Allowing more office towers won't make U District vibrant, livable community
Published on January 20, 2017 by Doug Campbell
Allowing taller buildings may bring more office space to the U District but not more residents, and that is not in the best interests of creating a vibrant, livable community.
The University District community wants to play a role in accommodating Seattle’s new density.
The question is what kind of role will it play, and what kind of role do Seattle citizens want the U District to play in the context of the greater metropolis?
Rick Mohler’s recent Seattle Times Op-Ed [“U District upzone offers a host of welcome benefits,” Dec. 23, Opinion] points out some advantages to the proposed upzone, but does the city’s proposal create the U District that its community and citizens of Seattle really want?
The type of growth that the upzone will create is the critical issue. No zoning change is required to meet the neighborhood’s projected residential growth, according to the city’s environmental study. Like central Paris, the U District could become a much denser residential neighborhood with the midrise zoning currently in place.
The neighborhood previously was upzoned in the 1990s anticipating the arrival of light rail. With this new proposed upzone, high-rise residential development may or may not occur. However, we can be fairly certain that the upzone will create high-rise office development. Local property owners including the UW and private landholders already are hiring consultants to plan for these towers.
The community’s growth goals are expressed in two documents: the 2013 Urban Design Framework, and the Neighborhood Parks plan. Unfortunately, the zoning proposal before the City Council does not fund or implement these strategies. Were a developer “angel” to come along with the resources, perseverance, and selflessness to execute these goals, the new zoning might be compatible.
But city government has made it clear that we have no reason to think that it will ever find resources to bring the neighborhood’s primary development goals to fruition, goals which have been in place for decades.
The top priority that came out of the neighborhood’s 2014 Open Space Forum was the desire for public space in the heart of the district, surrounded by retail and residential uses. Long-term neighborhood denizens know that this goal was first envisioned in 1955 by architect Victor Steinbrueck. Commercial property owners defeated a formal proposal to “pedestrianize” University Way NE, known as “the Ave,” in 1970, but the community persisted in 2005, with a new neighborhood parks plan, proposing a central public square. The community’s determination was expressed again in the 2014 forum, which also pointed out the need for resources to manage this public space.
City officials tell us that these and other longstanding community needs, such as an elementary school, are outside the scope of the upzone proposal. Apparently, the city assumes that future, better-heeled residents will tax themselves to retrofit the missing public infrastructure necessary to make a much more dense neighborhood habitable.
Seattle has alternatives. Many Washington cities have implemented development impact fees to pay for public sector improvements, to balance burdens created by private development. These fees could be used to serve neighborhood goals, and help create a truly livable neighborhood for new and long-standing residents alike.
As it stands, most local community councils oppose the current upzone plan. The fear is that we will become part of a vertical land rush creating, like South Lake Union, a daytime office district and a nighttime ghost town. This is tragic. There are upzone and densification strategies which community groups would heartily support.
If the city can’t do more to help the U District to create a public square, to build an elementary school, to prioritize residential development for diverse permanent residents over office tower construction, and to keep our lower income residents housed where they have spent most of their lives, then we may be better off in the U District to stick with the zoning we have.
Local retailers, including myself, are asking for a three-month delay in the city’s upzone approval process. A study could then be conducted to predict impacts of this irreversible zoning change upon the many independent small businesses operating here. Surprisingly, in five years of process, this was never studied by the city.
With more construction cranes above our heads than any other American city, we don’t need to see this legislation rushed through the city council. I urge Seattle citizens to tell council members to delay consideration of this initial plan, and to then be ready for a deeper conversation of what the U District is all about.
Density should not come at the expense of destroying a community. Increased density can and should be about the strengthening of a community’s identity and values.
Doug Campbell is owner and founder of Bulldog News. He serves on the board of the University District Partnership and is a member of the City/University Community Advisory Committee and University District Community Council.
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