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SOUTH LAKE UNION REZONE APPROVED BY COUNCIL COMMITTEE
On Monday, April 22, the City Council celebrated Earth Day with a unanimous Committee of the Whole vote approving a far-reaching rezone of South Lake Union. The land use changes will allow for more jobs and housing close to downtown, reducing sprawl and the environmental degradation that accompanies it. The Council modified the legislation submitted by the Mayor by adding additional requirements for green buildings, historic preservation, and view protection, strengthening affordable housing provisions, and making a few changes in development capacity. However, the core provisions of the legislation continue to embody the recommendations of the South Lake Union Community Council, the stewardship body for the South Lake Union Neighborhood Plan update. The legislation will go forward for formal approval on Monday, May 6, but it is likely that only technical or minor changes will be made after the ten months of Committee work.
This action completes eight years of work to implement the 2004 designation of 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. Ensuring that South Lake Union and other Urban Centers can accommodate Seattle’s continued growth will take pressure off other neighborhoods that would have to absorb greater numbers of residents than are currently planned.
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. Decisions made on this rezone will shape the neighborhood for the next hundred years.
The rezone prepares the way for South Lake Union to become an integrated part of the downtown core and gets rid of the current zoning that fosters ‘breadbox’ buildings occupying full blocks. While allowing greater height in the form of towers, the new zoning also imposes development standards and incentives to encourage a diverse urban form, more open space and an enlivened streetscape. For example:
- Only one tower per block would be permitted on the Mercer blocks. Other blocks can have two towers but they must be more widely spaced than anywhere else in the city.
- There are strong street-level design standards and incentives to ensure a lively and vibrant pedestrian environment such as requiring retail at ground level.
- A series of subarea standards will maintain the character of specific communities through incentives for preservation of landmark properties and existing open spaces.
- A new program that preserves farm and forest lands by transferring development rights into South Lake Union will also generate funds for transportation improvements.
Much of the public discussion centered on increases in building heights. Tower heights will be 400 feet on Denny, matching the zoning on the south side, and will be 240 feet in the central area of the neighborhood. Towers are only permitted for residential development. On the Mercer blocks, between Mercer and Valley, towers will be limited to 160 feet. In the southwest portion of the neighborhood, heights will generally be limited to 85 feet to protect the flight path for Kenmore Air, and there are lower heights in the Cascade neighborhood and in the blocks nearest Lake Union.
Major amendments approved by the Council include:
- Reducing the allowed height on the Mercer blocks from 240 feet to 160 feet, and reorienting the towers to protect views by limiting east-west width to 105 feet.
- Adding the opportunity for three or four 125 foot residential towers on two blocks between Westlake and Dexter and Highland and Galer, where the slope of Queen Anne Hill creates a significant change in the topography. This will replace most of the development capacity lost with lower heights on the Mercer blocks.
- Requiring all new buildings to meet the Gold standard of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program of the US Green Building Council.
- Expanding incentives to encourage preservation of all landmarked structures.
- Raising heights in part of the Cascade neighborhood from 75 feet to 85 feet to allow more flexibility in design.
- Strengthening the incentives to developers if they include a school in their project.
- Creating permanent setbacks on east-west corridors to protect views of the Space Needle, which was accomplished without reducing development potential.
The Council also made modifications to the affordable housing incentive program. The Mayor’s proposed legislation created a requirement for developers to either include affordable housing in their projects or to contribute to funds for building low income housing if the developer wants to build above the base height, which is 85 feet in most of the neighborhood. The Council increased the amount of the required fee by about 30%, in hopes that this would stimulate more affordable housing in developments. If fully implemented, this could provide 10 to 20% of the City’s goal for affordable housing in the neighborhood. The challenge in creating these kinds of provisions is to balance the goal of providing affordable housing against the risk of decreased development. Raising the cost of residential development too much could cause developers to build offices instead, or even to decline to take advantage of the new zoning and only build less risky smaller developments.
Getting to the “right” fee amount is incredibly tricky, which is why I favored maintaining the Mayor’s proposed fee of $15.15 per gross square foot for residential units -- the same as what developers pay to build across the street in Denny Triangle and downtown. This would put SLU on an equal playing field for development in the short-term and give Council time over the next few months to conduct a rigorous analysis of options for overhauling all our incentive programs, not just for SLU but also other neighborhoods with incentive zoning programs. However, a majority of Councilmembers believed that some increase over the proposed level could be included in this legislation, and we ultimately came to an agreement on a compromise package that can later be modified as we study the issue further.
There is general agreement that the incentive zoning included in this legislation is only one part of the answer. Recognizing this, the Mayor has convened a task force of stakeholders to analyze other tools to increase the supply of affordable housing and make recommendations on a comprehensive program that would consider not only South Lake Union, but the entire City. The Council will adopt a resolution that complements this by creating an Expert Review Panel to fully examine options for revising and expanding the incentive program. Ultimately, getting more housing built – affordable or market-rate -- is the most critical step in making sure that all residents have a place to live, and the rezone is a major accomplishment in reaching that goal.
The Council will also adopt two additional resolutions as part of the South Lake Union package. One accepts the recommendations of the Council’s Race and Social Justice (RSJ) analysis of the rezone, and creates a work plan for job training and placement as well as actions to strengthen community resources for low and moderate income residents. The second resolution proposes several additional work plan items to follow up on the rezone, including providing view protection from Lake Union Park, funding a historic preservation survey, and advancing a review of transportation improvements.
Cities all over the country are looking at South Lake Union with envy. Seattle is incredibly fortunate in having the confluence of private and public investment that is creating a new neighborhood and providing jobs and housing for our future. While in the last two recessions, Seattle lagged a year or more behind the national recovery, this time we are leading the way. This legislation is a thoughtful and careful action that will enable Seattle to continue to prosper and will allow South Lake Union to be the great Urban Center envisioned in the South Lake Union Neighborhood Plan.
PED BIKE BRIDGE OVER SR 520 AT OVERLAKE VILLAGE
At the Sound Transit Board meeting on Thursday, February 28, the Board approved a resolution creating The Overlake Village Bridge Project, along with two motions agreeing to jointly design the bridge in cooperation with the City of Redmond and approving a contract setting the design process in motion. The Board action endorses a proposed pedestrian/bicycle bridge connecting the Link station at the Overlake Village in Redmond across SR 520 to the Microsoft/Honeywell campuses on the north side of the freeway. This action moves the project through 4 phases of Sound Transit’s project cycle in one fell swoop, all the way from concept to final design.
Sound Transit will only contribute $75,000 to this design phase, with the City of Redmond contributing the remainder of the $1.9 million cost. Most of Redmond’s costs, in turn, are being funded by a federal grant, with the City only kicking in about $200,000.
This bridge was evaluated as part of the environmental review for East Link, but is not funded as part of the East Link project. Once the project reaches the 60% design level and construction costs can be estimated accurately, the partners will seek to identify funding to complete the bridge construction. If that funding can be identified, the bridge will be constructed by Sound Transit as part of East Link.
It’s exciting to see more options developed to connect the north side of 520 to Sound Transit’s light rail line on the south side, especially options that focus on pedestrian and bicycle access. The result will be a more attractive travel package for light rail passengers in this important employment center.
The two sides of the freeway are currently linked several blocks west of the Overlake Station at a major interchange where 148th Avenue NE crosses the freeway, but this is not a very hospitable environment for pedestrians and bicycles, requiring them to cross access ramps that are part of the interchange. Microsoft funded another multi-modal bridge several blocks east of the Overlake Village Station, going diagonally across 520 from NE 31st Street on the south to NE 36th Street on the north side.
While these two crossings make pedestrian and bicycle crossings possible, they do not make them as attractive and easy to use as would be optimum. That’s where the Overlake Village Bridge comes in, making it possible to exit the train and cross directly to the north side when leaving the station. And, since it connects to the east-west bike/ped path on the north side of 520, which will run all the way into Seattle, it also makes it easy to get to other nearby destinations on foot or by bike, and facilitates mixed commutes like taking transit in the morning and returning home by bike.
This is the same type of crossing that is now in development at the Northgate Station to get across I-5, but the Overlake Village Bridge will be less expensive, as the distance is much shorter. And, on the planning horizon is another possible bike/ped bridge, connecting to the next light rail station, at the Overlake Transit Center, not far down the road. The City of Redmond and Sound Transit are thinking proactively about how to knit this community, sundered by SR 520, together to make it possible for light rail to be fully integrated with pedestrian and bicycle traffic in a truly transit oriented model.
GREENWOOD PHINNEY RIDGE NEIGHBORHOOD PLAN REZONE APPROVED
On Monday, April 1, the City Council unanimously approved a rezone of the area west of Greenwood as recommended by the neighborhood plan stewardship group. The rezone applies Neighborhood Commercial (NC) zoning to the area between Greenwood and NW 3rd Avenue south of NW 87th Street and north of the alley between NW 84th and 85th Streets.
It's a relatively small rezone, with modest implications for housing and pedestrian access, but it has a long and complicated history. The rezone adopted by the Council has the support of neighborhood leaders. It does not include a controversial provision that would have rezoned additional areas to the west and north of this area. This proposal was opposed by single family property owners in those areas.
The rezone adopted by the Council received strong support from property owners in the rest of the rezone area, with the exception of the owners of the Fred Meyer property adjacent to NW 3rd Avenue. This property owner applied for a permit for a new, more auto-oriented building in contravention to the intent of the neighborhood plan during the time that the rezone proposal was making its way through the legal process to get to the Council. Unfortunately, under Washington State law, once a permit has been applied for under the existing zoning, new zoning requirements cannot be applied to the property. So, the Greenwood community will have new, pedestrian-oriented, mixed use buildings east of the Fred Meyer site, where the property owners have embraced the zoning, but not on the Fred Meyer site for a considerable period of time in the future.
The owners of the property argued that the Council should not proceed with the rezone, because it will make the existing building non-confirming and not allow it to be replaced in its current form. The Council, however, respected the vision of the long-term plan developed by the community.
When the rezone was initially proposed, the property owners north and west of Fred Meyer opposed it because their properties would have been upzoned to low-rise residential. They were also concerned about the upzoning of the edges of the Fred Meyer site to 65 feet, suggesting that would lead to shadow effects on their residences. The property line pattern on the Fred Meyer site would make it difficult to rezone the edges to a lower height than the rest of the site. Fortunately, even though the entire site is rezoned to 65 feet, the density allowed on the site will require some setbacks, and the City has suggested that these setback requirements can be used in design review to mitigate any future shadow effects. Most of the property owners did not pursue their opposition to the rezone.
More recently, the owners of the property south of NW 85th requested some different development standards, in order to build a development that provided significantly more housing and could accommodate a grocery store. Their request reflected the difficulty of providing parking for a grocery store and residential development in an area where the underlying peat soil makes underground parking difficult, and the sites lack of depth and poor alley access made alley ingress problematic as well. The Greenwood Community Council reviewed their proposal, and agreed that these development standards should be modified. The site will have more flexibility in configuring driveways and will be able to build some 30 additional housing units as a result.
Creating the kind of walkable residential urban environments envisioned by the Comprehensive Plan and our neighborhood plans can be challenging, and the details make a big difference. In most cases this is made easier because property owners ultimately embrace the development potential that neighborhood commercial zoning offers and agree with the vision. The Greenwood rezone was a long and difficult process because that was not the case here. Ultimately, however, this legislation does respond to the community’s vision and moves it a long way towards the desired outcome – even if it will be many years before the Fred Meyer site is redeveloped in conformance to the community’s wishes.
MICROUNIT (AKA APODMENTS) UNIT COUNT PROBLEM RESOLVED
“Micro-unit” apartment buildings, sometimes known as “aPodments” (which is actually one developer’s trademarked term) consist of very small dwellings, similar in size to a hotel room, which usually have private bathrooms and perhaps a mini-refrigerator and microwave. Seven or eight of these small efficiencies are grouped around a full kitchen/dining area.
While these units are very popular and provide affordable housing, there has been some resistance to them in some areas of the City, particularly Capitol Hill, where a number of these buildings have been constructed. One sore spot has been the way that developers have used their ‘unit count’ in different ways depending on what City regulation they are working with. The City Office of Housing has now issued a regulation that should resolve this issue. The Office of Housing regulation requires that any building applying for a Multi-Family Tax Exemption for affordable housing use the same unit count that the developer uses in the land use permitting process.
For land use code purposes, a housing unit is defined by the presence of a kitchen. This means that seven or eight small efficiencies have been defined as one unit for land use code purposes, since they share a common kitchen. As a result, these buildings have often slipped below the threshold for design review and SEPA analysis, which are based on the number of units in the building. There are good arguments for suggesting that this is unfair, since the cumulative size and impact of eight bedrooms grouped around a single kitchen could be larger than that of a typical apartment unit.
A further problem has been that some project developers have used a different count when they apply for a Multi-Family Property Tax Exemption (MFTE) based on providing affordable housing, counting each bedroom as a separate unit. A number of these buildings have been granted MFTE status. The MFTE was designed to encourage developers to construct new affordable apartments, especially in areas where not much development was happening. City staff and electeds have agreed that micro-units are not completely congruent with the intent of the program.
The first step in resolving these problems has been taken by the Office of Housing, which has issued Housing Rule 01-2013, which simply states that “The number and size of dwelling units verified by the Owner in the application for property tax exemption for Multifamily Housing shall be identical to the number and size of dwelling units contained in the Owner’s application to the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) for a building permit . . ." That resolves the contradiction.
DPD is working on legislation that will address two other issues to cover micro-unit buildings in the land use code. This legislation will define micro-unit buildings, to establish that they are different from an apartment building and have different characteristics. DPD is also considering creating a new threshold for design review based on the size/square footage of the building, rather than the unit count, so that micro-unit buildings will be treated the same as an apartment building of the same square footage.
Creating a consistent unit count and applying design review consistent with an apartment building of similar size will provide a formal space for micro-unit buildings in the code and ensure that they are treated comparably to a similar apartment building. This should resolve some of the legitimate concerns that have been expressed by neighbors about micro-unit buildings taking unfair advantage of the MFTE program and unreasonably evading design review.
However, some of the opposition to these buildings is based on other, less tangible, factors related to this kind of affordable housing, even though these buildings meet the other requirements of the land use code. I continue to believe that these small room buildings provide affordable housing and are appropriate parts of our housing continuum, and I do not support regulatory actions that would prevent, rather than regulate, their further development.
GENETICALLY ENGINEERED SALMON OPPOSED BY CITY, MURRAY, CANTWELL, AND SWINOMISH INDIAN TRIBAL COMMUNITY
Earth Day, April 22, was a good day for a unanimous Mayor and Council to join Senators Cantwell and Murray and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in opposing a proposal before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that would approve the commercial production of genetically engineered salmon that have had genes from other species inserted into their DNA to make them grow faster.
Senators Murray and Cantwell, the two Alaska Senators and Alaska’s Representative are part of a bipartisan coalition that supports legislation that would ban the genetically modified fish or require it to be labeled as transgenic if the FDA approves it. Washington and Alaska lawmakers are reacting to the possible threat to the livelihood of Northwest and Alaska fishermen. They are also concerned about the potential health concerns relating to the consumption of genetically engineered salmon and the threat to wild salmon if these fish get loose and become established in the wild.
The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community is also alarmed about this proposal. Brian Cladoosby, Chairman of the Swinomish Tribal Community, in a comment letter opposing the proposed FDA action, stated: “The Tribe is also concerned that genetically engineered salmon pose a grave threat to the environment and to the health of the general population. We strongly believe that it would be an error for the FDA to accept the unsupported “guarantee” that all genetically engineered fish can be contained and not adversely impact people and the environment. History has shown that fish raised in aquaculture facilities can – and will – escape. It is also likely that genetically engineered fish would eventually be raised in open ocean net pens because nearly all commercial salmon production occurs in such pens. Farmed salmon routinely escape.”
The proposal, by AquaBounty Technologies Inc., is to alter Atlantic salmon with genes taken from the Pacific Chinook salmon and the eel-like Ocean Pout. Adding these growth genes from other species would cause the fish to produce growth hormones continuously, allowing it to grow bigger and faster than natural salmon.
Seattle, as the home of much of the Alaska fishing fleet, has a direct economic stake in the continued health of the fishing industry, which this proposal threatens in several ways. We also, of course, share the concerns about human health and the potential degradation of the environment and threat to the survival of endangered wild salmon.
In the European Union, genetically modified organisms are tightly regulated, required to be labeled, and often banned from human consumption. In the United States there are fewer restrictions on genetic modifications and no labeling requirements. This fall Washington voters will have the opportunity to vote on an initiative requiring labeling of GMO food sold in the State.
More than 400,000 fishermen, environmentalists, food safety advocates and others have written to the FDA with concerns about the FDA’s preliminary finding that this project should be allowed to proceed. As a fallback, many commenters have suggested that, if the FDA allows the project to proceed, the company should be required to label the fish as genetically engineered when they are sold to consumers. In its resolution, the City also endorsed federal labeling of genetically engineered food and animals.
SUSTAINABILITY TRAILBLAZER AND HUNGER FIGHTER OF THE YEAR
Recently I had the honor of receiving two awards from organizations that have long histories of thoughtful and careful work in their respective fields. In late March I was named as a “Sustainability Trailblazer” by the Seattle-based Sustainable Path Foundation. On April 5 I was given the “Hunger Fighter” award for 2013 by the Seattle Weekly, after being nominated by Food Lifeline, the organization dedicated to ending hunger that coordinates securing food for Food Banks and other hunger relief agencies.
Receiving these two awards is both humbling and gratifying, as together they recognize my ability to put into action the values of community sustainability and social justice that are the core reasons why I chose to serve as a Councilmember.
The Sustainable Path Foundation recognized my accomplishments in making sustainability real, noting especially my work in creating the Zero Waste Strategy and the Local Food Initiative, and in shepherding 37 neighborhood plans through the City Council to create the framework for Seattle’s implementation of growth management.
Sustainability has been my passion since co-founding Sustainable Seattle more than 20 years ago, and continues to be the guiding principle for my Council work. The Mission Statement of the Sustainable Path Foundation is to promote sustainability and health in our region through collaborative approaches informed by scientific understanding and systems thinking. The Sustainable Path Foundation envisions a sustainable future based on scientific understanding and respect for the interconnected nature of our world.
Gretchen Garth, Paul Brainerd, Chris Jordan, Cathy Tuttle and Kathleen O’Brien have also been named as “Sustainability Trailblazers.” More information about each of the honored recipients (and additional recipients who will continue to be named) can be found at the Seattle Path Foundation’s website. “Richard Conlin, Seattle City Council member, is our sixth Trailblazer,” read the Foundation’s announcement. “Richard is being recognized for blazing a trail of sustainability through ensuring that the city values and practices environmental stewardship, economic opportunity, social justice, and community in its every day operations. Thank you Richard Conlin!”
The “Hunger Fighter” award was presented at Seattle Weekly’s annual “Voracious Tasting” event, a showcase of various chefs, local eats and food trucks, and local wineries and beer makers. Proceeds from the event benefitted Food Lifeline.
Several awards were given at “Voracious Tasting”, including the Hunger Fighter Award. Food Lifeline nominated me for my “efforts to end hunger in our community and for the generous, additional $200k to the emergency food system last year” which I got the Council to approve as part of the 2013 budget. Working to end hunger in our community is a key part of my Local Food Action Initiative, and I have coordinated closely with agencies like Food Lifeline and United Way in campaigns to ensure that all members of our community have access to healthy and nutritious food.
“When people consider the impact of any single factor on their wellbeing- not only income- they are prone to exaggerate its importance. We refer to this tendency as the focusing illusion . . . Despite the weak relation between income and global life satisfaction or experienced happiness, many people are highly motivated to increase their income.”
Daniel Kahneman- Economist, Princeton University
“The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.”
John Maynard Keynes
Your Seattle City Councilmember
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