After many long months of hearings that have drawn a regular crowd of dissenters opposed to new density along Rainier Ave. South near the Mount Baker light rail station, the city council adopted legislation today that increases the allowed building heights near the station in a somewhat belated effort to encourage transit-oriented development in the area. Only Bruce Harrell, a Seward Park resident who plans to run for reelection from his new Southeast Seattle district when district elections take effect next year, voted "no."
The rezone impacts about ten blocks of land along a stretch of Rainier that currently couldn't be less "transit-oriented" (save for the presence of the Mount Baker rail station to the west, and, across a vast highway-like expanse of road, the Mount Baker Transit Center to the east) or pedestrian-friendly. The dozen or so parcels of land affected are currently zoned commercial, neighborhood commercial, and low-rise.
The most controversial upzone involves the so-called Lowe's site, two vast parcels, totaling 13 acres, that are currently occupied by a big-box Lowe's hardware store and a massive street-facing surface parking lot. The legislation increases the allowed height on those lots to 125 feet, or 12 stories, to entice an institution like a university should Lowe's decide to move elsewhere (currently, they're under a long-term lease).
At today's council meeting, Harrell repeated his policy of "err[ing] on the side of cautiousness."
"Having talked to members of the community, I know that a zoning policy should be very tightly interwoven with an economic development policy, an education policy, a public safety policy," Harrell said, adding that district elections will make that need even more imperative.
"I've attended community meetings for decades, and I've yet to hear anyone say they want 125 feet at the Lowe's site." (In fact, community members showed up at a May public hearing on the proposal to argue for just that).
Council member Sally Clark, who also lives in the new Southeast district but has declared her intention to run for one of the two new citywide seats next year, countered that the "fundamental vision" of the 1999 Mount Baker neighborhood plan was to encourage development around light-rail stations. "We don't want Lowe's to go anywhere any time soon—they are a great neighborhood anchor—but they may [leave] in the future."
"'Build it and they will come' is not a good strategy," Clark said, but "I would argue that that is not what is happening here."