Wednesday, November 16, 2016

University District Upzone Public Hearing Tonight

UW Tower

Councilmember Rob Johnson (District 4, Northeast Seattle) is hosting a special Open House and Public Hearing starting at 5:30pm tonight on the proposed University District neighborhood rezone, which includes taller building heights of up to 320 feet (32 stories).

The agenda for the meeting to be held at Hotel Deca (4507 Brooklyn Avenue NE) is an Open House at 5:30pm, presentation at 6:00pm and the public hearing  for those who wish to give comments at 6:15pm.

The proposed plan will be presented to the City Council’s Land Use Committee for discussions and a possible vote as early as December. 

Written comments can also be sent to

The Laurelhurst Community Club (LCC) said:

Housing advocates and resident organizations from the U District strongly urge the public to attend and speak against the City’s proposed plans.  Within “ground zero” of the area of the upzone there are over 1500 units of existing low income and affordable housing (go here  for inventory), historic buildings and dozens of small businesses which are in jeapordy (go here for letter from small businesses placed at risk and opposing these upzones) by proposed plans driven largely by large property owners and the UW.

The old Safeco Building, now owned by UW, is 340 feet high, and some development plans include copying those heights along the highest part of the UDistrict, of which some would be taller than any South Lake Union buildings.  The natural views of the beautiful Olympic Mountains will be blocked out forever by these concrete rectangles along the "new" skyline, not to mention the creation of a dense and darker streetlife in this old neighborhood. 
Share you comments tonight about:
-preserving the eclectic, small businesses community that relies on inexpensive, small scale rents
-reducing the heights to a more human scale-under 120 feet.
-retaining the housing units that are truly affordable-1500 are slated to be destroyed
-requiring infrastructure-better transit connections, better flow in roads, and adequate freight/loading access to all new buildings
-requiring public open space to be embedded in any plans
-requiring tree protection, and planting new, larger trees
-retain and add to parking in all types of new buildings-not pretending that cars do not exist
-retain existing historic buildings
-require existing viewlines be maintained, especially mountain and water views
-require developers to pay impact fees to build schools resulting from greater residential population 

On Saturday, from 10-noon, there will be a U District Urban Design Open House at the
University Heights Center (5031 University Way NE).  Councilmember Johnson and representatives from City departments will share information about projects in the University District neighborhood, provide details about upcoming land use changes, and be available to answer questions.with illustrations.


Groups including Livable UDistrict, UDistrict Community Council, and the Seattle Displacement Coalition are opposing these highrise plans and instead are calling on the City to instead adopt measures to mitigate the runaway growth we’re already seeing in the District under the existing zoning code.         

One group said:

The community now has 2-3 times the zoned capacity needed to accommodate expected growth projections through 2035 and is drowning in record levels of new construction as it is.  These groups say set aside plans to fan the flames of still more runaway growth and instead “put first things first”: impose requirements that developers pay impact fees to cover some of these infrastructure costs for added School capacity, transportation, and parks and open space systems demanded by current growth.  And they want developers to replace 1 for 1 at comparable price, any low income housing they tear down.  

The UDistrict Upzone is  effectively the first of the Mayor’s planned “HALA upzones” and one of the most egregious examples of how his plan ignores community needs.  Neighborhood and housing advocate groups in the UDistrict point out that if and when they get away with these changes to the UDistrict “they’ll be coming for your neighborhood next”. 

The Seattle Fair Growth said:

If you care about tenant rights, preventing displacement, preserving affordable housing and the character of our communities; then you must act now! Join us tonight to stop development without the infrastructure to support it. First things first!  Sign our petition to City Council!  Please read and sign the petition here!

The City Council has now heard some very good arguments from us about HALA and the Comprehensive Plan.  Going forward, we need to show them how many people support these ideas.  We need to show City Council that our side has numbers.

The City sent out this recent press release:

Earlier this year Mayor Ed Murray announced a comprehensive proposal to assist the University District neighborhood in managing growth over the next 20 years, including creation of public open space, increased zoning capacity, mandatory affordable housing, historic building preservation, improved building design, and more. The investments also come in anticipation of the planned Brooklyn Light Rail station, slated to open in 2021.

After hearing concerns about displacement of low-income residents, the U District Urban Design proposal will now require new apartment buildings provide even higher affordable housing requirements than initially announced (now requiring $20.00 per square foot or 9 percent of the total units in the building reserved for affordable homes). The U District rezone will create an estimated 600 to 900 affordable homes over 20 years. The City’s analysis shows that without these proposed zoning changes, the U District would risk higher rates of displacement and generate less affordable housing.

Here is information from the Wallyhood blog:

The University District is one of the first neighborhoods planned for rezones, and the city wants to go big.  How big?  Think the UW Tower big.  Up to 320 feet, and that’s not including any possible height bonuses.  Ten feet is roughly equivalent to one story, so 320 feet would equal about 32 stories.  That’s about three to four times higher than what is currently allowed.  The area planned for these massive rezones is roughly from NE 50th Street to the Ship Canal and from I-5 to 15th Avenue NE.  All of this is in addition to an impressive addition of square footage planned for the university itself.

Want to weigh in on the massive rezones planned for the University District?  What do you think about having 32 story towers just east of I-5?  Concerned about spillover effects into our neighborhood?  Please attend the public hearing on Wednesday, November 16th and make a public comment.  This is a divisive topic, and opinions vary widely as to whether the University District will lose or gain a ton of affordable housing with this massive rezone.  A lot has already been said on this topic, so I will let you draw your own conclusions in regards to housing.  But something that has not been talked about as much, is affordable rents for small businesses.   
The eclectic, funky, small businesses and cheap eats that make the University District so vibrant.  While developers may be required to pay into a fund to have affordable housing built somewhere and sometime to be determined, there is nothing similar that I am aware of to help the small businesses.  These rezones place the University District small businesses in jeopardy and with it the livelihood of a lot of people. 

A letter signed by over two dozen University District small business owners urged the city not to raise building heights along the Ave and other key business areas.  The letter stated:
We do not want 7 story to 32 story mid-rise buildings and towers to replace all the historic and charming one and two story buildings up and down the Ave., along Roosevelt Way N.E., and throughout the U District.  Specifically, if building height limits do reach 85’ and higher; then likely nothing recognizable will remain in the beating heart of the U District, the District will lose its charm and its soul, the special small business culture along the Ave. and in the larger U District will be hollowed out, and Seattle will be very much poorer for all of these losses. 

Personally, I can’t help wondering what the University District would look like if this upzone on steroids was approved.  It’s a neighborhood I’m in all of the time.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a crystal ball to peer into the future.  But Seattle has seen a complete revision of another neighborhood recently, in the form of a shiny new South Lake Union.  Of course the heights allowed in the University District would be much higher.  So I’m envisioning a mix between South Lake Union and Downtown, right nextdoor to us.  Downtown and South Lake Union are not cheap neighborhoods.  If density fixes everything, well, it hasn’t happened yet.   
Indeed, I would bet you could hardly find a resident, barely even a building, that survived the South Lake Union metamorphosis.  Are we ok with all of this destruction for the sake of our new urbanist ideology?  Banishing from the University District anything that gets in the way of a bulldozer? 

What do you want for the University District?  Do you want a business district or a university district?  A high tech hub or a funky, eclectic place for the students (and the rest of us) to hang out.  Are you concerned about the spillover effects it will have on our traffic, our schools, our housing supply, did I mention our traffic?  Or do you want the city to build, baby build?  Whatever your opinions, if you want them heard then please attend the public hearing on the 16th.

LCC submitted the following letter addressing specific concerns about the upzones:

To: Seattle City Council Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee

The Laurelhurst Community Club  has reviewed the Office of Planning and Community Development draft zoning recommendations. While greater height and density may be desirable to accommodate growth patterns near light rail stations in urban Seattle areas, the scale of development put forth in the University District U District) proposals appears disproportional when compared to the potential benefits to affordable housing, job growth, and neighborhood enhancement.

1. The Director's Report Appendix C, page 6 captures the rezone criteria. The target
established must be no less than 125% of the Comprehensive Plan for the urban
center. (SMC 23.34.008.A.1) The matching analysis states that the proposed plan for
17,000 additional jobs is 350% of the 4,800 estimated jobs for 2035. In addition, the
Director's Report states that this rezone yields 9,500 new housing units or 190% of
the estimated need of 5,000 new units by 2035. The existing Comprehensive Plan
for 2024 states 2,450 new housing units needed. Thus, the alternatives should be
reduced to reflect a more realistic, data driven plan. In June 2012, the Seattle Displacement Coalition also reported the University District was already at 94 percent of its 2024 growth target. Analyzing the data and using the growth management plans are more reasonable approaches to rezoning. More moderation would provide office and housing units that can be absorbed without over building, which could create building vacancies and cause unnecessary moving disruptions to existing residents and local businesses. Up zones should create public benefits for existing neighborhoods and not be granted simply for the financial gains of developers. In the regional Growth Management Act, city planners assigned an additional 3,900 housing units to the U District through 2035. According to the Seattle Displacement Coalition, the current U District zoning capacity can accommodate about 7,000 new 2 units and ample office space for job growth. Given these facts, the proposed height and density up zoning of the U District is completely out of scale, if necessary at all

2. LCC has reviewed The Director's eport, and Appendix C states "development
shall not exceed the service capabilities which can reasonably be anticipated in the area, including street capacity, parking capacity and sewer." (SMC 23.34.008.F.4.2) Infrastructure support of the massive proposed growth is not planned to keep pace with the impacts from these proposed alternatives. The only real new amenity is light rail service. However, more connective transit options, adequate sidewalks, usable roads with all lanes in good repair, numbers of police officers on streets, overflow sewer systems, and the lack of "non-portables" space in city schools have not been adequately planned. Just adding dwelling units and office space is not enough. The city's residents, especially taxpayers who have the second-highest tax rate in the country, are fed up with traffic, congestion, and unbridled development at the expense of Seattle’s livability and connection to its natural beauty.  
Large impacts from developments are rarely paid for by the developers – for example, better transportation, off-street parking, schools, or police and fire support. Up zones create private wealth, not a public wealth of amenities. The re- zoning alternatives need to include space and fees allocated for the city services and schools before any plan is acceptable. There are no public schools in the U District.

3. Displacement issues. The alternatives proposed, if built out, would forever change the historic character of the U District, known for its eclectic mix of students, immigrants, affordable housing, economic diversity, restaurants, and small businesses. Some residents in this diverse neighborhood would be especially vulnerable through the proposed rezone, particularly low-income community members and seniors. These alternatives show many of the lower- to mid-rise housing units completely wiped out and replaced with new, significantly taller buildings with higher rents. In the meantime, where will people go, even if they want to return to the street where they now live? They will all have to move out. Up zoning low-rise areas to mid-rise will open up development by eliminating existing, smaller, affordable housing, but the units may not suit their lifestyle. The proposed radical up zone of the U District would not meaningfully address the neighborhood’s youth homelessness, homelessness in general, or drug usage. Each
developer works independently, without cooperation and coordination with others, providing little, or no contribution to the real displacement issues. A few extra
units of supposedly "lower income" dwellings through up zoning will not prove as affordable as leaving some of the zoning as is. Up zones create private wealth, not public wealth.

The 2002 report on the U. District historic buildings makes recommendations for
preservation of the built environment, including the apartment buildings and churches built in the 1920s. Preserving some of the old structures and character of the neighborhood is vital to preserving the essence of the U District community. While the up zone plans provide incentives to developers to reserve structures, what guarantees are in place to ensure protection?  
4. The Director's Rule, Appendix C states in its criteria (page 8) that "the impact of
more intensive zones on less intensive zones shall be minimized by the use of
transitions or buffers, if possible. A gradual transition between zoning categories, including height limits is preferred." In addition, the Director Rule further states (SMC 23.24. 009.D2, page 12) "A gradual transition in height and scale of activity between zones shall be provided unless major physical buffers are present." What the proposed plan offers instead is drastic increases in building heights from existing single-family, low- and mid-rise multifamily, and commercial structures (maximum 65/85’) to four to eight times their current heights from MR 85 feet height to 240’ or even to 340’ high. This does not comply with the City's own criteria for the re-zoning codes at all. What the alternatives offer instead are large walls of tall buildings with heights of 240’ to 320’ right next to zoned MD 85. The lower zoned buildings are shadowed out by the larger, creating tunnels of structures and tall backdrops to lower and mid-rise buildings. The planned up zones, if any are needed, should be more gradual, with parcels retaining LR along the southwest corner, and gradually increasing to MR 85, then to a maximum of 120’, below the height of Hotel Deca. (SMC 23.34.008.R.1). The 320 foot buildings should not be allowed under any alternative.

5. Director's Report (page 11) criteria states, "Height limits shall reinforce the natural topography of the area and its surroundings, and the likelihood of view blockage shall be considered." (SMC 23.34.009B) The proposed 320’ heights – 30-story towers – in Alternative 2/2B are too high, block views of the majestic Olympic mountains and Cascade mountains from adjacent neighborhoods, and are out of human scale. The 22-story UW Plaza tower (formerly Safeco Tower built in 1975) is 325’ and is the tallest building outside of downtown Seattle, done with an unusual and aggressive zoning variance, not the norm. New towers would rise 15’ higher than this lone, out-of-scale, structure. In addition, the topography of the proposed up zone area slopes from a 150’ high point (plus 320’ building heights) down to sea level, making the top of the
structures approximately 500’ above sea level. High rises of 320’ are much
higher proportionately than the surrounding communities at sea level, increasing
their visibility even more across the city, and their impact the natural mountain
views must be considered. While up zone plans call for set backs, tower separation,
individual unit entries, mid-block pedestrian access and more, what assurances are
in place to guarantee compliance over a period of many years, changing city
administrations, and continued pressure from a growing population?  The bulk, height, and scale of both proposed zoning changes would allow the creation of a skyline of rectangular boxes instead the mountain view corridors on all sides of the U District itself, and from the surrounding signature Seattle hills and neighborhoods. This is expressly discouraged by the Seattle Municipal 4 Code cited above. Among those negatively impacted are Fremont, Wallingford, Queen Anne, Montlake, Hawthorne Hills, Laurelhurst , View Ridge, Ravenna, and the Eastside communities of Medina, Kirkland, and Bellevue. The Olympic Mountains and Cascade Range, Mt. Rainier particularly, provide Seattle’s stunning sunsets, and sunrises. To obliterate from view such unique natural beauty is to deprive human beings at their core. Replacing view lines with spikes of unneeded high-rise towers is unjustified and, more importantly, unnecessary. Added towers at 320 feet would forever block mountains from neighborhoods.

6. The alternatives offered in the U District up zone offer no guarantee of the much
needed, and promised, public open space or park, or community plaza. With the
plans for the Light Rail at Brooklyn Avenue NE, the local community's request for an
open plaza was hijacked already by the University of Washington';s purchase of its " rights,: and they plan to build a 320 foot tech center on a former, low-rise parcel. Thus, nothing is guaranteed in these alternatives to give relief for residents and users to enjoy open or green space. A few private rooftop gardens will not be adequate at all to provide for the public's needed relief from the dense build out of additional structures in this neighborhood. It is imperative that the alternatives provide a planned and paid for public
open or green space, funded by a development impact fee or from the Seattle Parks District levy. If it is not embedded in the alternatives, it will never be "in any way by private developers. The public has no excess funds to purchase!"   
Laurelhurst Community Club suggests alternatives for better accommodating the planned growth in 2035, while retaining the vibrancy of the University District, including the following:

1. Reduce the overall development to a sustainable level that the infrastructure can accommodate. The plans should offer 150% of the recommended targets for the Seattle Comprehensive plan, not 350%. Zoning should not be allowed for heights 6 of 320’ or 240’ and should be capped at 120'-160’ feet maximum. Alternative 1 offers more human-scale heights, with more gradual stepping down of zones permitted. The city can always add more height later, but cannot after allowing the too tall heights.

2. Rework the transitions from the lower zoning to a more gradual plan for adding height. For example, the Ave at 40’ to 65’, should NOT be surrounded by
any type of 240’-320’ buildings as proposed in Alternative 2. 320 foot buildings should not be zoned at all because they are out of scale which would create man- made , boxy concrete structures blocking the real mountains on the existing skyline. The existing University of Washington office building on Brooklyn Avenue NE should be treated as a zoning variance and not the norm for determining more heights. Instead ,gradual zoning from 65’ to a maximum of 160’, the height of Hotel Deca to be consistent with the Seattle Municipal codes (stated above).  
3. The topography of these alternative plans is missing and need to be measured and plotted. Heights are already too high as they are planned, and not in scale considering the elevated altitudes in the U District's natural topography. This area is not located at sea level like South Lake Union. It already sits up high in the city. The plans shown are flat, and do not they reflect the natural rises and slopes, which can better used to accommodate various heights. In addition, view corridors from surrounding neighborhoods should be analyzed for potential blockages of the Olympic Mountains, Mt. Rainier, or the Cascade Range and indicated in a supplementary EIS. These views of exquisite natural surroundings should be as protected just as the University of Washington protects its Rainier Vista view corridor.

4. Open/green space for the public must be embedded in any of these alternatives. If it is not required by the City of Seattle, it will not occur. Funding can be sourced through development impact fees or the City's Park District taxes. While much time and effort has been put into these proposals for the University District's zoning changes, additional options must be considered. A more moderate approach would help retain the livability of the U District, adhere to the rules and guidelines of the Seattle Municipal Codes, and provide more than enough capacity for projected future growth.

Notes for City Council

1. Retain diversity and character-do not isolate the ave, surrounded by boxy tall buildings. Plan a welcoming transition, gradual flow of new development. Use scale to create proportion and transitions.

2. Remind planners about the existing topography. The U District sit high on a hill

3. Retain human scale within the District itself, to adjacent neighborhoods The targets for housing and job growth can already be accommodated in the current zoning. Use the data to drive further changes, not developers desire to create their own wealth.

4. Infrastructure is a Light Rail Station with 2-3 cars that operate n/s route Missing is the rest? Schools, utilities, night activities, not just on the Ave;

5. Do not allow 320 foot buildings to wipe out the skyline from the adjacent hills around the U District. Building offices for the 8-5 crowd that lay vacant at night, cannot replace the sunrises on the Cascades, sunset on the Olympics that give Seattle residents a sense of place and a respite from so much new density and structure. A Skyline of tall concrete massing is not something Seattle should want or allow to happen.

6. Displacement of existing residents is very real, and affordable housing is not just
units, but a lifestyle choice. Locals know locals merchants, restaurants and services.
High rise living is not the same, and more transient.

7. Remember that the City can re-zone again if needed, but once allowed, it will
never downsize once the tallest buildings are up.

For more information: go here for University District Urban Design, here for the University District Small Business letter, here for Outside City Hall Blog and here for a grassroots organization opinion. 

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