In a surprise move earlier this month, King County officials decided to restart the process that could eventually construct hundreds of affordable housing units within walking distance of the Northgate Station.
The decision will likely delay construction of an eventual dense, mixed-use transit oriented development project. The revamped process could yield hundreds more units of housing, including additional affordable housing.
Why King County cancelled the RFP
Metro, which owns the parcel that will eventually become the site of the TOD project, cancelled a request for proposals on June 5. Two companies, Lake Union Partners and Stellar Holdings, answered the original RFP. The developers did not respond to requests for comment.
In a notice sent to the bidders, and in subsequent public comments, county officials explained that they cancelled the RFP to incorporate new and anticipated changes to laws governing the RFP process.
A new state law, which came into effect June 7, allows local governments to give surplus property to developers for free, as long as the property will be used to house families who earn 80 percent or less of the locally adjusted area median income.
Meanwhile, the Seattle City Council is considering whether to upzone the Northgate TOD plot. As Bruce pointed out, an upzone could make Northgate a major urban center.
Diane Carlson, Metro’s Director of Capital Projects, was involved in the decision to cancel the initial RFP. Carlson says that the county wants to take advantage of the statutory changes because of the site’s potential.
“We’ve given [ourselves] an opportunity to potentially create more housing on that site, and we want to take advantage of that,” Carlson says.
What might go into a new RFP
According to a 2017 Metro document, the original RFP requested “up to 200 affordable units in Phase 1, as a part of 500-600 units.” According to Carlson, Metro wants the new RFP to include additional affordable housing units. Carlson did not specify what the final number of units might be.
“We will certainly seek to incentivize those proposers in the new RFP process to provide as much affordable housing as possible, so I do think we will be looking for more,” says Carlson.
Carlson said that the ultimate number will be determined, in part, by economics.
“That has to be financially feasible for [more affordable units] to work out. But with the ability to provide the land potentially for free, we will be looking to provide additional housing, which this region really needs.”
Carlson said that Metro is hoping to work with a joint team of market-rate and affordable housing developers, and she’s optimistic that the lower cost of the land transfer will draw more affordable housing bidders.
The potential upzone could also make the parcel more appealing to developers, since it would increase cost efficiency in construction, and potentially yield more commercial units.
Juarez objects to delay in construction
The cancellation was not received well by Seattle Councilmember Debora Juarez. In a June 8 email that Juarez sent to her council colleagues, Mayor Jenny Durkan, and city and council staff including Carlson, Juarez criticized the county’s decision.
Juarez objected to the cancellation mainly on the grounds that delay would exacerbate Seattle’s housing crisis, and says that the county should have anticipated the new state law.
“Losing this project or having it severely delayed has significant ramifications for the area, the city as a whole and our region,” Juarez wrote.
Mercedes Elizalde, one of Juarez’s staffers, said that Juarez was told that the original RFP had a projected 2019 construction start date. Elizalde also said that the councilmember was frustrated that Metro had not promised, in writing, that the new RFP would include more affordable housing units.
Carlson disputes the 2019 timeline. “The [original] request for proposals had an anticipated timeline of construction beginning in 2020, and completing in late 2021. That’s a fairly aggressive timeline to begin with.”
Metro’s 2017 fact sheet about the RFP does not mention an anticipated start date, but does say “a portion of the redevelopment is planned to open as soon as 2021, close to when Sound Transit’s Northgate Link Station is scheduled to open.”
Carlson isn’t sure when the new project will get under way.
“It’s a little early,” she says. “We’ll have to reassess to see if that timeline can be held up. That depends on a couple of factors, including how quickly we can get the RFP out, which we can control and intend to do very quickly.”
Carlson also cited the need for a code change by the King County Council and the winning developer’s timeline as hurdles to meet the original construction schedule. But she was confident that the county made the right decision.
“This is a 50, 100 year project,” Carlson says. “We want to get it right. We’ve got one chance to do it.”