MAKING IT WORK
Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin
The purpose of this newsletter is to provide information, inspire involvement, and make things work in this great city.
May 3, 2006, Volume VIII, Issue 4
DOWNTOWN ZONING REVISIONS
On Monday, April 3, the City Council unanimously adopted an ordinance revising downtown height and density regulations to encourage more housing development. The goal is to continue to promote the health of our downtown (which is the envy of many other American cities), as well as to fulfill the Seattle Comprehensive Plan and Washington Growth Management Act objectives of encouraging more people to live in urban centers rather than impact farms, forests, and wilderness areas. Insofar as people live, work, and shop in compact and walkable communities, this has positive impacts on our overstressed transportation system as well.
The new height and density regulations build on and are consistent with the downtown neighborhood plans developed by residents and property owners in 1998-1999 as part of the neighborhood planning program. The downtown neighborhoods, meeting jointly as DUCPG (the Downtown Urban Center Planning Group), recommended major zoning changes to encourage housing, especially in the Denny Triangle Neighborhood, an area that has many small buildings and surface parking lots ready for redevelopment.
As Chair of the Neighborhoods Committee, I moved Phase I of these recommendations through the Council in 2000, but it took another five years to complete the process of environmental review and for the Mayor to formally recommend the rezones to the Council in 2005. The Council, under the leadership of Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, completed its review and adoption of this far-reaching legislation in less than a year.
The major change in the height and density proposals from the original neighborhood plan recommendations was to encourage 'taller, more slender towers'. Drawing on the experience of Vancouver, BC, the Mayor proposed, and the Council adopted, regulations that reduce the bulk of towers, requires separation to preserve views, and realizes similar levels of development by increasing allowed heights.
Because downtown development is generally expensive housing, the Mayor also proposed a per square foot fee on new housing, which would go into a pool of funds to construct low income housing. One of the major conflicts over the new legislation was at what level to set this fee.
Ultimately the Council adopted a tiered system, with a higher charge for the upper floors of a residential tower, generally the more expensive units. The increase goes beyond the $10 per square foot across-the-board proposal by the Mayor to achieve an average of almost $19 per square foot. Combined with the current commercial housing bonus, it will raise an estimated $104 million over the next 20 years for affordable housing. This funding can be used to leverage other sources and could produce up to $500 million-or about 2,600 new units of affordable housing.
The Council approved an incentive system that will require all new construction in most of downtown to meet green building standards defined by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. The legislation limits the number of floors of parking above grade and requires extensive screening for above-grade parking. The Council also required new buildings to have canopies that protect sidewalks and to include bicycle commuter facilities for commercial space.
Recognizing that housing is only one element of community-building, the Council also adopted two resolutions delineating additional steps to promote downtown livability. The first resolution calls for:
An assessment of how to increase the supply and affordability of housing stock;
Work to support employment opportunities that encourage economic self-sufficiency among Seattle residents and employees;
A feasibility study on siting new child care and K-12 schools in the Center City;
Standards to preserve historic buildings in downtown neighborhoods;
The development of a Center City Open Space Plan;
A series of other strategies and implementation tools to attract more families with children to live downtown, such as playgrounds, grocery stores, schools and community centers.
Further work to address chronic public nuisances to ensure positive co-existence among the variety of residential and non-residential uses in the Center City; and Developing an integrated multi-modal transportation system connecting downtown, Seattle neighborhoods and the region.
While the new zoning will lead to many more new housing units, and the fee per square foot will address some of the need for low income housing, the new housing is likely to be high end, and there will still be a lack of moderate income rental housing downtown. The Council asked the Executive to consider a range of ideas that would make it more feasible for developers to build and operate rental housing for middle income residents.
The second resolution calls for a public open space in the Belltown neighborhood and commits to purchasing property toward that end.
This legislation involved many hours of review and discussion, greatly informed by vigorous public participation. In the end, the legislation is a strong and well-crafted approach to shaping a healthy downtown for the next generation.
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ALASKAN WAY VIADUCT SURFACE AND TRANSIT OPTION
Recently the Council was briefed by the People's Waterfront Coalition (www.peopleswaterfront.org) on a 'Transit and Streets' alternative, which would involve replacing the viaduct with a series of other improvements to the downtown street and freeway system, as well as increasing the use of transit. Under this alternative, the current Alaskan Way would remain four lanes, but would become more of an urban arterial carrying approximately the same amount of traffic as First Avenue. Other improvements to the street grid would include steps such as rebuilding the Spokane Street viaduct to add an exit to Fourth Avenue, providing an alternative access to downtown for West Seattle drivers who currently use the Alaskan Way Viaduct. This is not a 'do nothing' option, but one that could potentially save the taxpayers many millions of dollars if it were feasible.
A proposal for a transit and surface option like this has never received a thorough review. With the region on the verge of committing billions of public dollars and enduring years of disruption, we must be absolutely confident of our approach. The Council has agreed to a preliminary review of a 'Transit and Streets' alternative; if this review shows promise, we will commit to a serious consultant study over the summer.
The Council made a decision for the tunnel as the preferred alternative in 2004. Since the legislature has asked us to reopen that decision, we should take advantage of that opportunity to examine a 'Transit and Streets' alternative, which challenges many assumptions about the future of our transportation system. The upside of demonstrating its feasibility would be enormous; if it turns out to be infeasible, that will have been clearly demonstrated and the region can move on knowing that it has received full and fair consideration.
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'STRIP CLUB' ZONING
Seattle is required by the courts to have areas zoned for "adult entertainment", and cannot prohibit these establishments from operation. The City had a moratorium on the siting of new strip clubs for some 17 years, but that was overturned two years ago by the courts as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech. Consequently, if the City does not adopt zoning that permits these establishments in certain areas, they could potentially locate in any area of the City.
In response to this court decision, the Mayor developed a set of criteria for distancing strip clubs from schools, day care centers, churches, and other places that would potentially have issues with them, and decided that confining them to a single area in the industrial area north of Georgetown was the best solution.
I respect the analysis that the Mayor's staff performed, and agree that there are few places around the City that are likely to welcome these businesses. As a result, I was originally inclined to support the proposed zone.
However, after listening to the public hearing held on this issue, I am concerned that creating a 'red light district' may be inappropriate, and that the area selected may also be inappropriate, not only because of concerns by neighboring communities, but also because of the potential impact of introducing still another potentially lucrative commercial use into Seattle's limited supply of industrially zoned land.
I have therefore decided to consider regulations that would allow siting these facilities at several appropriate locations around the City, with certain limitations (such as dispersion requirements and requirements for distancing from specific other uses that might be considered incompatible) that will limit potential negative impacts in any one neighborhood.
Councilmember Steinbrueck, the Chair of the Urban Development and Planning Committee, has asked the Seattle Planning Commission to review this issue and make a recommendation as to how we might do this in a way that is workable. I hope they will come up with a reasonable proposal that I can support. Insofar as these establishments foster public safety issues, I will also support strict enforcement of relevant laws in order to limit these impacts.
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SOLID WASTE INTERMODAL TRANSFER STATION
Seattle Public Utilities has proposed to site a new Intermodal Transfer Station across Airport Way from the King County Airport and adjacent to the Georgetown neighborhood. The proposed station will take the garbage collected in Seattle and load it into freight containers for shipment by rail. While the facility will be state-of-the-art, and will have excellent systems to minimize noise, odor, and other potential problems, the Georgetown community has significant concerns about this project.
After looking at the site and considering the impact, I have decided that the Council should step back from this proposal and review the need for a facility of this size and nature. No neighborhood is likely to welcome the displacement of businesses, the truck traffic, and other impacts. Further, the long range goal of the City of Seattle's policy is to focus on waste reduction and recycling as the appropriate ways to manage solid waste, not collection and disposal at land fills.
Councilmember Sally Clark and I have committed to conducting a full review of the need for this facility, of the structure of our solid waste collection system and contracts, and of other options for managing waste that would be more compatible with Seattle's values and neighborhoods. We expect to conduct that review over the next several months, and will not consider this siting proposal until we have exhaustively reviewed alternatives.
If we conclude that this facility is needed, we are also committed to investigating other possible sites that would not have the impact that the Corgiat Avenue site has on Georgetown, and to working to find ways to mitigate or eliminate as many of the impacts as possible, wherever the facility would be located.
Last Saturday, Earth Day, I had the opportunity to participate in the dedication of the art work at the new Gateway Park North on the Duwamish. The creation of this park is a tribute to the resiliency of the Georgetown community, a community that has suffered many negative impacts from public and private policy choices. I believe that the Council owes Georgetown every consideration possible before impacting it again through the location of still other problematic land uses.
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"The point of cities is multiplicity of choice."
-- Jane Jacobs (1916-2006; in memoriam)
"Plans are policies, and policies, in a democracy at any rate, spell politics. The question is not whether planning will reflect politics, but whose politics it will reflect."
-- Norton Long
Citizen participation and engagement are critical for maintaining democracy -- fostering it is a key task of elected officials. It's my hope that this newsletter will inform you about issues, inspire you to get involved, and that together we can make things work better in this great city. Please send me your feedback, so we can keep things lively, interesting, and useful. And please forward it along to friends who might be interested. You can get more information or send me feedback through the City Council website at http://cityofseattle.net/council/
Your Seattle City Councilmember
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