Urban Politics #116: Council Bill 113697 – Space Needle Views


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

With assistance from my Legislative Assistant Newell Aldrich on this issue.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

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CONTENTS:

  • Council Bill 113697 – Space Needle Views
  • Council Bill 113818 – Regulating Off-Site Parking

Today the City Council took two important votes that will impact the future landscape of our city. The first was a vote on Council Bill 113697 that would amend our SEPA ordinance to narrow view protections of the Seattle Space Needle to ten parks. The other Council Bill 113818 amended the land use and zoning sections of the Municipal Code to allow developers to provide off-site parking (that is, parking provided on a different lot than the lot containing the use for which the parking is required) by a permit process.

Below I explain each bill, their potential impact and how I voted.

Council Bill 113697 – Space Needle Views

The City has articulated conflicting policy objectives in handling our growth. We have passed legislation allowing for greater height and density in the Denny Triangle neighborhood so as to provide greater residential density closer to our central business district, which has the highest concentration of jobs in the region. Their close proximity would hopefully result in fewer cars coming into Seattle. On the other hand, the City recently designated the Seattle Space Needle as a designated landmark that makes views of it subject to protection under the State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA).

Since the Space Needle could be viewed from the Four Columns Park in the Pike-Pine Neighborhood, the City was setting up a situation where future development of high-rise residential buildings in the Denny Triangle neighborhood could be limited. A worse case scenario predicted that as many as 725 residential units could be lost, not including a couple million of square feet of commercial space that could also be lost in that neighborhood because of possible mitigation measures being imposed by SEPA on those developments.

Those in favor of the legislation believed that designating ten specific sites for preserving views of the Space Needle would compensate for a loss of the view from the Four Columns Park. In addition, it was argued that protecting the ten view corridors would guarantee them in the future. Critics pointed out that under SEPA, those ten corridors, plus others, where already protected. In addition, most of those that were listed would be almost impossible to block, such as the view of the Space Needle from across Elliott Bay from Alki Beach.

The legislation passed 7 to 1 (Licata), with Compton excused due to illness. Several Council Members found it difficult to vote for the legislation because they wanted to protect Seattle’s views but in the end believed that the benefits of greater density outweighed the disadvantages.

I voted against the legislation. I believe that the best way for protecting views of our landmarks (there are 94 that enjoy view protection) would be to have a comprehensive analysis of our critical view-corridors that could establish an off-site mitigation program for their preservation. That means rather than simply limiting the design or height of a project, developers could develop an alternative site with an easily mitigated view, or they could contribute to the preservation of identified critical view-corridors.

Until we take that step, I fear that we will see future legislation limiting view protection for other major Seattle landmarks that are currently protected under SEPA.

Council Bill 113818 – Regulating Parking

Current off-site parking for projects serving nonresidential uses is accomplished through covenants. The problem with this approach is that the owner of a lot where the off-site parking is located does not specify a minimum duration for a parking covenant. In addition this arrangement does not ensure that succeeding owners would take responsibility for notifying the City’s Department of Construction and Land Use (DCLU) when the use of the lot for the covenant parking ceases. As a result the provided parking could disappear over time.

The Chamber of Commerce pushed strongly for a change to extend the off-site parking arrangements to residential builders. They could lower their construction costs by using already existing parking facilities up to 2 blocks away to meet the parking space requirements imposed upon them by our land use codes. It is estimated that each parking stall adds between $20,000 and $30,000 to the cost of a project. Consequently allowing off site parking should lower residential construction costs. Proponents argue this would result in more units and in the long run provide more affordable units.

The legislation did make some practical changes to allow for better tracking of off-site parking arrangements. However, the crux of the debate on the Council had to do with an amendment that was offered by CM Judy Nicastro and seconded by me. It required a developer to provide 20% of their units as affordable units if they took advantage of this new off-site parking arrangement.

The rent for the affordable units would be calibrated to allow someone at 50% of median income to rent them. In a report by our Strategic Planning Office (SPO) in March of last year it was estimated that there was demand for over 19,000 housing units in Seattle for this group of people. And it was not being met through the market or subsidized housing.

The argument that more housing equals more affordable housing has yet to be supported with any research or statistics. New housing units are typically not affordable unless they receive some sort of government subsidy or are very tiny studio units. Affordable housing for the most part is older housing. More housing over time, say 40 years or more, may eventually become relatively affordable in comparison to new housing built at that time. But that approach will not address the needs of our Seattle citizens today who are searching for affordable rental units.

Council Bill 113818 without the affordable housing amendment would have resulted in simply higher density for Seattle neighborhoods without any guarantee of increasing our affordable housing stock. Although Seattle does need to maintain a healthy population so we do not contribute to suburban sprawl, we have been doing our job. According to the latest numbers, Seattle has been building housing units at a rate that exceeds our commitment to the targets set by the Growth Management Act. And in fact, for those neighborhoods that are designated as Residential Urban Villages (where this legislation would have its greatest impact) our growth has exceeded our targets by a very healthy margin.

The amendment passed 5 to 3 (Steinbrueck, Conlin, Pageler) and the amended Council Bill 113818 passed unanimously.

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