Last week the Seattle Council’s Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability (PLUS) committee once again took up the North Rainier Rezone, last seen inspiring a diverse set of public comments earlier this month. There were more public comments that are by now quite repetitive, although the latest tactic is calling for yet another 2-year delay while companion parks, economic development, and transportation plans develop. I predict approximately zero current opponents would suddenly accept the plan then, as it still won’t address their fundamental desire to limit the number of low-income neighbors and preserve effortless parking at local businesses. Meanwhile, rents spiral upward and the Rainier Valley continues to suffer.

Afterwards, the committee approved three amendments to the legislation and tabled a fourth proposed by Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who was out of town. Unfortunately, one of the amendments requires a title change to the bill, so the committee will have to wait until June 3rd to vote on the legislation and send it to full council.

The three attendees (Mike O’Brien, Nick Licata, and Tim Burgess) approved the following three amendments:

1) Amend the proposed zoning to exclude the parking maximums currently operative in other “Seattle Mixed” Zones (basically just South Lake Union and Lower Queen Anne). This triggers the required change in the bill title, and addresses the fear that the proposed maxima “might be too low” for certain businesses, like grocery stores, envisioned for the area.

north_rainier_rezone2) Change the “Class I” pedestrian street designation to “Class II”  on McClellan and Rainier. Class II allows “more flexibility” for street interface. It would keep transparency requirements, but permits more uses at ground level for a “greater range of businesses.” Rather than forcing nothing but eat/drink and retail, health care, light industrial, and office applications would also be allowed on the first floor — but not residential. The council is concerned about vacant storefronts, reflecting many comments from residents.

Even Class I setbacks are flexible in the design review process, but Class II allows 12 ft. setbacks as a matter of course. DPD thought “more suburban, less active” might be appropriate given the traffic on these streets. Notably, on-street parking on these streets would improve the pedestrian environment, possible if SDOT uses the “bowtie” street reconfiguration here to greatly improve bus/rail transfers.

3) The committee added a few blocks east of MLK and north of McClellan to the upzone (the blocks labeled LR3 and NC1-40 in the upper right), due to a request from the landowner, the nonprofit Mt. Baker Housing Association. These parcels are already developed to LR3 (Low Rise-3), but MBHA would like to tear this down, add more affordable housing, and simultaneously deal with residual contamination from a dry cleaning business there. The parcels would become MR2 (Midrise 2) and SM-65 (Seattle Mixed 65′), respectively.

From my perspective, these three amendments range from wonderful to mixed. The expanded housing on the MBHA site is unmitigated good news. Meanwhile, it’s clear that parking minimums create a whole suite of bad effects, but maximums are debatable, particularly in a place where redevelopment might take a while to get off the ground. As for the pedestrian classification, allowing a broader diversity of businesses is probably a good idea.

The Harrell amendment, on which the committee decided to delay deliberations until Mr. Harrell could be there to discuss it, would lower the 125′ limit on the Lowe’s site to 85′, although a contract rezone could raise it again once the City knew would would go in. As always, height is a flash point, but this amendment would simply reduce the site’s potential and add yet more veto points to its best possible use. DPD believes residential will not utilize 125′ under current conditions. Reducing the height will make residential more competitive, and is likely to subvert the often-expressed community wish for the site to be focused on job creation.

Mr. Burgess specifically asked for neighborhood feedback on this amendment, via public comment at the next meeting or via email. Let him know what you think.

Mr. O’Brien closed by asking about the lot immediately south of the station but not affected by the rezone, currently LR3-RC. Across a quiet street from the station, any sensible framework would upzone these extremely aggressively. Last decade these blocks fell out of the plan because they might cast shadows on deserted Cheasty Blvd., there were single family homes on the other side of the greenbelt, and there were commercial uses nearby that have since largely disappeared. I wish I was joking about any of these “problems.”

Since this terrible decision, the status of these blocks has changed. Capitol Hill Housing purchased the southern block. The northern block will be split between an underground King county sewer overflow storage tank (!!!! – hopefully it’s buildable above) and a northern half split among several parcels. Mr. O’Brien asked for input from DPD and the public about making some or all of this area SM-85 or SM-65. Good for Mr. O’Brien to bring up this common-sense revision. Thank him and let him know this is a good idea.

As a side note, Lyle Bicknell of DPD said there is already interest in redeveloping the Rite Aid/QFC site immediately north of the station while preserving those tenants. Good news!

24 Replies to “Committee Amends North Rainier Rezone”

  1. I would love to see light industrial business encouraged in North Rainier Valley. Easy access to transit and I-90 would make NRV a great place to locate small, clean industrial businesses. The areas around Columbia City, Othello and Rainier Beach Stations are all building residential units and it would be great if there was a light industrial jobs center on the Link route. I have to wonder, however, if the City’s square footage tax would be a disincentive for small, light industrial start-ups (up to $1.76/sq. ft. per year with an exemption for businesses that do all of their business within Seattle).

    There also needs to be a plan to fix the horrible Mt. Baker TC and connect Mt. Baker with east Link at I-90. It seems that those questions are being left for a future day, but if the area is going to become a true TOD community, those problems need to be fixed first, not last.

    The Pedestrian Zone on McClellan is also another issue that needs discussion. Many of the existing P-Zones are becoming very heavy with restaurants and too light on other uses, which means that they are very busy at lunch and dinner, but not very busy at other times. How can more non-dining types of businesses be encouraged to locate in P-Zones?

    1. Are you saying that the ped zones are too successful, and need to be rezoned as light industrial, so that the street space can become un-reactivated?

      Maybe we should check with the property owners if they rather own residential or industrial zoned land?

      I’d hate for land near a light station to continue to be wasted on more one story warehouses and garages.
      The pepsi and darigold buildings can’t be razed soon enough.
      Plenty of room in Auburn for that kind of storage/distribution.

      1. What I would like to see is a balance between residential and industrial uses along Link. Not everyone needs to work downtown and live in Rainier Valley. If North Rainier maintains its light industrial character and people can get to their jobs via Link, I’m fine with that. If Darigold and Pepsi move to Auburn, their workforces will undoubtedly be driving to work on SR167 or SR18; if they stay in Rainier Valley, it would be easier to commute on public transit.

        As for the P-Zones, I’m saying that the restrictions on uses seems to be creating zones that are almost exclusively food and beverage oriented, which means heavy usage at lunch and dinner time, but relatively little activity at other times. Again, it’s a variety and balance of businesses that I would like to promote in the P-Zones. Also, light industrial uses are not currently permitted in P-Zones and I’m not advocating that they be allowed.

    2. Guy, the future of North Rainier is no long in light industry. That property wants to be residential and retail, and I wishing and zoning aren’t going to change that.

      And on a related matter, just 4 minutes west on Link light rail is the SODO Station, surrounded by good light industrial sites with proper zoning already in place. Unfortunately, the City is letting SODO transform into a retail center and industrial uses will wither away.

      The latest is the new Auto Row moving southward along Airport Way. Maybe we can convince City Hall to draw the line in SODO at Lander St., preserving major sites south of there for light industry.

      1. I agree. SODO makes sense for light industry, while North Rainier makes sense for residential and retail, as well as offices. I could easily see offices grow around SODO as well. Balancing offices and light industry in SODO may be a challenge in the future (my guess is that light industry will be pushed southward). I assume that an office tower employs more people per square foot than most light industry (these days) so accessing those workplaces by bus just makes sense.

      2. “Unfortunately, the City is letting SODO transform into a retail center and industrial uses will wither away.”

        Yeah. Worse, the city is letting SODO slip into a retail (and office and entertainment) center without appropriate transportation planning. In SODO (and in Interbay, and in North Rainier in a different way) we need to shit or get off the pot. If the future of 1st Ave S includes retail, services, restaurants, cafes, nightclubs, museums, stadiums, and offices (as the present does) then it needs to be safe and convenient to walk and bike there. If we’re going to let narrow freight interests prevent this, then we should kick all those uses out (good bye new stadiums, good bye Starbucks HQ, good bye restaurants and bars, good bye Living Computer Museum).

        The North Rainier connection is that its local street network is appropriate for existing land uses but not the ones we’re planning. There are parts of it that are unfixable: we’ll probably never be able to cross MLK in the stretch where the Link tracks are descending to street level, and there are ridges at the edges too steep to connect a street network across. The train station is in an odd corner of the flat area where a comprehensive local network is possible, but that doesn’t make it any less important to take advantage of the flat area we have and provide abundant public streets.

  2. I am having trouble figuring out just what parcel(s) CapHill Housing bought (after checking King County Parcel Viewer). Which “southern block” are we talking about?

    1. I’m going off the comments of committee members, but they said it’s the second block south of the station on MLK.

      1. I am having no luck finding such an owner. I am going to reach out to two friends at CapHill Housing, as such a purchase would be a fairly big deal for them. It could also be great for the neighborhood.

  3. Is there any chance that the city would tighten up and improve connectivity of the local street network in the case of certain kinds of redevelopment? Tall buildings on some of those blocks with no proper public streets would look a lot like the office park south of Northgate TC (or if there’s a retail component, maybe that office park mixed with U Village), which would be a real disappointment.

    1. It keeps coming up that the Lowe’s site will have multiple pathways cut through it during redevelopment.

      1. Well, some kind of “pathways” are physically necessary, of course — even single-building use of the block requires some interior circulation! I’m talking about public streets, which have benefits beyond that. I’m pretty skeptical that we’ll ever legislate MLK and Rainier into great pedestrian streets or build reasonable bike routes on either. Individually-planned, privately-owned paths can’t get us what we need. I think this is something Bellevue is getting right with the Bel-Red redevelopment… and something I think we need to get right in lots of other places.

      2. If they aren’t actually public streets, I really hope they’re designed designed to provide the benefits of public streets. Execution matters! A lot of pathways through and within superblocks aren’t effective at breaking them into manageable blocks and connecting to neighboring areas (Westwood Village, U Village, the Northgate office park) while others are better (Northlake Way under the Fremont Bridge, The Landing, Mill Creek Town Center to some degree, NE 6th St. in downtown Bellevue). It’s reasonable to expect the new Spring District streets to be fairly successful in this regard, but to doubt whether the path heading west from Hospital Station will ever be more than a single-purpose path bordering blank walls (that isn’t written in stone, but it is written in asphalt).

        Many suburban examples here because there are many suburban superblocks around here that have had a variety of redevelopments and upgrades at various times. The present infrastructure/layout of the rezone area resembles them more than it resembles Beacon Hill or the RV.

  4. We talk a lot about zoning, but I still see a critical flaw in this area. Bus-to-Light Rail connectivity. As a planning friend (a resident of Hilman City) has suggested, the bus transit ellipse is out of place with the light rail station. Rather than combine the two (i.e. TIBS), one has to cross Rainier and stand in a bus station that isn’t inviting at all. It isn’t clearly visible from either Rainier or MLK Jr Way. As such, it gives the perception to users that it isn’t safe.

    The debate on zoning is moot if we ignore the necessity to make the MB Transit Center (bus service) more visible, brighter and inviting for users by merging it with the MB Light Rail Station. A remedy could by done by building a bus turn around with bus bays on the west side of the light rail station (granted, it would result in the purchase of the private parking lot).

    1. There is actually very little reason for Mt. Baker Transit Center, in its current form, to even exist. Passengers would likely be better off if buses that serve it simply made regular street stops instead along Ranier, like the #7 does.

      1. The only irreplacable part of the transit center is the 48’s layover spaces, which were necessary to split the 8/48. Everything else would be better served with stops on-street.

    2. If you click on the link to the Mt. Baker Bowtie, you’ll find a plausible proposal to dramatically improve the transfer status quo. Of course, people primarily concerned about car throughput are very much opposed.

      Separately, moving the transit center to immediately south of the intersection would improve things by providing a pedestrian bridge to cross both streets and much more natural passenger pathways. There’s certainly nothing of significance occupying that land today.

    3. People have been complaining about the lack of integration between MBTC and the Link station ever since they opened. If you search the archives here you’ll find probably a dozen articles on why it sucks and what went wrong.

  5. I want the 125′ limits, but if lowering it to 85′ makes the rezone finally happen and happen sooner then that is acceptable.

  6. At this point, I suspect that it would be difficult to suggest major changes to the plan. I would have liked to see a “there there” in the planning. There is no real focal point in the urban design form. It’s really “blah”. It would be a lot more wonderful if we had had a focal point (like an urban green or plaza) in the plan to give the area an orientation Instead it’s just mid-rise residential with no community orientation to it. It’s a real shame too – especially considering the historical presence of Mt. Baker Blvd as a manifestation of the Olmstead park plan.

    1. There are no plans for this to happen; in fact, some hope that redevelopment of this block would incorporate Lowe’s in a more urban format, like the downtown Target.

      That said, Lowe’s is a tenant and could conceivably leave for reasons that may or may not have anything to do with this upzone.

      The fact that in other contexts people love to hate big box stores suggests that this is a case of aversion to change, rather than any concrete love of Lowe’s.

Comments are closed.