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The U District Rezone Needs Your Support

By Zach Shaner, Seattle Transit Blog on September 13, 2016

[Update 12:41pm. I neglected to mention any specific advocacy opportunities, but your first opportunity to have an impact is to attend the Planning, Land Use, and Zoning (PLUZ) Committee hearing on Tuesday, September 20th at 9:30am in Council Chambers. Supportive public comment would be most welcome.]

[Update x2 2:58pm. Corrected numbers for Seattle’s population and housing growth rates.]

Yesterday Mayor Murray held a press conference to announce the penultimate move in the big UDistrict Rezone. After half a decade and nearly 100 meetings, it’s finally time to send it to the City Council. And make no mistake, this is the big one.

To date, Link-related zoning changes within Seattle have been meager and disappointing, while many suburban jurisdictions have done relatively better. Lynnwood has created a Center City zone around its future Link station, with heights up to 125′ permitted. And in Kent near Highline College, the height limit is 200′ and there are minimum densities required by code.

By contrast, the most-lauded rezones, at Capitol Hill, Roosevelt, Mount Baker, and Othello, still cap development at 85′. Other residential Link stations are still waiting for their first big rezone, with single-family or lowrise zoning still predominating around Beacon Hill, Columbia City, and Rainier Beach. And of course there are several stations with industrial or institutional uses that inhibit either commercial or residential growth, at Sodo, Stadium, UW, and to a lesser extent Northgate.


Chart by the author

So the UDistrict Station rezone is a big deal; it’s our only crack at creating another true urban center, or even a second downtown. If the Council approves, we will create 5,000 new housing units and build the dense high-rise neighborhood that the state’s largest major institution deserves. An entire generation will be able to live in or near the UDistrict, instead of making the commute from Snohomish or South King Counties. It needs to happen, and it will need your support.
The proposal seeks a core density of 320′ buildings immediately around the station, stepping down progressively into 240′, 85′, and 75′ zones, all mixed use. The broader urban design includes provisions for protected bike lanes, green space, community-oriented commercial uses such as daycare, and more. It largely eschews the misguided windswept plazas that had earlier momentum, and most of the aggressive height increases have made it through the 5-year process relatively unscathed. Let’s help take it across the finish line.
The Council appears to be softly supportive at this time, but potential amendments (particularly by Herbold and O’Brien) have the potential to jam the gears a bit. In a joint press release, Herbold and O’Brien announced their intent to encumber developers with requirements beyond the newly-enacted Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) regulations,
Because this upzone increases zoning capacity beyond what was anticipated in the MHA-R bill, we look forward to working together to ensure increased affordability requirements for the neighborhood. From the MHA-R legislation: ‘The Council intends to consider whether to include higher [affordability] performance and payment amounts … (b) [in] areas where the increment of increased development capacity is greater than the standard MHA-implementing zone change; and (c) … to increase affordable units sufficient to offset the affordable units at risk of demolition as a result of the increase in development capacity due to MHA. (emphasis mine)
We’ll have to see the numbers, but it would be ironic and unfortunate for the Council to seek even higher developer fees because they fear the production of too much housing. The Mayor’s own release estimated that MHA in conjunction with the rezone would produce 620-910 affordable units, more than offsetting the older affordable units at risk of demolition whether the rezone passes or not. So the appropriate question is not if those units will be replaced, but what will replace them. In that context, more units means less competitive pressure on housing prices.
Seattle is gaining 15,000 new people per year, and we’re only building housing for 12,000 of them, so population growth is outpacing construction by 25%. Even if it were true that stopping upzones would keep newcomers from coming in the first place, you would be actively advocating for a local recession, urban decay, and the impoverishment of your friends and neighbors. But in all likelihood slowing housing production only means that the newcomers will outbid those of us already here with the only leverage they have: their wallets. Let’s give them lots of places to live, shall we?