A public hearing hosted by the Seattle City Council to discuss a proposed rezone to the Uptown neighborhood drew hundreds to SIFF Cinema Uptown last Monday night. Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw, (who represents District 7) Mike O’Brien, Tim Burgess and Rob Johnson were on hand, with Johnson facilitating public comment.
City Council’s Proposal
The City Council is proposing a rezone in order to facilitate the expected growth of the Uptown neighborhood by developing 600 new affordable homes for low-income people over the course of 20 years. Currently, 45,000 households in Seattle are spending more than half of their income on rent alone. Approximately 2,800 are experiencing homelessness.
Other stated goals of the proposed rezone include better integrating the Uptown neighborhood with Seattle Center, diversifying household type and affordability of homes, job creation, cultivating more arts and culture, and encouraging working and living without the use of a car.
The proposal maintains that buildings in the heart of Uptown must abide by a height limit of 65 feet, while buildings in the Mercer and Roy corridors will have a limit of 85 feet. The tallest buildings in the neighborhood will be adjacent to South Lake Union and Downtown.
Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA)
The Uptown rezoning proposal is part of the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) policy meant to address the rising cost of living in Seattle in the midst of a housing crisis.
Under MHA, new developments will be required to either include affordable homes or to contribute to a city fund for affordable housing.
MHA is a strategy specifically under the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), which was commissioned by now-former Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council last fall. The 28-member HALA committee includes advocates of affordable housing, developers, land-use experts, tenants, businesses and non-profits.
Throughout the entire city, HALA aims to build 50,000 new housing units over the next 10 years, with 20,000 of those being designated as “affordable.”
Councilmember Johnson has also proposed several amendments with the goal of creating even more capacity in Uptown.
Amendment 1A proposes increasing the height limit in the area surrounding Queen Anne Avenue North, between Harrison and Roy streets, from 65 to 85 feet.
Amendment 1B would increase the Mercer and Roy corridors from an 85-foot height limit to a 125-foot limit.
Amendment 2A would increase the floor-area ratio (FAR) incentive for art space and landmark preservation, which would purportedly draw more housing applicants to the neighborhood.
Amendment 2B would offer a FAR incentive for the co-development of sites with Seattle Public Schools.
Amendment 2C maintains that it would provide either height or FAR incentives for family-friendly housing designs, similar to what has already been done in the University District and Downtown. The goal of this amendment is to encourage more families to move to Seattle Center and surrounding areas.
Amendment 3A would allow builders the flexibility to develop even more units per building along Roy Street, Queen Anne Avenue, First Avenue and Fifth Avenue by reducing average upper level setback requirements.
And finally, Amendment 4B would create parking maximums in Uptown for non-residential use, with the goal of curbing the amount of traffic in the neighborhood.
The majority of speakers at the hearing Monday expressed general support for the rezone of Uptown, with an emphasis on capping building heights at 85 feet. Furthermore, many uttered disapproval for Amendment 1B, which proposes that the Mercer and Roy corridors be increased to a 125-foot height limit.
In attendance at the hearing were several representatives from organizations including Seattle for Everyone and the Uptown Alliance, both of which support the development of more affordable housing in Uptown.
“Opportunity-rich areas need to be accessible for all people,” one commenter said.
Many others stated their support for MHA in general, saying that it will bring with it more housing and increase the number of family-sized units.
One representative of the Uptown Alliance highlighted the importance of developing Uptown as an urban center in Seattle. In order to make this happen, we need to add more height to buildings, she said.
Juanita Unger, a social worker who works with homeless clients, believes that the rezone will ultimately help her clients.
Several commenters expressed concern that Amendment 1B had not been made public enough, and that they had not even been aware of such a proposal prior to the hearing.
“Bring zoning to a reasonable 85 feet,” said Erin House, coalition and outreach manager for Seattle for Everyone.
Commenters representing Bayview, a non-profit, low-income retirement community, came to the hearing to argue that such a drastic height increase could eliminate direct sunlight for the residents under the slogan “Save Our Sun.”
John Rosen, a member of Ward Street Alliance, pointed out that even an urban, bustling neighborhood like Capitol Hill has height limits for its buildings and that increasing the height limit to 125 feet in Uptown could end up discouraging affordable housing in the end.
Many commenters also expressed their disapproval of the rezone proposal, arguing that 600 units in Uptown will not be enough to satisfy a growing neighborhood, and that 20 years is too far in the future to impact those who are struggling currently.
One commenter pointed out that the word “‘affordability’ is so vague.” That commenter, who has been living in the same apartment in Capitol Hill for nearly 40 years, says she’s witnessed the buildings all around her get torn down.
“The benefit goes to the developers who are chomping at the bit,” she said.
Another commenter named Andrew, who has been living in Queen Anne for a decade, echoed a similar sentiment, saying that “there’s no incentive for developers to build affordable housing.” He also believes that the upzone will cause the neighborhood to lose its character.
At the end of the day, more and more people will continue flocking to Seattle for its myriad of economic opportunities - it’s how the city handles the transplants that will determine how livable future-Seattle will be.
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