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SOUTH LAKE UNION REZONE-- SEVEN REALITIES
December 13, 2012 marks the six month anniversary of the Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability (PLUS) Committee’s first discussion of the South Lake Union rezone proposal. As we enter our seventh month of analysis, it is useful to keep in mind several facts that informed the legislation and that should frame our consideration going forward.
- South Lake Union is an Urban Center and the proposed density implements Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan. In 2004, the City Council officially designated South Lake Union as an “Urban Center” in the Seattle Comprehensive Plan. Urban Centers are a key element in the region’s implementation of the Growth Management Act (GMA). They are intended to have high levels of housing and employment growth, in contrast to the rest of the City, which is intended to grow more gradually.
In 2004 South Lake Union was assigned a twenty year growth target of 8,000 households and 12,000 jobs, approximately 17% of the City’s household growth and 19% of the employment growth for that period. The planning horizon for this rezone extends out twenty years, and by 2031 South Lake Union would have to absorb some 12,000 households and 22,000 jobs in order to continue to meet its share of future growth. The rezone provides the required 125% of targets mandated in State law. It also provides additional capacity that recognizes that South Lake Union is developing very rapidly, and that decisions made on this rezone will shape the neighborhood for the next hundred years. The City is not likely to rezone the area again for many years.
As Seattle continues to grow, if we fail to ensure that South Lake Union and other Urban Centers can accommodate this growth, other neighborhoods will have to absorb greater numbers of residents than are currently planned.
- This zoning proposal is endorsed by the South Lake Union Community Council, the designated stewards of the South Lake Union Neighborhood Plan. The South Lake Union Community Council includes residents, businesses, and property owners in the South Lake Union neighborhood. It has been the recognized stewardship organization for the neighborhood plan for more than a decade. The Council worked with the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) for three years on this proposal, made some difficult decisions and tough choices, and developed a consensus position in support of the final proposal. The rezone has also been endorsed by the Uptown and Queen Anne Community Councils, who are the closest neighbors. The Cascade Community Council participated in the rezone process and asked to keep the current zoning in the Cascade Neighborhood on the east side of South Lake Union, and that request was accepted, with no change proposed in the zoning in Cascade.
- The proposed zoning embodies the principles of good urban form. Across Denny Way, the Denny Triangle has zoning up to 500 feet high. The south side of Denny Way has a 400 foot height limit, and the proposed rezone will extend that 400 foot height to the north side - making it consistent. The zoning then tapers down to the 240 foot height on the Mercer blocks, with further tapering provided by the 100 foot drop in elevation between Denny and Mercer. Good urban design is further reinforced by development standards and incentives that will encourage a diverse urban form rather than the full-block build-outs that current zoning would allow. Proposed towers are widely spaced, with no more than two to a block with required separations. Only one tower per block would be permitted on the Mercer blocks. There are strong street-level design standards and incentives to ensure a lively and vibrant pedestrian environment, and a series of subarea standards designed to ensure that development maintains the character of specific communities. There are also incentives to preserve landmark properties and existing open spaces and a new program that will preserve farm and forest lands by transferring development rights into the urban area.
Projects using the incentive program will also be required to meet the Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) certification of silver or better for building environmental performance, have a transportation management program that ensures that no more than 40 percent of trips to and from the project will be made using single‐occupant vehicles, and have an energy management program and conservation strategy.
- Public views are protected; the City does not - and should not - decide who gets private views. The City protects public views from designated viewpoints, parks, and street corridors. These views would be protected, as would the views of the Space Needle, a designated landmark. The proposal carefully spaces out higher buildings, limits the size of the floor plates and the density of towers, and uses setbacks to preserve public view corridors.
While the City does take private views into account in zoning decisions, which is one of the reasons that tower spacing was included in this proposal, in general private views are explicitly not protected in City code. Protecting private views would require the City to make choices elevating the rights of one property owner over another. Protecting private views would also threaten the City’s commitment to the urban forest, as a mature tree can block views. There will be impacts to private views from this rezone proposal, but the new views will be consistent with current views in the downtown area, combining the urban landscape with natural features. In some cases the more diverse urban forms will provide less view blockage than is allowed under current zoning.
- The residential towers on the Mercer blocks will have positive impacts on Lake Union Park. The three Mercer blocks are separated from most of South Lake Union by a wide Mercer boulevard. Current zoning or zoning that does not allow towers would most likely encourage commercial rather than residential development on these blocks because office space is very valuable in South Lake Union. The proposed zoning only permits residential development fronting on Lake Union Park. Having people living close to Lake Union Park will ensure that the Park is activated, with users having easy access at all hours of the day. In addition, the zoning requires street-level retail uses that will spill out on the street and help activate the park, as well as requiring that 20% of the block area be set aside as open space. As with many urban parks, Lake Union Park is beautiful but not heavily used, because it is currently a destination rather than a neighborhood amenity. The only way to ensure that urban parks are active, well-used, and safe environments is to ensure that they have nearby residents who can easily access them on a regular basis. Because they are south of the Park, the proposed towers will have some shading effects, but will not block sunlight.
- The South Lake Union proposal includes a comprehensive transportation package that will improve travel in the neighborhood. Completion of the Mercer project and the SR 99 tunnel will increase the number of east-west streets from two (Mercer and Denny) to five (Mercer, Denny, Thomas, Harrison, and John). The rezone includes transportation mitigation that will further improve access - ensuring that new developments fund transportation improvements and enhancements. Transportation analyses show that the proposed mitigation will improve or stabilize travel opportunities around South Lake Union.
- There are significant benefits for affordable housing. New housing is inherently more expensive than existing housing, and it is difficult to provide low income or even work force housing in new projects. While new development in South Lake Union will not displace existing affordable or low income housing, it will not increase the supply unless there are incentives and requirements for developer contributions. These provisions must be carefully designed to ensure that it will still be attractive for developers to construct housing, especially in an area like South Lake Union where commercial office space can be a profitable competing option.
Current Seattle incentive zoning provisions require developers to either include affordable housing in their projects or to contribute to funds that will build low income housing if the developer wants to build to the maximum height and density. These provisions are generally well accepted, and the proposals for South Lake Union will ensure that there is a significant contribution to low income housing production in the City. In addition, the Mayor’s office has negotiated a draft agreement with Vulcan, owners of the Mercer blocks that would provide land that could be used for additional low income housing and other public benefits. This would be part of the conditions for allowing an additional eight stories of tower development on those blocks (to the maximum of 240 feet).
The Council will carefully review these provisions and proposals to ensure that the City gets the best possible contribution to affordable housing. We will balance that goal against the risk of raising the cost of residential development so much that it causes developers to build offices instead.
Conclusion: The City Council should consider modest adjustments that would strengthen the proposed rezone, but should endorse the major elements of the proposal. The proposed South Lake Union rezone is the last step in a comprehensive update of the South Lake Union Neighborhood Plan. The Department of Planning and Development (DPD) has been working with the South Lake Union community since 2008 to develop this proposal. Most of the work was completed this summer, and the Council received the final legislation in September. We are exhaustively examining the proposed rezone, and considering some adjustments that are consistent with the environmental review of the proposal completed by DPD. I will encourage the Council to recognize these realities of the proposed rezone, to adopt the major provisions, and to allow South LakeUnion to be the great Urban Center envisioned in the South Lake Union Neighborhood Plan.
PROGRESSIVE CHANGE AGENTS IN THE NATIONAL LEAGUE OF CITIES
The venerable National League of Cities (NLC), which represents almost 2000 municipalities around the country, is evolving into an even more active change agent on behalf of urban areas. NLC has historically been a moderately progressive organization, focused on securing federal resources for cities. NLC’s membership includes many smaller and more conservative cities, and the organization is very careful about taking positions that could divide its members. The organization has been slowly moving towards more progressive stances, and at its convention this month in Boston, NLC continued the broadening of its policy perspectives.
Next November, the annual convention will be in Seattle, and the organization has agreed to provide delegates an opportunity for the first time to vote on a resolution endorsing marriage equality. It has only been in the last few years that NLC endorsed Comprehensive Immigration reform and took a stand in favor of action on global warming. Both of those issues required several years of discussions before the organization was ready to make a decision. More recently, NLC has created a Sustainable Cities Institute and launched work on local food issues. In 2010 I sponsored a resolution that for the first time put NLC on record taking a stand in favor of a progressive Farm Bill. And at this year’s convention, after a vigorous floor fight, the membership overrode a 15 to 14 vote of the Resolutions Committee to take a stand on the practice of fracking (using water, sand and chemical additives that can contaminate water supplies to open sandstone and shale formations in order to extract oil and natural gas).
NLC has historically had a very strong Black Caucus, many of whom are from small cities in the South. With the retirement of the long-serving Executive Director, the Board (on which I sit) selected a former leader of that caucus as its new Executive Director, Clarence Anthony, former Mayor of South Bay, Florida. The Board also elected our first Latina President, Mayor Marie Lopez Rogers of Avondale, Arizona, who grew up as a farmworker and has led the urban resistance to the anti-immigration policies of Arizona’s Republican Governor and Legislature.
The League has taken a strong stand against the across-the-board spending cuts that would come if there is not federal action on the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’, and in favor of revenue enhancements as part of any deficit reduction plan. Once that set of issues have been addressed, we see immigration reform is a critical priority for 2013. I will participate in a January Board meeting that will identify our three or four highest legislative priorities, and in the March Legislative conference in DC that will mobilize several thousand city leaders to go to Capitol Hill to advocate for them.
Several years ago I worked with then-Mayor Nickels to get NLC to designate Seattle as the site for the 2013 National Conference - the first time NLC has come to Seattle since the mid-1980’s, when then-Mayor Charles Royer served as NLC President. After securing the Board’s endorsement for the Seattle conference, in 2011 I became the first Seattle representative in some 15 years to be elected to the NLC Board, after serving as both a member and Chair of NLC policy committees over the last few years. I was elected along with several other Mayors and Councilmembers who had been active in the Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources Policy Committee, one of NLC’s most progressive policy groups. We are part of shaping the evolution of the organization into a bolder and more progressive vision that will help NLC revitalize itself after losing several hundred member cities due to the strained local budgets of the Great Recession.
The 2013 Seattle Convention will be an opportunity for the whole region to demonstrate our collaborative and innovative work on urban issues, as we are working with the Association of Washington Cities and our suburban partners to design the conference. City leaders from around the country have expressed enthusiasm about visiting Seattle, and it will be a great chance for us to show off our progress on transit, urban development, zero waste, local food, economic vitality, and environmental stewardship to thousands of City officials.
SEATTLE UNIVERSITY TO ADD 2500 STUDENTS AND 1500 FACULTY AND STAFF
On Monday, December 10, the Council unanimously adopted a new Major Institution Master Plan (MIMP) for Seattle University. The MIMP replaces the current plan, which was approved by Council in 1997 and expires this year. Under the new Master Plan, Seattle University is authorized to double in size, expanding from the 2.2 million square feet of development to 4.4 million square feet. Seattle University needed this amount of development to accommodate a forecasted increase in full time students (from 6,700 to 9,200), and to support an increase of 1500 new faculty and staff positions. Seattle University does this with only a very modest increase in campus size from 55 to 57 acres, adding some small pieces of property adjacent to the University on Broadway and east of 12th.
The MIMP process is designed to provide certainty to neighborhoods and institutions about the long-range growth plans, in this case for at least the next twenty years. It is a multi-year process guided by the City’s Department of Neighborhoods who works with a Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC), the institution, and the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to review the proposed plan and make recommendations to the City’s Hearing Examiner. The Hearing Examiner makes a recommendation that goes to the City Council as a quasi-judicial issue.
Under quasi-judicial rules, which are also used for contract rezones (a rezone of a specific piece of property, as opposed to a neighborhood rezone) and a few other proceedings, the Council sits as a judicial body making a decision on the issue based on a formal record established in the Hearing Examiner process. Councilmembers are not allowed to take input and collect opinions and arguments except in a formal public proceeding (although they may take cognizance of City documents such as Neighborhood Plans, and may visit locations to view proposed land uses). Council is required by State law to adopt such rules as they are deciding on the property rights of an individual property owner, in this case Seattle University.
The MIMP process can be a long and drawn out procedure. Fortunately, since MIMP’s forecast growth over a period of at least 15 to 20 years, the Council only receives about one MIMP every two years. The last MIMP that the Council worked on was for Seattle Children’s Hospital, which involved significant expansions in both area and development capacity, and took a number of months to work through. The Seattle University MIMP, in contrast, was one of the least contentious MIMP’s that I remember.
It helps that there was such a small proposed addition to the Major Institution Overlay area. Most stakeholders were included on the CAC, and they worked out many of the issues. The Hearing Examiner process went smoothly as well, and by the time the MIMP came to the Council there were only two fairly narrow appeals that my Committee had to consider. We reviewed the key documents and heard oral arguments, and were able to make fairly quick decisions.
Both appeals came from members of the CAC. Two neighborhood representatives requested five changes, three to deny the eastward expansion areas, one requesting that student housing not qualify as replacement housing, and one requesting a stronger community notice process. The CAC as a whole also asked for a stronger notification process, and that student housing not qualify as replacement housing.
The PLUS Committee agreed with the appellants and deleted one of the proposed expansion areas, a single site extension north of Marion on the east side of 12th Avenue (the “Photocenter NW” site). We felt that SU had not demonstrated a need for this area, and were concerned that it might limit potential private development in an area that was important to the 12th Avenue Neighborhood Plan. We denied the other two boundary appeals and the housing and process appeals, noting that SU already owned most of the few properties involved and that there were appropriate development standards, mitigation, and procedures to address the concerns raised by the appellants.
This was my first time managing a MIMP process as Land Use Chair, and I am pleased by how smoothly it went. Good cooperation by all the parties involved and excellent staff work made this pretty painless. We are pleased that Seattle U was able to put together a plan that will allow it to grow with such limited impact on the surrounding community.
GREEN SEATTLE PARTNERSHIP FUNDED BY COUNCIL
On Friday, November 9, the City Council adopted a series of changes to the proposed 2013-2014 budgets submitted by the Mayor. The Council unanimously approved an amendment I sponsored that adds $500,000 each year to City funding for the Green Seattle Partnership, which mobilizes volunteers to maintain the health of our urban forests.
Seattle’s urban forest is an important asset to the City. Healthy trees in our parks and greenbelts keep steep slopes from becoming landslides and reduce flooding by absorbing and detaining stormwater. Seattle’s existing urban forest provides millions of dollars annually in benefits to the City, in addition to being a great natural environment for Seattle residents to enjoy and value. Forests also, of course, combat global warming by absorbing carbon. Those are all great reasons why Seattle has set of goal of expanding tree cover in the City.
But forests in an urban environment don’t thrive without maintenance. Our forests are adversely affected by invasive plants like ivy, which choke trees and ultimately can kill them. And, while we are happy to have all of our trees, many of those planted in past years are neither native trees nor well adapted newcomers, and those exotic species often have short life spans and need replacing.
It takes a lot of work to maintain the 2500 acres of City owned forest, and the City has never had enough funds to properly steward these trees.
Enter the Green Seattle Partnership, an innovative approach that combines public and private funding and volunteer labor to take up the task that public agencies cannot afford to do by themselves. Forterra, formerly the Cascade Land Conservancy, developed the Partnership idea a decade ago, and signed an agreement with the City in 2004 to begin a twenty-year effort to restore Seattle’s 2500 acres of forest. There have been many accomplishments over the years, and the City investment of $1 to $1.5 million annually has been matched several times over by private investment and volunteer energy.
Most recently, this effort was funded out of the 2008 Parks Levy, with a modest amount of assistance from the drainage fund of Seattle Public Utilities. The Parks Levy expires in 2014, however, and it has never reached the $2.5 million annually that was envisaged in the Partnership agreement. In 2012, the City provided $1.3 million, but that was scheduled to drop to $800,000 in 2013.
I asked Mayor McGinn to include additional funds in the 2013-2014 budgets to at least maintain the current level of effort, and I very much appreciate his agreement to do so. However, if we are to reach our goal of a healthy public forest, more funding will be needed. I proposed adding another $500,000, either from the drainage fund or other resources. Fortunately, the hot commercial real estate market is generating more tax revenues from the Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) than we had anticipated. Those funds can only be spent on capital construction and maintenance, not for expenditures like city staff, police, or human services - but maintaining the urban forest qualifies as an eligible use. So, the Council has voted to add these funds in 2013 and 2014.
We will have to revisit this issue in future years, but I am hopeful that either a renewed Parks levy or an ongoing allocation through the drainage fund will be approved in 2014.
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” - John Maynard Keynes
“American work must smack of our own soil, mental and moral, no less physical or it will have little of permanent value.” - Theodore Roosevelt
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