U District upzone: Handful of landowners have most to gain
Published on February 20, 2017 by Daniel Beekman
Out of hundreds of property owners in the University District area, where an upzone would allow taller buildings, the UW, a parking-lot association and several other landholders with multiple parcels are positioned to benefit most.
By raising maximum building heights across much of the University District, Seattle’s proposed upzone of the neighborhood would drive up property values — making selling and developing land more lucrative.
And while there are hundreds of different property owners in the area where the changes would occur, a handful of leading landholders are positioned to benefit the most.
Unsurprisingly, several say they’re in favor of the upzone. They also say their support is about more than making money.
“Will we benefit? Probably,” said Don Schulze, president of University District Parking Associates, one of the major players.
“I do have a fiduciary responsibility to our shareholders to do the best we can,” added Schulze, who runs a neighborhood business, Shulty’s Bar and Grill. “But that includes what’s going to happen in the long run, and we see that as making the U District a better place.”
The University of Washington owns a dozen-plus parcels covering more than 450,000 square feet of lot space — about 10 percent of the total lot space in the area.
University District Parking Associates (UDPA), formed in 1944 by neighborhood business owners to provide parking for their customers, owns nearly as many parcels, which cover more than 120,000 square feet of lot space.
Many of UDPA’s properties are parking lots that are prime candidates for development, and most of UDPA’s shareholders own other properties individually.
University Center LLC, registered to Gregory Blume at the offices of the Blume Co., owns nine parcels covering about 130,000 square feet of lot space, according to county and state records.
Those parcels include the large block between Roosevelt Way Northeast and Ninth Avenue Northeast where the Sundance Cinemas and a Trader Joe’s are located.
The Blume family holds shares in UDPA, says Schulze, as does the University Bookstore, a for-profit company whose assets are held in a trust governed by and for UW students, faculty and staff.
The bookstore owns only two parcels, but one is a parking lot on 15th Avenue Northeast where the upzone would set a maximum height of 240 feet.
Another significant landholder is Rainier Northwest, which owns a large parking lot on Northeast 45th Avenue near Interstate 5 and other parcels nearby.
Sally Clark, a former Seattle City Council member who now directs the UW’s community-relations office, says the upzone would help the neighborhood become a thriving urban center, with more kinds of housing and more kinds of employers.
Clark worked in a U District deli in the early 1990s, when Safeco Insurance had its headquarters in the neighborhood. She says the company’s presence was positive.
“You had a different stripe of employees looking for things to eat and buy,” she said.
For years, UW officials have talked about wanting to turn the area into an “innovation district” where academics and researchers can help start businesses.
That’s led some critics to raise concerns about the neighborhood’s becoming too much like redeveloped South Lake Union, where tech companies and tech workers dominate.
“There are some really good things about South Lake Union — jobs are a good thing,” Clark said. “And there are some things we can improve on.”
She says UW President Ana Mari Cauce wants to promote “inclusive innovation.” While precisely what that means isn’t clear, Clark says it involves collaboration with people in social services and the arts.
The UW plans to build an office tower above the U District light-rail station scheduled to open in 2021 but has no other immediate development plans, Clark says.
She says the neighborhood’s other major landholders may play a larger role in guiding a transformation of the U District. Will the upzone make off-campus housing more or less affordable for UW students? Clark says she isn’t sure.
Developers are highly interested in the area, Schulze admits. UDPA has three different parking lots where the upzone would set a maximum building height of 320 feet.
“We get a significant number of offers. I’m looking at two today,” he said.
No to “time capsule”
Like Schulze, Alfred Shiga stands to benefit from the upzone — his family holds shares in UDPA. But also like Schulze, he has deep neighborhood ties. His family has operated the Shiga’s Imports gift store on University Way Northeast since 1956.
The City Council’s land-use committee voted earlier this month to postpone changes on that U District main street, also known as The Ave. The move came after some small-business owners warned they could be displaced by redevelopment.
Shiga argues such fears are misguided. He says the upzone would help small businesses by allowing more people to live, work and shop in the neighborhood.
His family has no plans to sell any properties but would like the ability to build higher.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to lock The Ave in a time capsule,” said Shiga, a UW graduate whose father founded the beloved University District Streetfair.
Louise Little shares that view. The University Bookstore CEO, who got her start as a cashier in 1980, says the scruffy U District needs revitalization.
“There have been times when our neighborhood has struggled with image,” Little said. “I think we’re on our way back. We just need to continue.”
Will the bookstore sell or build on its parking lot if the upzone wins approval? “We’re looking at all of our options,” Little said.
UDPA gave $500 to the 2015 campaign of City Councilmember Rob Johnson, who chairs the land-use committee and whose District 4 includes the U District.
It also gave $500 each to Johnson’s general-election opponent, Michael Maddux, and to Councilmembers Tim Burgess, M. Lorena González and Mike O’Brien.
Blume Co. CEO Bruce Blume gave $700 in 2015 to Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw and Bruce Harrell and $600 to Burgess.
Blume also gave $2,500 to the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, which contributed $46,500 to an independent-expenditure committee backing Johnson. He and others at Blume Co. didn’t return requests for comment.
Shiga gave $500 to Burgess in 2015.
Paul Allen’s Vulcan, of South Lake Union fame, recently completed its first U District apartment building. The company in 2015 gave $700 each to Johnson, Burgess, González, Bagshaw and Harrell, and $40,000 to Civic Alliance.
Seattle Displacement Coalition activist John Fox, an outspoken critic of the upzone, gave $300 in 2015 to Tony Provine, one of Johnson’s primary-election opponents.
Fox gave $700 to Councilmember Lisa Herbold and $500 to the independent-expenditure committee Citizens’ Alliance for Limited Growth. Seattle Displacement Coalition gave $3,455 to the committee, which supported Maddux.
A pastor’s take
The council’s final vote on the upzone is scheduled for Tuesday. Pat Simpson, pastor at University Temple United Methodist Church, has a unique perspective.
The church owns a 33,000-square-foot parcel and stands to gain from the upzone. The congregation could allow part of its property to be redeveloped, then use the proceeds for renovations.
“Our building is aging, with some systems that need replacing,” Simpson said. “We need to do something.”
But the congregation’s interests are broader than that. The church hosts a preschool, a needle exchange and a homeless shelter for young adults.
Simpson is concerned about the possibility that the upzone could push people of modest means out of the U District.
She and congregation members want the council to increase the amount of affordable housing that developers would be required to build, post-upzone.
“I don’t think anybody really knows how it’s going to play out,” Simpson said. “Redeveloping our property won’t directly displace anyone. But what might happen down the block as a result of higher property values? We don’t know.”
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