One Question

One Question for Pramila Jayapal and Louis Watanabe

One question about density in Southeast Seattle for two 37th District state senate candidates.

By Erica C. Barnett June 9, 2014

One Question

As we've reported, the city council's planning committee voted last week—over vociferous protests from neighborhood activists opposed to density—to approve taller buildings near the Mount Baker light rail station, including potential 125-foot tall buildings on a 13-acre site that is currently home to a single-story Lowe's big-box store and its parking lot on Rainier Ave. S. 

Opponents of the upzone say it will lead to gentrification and/or (?) too much "affordable housing" (which is to say: Low-income people), and eliminate good-paying jobs at places like Lowe's and Darigold. Proponents argue that it will encourage transit-oriented development near the light rail site, and create new jobs in the form of a new institution such as a university on the Lowe's site.

The proposal, which centers on about ten blocks near the 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 feet, for example, or 55 to 75); however, on two parcels totaling 13 acres—Lowe's 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 because 12-story buildings have to be made of steel and concrete and are therefore more expensive to build than housing—but to create a campus-like atmosphere with a large employer or college as an anchor tenant. 

Two candidates are competing to replace state Sen. Adam Kline (D-37), who's retiring, in the district: Beacon Hill resident and 37th District Democrats vice-chair Louis Watanabe and Hillman City resident and former OneAmerica executive director Pramila Jayapal. Although the zoning issue is up to the city council, the larger issue of transit-oriented development has been a big one in Southeast Seattle's 37th District, where legislation to upzone land around light rail was a cause celebré for anti-density activists back in 2009.

The two have very different views about the proposed upzone, with Watanabe opposing it (on the grounds that the upzone would endanger jobs) and Jayapal supporting it (she believes transportation-oriented development will help transform and revitalize the area). 

Here's what both candidates had to say when we asked them what they thought of the proposed upzone. 

Jayapal, who supports the upzone, told PubliCola: 

We have an affordable housing crisis and a need for family-wage jobs and transit. The zoning piece of this rests squarely with the city council, but I definitely think that the upzone is an important part of what we need to do to provide affordable housing and jobs.

We need to attract people to that area. Right now it’s a Lowe’s and a parking lot. I can’t imagine that it won’t transform the Rainier wasteland into a viable economic district. I support the upzone. People seem to be worried about what is going to happen to their neighborhoods, and they’re worried about job development. The city has to be worried about how we bring businesses here. That's a legitimate fear, and it's going to require a concerted effort from the city.

I acknowledge the fears and I have talked to a lot of people about this because people only see what is happening in their neighborhood. They’re worried about their neighborhood still being livable. But given that people are still calling a lot of the Rainier Valley an economic wasteland, I don't think people are necessarily happy with the way things are right now. If you look at how Columbia City developed, it didn't develop by having a giant manufacturing plant here. It developed by creating housing and having small businesses that were able to thrive.

Jayapal is also concerned over the possibility that a lot of people simply won't be eligible for enough publicly financed social services and environmental cleanup for new housing even if the city does upzone the area; although "I do support TOD," she says, "you need to do more than one thing at once, and I do hope that the city will focus on Southeast Seattle and the Rainier Valley more than they have." 

Here's what Watanabe, who opposes the upzone and sent out an announcement decrying the proposal (titled, "Zoning Out Jobs, Zoning In Gentrification") last week, had to say. 

The problem with the rezone is that I think it’s completely ignoring, first of all, a large amount of the community that is opposed to it. There’s really not any clear objectives other than just to raise the height limits. ... 

Just because Darigold might maybe not be the appropriate industry for the future, that doesn’t mean that there are no other industries—for example, green independent technology—that might make sense... My primary concern is about the displacement of economic activity.

In a followup email, Watanabe sent us two photos of the Othello light rail station that demonstrated, he said, the "blight that continues for the small business district" across from the light rail station despite plans for transit-oriented development there and despite the fact that the Othello station is more pedestrian-friendly than the Mount Baker station, which is accessible from the east side of Rainier only by a long, massive pedestrian overpass (or by jaywalking across two major thoroughfares, Rainier and MLK.)  

"The city works best when it is brave enough to gather people who disagree with city staff and even the elected officials, and honestly listen to what they have to say. As we witnessed with the Mayor's wage committee, facing uncomfortable opposition may be painful, but it results in outcomes that are more acceptable to a broader sector of our society." 

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