some North Rainier pro-development person please tell me what the vision for the area is? Give me an example of another neighborhood you want North Rainier to model itself after. SLU? The future Spring District? What neighborhood core do you want it to resemble?

      1. Theory and reality are two different things. I’ve waited for a bus for twenty minutes, only to see two of the same route right next to each other. OBA would help, but only so much. If you have made a transfer, then you still have to wait (but you at least you know how long you have to wait). Likewise if you just finished work, a meeting, dinner, etc.

        Anyway, as to your question, I’m not sure if there is a great model. The staggered heights would make it look different then South Lake Union. But like that area, there aren’t a lot of interesting old brick buildings to save. The good news is that there is a great looking high school and a nice greenbelt nearby along with a hill. This should allow for some big buildings without worrying about feeling “crowded in”. So, I guess the closest I can come up with is the area south of Seattle U (e. g. 11th and East Terrace) but with less of an urban feel, due to its location (more houses and more greenery nearby while being farther away from big office buildings or hospitals).

      2. I was transferring from a half-hourly route so I had no choice when to start waiting. I waited two nominal headways (10 minutes) and gave up at 6pm because the meeting started then and I wouldn’t get there until at least 6:30 (24 min travel time + unknown wait + unknown slowdowns). Taking the 71/72/73 + Link would have taken 40 minutes (+ unknown wait + unknown transfer time + possible Stewart/Denny traffic + possible May Day protest traffic). If I’d known the 48 was MIA I would have gone the other way in the first place, but who knows if they would have come either.

        I ended up bagging it, going to Cartridge World, and taking the 43 home. When I got off the 43 at Bellevue & Olive, there were some thirty protesters blocking the Bellevue & Pine intersection, coming from downtown and turning south…

  2. If I didn’t have a job, I would have attended. More housing around the stations can’t come soon enough (but I’ll wait a little while longer if the ridiculously-low 125-foot heigh limit can be lifted to something higher). Build it, and they will fill it. Don’t build it, and they will bid up the cost of buying a home in the surrounding SFH neighborhoods. Maybe homeowners in Mt. Baker have done that math.

      1. Lest anyone who doesn’t know the area get the wrong impression, rezone opponents aren’t the reason the area is a mess. Plenty of places with similar zoning are flourishing.

  3. How odd is it that STB keeps scooping the neighborhood papers when it comes to upcoming zoning hearings in those neighborhoods?

      1. I must confess: I never heard of the Rainier Valley Post until today. Are they a newspaper of public record that would receive automatic notification? Have they made any requests to receive notifications of hearings on this topic?

        Isn’t it also odd that the anti’s never seem to get enough notice, and yet show up in force, and get to the front of the line, while the pros get even less notice, but show up in equal numbers, and patiently wait at the back of the line?

      2. RVP is a very good neighborhood news blog. I don’t know if they have a paper edition. I wouldn’t host a community event in the Rainier Valley without giving them notice, unless I didn’t want people to come (of course, everything works differently in government). I think they are pretty busy though, and don’t have a lot of time to look for this sort of thing if they don’t receive an email from the organizer.

      3. @jeik one could just as easily argue that RVP ought to have been keeping on top of city planning efforts in the area to let locals know.

        Ballard News Tribune seems to stay on top of the DPD comings and goings in their neck of the woods.

        It would be nice for the city to reach out to more local news sources to channel announcements, but I was under the impression that part of being a news agency was to do your own research…

      4. @Charles B

        Yes they should, but with massive changes in the print news industry, even large daily papers don’t have much of a reporting staff any more. The new reality in public relations is that you basically write the story for many of the smaller outlets. It’s a pretty big fail if the city is not keeping them in the loop. That said, sometimes opponents claim they didn’t get notice with very little basis in fact (see Westlake cycletrack).

      5. @jeik I suspect the most efficient way to handle this is for the city to have mailing lists (or twitter feeds?) that each newsroom should subscribe to in order to parse for meetings that are relevant to each community.

        With new blogs starting all the time its really difficult for the city to keep track of which ones are relevant to each part of town.

  4. So there are three issues with the Rainier Valley:

    First: Rainier Ave, including the part in question, is almost entirely liquefaction zone (

    Second: the raw land values are quite low, which means it’s harder to finance large projects. Generally the equity investment is 100% of the land value and the equity needs to be at least 20% of the project’s total cost–the rest can be debt. This limits you to a total cost of 5 times the land value…

    Third: once you get to 74 or 79 feet 11 inches (I never remember which) the fire code changes and the cost of construction goes up such that returns on investment go way way down. Making it hard to build between 80 and 160 feet at a profit that is worth the (many) risks.

    1. Thank you for the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs…that’s some nice detail on the cost structure (or at least the financing structure). So many of these discussions seem stuck at a level of abstractions; please don’t hesitate to educate further on the actual cost pillars behind proposed projects.

      While in general I support density, I’ve always suspected that most developers actually weren’t interested in building towards the mid and lower income levels, and were hiding behind abstractions as justification. Would love to be proven wrong, or simply learn more.

      1. …I’ve always suspected that most developers actually weren’t interested in building towards the mid and lower income levels, and were hiding behind abstractions as justification. Would love to be proven wrong, or simply learn more.

        The economic theory suggests that no one is going to sell their goods or services (in this case their housing or commercial space developments) at a price lower than the highest possible price they can achieve. The real issue is that we here in Seattle as a mostly NIMBY city have greatly limited the locations where we can build affordably through zoning single-family residential in the vast majority of the City of Seattle. That drives up land prices in places like Ballard or Capitol Hill making projects more expensive from the start. If we instead zoned most of the city for wood frame construction up to the fire code’s maximum height (probably 44 or 49 feet 11 inches) for wood frame construction multifamily, then we would produce a great deal of “workforce” (80-150% of rea median income) housing naturally. Places like West Seattle or North Ballard would have more than just $500k townhouses.

      2. The economic theory suggests that no one is going to sell their goods or services (in this case their housing or commercial space developments) at a price lower than the highest possible price they can achieve.

        This is such a simple concept, but it seems so difficult for many to grasp; they want to moralize the issue in really silly ways. As long as a small fraction of the market is allowed to be met, what is built will tend to cater to the top of the market. If we put severe restrictions on making and selling cars, such that only a small portion of the demand for cars was allowed to be met, does anyone actually think anyone would build a Ford Focus?

      3. Agreed. That’s a fantastic comparison. However, In the manufacturing of a car, you don’t have to move your factory to a new location for every single car you make. Nothing about real estate development is easy, or without some level of risk. Yet we as a society tend to vilify the very people who are taking ALL the risk for us to get what we want–when we aren’t busy being NIMBYs in the first place.

    2. 1) I can’t speak to that.

      2) The raw land value is based on current zoning. Either that, or someone is sitting on a gold mine, and doesn’t know it. Other than issue number one, I don’t see why you don’t buy that land and put up another boring six story building (like those in SLU and Ballard). Those are probably worth building if rent is $700, let alone a grand. Build that, and you can probably get away with charging a lot more. That location is intrinsically valuable, the way that land in the C. D. was intrinsically valuable thirty years ago. Location, location, location. It isn’t quite as close the downtown, but it is still around three miles or so. But it really shines when it comes to transportation. Not only does it have a rail line right next to it, but it will soon have two. The rail line will expand really quickly, as well (very fast, very frequent single seat ride from there to the UW). The local buses aren’t bad, either (one bus to Seattle U., plenty of buses to the east side, etc.). For those who decide that the buses are too bad, the driving is probably as good as it gets. For example, if you work in some obscure place on the east side, you probably have as good of a west-east commute as could ask for. Just hop on I-90 and go (no I-5, no 520). Then there are the local amenities. You’ve got a high school, beautiful greenbelts and fancy houses nearby. Even a golf course, if you are into that sort of thing. There are only a few things holding it back, really; reputation and momentum. Reputations change (I remember when Capitol Hill was considered the “ghetto” and rent was really cheap there). Building a big building or two would completely change the momentum (just as it did in South Lake Union).

      3) That’s too bad, but I don’t think it matters that much. At worse, people build the same boring six story buildings they have built throughout the city. Even that would help with the rent crisis we face right now. But it does give the developer the room to innovate, and build something bigger.

      1. 2)

        The raw land value is based on current zoning.

        Not really. Raw land value is mostly based on the market demand for rents in that location. But you’re partially correct, it could be a “gold mine”.

        Other than issue number one, I don’t see why you don’t buy that land and put up another boring six story building (like those in SLU and Ballard).


        Those are probably worth building if rent is $700, let alone a grand.

        Sure, if you build micro housing for $700 a month, totally worth it. If you’re trying to build 600 sq ft 1 or 2 bedroom units and rent them at just over $1.16 per foot, a 6 story building costs WAY too much to build.

      2. Are the same boring buildings as in Ballard so much worse than a vast Lowe’s parking lot?

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