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Urban Politics #317 – December 13, 2011
By City Councilmember Nick Licata
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.
The Committee on the Built Environment (COBE) meeting originally scheduled for 9 am tomorrow, Wednesday, December 14, will now occur at 10:30 am.
As I mentioned in UP 317, as of Monday night (and this morning) the agenda for tomorrow’s COBE meeting, was not yet available for public review. Our Council rules state that: “All reasonable effort will be made to provide the preliminary agenda online and in hard copy at least two business days prior to the meeting.” Further, the Open Public Meetings Act requires notice of a Council meeting 24 hours in advance. The concerns I raised this morning about proper notice identified this legal requirement and now has necessitated a last minute change in the meeting start time.
I spent much time reviewing material, reading constituent emails and letters, and attending or watching the Committee on the Built Environment (COBE) meetings concerning the Roosevelt Neighborhood Rezone. Transit-oriented development must accompany light rail stations, like the one that will be operating in the Roosevelt Neighborhood. The question I’ve wrestled with is “Can the Council meet that objective without increasing building heights to 65 feet across from theRoosevelt High School building?” I’ve concluded that it can, and accordingly will move an amendment in tomorrow’s COBE committee meeting to keep the heights at 40 feet.
What is best for the city as well as the Roosevelt neighborhood are inexorably linked. How the Council strikes a balance between encouraging greater density within our city and retaining a quality of life which promotes a sense of community, safety and pride, is being closely watched by other neighborhoods.
The City solicited and encouraged theRoosevelt neighborhood to present its values and objectives through an extensive neighborhood process. The community’s latest plan increases their overall density beyond what the Mayor and the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) had most recently proposed, IN EXCHANGE for retaining an important cultural feature of their community: maintaining the prominence of the recently remodeled historic Roosevelt High School. The Council is now moving ahead, unless it adopts my amendment, to accept the community’s proposed additional upzones IN ADDITION to also increasing the height of buildings adjacent to the high school. It appears to me that the community did not get the exchange they offered of accepting much greater density than was originally requested by the city, for preserving a notable feature of their neighborhood.
I believe that the rest of the planned upzone for the Roosevelt neighborhood accommodates the additional number of residents and business development it needs to become a more viable neighborhood. In order not to delay that development I propose that the entire plan move forward including new increased 85 foot heights on three blocks not suggested in the DPD proposal. My amendment accepts the 40 foot heights recommended in The Sustainable, Livable Roosevelt Plan (SLRP) for the three blocks across from high school building. I believe that is preferred to just removing this area entirely from the plan, since the SLRP template adds community benefits by expanding the pedestrian designation and providing a consistent zone across all three blocks.
CURRENT STATUS, COMMITTEE PROCESS & VOTE
On Monday, December 12, the Council referred an entirely new bill to be discussed and possibly voted on in the Committee on the Built Environment (COBE), on Wednesday, December 14. As of Monday night, neither the agenda for this meeting, nor the legislation itself is available for public review. This new bill takes the concessions offered in good faith by SLRP to increase heights to 85 feet on three blocks not recommended in the Executive proposal and it also retains the 65 foot heights on the three high school blocks where SLRP is asking we maintain at 40 foot heights. Our Council rules state that: “All reasonable effort will be made to provide the preliminary agenda online and in hard copy at least two business days prior to the meeting.”
To date, COBE has had 4 discussions on legislative rezone options for the Roosevelt Residential UrbanVillage and a public hearing atRoosevelt High School on September 19. At their last meeting on this topic, the committee reviewed architectural drawings – one drawing of a possible 40-foot building and three drawings of 65-foot building scenarios on the three high school block. The drawings illustrated options for development standards that were developed by DPD, but the images were provided by GGLO, an architectural firm hired by and representing a potential developer, RDG. Most of the committee discussion dealt with design elements on these blocks and not with zoning as it applied to the larger neighborhood.
The next COBE meeting to take up the Roosevelt rezone is Wednesday, December 14th, scheduled for 10:30 am (originally scheduled at 9am). It is likely that there will be a vote on this newClark sponsored bill at this meeting. If so, I will move to amend the legislation to adopt the SLRP zoning for the three blocks immediately north of the Roosevelt High School. I do not see how I could vote for the entire package if my amendment fails. While I believe the plan as a whole is very good for both the city and this neighborhood, to push ahead with it would ignore an honest and detailed attempt by the community to resolve the conflicts around these blocks.
In order to meet Growth Management Act notice requirements, if the legislation passes out of committee Wednesday it will be held until January 17, which is the Council’s first full business meeting of the Council in the New Year.
In conformance with the Countywide Planning Policies, the City of Seattle chose thirty-eight neighborhoods to absorb greater density,Roosevelt among them. So at the heart of the debate on this rezone, is the need to allow for greater density to meet the city’s overall growth goals and to also provide for better utilization of the light rail station, which the neighborhood wanted and solicited.
With this objective in mind, the community initiated and drafted a thoughtful update to their neighborhood plan after a lengthy process and the City Council adopted the update and incorporated it into the Comprehensive Plan in 2006. A subcommittee from the community proposed an upzone to implement the plan but maintained a 40-foot zone around Roosevelt High School to preserve the integrity of the school design and for safety reasons. The Department of Planning and Development (DPD) began its review in 2009, and worked closely with the community and this year made recommendations that were very close to those made by the community members on the subcommittee of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Plan Update Team.
The Mayor then reviewed the April 2011 legislative rezone draft proposed by DPD, and then directed DPD to reconsider their proposal. DPD then changed its position and recommended additional housing units and increased maximum building heights in two locations: the heart of the Roosevelt business district and the three blocks immediately south of Roosevelt High School. In the business district, DPD’s revised proposal recommended that the maximum building height be increased from 65 feet to 85 feet. On the blocks south of the high school, DPD recommended the maximum building height be increased from 40 feet to 65 feet.
The Roosevelt community responded to DPD’s proposal with “The Sustainable, Livable Roosevelt Plan” (SLRP), seemingly with one critical objective, as one constituent wrote to me, “to add so much density that density critics would stop complaining as long as it preserved 40’ maximum on the High School blocks. The SLR plan was an alternative to the Mayor’s Plan, not a supplement,” the constituent added; it was not simply adding housing, it was offering it in exchange for something of value to the community.
The SLRP not only exceeds the density goals assigned to the Roosevelt neighborhood, but it expands DPD’s proposal by more than 25% in the number of potential housing units that can be built (766 vs. 607.) The SLRP also adds to the total area and the number of parcels from DPD’s proposal, going from 173 parcels comprising 17.5 acres of land to 193 parcels comprising 20 acres of land.
THE THREE BLOCKS ACROSS FROM THE HIGH SCHOOL
The debate is whether a 65-foot up-zone provides on the three blocks north of the high school benefits to the community that the lower 40-foot limit could not. Councilmember Sally Clark, the Chair of COBE, which votes on this legislation before the Full Council does, has noted that new investment – whether private or public – must be done with the best outcomes for people, spaces, and affordability. She has said that the 40-foot proposal for the high school blocks fails the test because it is only with the 65-foot limit that you gain the wider setbacks and rent-restricted apartments for these three blocks.
Community members have asked why the Council couldn’t mandate there be trees and wider setbacks incorporated into a 40 feet construction plan. The counterargument is that such requirements would restrict development potential beyond what is currently available for this site and hence would likely to result in a court challenge by developers. With regards to obtaining rent-restricted apartments, if those three blocks are rezoned there would be a gain of about 15 such units for a period of 50 years with maximum build-out; rent- restricted means that a one bedroom apartment would rent for about $1,200 a month. Under the SLRP proposed 40 foot heights, in that 3-block area there would not likely be any new rent-restricted units. However, since the total number of housing units that could be developed under the SLRP proposal for the entire area is greater than the number of units possible under the DPD’s proposed zoning, the SLRP proposal will likely produce more rent-restricted units then the Executive proposal.
A looming reason why the 65-foot zone is more likely to generate benefits is that the current developer, Roosevelt Development Group (RDG), has an option from the majority property owner on these three blocks to develop them. The owner, Hugh Sisley, owns a number of dwellings in the area for some of which DPD has filed 25 cases in Municipal Court to gain compliance with City codes. The cases have included housing code violations, exterior maintenance and junk storage violations. If the developer cannot build to 65 feet, he believes that his project is not viable and will probably walk away from developing these parcels, perhaps leaving the community these troubled properties until the land ownership changes or another developer presents a different package.
CONSTITUENTS SPEAKING UP
The proposal to increase the height of the proposed buildings across from the high school has generated a number of critical comments from residents. One that I received, pretty much summarizes their attitude: “Given the contentious history of the parcels in question, it appears that the property owners, with the help of the consulting architect, are unduly leveraging the removal of severely neglected and dangerous property if the city will agree to meeting terms that would allow their development proposal.” This came from a resident who is a planner and professor of urban planning. Another resident amplifying a national theme wrote: “It feels as though we are being strong-armed here and that democracy has been spurned. This smacks of the national problem of the one percent exerting its will over the 99 percent.”
I have received close to a 100 emails on this issue, and although there are some copied statements, I’m most impressed that almost all of them appear to be individually composed. Although by a clear ratio of at least 4 to 1, the emails that I’ve received are critical of the 65-foot limit for the 3 blocks abutting the high school, there are those who favor it. One real estate broker wrote, “Let’s face it, the Roosevelt business district is experiencing only a fraction of its potential and that potential will only be realized with a lot more density.” And a resident who is a UW business professor wrote, “There is no need to keep housing scarce in this city. Allowing higher density living is good for the environment and allows more walk-able neighborhoods.” However, I think I was most persuaded by the resident who wrote, “I am very much a believer in increased density as opposed to sprawl. It is important to me that the city grow responsibly and sustainably, to the benefit of both the builders who develop the space and the people who do now and will in the future live here. This is one of the hallmarks of Seattle – - it’s attention to the character of its neighborhoods.”
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