Accessible Mt. Baker Plan (SDOT)

My idiosyncratic habit of scanning the Daily Journal of Commerce headlines paid off this week when I noticed a piece by Brian Miller about plans to replace The Rainier Valley Lowe’s with an Amazon warehouse and shared it on Twitter. It caught my eye as I’ve been a frequent shopper at that Lowe’s since before Central Link opened, and not a visit went by without me lamenting that the former Sick’s Stadium site could be put to better use.  

Turns out it a few other people shared my lament.  A few thoughts…

First, it’s interesting to go back and re-read some of the contemporaneous accounts of the debate over the re-zone of that area in 2014. While the city wanted to make the area into a houing-and-jobs hub, many people wanted to preserve their local hardware store, which to its credit had been a long-time presence in the Rainier Valley at a time when many national chains had stayed away.  Opponents of the plan wanted “NO REZONE / Jobs NOT Apts.” Mission accomplished I guess?

Second, Bruce Harrell, then about to become a candidate in the new District 2 and now running for mayor, cast the lone vote of dissent. Per Erica Barnett’s reporting at the time, Harrell argued,  “The prudent decision would be to do nothing and continue with the dialogue. We don’t have any developers knocking on the door and saying, we need to have the heights lifted.” Mike O’Brien hoped it would become a university campus.

Third, we all need to think harder about the future of retail and what it means for urban spaces. People keep buying stuff from Amazon and so Amazon will need more distribution centers closer to where the people are. This isn’t just a Seattle problem. It’s good to have these distribution sites close to people. It’s bad that Seattle’s zoning means that a relatively small sliver of city land has to do all the work of multifamily housing and industry. How might these distribution centers be made to work better in an urban campus?

Finally, city hall ought to do some soul searching. The fact that no housing developer outbid the warehouse for the land is revealing. How much can we squeeze developers in exchange for affordable housing? Are we confident we’ve set the MHA dials correctly, especially in a world of more remote work? Do we want to encourage housing near transit or are we so confident that it will happen that we can extract concessions from it? And how much should we rely on payments from a few big projects to meet our affordable housing goals? I wish I were as confident as some about the answers to these questions. But maybe, just maybe, it isn’t the best idea to pin all our housing hopes on a few large lots while continuing to outlaw apartment buildings in two thirds of the city.

63 Replies to “On (ware)housing in Mt. Baker”

  1. Another aspect to this story is how long all this is taking and how little has been done since Link started in 2009. Mt Baker Station has been opened for 12 years, this station area has been discussed for even longer, and the earliest Accessible Mt. Baker has any sort of planned implementation is 2024. We’re talking decades between planning, designing, building, opening, and operating high quality transit before anything happens outside the station footprint.

    Therefore; If I were a developer, I’d see that nobody in government is genuinely serious about fixing, investing, changing, or improving in this area.

  2. Frank, you’re absolutely right about the underlying problem, BUT, this is a “downzone”, NOT an “upzone” as apartments would be. This is a purely INDUSTRIAL use, not “Retail” which it is now.

    Seattle has reserved about 20% of its land for Industrial uses. The location in Interbay is zone Industrial. I doubt that this is. Put it somewhere over Beacon Hill; there are plenty of locations along Sixth Avenue South with quick access to Columbian Way.

    1. I mean yeah, I’d put it in SoDo if I were king but we have to look at the revealed preference here. Surely Amazon would have put it in SoDo if it penciled. Better freeway and freight access. My guess is that SoDo is actually getting pretty expensive (it’s already the site of the country’s first two-story warehouse apparently!) and they need a staging area closer to their customers.

      1. I’m pretty sure Amazon already has a warehouse in SoDo. They run package pickup out of part of the old Sears Building. There’s a few Amazon locations in SoDo according to Google. Two of them are already on 6th.

      2. Surely Amazon would have put it in SoDo if it penciled.

        Amazon hasn’t put anything anywhere. These are feasibility plans. It is quite possible that the public response will help determine whether they are feasible or not. That, and what the owners want in terms of money. If word gets out that the owners are selling, housing developers may look into building there.

    2. Zoning refers to the range of things allowed to be built, not to what’s actually built.

      I’d prefer Amazon put its warehouses in SODO, south of Rainier Beach Station, somewhere not near a Link station like 15th Ave NE, or Lake City Way between 90th and 120th, etc.

      1. Why can an industrial use replace a commercial one? Or has the parcel always been zoned “Industrial” but simply under-utilized?

      2. There is “use” zoning, which restricts the use of the property (commercial, multi-family, industrial which is actually pretty restrictive, single family, strip clubs, bars, etc.), and “regulatory” zoning, which regulates height, setbacks, gross floor area to lot area ratios, impervious surface limits, parking requirements, and so on.

        You can also have conditional use permits that allows a non-conforming use if the project creates some defined public benefit, but usually the conditional use is limited to the same regulatory limits as the surrounding zone.

        The unions are very active in protecting industrial Seattle land, because those are some of the last remaining living wage jobs (esp. longshore workers) available to someone with a H.S. degree. This was an issue Chris Hansen ran into trying to site a new stadium for an NBA franchise. Developers have long coveted some industrial lands for housing in SODO without success.

        My guess is the properties Amazon is looking at are already zoned for their intended use since a zoning fight in Seattle would not be worth it, and Amazon has signed options on the land if they choose to go forward. The Times had an interesting note today noting Amazon often files permit applications with its name whited out so it is very difficult to read online.

        Until a “completed” permit application is filed the zoning for the property does not “vest”, so a city can change the zoning, but my guess is it would be looking at a lawsuit from Amazon and the property owner, unless the city wanted to match Amazon’s offer and the option allowed that.

      3. From what I can tell (http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/Research/gis/webplots/k52E.pdf) the two lots are zoned SM-NR 145 (M) and C2-75 (M). According to the legend (http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/Research/gis/webplots/legend.pdf) that means “Seattle Mixed North Rainier 145” and “Commercial 2-75”.

        This is where things get weird. The zoning code (https://library.municode.com/wa/seattle/codes/municipal_code?nodeId=TIT23LAUSCO_SUBTITLE_IIILAUSRE_CH23.34AMOFLAUSMARE_SUBCHAPTER_IIRECR_23.34.082CO2C2ZOFULOCR) has the following information:


        23.34.082 – Commercial 2 (C2) zones, function and locational criteria.

        Function. To provide for an auto-oriented, primarily non-retail commercial area that provides a wide range of commercial activities serving a community, citywide, or regional function, including uses such as manufacturing and warehousing that are less appropriate in more-retail-oriented commercial areas.

        B. Locational Criteria. A Commercial 2 zone designation is most appropriate on land that is generally characterized by the following conditions:

        1. Outside of urban centers and urban villages or, within urban centers or urban villages, having a C2 designation and abutting a state highway;

        Unless something is out of date, the Pepsi site is zoned for exactly this use! The city screwed up. This is an area that should have been rezoned a long time ago, to encourage the type of development that is going on all around it (apartments where they are allowed).

        The “Seattle Mixed” designation is its own beast. There are several, and they are all regional (Rainier, West Dravus, etc.). In terms of use, it gets complicated, but basically they allow everything, then start listing things that aren’t allowed:

        A.Permitted uses
        1.All uses are permitted outright, either as principal or accessory uses, except those specifically prohibited by subsection 23.48.005.B and those permitted only as conditional uses by subsection 23.48.005.C.

        B.Prohibited uses. The following uses are prohibited as both principal and accessory uses, except as otherwise noted:
        1.All high-impact uses;
        2.All heavy manufacturing uses;
        3.General manufacturing uses, greater than 25,000 square feet of gross floor area for an individual business establishment, except for pharmaceutical production;
        4.Drive-in businesses, except gas stations;
        5.Jails;

        Nice to know they don’t allow jails. Anyway, it goes on. Here is an interesting section:


        2.Mini-warehouses and warehouses may be permitted by the Director as administrative conditional uses if:
        a.The street-level portion of a mini-warehouse or warehouse only fronts on an east/west oriented street, or an alley; and
        b.Vehicular entrances, including those for loading operations, will not disrupt traffic or transit routes; and
        c.The traffic generated will not disrupt the pedestrian character of an area by significantly increasing the potential for pedestrian-vehicle conflicts.

        It is hard to see how a major distribution center won’t disrupt traffic of transit routes in the area. Oh, and who is the “Director”? Maybe that person will decide this is a bad idea.

        The specifics for “Rainier” are not very long. They mainly deal with setbacks.
        Building a little building in the center, with parking all around is encouraged by the regulations.

        Making things even more complicated is that it looks like the Lowe’s sight is partly in the “Station Overlay District”. All of it is in the Mount Baker Hub Urban Village, while part of the Pepsi sight is.

        From what I’ve read, it seems quite possible that none of this will be allowed. Maybe it will be rejected, or maybe there will be a court challenge. But then again, I don’t know how the nuts and bolts of the zoning system works.

      4. Thanks, both of you. It looks like the Lowe’s portion is “B”: zoned to allow Industrial use (it’s a part of “anything”) but heretofore underutilized. So here we have a parcel one block from a regional transit station — and ten from another — which can be built to 145 feet, and it will be used for shifting packages from one truck to another.

        We humans claim to be “The Crown of Creation”. There’s some serious hubris there.

    3. Warehouse distribution is easily considered more of a “retail use”. In fact, most retail stores have a portion of their space as a storeroom and unloading dock area if not more — and many have recently devoted more internal space to filling online orders. The big difference with this proposal is the lack of customer access into any of the facility. If an Amazon Prime or Whole Foods was placed here, would it be as controversial? If Amazon promised a retail section but only used it for a year before closing it, couldn’t the project still get all the necessary permits and use the space as it wants anyway?

      Most industrial zoning is also for “nuisance” uses to keep noisy or smelly facilities away from residences. Warehouse distribution rarely stinks or makes more noise than a grocery store does.

      While I cringe at this proposal, think it’s inaccurate to call the use “industrial”.

      1. Al, it will be a factory filled with robots and humans unloading a truck to a queue of bar-coded packages. Then robots will shift the packages from that queue to another truck’s loading queue which robots and people will then load.

        It doesn’t say it will be a Fulfillment Center; the parcel isn’t big enough for that. So package creation will not occur except in unusual situations. Rather the facility will function like a railroad hump yard with the packages taking the place of whole railroad cars, the incoming and outgoing trucks representing trains, and the queues being the “bowl tracks” and departure tracks.

        Railyards are generally considered “industrial” places. Just because the pieces are smaller here does not change the nature of what’s happening.

  3. The initial Link alignment opened in time for the great recession; that slowed development. One fateful ST choice in 2001 was south-first; that has impacted transit and development a great deal. Yes, there seem larger flatter parcels with better connections with rail and bus and air freight corridors. Aside from the blips of recessions and pandemics, we need more housing; we need affordable housing; we need better zoning; it was improved some.

  4. (1) Housing is underpriced in the Rainier Valley relative to other parts of Seattle. It’s clear that certain perceptions about the area are still around that haven’t been true since at least the 1990s. Compare housing development on Aurora + Lake City Way vs. Rainier. I would argue Rainier Ave is the nicest of the 3 corridors, has the best transit, easiest downtown access, easiest I-90/eastside access, easiest airport access, and best food. But white people seem to be afraid to live there for some reason…hmm…

    (2) We all know the Mt. Baker station is poorly designed. It’s easier to hop the 7 to get downtown than to take Light Rail. I’m concerned that we are planning on building more elevated stations like Mt. Baker in ST3. Five extra minutes to get from the street to the platform is a big deal, especially when the system is designed around 2-seat rides with bus transfers.

    (3) Given the reality of (1) and (2), it seems like a pretty good spot for a distribution center. It will provide a LOT of jobs. The people who work there will have options to live nearby + public transit options to get to work. It is in a central location along several major arterials, which is attractive to Amazon. I think it’s a pretty big win for the area. Housing AND jobs are needed, we can’t just build housing everywhere.

    1. It’s easier to hop the 7 to get downtown than to take Light Rail.

      Right, because the 7 is relatively fast and frequent. That’s the thing — even if there was no light rail nearby, this is a transit rich area. You have the 7 to get you downtown, or other parts of Rainier Valley (e. g. Columbia City, Rainier Beach). You have the 48 which connects you to the C. D., Montlake or the UW. The 8 will get you to Capitol Hill. Oh, and you can easily transfer to get to Bellevue. The train, of course, does exist. So while it does take a while to get to the platform, it is still a nice way to get to SeaTac, Beacon Hill, Capitol Hill, the UW (and soon Roosevelt and Northgate). For a lot of trips, this more than makes up for the inconvenience of the station. It is a transit rich area, it deserves a transit-oriented use.

      The people who work there will have options to live nearby + public transit options to get to work.

      That explains the big parking lot.

      Housing AND jobs are needed, we can’t just build housing everywhere.

      Right, but it makes sense to build housing where you have great transit, and this is one of the best places in the region for transit. By all means, there should be ground floor retail with new housing developments. But this is not an office, clinic or grocery store. It isn’t even a manufacturing plant. It is a distribution center, which means that it will have lots of trucks, all the time. This will contribute to traffic, making transit worse, while adding only a handful of new riders. It would be much better to have housing here.

      1. Is the parking lot for employees or for storing the delivery vehicles at night?

        I would think that putting distribution centers closer to the customers would reduce truck traffic, no?

      2. Putting distribution centers closer to customers should reduce regional VMTs, but likely still increases freight traffic in the immediate neighborhood.

      3. I’ve tried both. The 7 is slow as molasses, and often bunched. Unless you’re right in between two Link stations, it is almost always faster to walk to Link. Especially if you are able to use OBA to pace yourself so that running a block or two avoids a 10 minute wait.

        The 7 is good for getting around within the Rainier Valley, but for going all the way downtown, it’s for people who value being lazy more than getting there quickly.

      4. I live right up by the High School across from the station and always opt for the link. The 7 trudges down Rainier at a snails pace, the traffic and is always bad. The link make take a couple of minutes to get to (no, not five extra minutes), but it is the fastest way to get downtown, hands down, all the time, and usually even over driving.

        Our neighborhood has developed much slower than other stops in the valley (barring Rainier Beach), but it finally gaining steam. The zoning for that Lowes property in particular could turn our neighborhood into one of the denser areas in the city. Changing this property to industrial use would be a step in exactly the wrong direction.

        I don’t buy that this property is some Goldilocks “just the right place” to be “closer to customers” for Amazon, and see zero difference if jobs are two mines away on the other side of Beacon Hill. We need more dense, walkable neighborhoods in this city, not to take areas zoned for just that and turn them over to industrial use.

      5. Is it a new rezoning or just the status quo? Parts of Rainier have long been industrial, and Mt Baker is still full of one-room buildings like Wendy’s. If the Sick’s stadium was there when zoning was drawn up it may have defaulted to industrial and still be.

    2. Lots of white people are afraid to live in Lake Shitty. A quick look at their Nextdoor shows a huge amount of hand wringing and pearl clutching over supposed homeless induced crime and lawlessness.

      1. Lake City is an interesting area. I live slightly west of it. Before Covid convinced me to limit my bus trips, I transfered at Ne 125th and Lake City Way Ne around 9:30-10pm 4 days a week for about 2 years. Anybody familiar with the area knows what happens at that intersection. I would sometimes buy a cheap cup of coffee at the Subway right before they closed for the evening. At least 2 of the workers said they could not get people to show up for their shifts due to the harrassment from the locals. I witnessed it once and had to intervene. I hung out there long enough for them to close and wait for their ride. They said nobody shows when you call 911, so they stopped calling. I was even late to work.
        But I think the Nextdoor coommentors are not helpful. There is a legitimate safety concern for that area but the “Seattle is Dying” and some Dori style comments won’t sway me from living or taking the bus there.

      2. Nextdoor is a window into the darkness of the human soul. It’s the same no matter what community you live in, anywhere in the country. Even in “nice” neighborhoods everything is “going to hell” and most of the posts seem to be about “those people” having the audacity to be somewhere that “the neighborhood” doesn’t think they belong. It’s terrible. I joined briefly when I lived in Madison Park because the discussion about the BRT line and the 11 was taking place on the platform, and almost immediately cancelled my account.

        I post on a completely unrelated board occasionally, in a different part of the country, and there is an entire lengthy thread about “stupid #^$@ on Nextdoor.” It would be hilarious if these weren’t actual people spouting off what at best is living in unbridled fear and at worst is highly racist/classist.

        (I do enjoy the ones about “lost dogs” that are actually coyotes, roaming the streets with nobody picking up their waste.) :D

      3. This is about the third time I’ve heard of Nextdoor. The first was from an STB commentator in Madison Park. He reported some of the discussions and they sounded like a bunch of nimbys.

  5. This decision by Amazon is perhaps a lesson about the practice of zoning and land economics. The lack of suitably zoned land to put a distribution center drives this. I’m sure that the site choice was made by Amazon after considering a wide range of other properties in South Seattle. I think there are many zoning maps that are “out of balance” with urban land economics so it’s hard for a city to get it right.

    I would also note that warehouses are not expensive buildings to construct relatively speaking — unlike apartments or medical facilities. The decision gives Amazon a large single owner piece of land by which to redevelop someday.

    Finally, I wonder if Amazon would ultimately use the site for remote parking and charging. The recent commitment to battery vehicles means that they will have to put recharging stations closer to population centers. What better place to do that than in an urban distribution center? That company’s “go green” strategy may push the need for more urban distribution centers.

    1. There is plenty of land zoned Industrial for all time just one mile west along Sixth Avenue South. There is a direct ramp from Sixth South and Spokane to Columbian Way and the entirety of Southeast Seattle.

      Put this abomination there.

      1. Oh I’d personally prefer to have a retail home supply store and some housing over a distribution facility. I’m only saying that the economics of land is driving this. It’s kind of what’s termed an “invisible hand”.

      2. Exactly. This really should be in an industrial area. This is why we have industrial land — for uses like this.

      3. I’m only saying that the economics of land is driving this.

        Yes, but the economics of the land have a lot to do with governmental decisions. One of the main reasons it is being proposed here is because the roads there connect to the rest of the city so well. If those were two lane roads with stop signs at each point I don’t think they will be interested. That is a governmental decision.

        As Frank mentioned, it is expensive to build an an apartment. We should be subsidizing new housing, not making it more expensive.

        You also can’t ignore the fact that there are a limited number of places where they are allowed to build. In most of the city, they can’t build a distribution center, just as they can’t add apartments. You couldn’t build this several blocks to the east, for example, on 31st, despite being just about as convenient for trucks.

        This is the result of a zoning flaw, combined with punitive measures that make housing more difficult. This isn’t an industrial area; it shouldn’t have an industrial use.

  6. As time marches forward, I can see Judkins Park Station being the better TOD opportunity from an land economy perspective. Residents and shops there will have access to Downtown Bellevue, Downtown Seattle (several minutes quicker than Mt Baker) and UW (Mt Baker loses that with the building of the second tunnel). The blocks are generally smaller so that also guarantees local pedestrian circulation.

    Even now, Mt Baker is generating Link boardings similar to all the other SE Seattle stations. This proposal is disappointing — but it’s not as conducive to TOD as Judkins Park will be.

    1. Mount Baker Station is next to a high school. Judkins Park Station is next to the freeway. Yeah, they cap it to the east, but to the west there is a huge gash caused by the freeway.

      It really comes down to the zoning and whether people are willing to sell. If this was zoned multi-family, or neighborhood-commercial, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. They would be planning on adding apartments there, like they are in various places around there. Or the owners would just keep dealing with Lowe’s and Pepsi.

      The more attractive places are further east, away from the busy road. That is where the cap is, so even by Judkins Park it is nice there. Likewise, everything around or east of Franklin is nice. Whether they will upzone *those* areas is a different matter.

  7. If the city were offering $100 million subsidies for distribution centers near light rail stations, we would be (a) outraged, and (b) completely unsurprised to see somebody build a distribution center.

    And yet, there’s a $100 million MHA tax on housing (if the Urbanist did the math right). In the marketplace, what’s the difference between a $100 million subsidy for one alternative use vs a $100 million tax on the other alternative? Not much.

    There is no alternative plan to build housing here. Amazon’s not getting in the way of a real world proposal. Maybe this isn’t such a great place for housing and it wouldn’t pencil anyway, light rail or no, or maybe it would have been a good enough business case before the MHA taxes stomped on it. There are a few other developments in the area, but not many, so it’s at best marginal.

    Local distribution centers aren’t so capital intensive that they need to be very long term investments. We’d all like to move faster on urbanizing Mount Baker, but this is likely a transitional use that need not be around in a decade or two anyway if building housing gets easier.

    1. The Pepsi site might be transitional as it’s just rehabbing the existing building, but the investment in the Lowe’s sight suggests a longer term investment.

      You may a good point on MHA being a tax on housing production, but there’s nothing stopping a developer from redeveloping the land as housing, just at a lower zoning threshold that doesn’t trigger the MHA payment, correct?

    2. There is no alternative plan to build housing here. Amazon’s not getting in the way of a real world proposal.

      The property isn’t even for sale yet. It is quite possible that if they did put it up for sale, a housing developer would be interested in it, and build there. To quote the original article:

      Both appear to be feasibility plans for Amazon to occupy — if not own — the Pepsi and Lowe’s sites on Rainier Avenue South. One or both sites may be in play. Neither property is publicly listed for sale.

      It is quite possible that the companies that own the land won’t sell, just like Bill Pierre family isn’t selling their land in Lake City. This is just a company looking for potential areas to build a distribution center.

      There are plenty of housing projects in the works for that area: https://www.seattleinprogress.com/. I count 7 within a couple blocks, and most are the six to seven story variety (e. g. https://www.seattleinprogress.com/project/3028449/page/1). It is quite possible that this will go nowhere, and become housing like those projects. It is also quite possible that it does get developed as a distribution center, simply because it is so difficult to add housing in this city.

  8. It’s kind of an indictment about changing shopping habits.

    – In the 1960’s, a new shopping center would have been called a win.

    – In the 2000’s, an urban lifestyle village shopping street would have been called a win.

    – Now, it’s online ordering and home delivery that has emerged as a more optimal shopping model. This trend flies in the face of what retail is supposed to be. It has implications for much of urban America expects from retail — and some deep reflection is needed.

    Economists already have been predicting the ongoing demise of regional shopping malls and big box retailing as online sales replace shopping trip sales.

    So I see this as a growing challenge for the city planning profession and particularly land use regulation to address. It’s a cultural shift and merely being nostalgic for 1999 seems to not be practical .

    1. Online ordering and delivery has taken over more of the rhetorical sphere than the actual landscape. Only a tiny fraction of products are ordered online or delivered. The US overbuilt malls and big box stores per capita compared to other industrialized countries, and many of them have been declining and closing for decades, even before Amazon went beyond books. Remember the Auburn Supermall? It never reached its potential, supposedly because it was too close to the Federal Way Commons, Southcenter, and Tacoma Mall. Companies built competing big box stores near each other to try to take each other’s business, so one of them would inevitably fail or decline. And companies followed the throwaway American culture: 1950s malls were abandoned as 1970s malls were built elsewhere, and then 1990s malls and then urban lifestyle centers like U Village. Northgate survived better than most by having a strong market around it, and by renovating in place.

      If deliveries become the norm, it may just be returning to what was common in the American West in the early 1900s. People had milk and eggs and meat delivered, and even ordered houses from the Sears catalog.

      My concern with the rise of deliveries is third-party online middlemen taking 30% of the cut, and the additional disposable packaging they use. Hopefully these things can be addressed if the future is to be mostly delivery.

  9. The best regulatory buffer for TOD seems to me to probably require smaller blocks with public right of way for pedestrian and bicycle access as well as very slow moving cars. This seems to be a land assembly-driven decision as much as anything; it’s only two parcels! Assembling similar land to this even in SODO would require more parcels in most places.

    Many of our best urban villages have small blocks. Many have complained that access to Lowe’s is hampered by walking around its huge block. Rather than strategize a zoning solution, maybe we should strategize about preventing superblocks.

    1. I think that’s a great point – the parcel size, not zoning, is what makes this parcel so compelling for industrial use. I do wonder if redeveloping required breaking up the super block would have discourage Amazon or another tenant from proposing a warehouse/distribution center.

      But that also might be part of Frank’s point. If these ‘last-mile’ distribution centers are just the 21st century version of big box stores, then the question is how do we incorporate these uses into a transit rich, pedestrian friendly environment, rather than simply banned them out of sight. The problem is the form, not the use.

      1. Yep.

        There’s a huge UPS depot in Manhattan, occupying a prime city block on the Hudson. But it is just that – another building used by a business. It doesn’t present any special obstacle to pedestrians. No different than any other built-up block in the city.

        People forget some of the infrastructure that is around them.

      2. It IS “the use”. This will not be a “will call” in which people from the surrounding neighborhood come to pick up packages, which would be analogous to the current use as Lowe’s. It will be a “break-bulk” distribution center in which several dozen full-sized semi’s a day will come from a regional DC and disgorge their contents to be distributed to those Amazon local vans for delivery. As I said before, that is a perfect analogue to a rail yard; the only difference is that what is being distributed for forwarding is packages, not entire railcars.

        It is an “industrial” use.

        No, it’s not as noisy or noxious as a working railyard, but it functions in exactly the same way for an essentially identical purpose.

    2. The fact this site, 12 years after light rail opened, is still undeveloped, in probably the hottest real estate market in the country, suggests there are hurdles.

      The MHA and MFTE are two hurdles, and the fact this 23 acre site is still mostly undeveloped hopefully will be a wake up call, unless it becomes an Amazon distribution center.

      There are other market forces. This area isn’t the most lucrative housing market for a developer with this much horsepower to pull off such a development when that same developer could look for large parcels on the eastside, or in Snohomish and Pierce Counties, that could be subdivisions for single family homes. A light rail station is a plus, but schools are a bigger negative. Local public schools are not highly rated, and crime is an issue.

      Housing sales prices post-pandemic — especially in Seattle — are much stronger for single family homes than multi-story housing, and the demand is for more space, so any developer and lender would be nervous about a massive multi-family development when the developer on east Capitol Hill recently sold over 170 new multi-family units to the city at a cost of around $243,000/unit for affordable housing because the developer could not sell the units. In non-subsidized development the name of the game is profit.

      While affordable multi-family housing is generally much smaller units, those have the worst profit for a developer. Apartments require the developer to hold the property rather than sell it upon development, which ties up a lot of capital, especially after you apply the MHA or affordable housing requirements.

      Another issue with the mixed-use development model that is a problem from Skyway to Mercer Island is the meager retail it creates, and so the hoped for urban lifestyle never materializes because there is so little retail within walking distance.

      In fact most sites lose net retail upon development into a “mixed use” projects unless in an already existing urban core. Some of that is code driven because the parking set asides for retail, especially if underground which developers don’t want due to cost, and these kinds of projects don’t create true retail density, and so get few shoppers or diners outside the development so retail fails. A Lowes is a valuable store to have in a community, but there is very little else.

      My guess is if the property were allowed to be developed with smaller lot, smaller house to lot area ratio single family homes, with common green areas, without the MHA and MFTE, there would be a lot of interest by developers, just like they are interested in the same kind of undeveloped land in Snohomish, Pierce, Kitsap and East King Counties. The houses would probably include garages, for storage and cars, because folks — even in Seattle — like cars, and don’t like them broken into, and don’t want their stuff stolen either. If the plan is thousands of dense apartments my guess is the surrounding community would object, because how does that benefit them, certainly if the community got the idea Seattle or the County were going to use the site to move the homeless there or create emergency housing.

      23 acres = around 1.001 million square feet, and 1500 sf houses with one car garage would create around 1200 units when common areas are deducted.

      But even new small single family houses would not be very affordable, certainly considering the exploding cost and lack of inventory for single family homes in Seattle. But the single family house right now is by far the most desirable housing choice in Seattle, and small single family houses on the property would likely entice a major developer, and would create at least more affordable single family homes in an area that could use the “gentrification”, especially if you have a family.

      A single family home development model is no longer politically attractive in Seattle, even if the houses are small. Considering the jobs an Amazon distribution facility would bring to this area that is probably the best use because 12 years after light rail opened with no housing development on this site we can assume the zoning, taxes, mandates and market forces don’t support the urban, multi-family mixed-use, affordable housing model. It isn’t like Amazon is the first developer to notice 23 undeveloped acres in this area of the city.

      If some kind of urban village, mixed-use development with affordable housing is not attractive to developers 12 years after light rail opened — and the city does not want to subsidize a development the neighborhood would likely object to — it doesn’t make sense to compare an Amazon distribution center with this utopian vision.

      Rather compare a distribution center with what the more likely alternatives are, which is the current use of the property. To have someone like the editor of The Urbanist who graduated from college last year claim “simply put, this plan must be stopped” based on a dream of 4000 affordable units (with Amazon ideally subsidizing the development) without providing a viable alternative is unfair to the surrounding community, and fails to understand why this property still has not been developed 12 years after light rail opened.

      4000 housing units on 23 acres is 250 sf per unit of land (43,560 sf/acre X 23 acres = 1.001 million square feet of land/4000 housing units = 250 sf per unit. Which sounds more like a prison to me, or an editor who is not good at math.

      So if you are not going to get the housing or affordable housing you want in a private market, the city won’t subsidize the development, and the community would probably object to the city’s development plan, take the jobs.

      1. A light rail station is a plus, but schools are a bigger negative. Local public schools are not highly rated

        Bullshit. Adjusted for income they are outstanding, as are all the schools in Seattle.

        Your posts often follow this same pattern. You start out with a decent argument, then a couple paragraph in, you start spouting bullshit. Then it just devolves into nonsensical arguments:

        But even new small single family houses would not be very affordable, certainly considering the exploding cost and lack of inventory for single family homes in Seattle.

        On the one hand you think that no one wants to build there (no market because of all the crime and bad schools) and then you claim that the houses will be really expensive, since there aren’t enough houses. You are talking in circles; very large, time consuming circles.

      2. Lets just put it out in the open, Rainer Valley schools are considered lower quality by white parents because they have more diversity. Is that nonsense? Yes. Is it a real reason why seemingly lucrative parcels remain undeveloped along light rail? Absolutely.

      3. True townhouses might be a good use for this property as you implied in your advocacy of small houses. They are efficient with land because they’re narrow and tall, like “flats”. A single-car garage and an entry/bonus room can fit in a 30 foot street frontage with the kitchen behind d the garrage. It’s an efficient layout.

        No, they’re not great for light and views, but this part of the RV is hemmed in on all sides by hills, so views are not available anywhere below the 12th floor.

        The most important thing is to keep the heavy hauler truck traffic away from this activity center and not waste commercial/residential land on a charging station.

      4. Seattle schools are average nationally. They just look bad because they’re adjacent to some of the best school districts in the country: Bellevue, Lake Washington, Shoreline, Northshore.

      5. I highly doubt that building apartments and condos is affected much by schools. Residents in these housing types generally don’t have children.

        Further, Thurgood Marshall Elementary , Washington Middle and Franklin High score inside the top 10 or 20 percent of all school rankings from various web sites. Trashing the schools as a reason why this property hadn’t developed is a total red herring — and appears to be perpetuating a false negative stereotype about SE Seattle demographics.

        In other words, the statement is blunt opinionated bigotry over researched facts.

      6. Rainer Valley schools are considered lower quality by white parents because they have more diversity. Is that nonsense? Yes. Is it a real reason why seemingly lucrative parcels remain undeveloped along light rail? Absolutely.

        It is more complicated than that. Many of the parcels were chopped into little bits by ST, which made them more difficult to sell. Factors like the one you are describing doesn’t explain why property in the Central District is so expensive. There are a lot of factors, and that goes for Link light rail. Yes, it is convenient, but it could be noisy as well (and if you’re not sure, then it you are less likely to buy).

        In any event, there are plenty of developments in the area, including 7 new apartment buildings within a couple blocks of the property (https://www.seattleinprogress.com/). There are fairly expensive brand new townhouses nearby (https://www.redfin.com/WA/Seattle/3309-Wetmore-Ave-S-98144/unit-D/home/174700361) as well as million dollar homes (https://tinyurl.com/ut2hjpf5) not very far away. Those are all the homes in the area that have sold for over a million in the last year. It ain’t exactly East Saint Louis.

        The idea that nothing can be built here is ridiculous. No, its not Magnolia … wait, yes it is! The third proposal was for development in Magnolia. Is that because parents think the schools in Magnolia are poor?

        Of course not. Folks are missing the big picture. This is not cheap land. This is very attractive land. It is attractive for housing for various reasons. It is attractive as a distribution center because of its convenience — all those different roads going everywhere. I’m sure if they allowed it, they would build one in Laurelhurst (that would really be convenient). But they don’t, because it is zoned for houses.

        This is a huge zoning snafu. A distribution center should be built on industrial land, in somewhere like SoDo or that sight in Magnolia.

      7. Seattle schools are average nationally. They just look bad because they’re adjacent to some of the best school districts in the country: Bellevue, Lake Washington, Shoreline, Northshore.

        I would put Seattle schools above all those you listed. Mercer Island is really the only school district that competes with Seattle schools (largely because they have big bucks). Look at things like the chess championships. You see Seattle schools, Mercer Island and Lakeside (again, big bucks). Or debate championships. Or Jazz competition (Roosevelt and Garfield) or mock trials (Franklin). Where is Franklin, anyway? That’s right, within spitting distance of this proposed development.

        Trashing the schools as a reason why this property hadn’t developed is a total red herring — and appears to be perpetuating a false negative stereotype about SE Seattle demographics.

        In other words, the statement is blunt opinionated bigotry over researched facts.

        Exactly. Well said, Al.

  10. I’m not sure if scanning the Daily Journal of Commerce headlines is idiosyncratic among this crowd…

    1. No Ross, I recently posted U.S. News ranking of public schools throughout Washington State and Seattle public schools are not outstanding, especially where this parcel is located. https://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/washington/rankings.

      http://planwashington.org/blog/archive/which-k-12-schools-are-washington-states-best/

      https://www.schooldigger.com/go/WA/schoolrank.aspx

      That is why 22% of Seattle parents send their kids to private K-12 schools, second highest in the nation.

      I know how defensive you get any time anyone suggests Seattle is not perfect, and understand that. But developers are not bloggers, and have to be realistic about everything from schools to crime.

      “Bullshit. Adjusted for income they [Seattle Schools] are outstanding, as are all the schools in Seattle.”

      This is just such a crazy statement I think it highlights you tend to look at Seattle through rose colored glasses, or take any criticism of Seattle personally, even areas like downtown you rarely visit. No city has all outstanding schools. And Seattle’s average income is among the highest in the state.

      Actually I didn’t mean to suggest there is a great demand to build housing on these 23 acres, obviously since it isn’t developed. I tried to suggest why a housing developer has not have been attracted to 23 mostly undeveloped acres in south Seattle, because some on this blog and others would prefer some kind of housing or TOD, but of course are not builders or developers themselves.

      What I tried to suggest is a model that might attract buyers which then attracts developers, if you desire housing. Single family homes are so hot in Seattle right now (more north of Yesler of course) maybe new, smaller, single family homes might attract a housing developer to this parcel. Maybe not. Like any new construction they would not be affordable in the traditional sense of AMI, (even new DADU’s can cost $600,000) but likely more affordable than single family homes (even existing) in the rest of the city, maybe equal to equal size condos.

      But it is pointless to compare an Amazon distribution center that would bring jobs to 4000 affordable housing units, each using 250 sf of space, when no developer will build that, and the community would rightfully object to such an abusive development when this kind of development would not be permitted in whiter Seattle neighborhoods.

      My guess is the parcel will become an Amazon distribution site, because no one in the past has valued it for housing development, so as I concluded the distribution center is probably the best realistic use of the property.

      Still, it is probably a good idea for some to ask why 23 acres in this part of Seattle has not been an attractive candidate for housing development all these years, despite light rail. Can you imagine what this piece of property would bring in Issaquah, without any light rail?

      1. So you are saying that people are stupid enough to base their assessment of the schools on rankings that are essentially a proxy for income? Yeah, maybe. You are just repeating Joe Z’s point. Parents can be stupid. We get that.

        Seriously dude, how many people do you know have graduated from Seattle schools recently? I know plenty. For that matter, how many teachers or principals do you know personally? Again, I know several. Have you visited the schools? I have, and was impressed by what they were doing. If your kid can’t get a good education in Seattle Public Schools, then there is something wrong at home. Unfortunately, that is the case quite often (and not just in Seattle).

        Yet your overall point — that land here is cheap — is clearly wrong. These are the houses that have sold for over a million dollars in the last year: https://tinyurl.com/ut2hjpf5. Just this last year! Holy smoke that is a lot of people paying huge amounts of money to live an area you consider cheap. How about condos and townhouses for over half a million: https://tinyurl.com/2nvj32na. Again, dozens and dozens of them, just in the last year. This is not cheap land. This is not East Saint Louis (feel free to try that exercise there — but you’ll have to get really low to find anything).

        Land is not cheap here. It was a few years ago, but not now. Maybe because some people figured out that the schools really are good and black people aren’t that scary.

    2. “Lets just put it out in the open, Rainer Valley schools are considered lower quality by white parents because they have more diversity. Is that nonsense? Yes. Is it a real reason why seemingly lucrative parcels remain undeveloped along light rail? Absolutely”.

      https://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/washington/districts/seattle-public-schools/rainier-beach-high-school-21154

      Rainier Beach High School is rated 249/310 Washington State High Schools, 95/115 Seattle Metro High Schools, 11/13 Seattle High Schools, and 13,345/17,792 nationally. And this is for public schools.

      https://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/washington/districts/bellevue-school-district/bellevue-high-school-20732

      Compare Bellevue above.

      There are a lot of non-white parents in Seattle who send their kids to private schools, and a lot of non-white parents who moved to the eastside for better schools.

      https://bellevuewa.gov/city-government/departments/community-development/data/demographic-data/city-demographic-profile

      50% of Bellevue in non-white, with 39% having been born in another country.

      1. Rainier Beach High’s attendance zone is miles from this property. The relevant scores should be Thurgood Marshall Elementary, Washington Muddle and Franklin High — all schools that score well above average on school ratings web sites.

      2. Digging into Daniel’s links, 68% of the students at Franklin are considered economically disadvantaged; yet FHS ranks #43 in all WA high schools. The supposedly superior eastside schools have percentages that are in the teens (or lower). At the #1 school in the state, Tesla STEM (LWSD), 2% of the students are considered economically disadvantaged. Mercer Island HS (#8 in the state) has a 3% economic disadvantage rate.

  11. Comment section: King County is facing revenue shortfalls! We need more tax revenue!
    Amazon: We pay $2 million/year in property taxes for our Kent fulfillment center. We’d like to build one on Rainier Ave.
    Comment Section: Absolutely not!

    1. My understanding is that new development doesn’t create incremental property tax revenue, but instead expands the overall tax base against which a particular levy could be raised. Unlike other states, I don’t think Seattle gets incremental revenue from an individual parcel developed to a higher value?

      Permit fees and sales tax from construction would incremental albeit one-time local revenue sources.

    2. Rankings Franklin High School:

      #2,181 in National Rankings
      #43 in Washington High Schools
      #30 in Seattle, WA Metro Area High Schools
      #6 in Seattle Public Schools High Schools

      https://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/washington/districts/seattle-public-schools/franklin-high-school-21148

      This would support what Al S. writes and what what Mike Orr writes, that some Seattle schools score better than others, but overall are average nationally, but are surrounded by much better school districts, and private schools, which is probably why Seattle has such a high percentage of parents who send their kids to private K-12 schools.

      For parents schools are usually the number one factor when deciding which neighborhood they choose to live in (depending on price). To suggest people living in condos or apartments don’t have kids is not accurate, in any city. In fact, the better the school district (especially for special education in districts like Mercer Island that have fully funded and excellent special education programs) many parents move to multi-family housing they can afford to access the schools and school programs. Same with Bellevue. The fact is the same size lot in Ballard or Laurelhurst will cost more than one next to the parcel Amazon is looking for.

      I think it is a mistake to assume poorer citizens, or minorities, don’t have kids, or want to live in a small multi-family unit when obviously those who can afford it prefer a single family house based on current demand. I just don’t see a lot of white empty nesters moving to a housing project on this property. My guess is it will mostly be families. I like TT’s idea of townhomes, but that just isn’t “dense” enough for some, although the dense housing they want does not attract developers.

      I thought a recent post from Ross with a link to the U.S. population density map from 2012, and a post from Mike Orr I think, were very interesting, because the map showed eastside neighborhoods had basically the same population density as Seattle neighborhoods despite generally larger single family lots, and less multi-family zoning. As Mike explained, for areas in South Seattle with high immigrant populations several generations often live in a single family house. The fact is eastside houses often have kids, which increases density per lot. There are fewer singles or childless couples living on the eastside.

      One of the conundrums on Mercer Island is we have met our “maximum build out population” of 26,000 based on a buildable lands survey when the PSRC in its 2040 Vision Statement stated our total population should be around 24,000 in 2040, and yet we still have 1314 housing units to permit through 2035 under our past housing targets (although that represents basically no new additional units over prior targets).

      The fact is the PSRC and King Co. are very urban in their housing targets, and assume everyone lives alone or at most with one other person. So units, no matter how small, are the metric, although a larger unit/lot with more people (kids) living there creates the same population density, which is why despite a move towards smaller units Seattle has the same population density as comparable eastside neighborhoods.

      So for Mercer Island, which has reached its population maximums unless it wants to change the character of the Island, the solution is to permit many very small town center units, including studios, to meet its housing targets, even though that is not a popular housing choice for Mercer Island and they still won’t be very affordable.

      1. I know one thing. A graduate of Franklin would figure out how to comment in the right place. You keep making the same stupid argument, but in various places, while ignoring the obvious counter-argument. What part of “the numbers are proxies for wealth” don’t you understand?

        The numbers are based largely on tests. These are bullshit, and well known to be culturally biased. They also check things like how many kids are taking advanced placement classes. All other things being equal (i. e. the same school) a wealthier kid is more likely to do better according to these type of measures. So how is Franklin doing?

        79% of the students are taking and passing a college level course by 12th grade. At the same time, 19% fail to graduate within four years, and 10% don’t graduate at all. What gives, right? Maybe it is because 64% are on free or reduced lunch. There are a lot of poor kids that struggle to graduate, while there are a lot of kids doing college level work in high school (including many poor kids). It is the best of times, it is the worst of times.

        Good God, man, welcome to America. We have the greatest universities in the world, yet so many of our students struggle. The reason countries like Finland kick our ass with various tests is because they have a safety net for all their citizens. There are over 4,000 homeless children in Seattle, as of the last report (done before the pandemic). There are countless others that go to bed hungry. The schools are good, but if you are hungry, and worried about where you are going to sleep at night, it is pretty damn hard to focus on your studies. That is just the tip of iceberg when it comes to the social problems that are common in this country, but not in other, more advanced ones.

        I realize all of this must come as a shock to you, living in Mercer Island. But this is the real America. The schools do an excellent job, but America just let the kids down.

      2. I was surprised when I found out a few years ago that half of Seattle’s children are in private schools. I think the high rate reflects Seattle’s high average income. The parents I know who send their kids to private schools do it to give them not just an average education but a top-rate one. Seattle’s public schools aren’t particularly bad, and have some innovative programs as RossB mentioned, and the city is not as polarized or ghettoed as many American cities, so I think the unexpectedly high rate of private schooling is due mostly to high average incomes. These people tend to value private schooling more and can afford it. The interesting thing may be that they haven’t moved to the suburbs, whereas in more polarized or neglected cities they would have.

  12. I think the percentage of K-12 Seattle students in private school is a hair under 22%, not 50%. Seattle has the second highest percentage, after San Francisco at 25%. Mike is probably correct high incomes in Seattle account for such a high percentage of K-12 students in private school.

    Of course, the percentage would probably be higher if more Seattle parents could afford private schools. I think most private schools offer needs based scholarships, including transportation. It would be interesting to know the percentage of kids living south of Yesler who go to private school vs. kids who live north of Yesler.

    Having kids in private school in Seattle costs a fortune that can reach $20k/year per kid when that tuition is not tax deductible and could go toward a bigger mortgage on the Eastside, and it is a huge hassle transporting the kids to and from school on a daily basis. Plus your kids’ friends are spread out throughout the city. Driving from West Seattle to Magnolia for a two hour play date is a hassle.

    Parents in the suburbs also send kids to private schools. The two biggest reasons are religious faith, and schools that accept one sex only, usually girls who find the public high school mean or cliquish.

    Plus some more conservative parents disagree with the progressive leanings of their public school boards and administrations. Some also think the private schools — especially a school like Lakeside and some private high schools — provide a superior education.

    1. In my experience living in other cities (specifically Chicago, Philadelphia and New York), virtually all white parents sent their children to private school. Sometimes they would send their kids to public school if they lived in an expensive neighborhood (assuming the neighborhood school wasn’t actually filled with minority students that transferred in from other neighborhoods, which is very common in Philadelphia), or if they could get their kids into a magnet school. If the proportion of children in private school is higher in Seattle, I strongly suspect that it is because the proportion of white children is higher than most other cities.

      1. Countries compared. Percentage of students that attend private schools.
        Bangladesh: 95%. Zimbabwe: 71%. India: 42%. USA: 8%

        I didn’t realize those other counties had so many white racist parents.

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