South Lake Union's Block 59.

In a marathon meeting that went a half-hour over schedule (and didn't even get around to everything on the agenda), city council members indicated today that they're leaning toward separating a controversial proposal by Vulcan aimed at appeasing critics of a major upzone in South Lake Union from the zoning change itself. 

The proposal, which concerns a block of land in South Lake Union owned partly by the city, partly by Vulcan, and partly by other private owners (more on them in a minute).

Under the proposed agreement, Vulcan would give the city 37,000 square feet of land in exchange for the right to build 240-foot towers on three blocks across from Lake Union known as the Mercer Blocks. That's 80 feet taller than what would be allowed under the current incentive zoning proposal.

(Technically, Vulcan would pay the city $10 million for the right to build up to 160 feet on three blocks across from Lake Union, and the city would turn around and pay Vulcan $10 million for its land. To get to 240 feet, it would pay the city another $3.25 million to buy up the remaining properties that Vulcan doesn't own on Block 59.) The city would then vacate another 17,000 feet of land it owns to open most of the block for a new compound that would include affordable housing, child care facilities, nonprofit office space, and a community garden. 

But here's the rub: Without those extra plots of land, the Block 59 plans would have to be scaled back, likely to the point that the city would no longer consider the proposal a good deal. 

And city council members today seemed far from convinced that the Block 59 proposal, in general, was fully baked. Nor were they certain that Vulcan's deal was the best use of the city's $10 (or $13.25) million.

"As proposed, we would get $10 million over here on Mercer for allowing them to go to 24 stories; then we would take that $10 million and go across the street and buy a piece of property that also happens to be worth $10 million," council member Mike O'Brien said after the meeting. But, he added, "We're not bound by [what Vulcan wants the city to do] at all. We could use it to do a whole host of things." 

Although council member Richard Conlin pointed out that the council has been working on the South Lake Union upzone for six to eight years, his colleagues pointed out that the Block 59 proposal is just a few months old. "

"While many people in this room have been involved in this discussion for all six to eight years, the item before us now has not been before anyone for six to eight years," council president Sally Clark said. "With all due respect to staff, it’s not like the council received a clean package … We don’t have the memorandum [of understanding], or the development details, to give us enough clarity to move forward." 

Ultimately, council members seemed inclined to leave the Block 59 discussion on the table and move forward with the larger South Lake Union upzone, which—with its transfers of development rights, affordable housing payments in lieu of construction, and transportation mitigation plan—is confusing enough as it is. 

"It’s a novel idea that’s certainly worthy of study, but let's not hold up the whole South Lake Union rezone for this one block," Mike O'Brien told PubliCola. "Block 59 is complicated—it’s the mayor’s race, it’s Vulcan, it’s everything that keeps your publication going. It’s really great stuff that we should be talking about, but probably not in a land use discussion."

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