City Living - High-rise plans threaten U-District

by John V. Fox and Carolee Colter - June 12, 2014

City planners seem determined to destroy the University District as we know it. They’re moving forward with a plan to raise allowable building heights seven- to eight-fold and fill the neighborhood with office and residential towers rising 340 feet.

The proposal currently is going through environmental review and will wind up before the City Council for a final vote later this year or early next year.

Already overzoned

For perspective, those 340-foot towers would rise another 15 feet above the neighborhood’s current tallest building, the UW Plaza Tower (for years called Safeco Tower), and about 150 feet above the 16-story Hotel Deca (formerly the Meany Hotel) directly to its north.

Now, imagine a couple dozen or more megabuildings from Interstate 5 east to University Way (“the Ave”) and from Northeast 50th south to Northeast 42nd streets. Currently, this area is zoned for lower-density residential and commercial uses, with the vast majority of buildings no more than 20 to 35 feet in height.

The planners also are studying a “no action” option and a so-called “lower-density” proposal that would “only” quadruple zoning densities and allow 150-foot towers. These two options, however, are being considered only because the environmental process requires a study of multiple options.

Should the City Council ultimately approve the proposed upzones, over time it would irrevocably destroy the existing physical and social character and affordability of the community. The U-District’s unique historic mix of affordable homes, townhomes, three-story apartments and rich social, racial and economic diversity would all be tossed aside.

Small businesses that line the Ave — many owned by first-generation immigrants — could not withstand such changes. The upzones would push their lower-income customers out and storefront rents sky-high.

The city’s proposed plans seem intentionally designed to pave the way for a corporate makeover of the community. The city recently convened an economic task force where plans were drawn up to turn the U-District into the region’s next high-tech hub, with new office space and shiny high-rise apartments for techies living within walking distance of the new jobs. The University of Washington could expand its campus into these areas, as well.

Of course, it’s all being rationalized that the added densities are needed to support the new rail stop under construction at Northeast 43rd Street and Brooklyn Avenue Northeast, get people out of their cars, curb sprawl and save the planet from global warming.

What makes this argument ring hollow is the fact that both the city overall and U-District in particular are already overzoned with more-than-enough zoned capacity to accommodate their share of the region’s growth assigned by the Growth Management Act through 2035. Seattle has been called on to accommodate another 70,000 housing units by then but is zoned for another 188,000 units.

The U-District’s 2035 share, according to city planners, is another 3,900 units and roughly twice that amount in jobs. Yet, its current zoning has capacity to accommodate about 7,000 new units and more than ample office space, well above anything this neighborhood could reasonably expect for many decades. In sum, there are no rational grounds to push for upzones and high-rise development in the U-District. 

Regulate current growth first

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) fraudulently downplays the land-use and housing impacts accompanying such a disparity between current uses and the proposed zoning. Instead of objectively analyzing the increased vulnerability of affordable, lower-density apartments and displacement of seniors, students, low-income and working people, the DEIS waxes on about the marvels of “filtering” — a glorified version of trickle-down economics.

Throughout the Seattle Displacement Coalition’s 37-year life, supply and accelerated rates of new construction in Seattle have never led to lower prices. The U-District now is at 94 percent of its 2024 growth target, and Seattle has reached 104 percent of its target. Most of that growth has occurred since 2009, reaching record levels citywide and in the U-District. Rather than causing rents to fall, we’ve seen record rent increases — up 8 percent in the last year.

Instead of giving the green light for still more development, what we really need are regulatory measures to better manage the growth we now have in the U-District, even including selective downzones to preserve the existing affordable stock.

A 2002 study identified more than 120 historically significant or potentially significant buildings, many located within the proposed high-rise zone. The report recommended creation of a historic conservation district across the neighborhood — let’s implement that. And let’s require developers to replace housing they remove.

We also need developer-impact fees so that developers cover the backlog of infrastructure needs created by their projects.

Anyone who loves the U-District cannot sit by and watch it destroyed. Besides, your neighborhood could be next.

As we head toward district elections, let’s work hard to toss out of office in 2015 any electeds backing these upzones. 

JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (, a low-income housing organization. To comment on this column, write to

View the article online here.