Takeaways From Seattle’s Upzoning Endgame

After another epic committee meeting—lengthened, this time, not by public comment but by a barrage of amendments intended to chip away at modest density increases on the edges of urban villages—the city council moved one big step closer yesterday to finalizing the remaining citywide portion of the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which has been in the works for the past four years. (MHA has already been implemented in several neighborhoods, including downtown, South Lake Union, and parts of the University District).

City of Seattle

The plan, on the whole, is modest. It allows developers to build taller, denser buildings inside multifamily and commercial areas and urban villages, and expands some urban villages (areas where, under the neighborhood plans first adopted in the 1990s, density is intensely concentrated as a way of “protecting” single-family areas) to include about 6 percent of the land currently zoned exclusively for single-family use. One reason the plan is modest is that the upzones are small, generally increasing density by one zoning step (from Neighborhood Commercial-65, for example, to NC-75, a height increase of 10 feet) in exchange for various affordability contributions. The second reason is that by continuing to concentrate density along arterial slivers instead of legalizing condos, townhouses, duplexes, and small apartment buildings in the two-thirds of Seattle’s residential area that’s preserved exclusively for detached single-family houses, the changes can’t be anything but modest: 6 percent of 65 percent is still just a sliver.

Most of the amendments the council passed yesterday—generally with opposition from the two at-large council members, Lorena Gonzalez and Teresa Mosqueda, and District 5 (North Seattle) member Debora Juarez—were aimed at decreasing the size of even that tiny concession.

For example: All of the amendments proposed by District 6 representative Mike O’Brien in the Crown Hill neighborhood, as well as his proposal to create a new, entirely speculative protection for a strip of houses in Fremont’s tech center that some people feel might have historic potential, were downzones from the MHA proposal. O’Brien, who was unable to attend yesterday’s meeting, has said that the proposals to shrink MHA in Crown Hill and Fremont came at the behest of “the community,” and that they were all offset by increased density along 15th Ave. NW, making them a win-win for density proponents and the Crown Hill community. (Lisa Herbold, in District 1, made a similar argument for her own proposal to downzone parts of the Morgan Junction neighborhood from the MHA proposal, saying that “I feel really strongly that the work, not just that I’ve done with the community, but that community leaders have done with other folks that have engaged with this effort, should be honored.”)

O’Brien’s Crown Hill downzones all passed, along with corresponding upzones that will further concentrate density (to put a human point on it, apartment buildings occupied by renters) on the noisy, dirty quasi-highway that is 15th Ave. NW, where it intersects with NW 85th St.:

The intersection where “the Crown Hill community” says they will allow renters to live.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda—who told me before the vote that the revelation that 56 affordable units would be lost if all the downzones passed increased her resolve to vote against all of them—pointed out the environmental justice implications of banning renters in the heart of a neighborhood and restricting them to large buildings on busy arterials: “When we look at neighborhood changes that would squish the zoning changes to an area along 15th, which we know to be a high traffic area with noise and pollution… it doesn’t feel like an equitable way to best serve our community. … I think it’s important that we take the opportunity to create not just access to housing along 15th, but really talk about how we equitably spread housing throughout the neighborhood.”

District 5 council member Debora Juarez added, “Of course [residents of a neighborhood] can organize, and of course they’re going to find a way to opt out or reduce their responsibility or their role or how they would like to see their neighborhoods grow. I know what happens when you do that, because then the burden shifts to those neighborhoods that we are trying to protect particularly from displacement.” Although District 3 council member Kshama Sawant countered that the people in Crown Hill are largely “working-class homeowners” at high risk for displacement, citywide council member Lorena Gonzalez quickly put that notion to rest, pointing out that the city’s own analysis found that Crown Hill is a neighborhood with high access to opportunity and a low displacement risk.

O’Brien’s amendments passed 5-3.

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Other amendments that came up yesterday:

Although several of District 4 council member Rob Johnson’s amendments to reduce density in the Roosevelt and Ravenna-Cowen neighborhoods passed, a proposal to preserve a single-family designation for a single block of houses in Roosevelt failed, sparking some pointed comments from both Mosqueda and Gonzalez about the need to build housing near transit corridors and future light rail stations like the one four blocks from the block Johnson proposed keeping single-family. “We have to, as a city, either be committed to the urban village growth model or not, and to me this is an example where we need to be committed to that urban village growth strategy,” Gonzalez said.

• A proposal by O’Brien to reduce the proposed zoning along N 36th Street near the Fremont Troll statue by two full stops (from Low-Rise 3, which allows apartments, to Low-Rise 1, which allows townhouses), lost on a unanimous vote. Council members pointed out that not only is the street O’Brien wanted to downzone within spitting distance of high-tech companies like Google and Tableau, making it a prime location for new housing, the houses on it do not have any historic designation, which was one of O’Brien’s primary justifications for the amendment. “This is quite literally a dense area,” an exasperated Mosqueda said.

• A suite of Herbold amendments to reduces some of the proposed upzones near the West Seattle Junction, and the site of the future Link Light Rail station, from low-rise (1 through 3, depending on the lot) to residential small lot all passed. Herbold justified the downzones from the MHA proposal by noting that Sound Transit hasn’t finalized its alignment through West Seattle yet, and expressing her “commitment” to come back and adopt some kind of upzone in the area once they do. As she has before, Herbold suggested that not upzoning would be a cost-saving measure, because Sound Transit will have to purchase some land in the area for station construction, and land zoned for higher density typically costs more. When Juarez, whose district includes two future light rail stations (at Northgate and N. 130th St.), noted that her district clamored for more density around the stations, not less, Herbold said that Sound Transit currently has “three different options, and they’re spread across about 10 different blocks.” Mosqueda chimed in, saying that her “argument would be that it’s precisely because we have a new [light rail] line… that we should be doing everything we can now to raise the bar, so that when a decision is made [any new density] would be in addition to that baseline.

The committee declined to reduce a proposed height increase in southwest Delridge, in an area that, Herbold said, “provides a very wonderful view of Mount Rainier… in a low-income neighborhood in an area that doesn’t see a lot of city investment.” Both Gonzalez and Mosqueda pointed out that the downzone from MHA that Herbold was requesting wouldn’t actually reduce heights at all—the only difference would be how much low-rise housing property owners could build on private property—and District 7 council member Sally Bagshaw said she had been swayed by Mosqueda’s argument that the point of MHA is “build back in the opportunity for people to live in areas that they were excluded form living in.” However, Bagshaw added, she had already committed to supporting the amendment, which ultimately failed on a 4-4 vote.

• Two other Herbold amendments—one sweeping, the other potentially precedent-setting—are worth noting. The first, which supporters referred to as “the claw-back provision,” would nullify all the MHA upzones if a court overturns MHA’s affordability requirements at any point in the future. Mosqueda argued forcefully against the provision, saying, “I am not interested in sending a message that we would have some sort of moratorium [on development]. I think that could have adverse impacts on our ability to build affordable housing.” Johnson, who said that he “philosophically agreed” with Mosqueda, argued nonetheless that the amendment was “purely intent language”; it would only go into effect if a court overturned MHA’s affordability requirements in the future. That amendment passed.

The second, an amendment that triggers a new neighborhood planning process whenever “more than 25 percent of the [Morgan Junction] urban village could be affected by proposed zoning changes,” impacts a small area but could set a precedent for throwing MHA zoning changes (or other future zoning changes) back to community groups whenever they start to appreciably change the way an area looks and feels (which is, some might argue, the entire point of zoning changes). “I’m not hearing a rational basis for the establishment of a 25 percent benchmark,” Gonzalez said. “I’m worried about the establishment of a benchmark … based on a feeling or a sense that that that seems to be the right place to engage in the conversation. I’m not sure that’s wise policy. I’m not really sure how we even quantify what 25 percent” means.

That amendment passed 6-2, with Juarez and Mosqueda voting against.

The full MHA package passed the committee unanimously, with O’Brien absent. It now heads to the full council for a vote on March 18.

Mike O’Brien, 10-Year Council Veteran, Will Not Seek Reelection

Telling a group of supporters that included housing, social justice, and environmental advocates, that he was “going to try to smile,” city council member Mike O’Brien announced Wednesday that he would not run for reelection after 10 years on the council. The announcement, which he made in his office at city hall, capped off months of speculation about whether the embattled environmental-activist-turned-veteran-politician would bow out to avoid what was sure to be a bruising reelection campaign. O’Brien is the fourth of the seven council incumbents whose seats are on the 2019 ballot who has said he will not seek reelection; the others are Bruce Harrell (District 2), Rob Johnson (District 4), and Sally Bagshaw (District 7).

O’Brien, elected in 2009 on the same ballot as his fellow Sierra Club leader and onetime colleague, former mayor Mike McGinn, started his time on the council as a climate change-focused environmental champion and ended as an earnest (if not always effective) advocate for people with few friends in city hall—people experiencing homelessness, opponents of the proposed new youth jail, and people living with addiction and mental illness who, as O’Brien put it in a three-page document outlining his accomplishments, engage in “criminal activity that stems from unmet behavioral needs or poverty.”

A poll last year, conducted by O’Brien’s consultant WinPower Strategies, reportedly showed that the incumbent was unpopular in his district, which elected him by a 23-percent margin in 2015. (O’Brien was initially elected citywide, but his seat became a district position when the city switched to district elections for 7 of the 9 council members in 2015.) Dissatisfaction with O’Brien’s leadership was on full display last May, when a meeting to discuss a proposed employee hours tax on large businesses, which O’Brien supported, devolved into a profane, one-sided shouting match. (O’Brien, who is known for showing up at meetings that he knows will be stacked with angry opponents, reportedly almost left.) It may be that O’Brien’s district, which has experienced many of the same challenges as other parts of the city such as visible encampments, open drug use, and rising property crime, had really had enough. Or it could be that O’Brien might have found more support in his district than is evident at public-comment sessions and on forums like Facebook and NextDoor, but didn’t care to spend the next months finding out.

K.C. Golden, of 350 Seattle, and council member Mike O’Brien.

“There are a lot of people that are scared, that are frustrated, and that shows up as fear and hate sometimes in a way that’s kind of ugly, but the base emotions are real,” O’Brien said. “People are nervous about our future is like. I really wish that politics in Seattle weren’t so divisive… because we do need to find ways to come together.”

One reason O’Brien waited as long as he did to announce he wasn’t running, according to several sources close to him, was that he wanted to see if another candidate he could support came forward. So far, it appears that none have. “We need great leadership going forward,” O’Brien said . “I’ll admit that I have some nervousness about the uncertainty of what that leadership looks like.” But, he added, “I feel like I need to step back and trust that the system is going to work.”

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Editor’s note: The caption on a photo accompanying this story originally misspelled the name of 350 Seattle’s K.C. Golden.