City Hall

Mount Baker Upzone Moves Forward

Over protests from neighbors opposed to density, a council committee approves a long-overdue upzone near the Mount Baker light rail station.

By Erica C. Barnett June 4, 2014

Despite vociferous protests from angry neighbors wearing bright green T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "NO REZONE/Jobs NOT Apts," the city council's planning committee adopted, nearly unanimously, legislation yesterday that will upzone the area around the Mount Baker light rail station to encourage transit-oriented development.

The change is long overdue: Currently, the Mount Baker station is a windswept wasteland bordered by a road that functions as a highway (Rainier Ave. S.) and connected to the Mount Baker Transit Center (the glorified bus stop across the street) by a winding, steep pedestrian bridge instead of a simple crosswalk. (You can use the crosswalks if you want, but you'll have to navigate three of them in turn, including one that connects to a hill of dirt in place of a sidewalk.) In short, the area is about as pedestrian-unfriendly as any you'll see in Seattle, defeating much of the purpose of an inner-city light rail station.

The council's proposal, which centers on about ten blocks near the light rail station on Rainier, will upzone about a dozen parcels of land that are currently zoned commercial, neighborhood commercial, or low-rise, with varying height limits. The most controversial of those parcels were the two that currently house a one-story big-box Lowe's hardware store and a street-facing parking lot; in total, the two sites take up 13 acres of developable land just minutes from the rail station. 

The legislation the committee adopted upzones the Lowe's site to 125 feet. Some neighbors (and council member Bruce Harrell) opposed the upzone because they felt it would bring more "low-income housing" into the area and eliminate high-paying jobs at the superstore; supporters, including committee chair Mike O'Brien, argued that the most likely use for the site would be an institution such as a university, not low-income housing, because taller (12-story, in this case) buildings have to be made of steel and concrete and are therefore more expensive to build.

"This is game-changing stuff that we’re doing, and I think that if we’re going to err on the side of something we should err on the side of cautiousness," Harrell said. "The prudent decision would be to do nothing and continue with the dialogue. We don’t have any developers knocking on the door and saying, we need to have the heights lifted."

Council member Sally Clark responded, "I’m as frustrated as anybody else that there is not a strong presence from a university or college system represented in the Rainier Valley, [but] we need to have a map set so that when someone does decide to pull the trigger," the zoning in the area makes it feasible for a big institution to move there.

Ultimately, Harrell was the only vote against the upzone, which passed the committee 4-1 and heads to the full council Monday.


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