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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

City Fast-Tracking Plan for Taller Buildings in Rainier Valley

posted by on October 7 at 17:20 PM

Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis delivered a bitter pill last night to a South Seattle community group: The city plans to increase height limits for buildings in the Rainier Valley around the light–rail station. Along with other city employees and a local developer, he called it the “informal kick-off” of a program to rezone the area by next November. The light-rail link between downtown and the airport will open in July 2009.

To warm up the Mt. Baker Community Club, a Sound Transit spokeswoman described the East Link, which will connect Seattle to the eastern burbs if Prop 1 passes next month. She patiently answered the audience’s questions: “Yes, 55 miles per hour is as fast as it goes,” and, “Light rail does not refer to how light it is; it is actually quite heavy.”

Then to taller buildings. Ceis, along with new city planner Ray Gastil, told the group that the city aimed to increase density near the transit station. “The bad way to do it is to do nothing—leave zoning the way it is,” he said. Instead, he said the city would ask the residents to give their feedback and complete the plan in a year. Many neighborhood plans are drafted semi-autonomously by neighborhoods over several years.

Pat Murakami, president of the Mt. Baker Community Council, asked how many new apartment or condos the city planned for the neighborhood. She had heard the city was considering 3,000 new housing units near the station. Some at the meeting were concerned about the construction noise, increased property taxes, and towers in the neighborhood.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you it will be all low-rise density,” said Ceis, waving his hands by his waist, without committing to a specific plan. “I would be lying to you.”

Indeed, under current rules, most of the properties on Rainier Avenue South around the Mount Baker Station already allow for 65-foot mixed-use buildings. Considering the pitch, I’d estimate heights will be set between 85 to 125 feet.

There is no valid argument against upzoning around this or any other light-rail station. The only argument is that it be done right. The city should involve the neighborhood. Developers must avoid building a dozen homogeneous slabs of housing. Good street life will require deep retail spaces of varying sizes affordable to small businesses—not giant retail that wraps around parking garages (those are expensive to rent, awkwardly arranged, and minimize the retail potential for a building). The bottom floor needs big glass storefronts, using warehouse style fronts like in Portland’s Pearl District. And the city should require a copious amount of affordable housing. Neighbors may moan, but it must be done.

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So what is the argument for Sound Transit again? Helping a handful of developers get even richer?

We should vote no on ST2 for three main reasons. The tax is the wrong kind - the legislature will give ST a more progressive tax. If we wait construction costs will be cheaper because labor and land acquisition will be cheaper (more unemployed), and materials will cost less (less building worldwide). We can lock those savings in by using a Design/Build contract. Finally, we need to see if it works and if we like it before deciding whether or not to agree to a 30-year tax hike. It isn't like ST has brought the first part on-line yet . . . .in the immortal words of Missourians: show me.

Posted by cecil | October 7, 2008 5:43 PM

Light rail along MLK cuts through one of the poorest sections of town. I know, I live there. Who is going to be able to afford to move into these new, conveniently located, digs? Never mind the goods and services part - we're used to not having anything but stinkly little groceries and trinket shops that sell embroidered slippers. Most of the people who live in this area don't speak English, don't take public transportation - the females don't work and they all drive Dodge Caravans. They're not going to use light rail.

Posted by Good luck with that | October 7, 2008 5:45 PM

Mass Transit: It's not just for poor people anymore!

Posted by disintegrator | October 7, 2008 5:54 PM


I just moved to the neighborhood, and appreciate your nailing, quite eloquently, the description of this part of town. Dodge Caravans is right!

Posted by jackie treehorn | October 7, 2008 6:01 PM

Dominic is correct. It must be done. But it should be done correctly.

Posted by Hey wait | October 7, 2008 6:04 PM

1 - "So what is the argument for Sound Transit again?"

Everybody knows we need it to save the polar bears.

Posted by Captain Obvious | October 7, 2008 6:23 PM

If "light rail" doesn't refer to how light it is, then what does it refer to?

Posted by minderbender | October 7, 2008 8:00 PM

You know, 40 to 100 story tall inexpensive residential rental apartment buildings with mixed income groups on each floor sure would help avoid all the conversion of single family housing areas to duplexes and monster townhouses ...


Posted by Will in Seattle | October 7, 2008 9:47 PM

Dominic. The word you forgot to mention is displacement.

The affordability proposals from the mayor will largely be smoke and mirrors corporate welfare for private developers under the auspices of something like MFTE. Just like the 50 token units of affordable housing that Paul Allen built to diffuse criticism of the dozens more he demolished and the million dollar condos whose construction are going to accelerate displacement in the Cascade neighborhood.

Rents will dramatically increase in Rainier Valley. That's why SHA has used eminent domain to dispossess immigrant businesspeople of their land near light rail stations-- they aren't the people these plans are being made to benefit. Environmental sustainability platitudes are fronting for gentrification, a word that no one seems able to mention.

It doesn't have to be this way, density vs diversity. And you should report the alternatives. But that also requires a more critical eye, perhaps starting with the question of why the announcement was made in Mt. Baker. This is hardly a "bitter pill" for them. They have opposed affordable housing development in the valley for years.

Oh, and do you think that when light rail runs north of the U-District (underground instead of above ground, of course) that a similar upzone will take place? Maybe, so long as it's not in Wedgwood, Ravenna, Roosevelt, Maple Leaf, Green Lake, or other largely wealthy white neighborhoods. Maybe in places where the sidewalks end, like Lake City, or Northgate, or View Ridge.

Posted by Trevor | October 7, 2008 10:05 PM

Well, so long as we have this city council, Trevor.

Posted by Will in Seattle | October 7, 2008 10:47 PM

@7: "Light rail" refers mostly to passenger loads, not so much the weight. Full-sized trains (like the Sounder, or the Chicago/NYC subways) count as heavy rail, smaller tram-style cars get categorized under light rail. The dividing line is fuzzy.

Posted by Nicholas | October 7, 2008 11:16 PM

I love that the City's glad to legislate the "it must be done" bit for Rainier Valley, and is careful to leave out the "done right" part for a later day that will never, ever come. Electeds know we're mostly patsies, and that citizen-sized campaign contributions don't play a determining role in Council election war chests.

Posted by tomasyalba | October 7, 2008 11:41 PM

@9: Switch Wedgwood (which has very few sidewalks) with View Ridge (which has sidewalks on most every street, as well as buried electrical and phone wires, so the residents don't have to live with the burden of unsightly utility poles).

Posted by Greg Barnes | October 8, 2008 9:47 AM

"Light rail along MLK cuts through one of the poorest sections of town. I know, I live there."

Sure, but I believe the part they are talking about upzoning isn't on MLK at all (or not much) -- I think they mean the area around Rainier and McClellan, where the Mt Baker rail station will be. And, yes, it needs to be done. That is a horrifically pedestrian-unfriendly area.

Posted by litlnemo | October 11, 2008 2:09 PM

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