City Awkward Moments in South Lake Union Planning
posted by May 7 at 13:17 PMon
A meeting of the South Lake Union Friends and Neighbors group (SLUFAN), a community group loyal to the mayor’s and Vulcan’s development agenda, last night was supposed to accomplish, among other things, two goals: to hold an “urban form discussion” about its rezoning proposals for neighborhood growth, and to choose between two candidates tied for a board seat in a neighborhood-wide election. Easier said than done.
PART ONE—A room in the South Lake Union Armory building was stuffed with people who had read an article about SLUFAN considering recommendations to allow 400-foot-tall buildings in the neighborhood. The topic was allotted 50 minutes on the agenda; a gigantic portfolio that contained diagrams of the proposals leaned in the corner. But after a quick announcement that two future meetings would be held to discuss the plans, the board President, Dawn Oliver, noting the large turnout, simply asked if anyone had any comments. “What’s this I read about 400-foot buildings?” asked a man in the audience. The board members began to debate—was this or was this not the appropriate time to present the plans? Jim Holmes of the city’s Department of Planning and Development inched toward the diagrams—which he’d obviously brought to show the group. Each time a board member voiced support for showing the proposals, Holmes reached to open the portfolio, but then, as another member would oppose the presentation, Holmes would retract his hand. The board exchanged furtive glances; the crowd looked expectant. Vulcan’s Phil Fujii, one the SLUFAN’s board members, finally took a stand in favor of showing the drawings. And out they came.
Three rezoning proposals are on the table (all still in flux) for the roughly 66 blocks of the South Lake Union neighborhood.
1. This would be the highest-density scheme, containing about 25 blocks where commercial buildings could reach up to 240 feet and residential buildings up to 400 feet. The remaining blocks would allow mostly 125- to 300-foot-tall buildings (a few blocks would be unchanged). In effect, downtown would stretch from the northern border of the International District to the southern shores of Lake Union. I know, right.
2. This would be the lowest-density upzone, with heights peaking out around 160 feet (catching up with the recent zoning accommodations for the planned Amazon complex), but many of the blocks would maintain the existing height limits between 65 and 85 feet.
3. The final proposal is a compromise between the height limits of number one and number three.
The notion that 400-foot towers could blanket a traditionally low-density area—predictably—raised hackles in the audience. “Just because you have that height limit to the south [of Denny Way] is not justification to do that to the north,” said a white-haired woman. She complained the buildings would block views: “It is going to depreciate the value of that property [with a blocked view].”
A tense moment after the jump.
In an attempt to assuage those fears, the board explained that the same zoning rules which currently apply to other 400-foot residential buildings in Seattle would also apply to new construction in SLU—which I write about over here—to prevent dark bulky choad-like monoliths. For instance, residential buildings that are 400 feet tall would have skinny towers, only allowing maximum floor plates of around 11,000 square feet.
The rezoning proposals are being drafted for the DPD as part of the SLU urban-center plan. SLUFAN will pass its recommendations on to the mayor’s office, and eventually the proposal will reach the council. The upshot: By the end of 2009, expect an SLU rezone to allow taller buildings. How much taller after it goes through the City Hall sausage grinder? That’s anyone’s guess.
PART TWO—In the middle of the presentation, a woman stomped into the crowded room, threw her coat at the feet of Oliver, the board president, and plopped herself down at the big table. This, it turned out, was Noel Franklin—the challenger for the board’s open seat. At the other end of the table was incumbent board member Diane Masson. But when the two were asked to introduce themselves—basically to give a stump speech about what swell board members they would make—each launched into tirades. Masson, of the Mirabella retirement community, was furious at the board for failing to announce positions to be reappointed at the same time she sought to be reelected. “Why was I singled out—why was the decision made, and why was it not brought to the full board?” she asked. The error did violate the bylaws, conceded one board member. But, replied board member Jill Mackie of the Seattle Times, “You’re making accusations that are unfair and sad.” The crowd hung on every word and squirmed. Then Franklin, of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, voiced outrage that she had been mentioned but wasn’t quoted in the PI article, specifically believing the story had cast her as supporting skyscrapers. Then she asked the stunned board, “Why wasn’t I interviewed?” (The updated Web version of the article now includes quotes from Franklin and clarifies her neutrality on zoning issues). “I got broadsided so hard core today, I don’t even know what to say,” Franklin told the room. The unexpected turbulence clearly shook the board, which agreed, at Masson’s request, to delay the tie-breaking vote until June. Should be a tough call.