After a testy transportation committee meeting Tuesday at city council, a divided report is now headed to full council next week on a Vulcan development in South Lake Union.Vulcan wants the city to waive a $528,000 permitting fee so they can build a park (or "corporate park" as council member Mike O'Brien, the lone critic of the deal, put it at this morning's meeting). On the losing end of a 2-to-1 vote, O'Brien told his colleagues (committee chair Tom Rasmussen and council member Jean Godden), that rejecting the idea would send the signal that "we're not going to invest a half million dollars in this corporate environment. We're going to save those for the residential environments we've committed to."
The planned park would be located in South Lake Union on Eighth Ave North just a block west of Denny Park between Thomas and Harrison Streets. The park would be something like Bell Street Park in Belltown—a block where the sidewalk and the roadway blend into each other in a space that's shared by pedestrians, cars, and bicyclists alike (the Dutch term for this ped-friendly concept is woonerf.)
The problem is this: The development that's surrounding the park will be two, six-story office buildings in a zone that is supposed to be geared toward residential development with front stoops and porches. "I worry," O'Brien said, "that on a Saturday when these buildings are dark and there's nothing going on along that streetscape, we're going to have [made] this investment, but are people going to be using it?"
The city council re-zoned the neighborhood back in the summer of 2013 to incentivize residential development for just this kind of street planning, so that the mixed use, 24/7 neighborhood vision (think Jane Jacobs and Greenwich Village) would bloom. The new zoning code, for example, gives developers much more height for residential development—24 stories versus eight stories previously—and more square footage to play with (known as Floor Area Ratio or FAR) than commercial buildings get.
However, Vulcan applied for the permitting on this block of Eighth Ave in March 2013 before the rezone for the new-look South Lake Union was approved. In turn, rather than "pretty much being restricted to residential development" now as DPD staffer Jim Holmes said at today's hearing, Vulcan is building under the old guidelines which easily allow for commercial development. Vulcan is also getting the older, larger FAR—meaning they can build more office space square footage, 88 percent times more, than they'd be allowed to now. With two corporate offices at 190,000 square feet each, rather than a residential setting around the park, O'Brien worries that people won't realize the public space is actually there for them. There will be no retail development along the block—just "the lobby entrances and pedestrian entrances ... with the retail [only] at the corners" SDOT staffer Susan McLaughlin, who was advocating for the proposal in front of council today, acknowledged.
Rejecting the idea, dissident nay vote O'Brien said, would send the signal that "we're not going to invest a half million dollars in this corporate environment."
Committee chair Rasmussen, who supports the plan, asked O'Brien for an example of what he meant by a "corporate park." After all, Rasmussen argued, the park and street are literally public space. Moreover, Rasmussen said, while the city would lose more than a half million dollars if they approve the development waiver, Vulcan is still ponying up $2.1 themselves to build the park. Net—with the half million being lost to the city's own design work otherwise—more than a million bucks.
O'Brien, who said "while it's a public right of way, I'm really concerned about who gets the benefit of that contribution," compared the Vulcan proposal to the awkward greenspace between Marion and Madison on Fifth just a few blocks from city hall.
There's another example located just four blocks away from the Eighth Avenue North proposal. Another one built by Vulcan: The plaza on Terry Ave in front of Amazon below the Brave Horse Tavern. That space, while technically open to the public, is a de facto weekday, lunch time plaza for Amazon office workers that hardly screams Hacky Sack, Candy Crush, and skateboarding.
"I'm really concerned," O'Brien said at the hearing, "that we're taking the public right of way there and making it look like it's part of this corporate campus. I worry that we're taking our street and having it be incorporated into this commercial building. If I worked at amazon in this building, I think it would be a great place to use. But I question if anyone else is going to use it. And does it justify the $500,000 investment that the city is making? The whole vision for Eighth," he concluded, "was about a residential core, and when we switched to this corporate office park core, I think it's time to reconsider."O'Brien thinks Vulcan, by sticking to old zoning guidelines, is undermining the current goals. "The vision of this neighborhood was a residential block. If we were going to have a couple of thousand residents on those streets, that felt to me like a good investment, but if it's going to be occupied by a single entity [he predicted Amazon], we're putting this public benefit into the hands of a single business. I look at the original vision and we'd have multiple people benefiting."
If the city rejected Vulcan's request for the half a million dollar waiver, the company would be required to spend another half a million toward street improvements itself. It wouldn't be the comprehensive woonerf design (wider, curbless sidewalks, street "undulation" for a winding yellow brick road feel, and bioretention for better canopy), but it would be legit "beautiful" tree-lined street, O'Brien argued, that frankly, wouldn't run the risk of giving the public pause about whether they belonged there or not. The difference, as O'Brien said today, is "somewhat subtle," but comes "with a $500,000 write off from the city."
Rasmussen disagreed saying greenlighting the waiver and getting the woonerf constituted a big difference. He labeled it "full street reconstruction" with extra drainage and bioretention that was "consistent with our environmental goals."
And he told me after the hearing: "They're going to build the office whether or not [the waiver] is approved. It could just be a plain street, and we would have missed an opportunity for the community. They [Vulcan] are willing to pay for those improvements, and the public will be getting a specific benefit."
Dismissing O'Brien's concern about MIA residential development, Rasmussen noted 2,055 proposed residential units on the nearby blocks. He told me: "It will be really well used by the residents around it."
O'Brien, however, told me: “I voted against [it] because this proposal feels like a private amenity for a corporate campus in the public right of way. The green street envisioned in the South Lake Union Urban Design framework was designed around a residential corridor activated with stoops and places for families to play and gather, but those elements are missing in this proposal. I love woonerfs and want to see more developed throughout Seattle. But for me the issue comes down to whether this proposal provides sufficient public benefit to justify waiving half a million dollars in street use fees, and I don’t see that it does.”
At the hearing, Rasmussen challenged O'Brien, saying: "It seems as though this is almost spiteful [because] you don't like what they're building and therefore you want to turn the funds down. I don't see the benefit of not approving this," Rasmussen said.
As Rasmussen tried to conclude the discussion, citing an SLU Community Council letter in favor of the project, O'Brien interrupted: "Excuse me council member Rasmussen. You accused me of being spiteful. I just want to clarify. While I am disappointed that there's no residential, my decision is on the merits." He said the "integrated look" between the buildings and the "likely single occupant corporate park" was "going to feel to some people like a corporate takeover of the public right of way."
He also noted another difference—the result of Vulcan building under the old guidelines: The new code sets a parking maximum on development (one space for every 1,000 square feet). That would mean 388 spaces under the new code. In the Vulcan deal, however, they're building 900 spaces, 500 more parking spaces than is currently allowed.