Last Thursday, on a sunny evening when temperatures peaked in the 80s, a couple hundred neighbors who could have been enjoying themselves outdoors instead crammed into a stuffy basement room at the 2100 Building in Mount Baker to tell the city's planning and land use committee—consisting, on this night, of chair, Council member Mike O'Brien and council members Sally Clark and Nick Licata—what they thought of plans to increase building heights around the Mount Baker light rail station. (We mentioned the meeting in Friday's "Likes and Dislikes" Fizz).
Leaving aside the terrible design of the Mount Baker station itself (wind-swept, empty plaza; no real connection to the Mount Baker Transit Center; a long and winding pedestrian bridge that practically begs you to jaywalk across Rainier), this is probably a conversation that should have concluded long before light rail even opened. But, after more than 50 public meetings, it's still going on. And some Mount Baker residents—particularly those who've lived in the neighborhood for a long time, to judge from the comments at last week's meeting—are not happy with the prospect of change.
The proposal, which centers on about ten blocks near the light rail station on Rainier Ave. S., involves upzoning about a dozen parcels of land that are currently zoned commercial, neighborhood commercial, or low-rise, with varying height limits.
Most of the proposed upzone would increase maximum building heights by 20 feet (from 65 to 85, for example, or 55 to 75); however, on two parcels totaling 13 acres—the big-box Lowe's hardware store and its massive street-facing parking lot—the rezone would increase allowed heights from 65 feet to 125, or from about six stories to about 12. The idea, staffers said, is not to build 12-story housing—at that height, commercial uses tend to be more profitable—but to create a campus-like atmosphere with a large employer or college as an anchor tenant.
(To get momentarily into the weeds: a rezone from 65 to 85, in practice, usually means an increase from six stories to seven, not eight, because of the way wood-frame-over-concrete buildings are typically constructed).
The Lowe's site, DPD planner Lyle Bicknell said, "is important for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s 13 acres. It also doesn’t contain any existing residential use, so it doesn’t contain any threat of displacement."
That last statement prompted dismissive scoffing sounds from some in the crowd, setting up the tone for most of the early comments, which were almost all opposed to the upzone, especially at Lowe's, which several speakers argued provide "good-paying jobs" to Rainier Valley residents."I actually think the proposal before us is a good proposal that has the potential to do some positive things for economic development. It would be really exciting if the next Google wanted to locate there."—City Council member Mike O'Brien
"How many jobs are we losing?" one man shouted from the audience. When Bicknell pointed out that Lowe's has a long-term lease and that the city isn't forcing them out, another audience member shouted, "Oh, come on, you're not that naive!""I actually think the proposal before us has the potential to do some positive things for economic development. It would be really exciting if the next Google wanted to locate there."
Ray Akers—a Columbia City landlord known for his opposition to at-grade light rail in the Rainier Valley, for creating a vigilante anti-crime group in Columbia City in the '90s, and for his opposition to new housing for mentally ill homeless people in Hillman City—said the city's South End has "an unfair, disproportionate amount of density," and said that transit-oriented development in the Valley has had a "100 percent failure rate."
"We have thousands and thousands of units [worth] of [development] capacity," Akers said. "We don't need to take this scarce [Lowe's] land."
Other speakers complained that traffic has gotten worse with all the new residents moving into the area; that the city is "systematically destroying our single-family neighborhoods"; that (despite those 50-plus public meetings) there hasn't been enough discussion or public notice about the proposal; and that putting 12-story buildings in the Rainier Valley was much like "what's going on in the Ukraine right now"—i.e., forced occupation.
Some speakers, however, did express support for the rezone (despite, in some cases, boos and shouts from the audience). Rob Harrison, an architect who promotes sustainable building and design, said, "I want to welcome new people to the city of Seattle. ... I think we can create an agreement and a lovely place here, and I'd relaly love to get going on that."
Another speaker, holding her young baby in her arms, said she moved to the Mount Baker neighborhood because of the light rail station and the fact that the area is so walkable. "We rarely ever drive our car anymore," she said.
(Over at Seattle Transit Blog, Martin Duke reports that toward the end of the meeting, which went on for about a half-hour after I left, more people spoke in favor of the upzone, and that they seemed to be more recent transplants to the area than most of those who opposed the changes.)
I talked to committee chair O'Brien after the meeting. He said his main takeaway was that people in the Mount Baker neighborhood want economic development, but disagree about how to achieve it. " "Some the felt the best way to do that would be to not zone for more height, and other folks seemed to think extra height was going to help encourage economic development," O'Brien said.
"Some of the concern I heard about the Lowe's site was, 'We like the jobs Lowe’s provides; we like our ability to shop at Lowe's in the neighborhood. They’re a good neighbor.' I don’t think the rezone necessarily impacts that. Lowe’s has a long-term lease. [And] there's nothing in the zoning that precludes a Lowe's."
O'Brien said he didn't hear anything at last week's hearing that makes him less likely to support the upzone. "I'm pretty committed to the plan as it is right now," he said. "I actually think the proposal before us is a good proposal that has the potential to do some positive things for economic development. There's great light rail access, great freeway access, and there's something really compelling about that. ... It would be really exciting if the next Google wanted to locate there."