Final decision near in Roosevelt rezones

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As we get closer to what will likely be final committee-level action Dec. 14 (there’ll be no Roosevelt action at the December 8 Committee on the Built Environment), the Roosevelt rezone work is shaping up to set a template for thoughtful zoning and development standards review in other transit-connected urban villages in Seattle. I say this with some caution because the work has taken far longer than hoped (a consistent theme in zoning work) and will result in new height caps that will please some and infuriate some (also a consistent theme in zoning work).

I’ve watched and supported the neighborhood’s update on the Roosevelt neighborhood plan since joining City Council almost six years ago. Councilmember Jean Godden and I went to bat for Roosevelt almost four years ago when it looked like the effort might sputter and die for lack of attention from Department of Planning & Development staff. We convinced the City Council to earmark money to pay for the detailed zoning analysis, and DPD staff went to work with the neighborhood’s sharp citizen planners. They’d already moved heaven and earth by getting Sound Transit to shift the location of the light rail station further into the center of the ‘hood. How hard could a zoning scheme be?

Throw in a concurrent effort by private developers to rezone the hotly debated “Sisley high school blocks” along with an eleventh-hour change-up by a new mayor, and, OK, an agreed-upon zoning scheme becomes hard, really hard.  The Roosevelt Neighborhood Alliance (RNA) had an initial proposal. Then DPD presented that proposal with a tweak or two. Then my colleague, Councilmember Tim Burgess, publicly urged going bigger. Then Mayor McGinn made a proposal. Then RNA presented the Sustainable Livable Roosevelt Plan (SLRP). Then a few hundred people showed up at the Roosevelt High School Auditorium for a public hearing to cheer for the SLRP (and boo the urbanistas). In the wings, the Roosevelt Development Group continues their alliance with long-time community antagonist Hugh Sisley.  To the east, defenders of the Ravenna neighborhood pushed back against allowing higher on the high school blocks for fear that six story buildings will spread like a contagion east.

There’s a blockbuster movie in all this, or at least a really great urban development policy case study.

While the Roosevelt rezone package contains much more than the changes on the high school blocks, most of the heated debate revolves around these three blocks in the eastern half of the circle around the station. In public testimony, via email and in conversation, advocates have mentioned all or some of the following desires for the high school blocks (thanks to Councilmember Burgess for compiling this list):

  1. Maintaining the central impact of the Roosevelt High School building by protecting views to and from the building.
  2. Creating a streetscape that is active and pedestrian-friendly, including “green street” designation for N.E. 66th St.
  3. Creating effective transitions from the core of Roosevelt out to the single-family zoning.
  4. Making new open and green space possible.
  5. Keeping a clean, safe environment for everyone, including Roosevelt High School students.
  6. Increasing the number of housing units in the area.
  7. Ensuring that a portion of new housing units rent or sell at affordable levels.
  8. Honoring the planning process and involvement by neighbors.

After reviewing the various plans and basic sketches of what different development scenarios might look like, I believe carefully constrained 65-foot zoning (versus the more bulky 40 feet currently allowed) on the high school blocks yields our best chance at achieving the goals above in this sub-area of the neighborhood. These blocks are between one and three blocks from the slated light rail station entrances. They are bordered by busy N.E. 65th St.  In making a decision that’s right for now and 40 years from now, 65 feet provides more setbacks “buying” more sidewalk space, more housing, more affordable housing and wider view corridors to and from the high school.

Proponents of 40 feet argue you can gain the same wider view corridors to and from the high school if you require developers to set the building back from the property line. While this is true, it’s also true that this would mean a decrease in development capacity from what you could build on the blocks now. In other words, a downzone. To my mind, a downzone would not lead to winning enough of the goals cited above (or any if the downzone precluded any new development at all) and is hard to justify in a light rail station area.

The cry of many 40-foot proponents is “Protect the high school!” Roosevelt and the greater North End of the city have the gift of an iconic building constructed before school architecture was stripped down due to changing tastes and diminished budgets. The building is a landmark, but, contrary to some assumptions, the viewsheds to and from the school are not protected in city code. Neither are the south or east sides of the building buffered from the world by wide publicly-owned expanses of green space setting off the building from the surrounding neighborhood. It’s a high school in an urban village across the street from a future light rail station. It is an urban place. I think we do current and future students a favor by building more (and more affordable) housing on the high school blocks. The development standards will require that housing face the high school (except at the corner with 15th) as way to guard against off-campus attractions setting up shop across N.E. 66th St.  Additionally, we will define 66th as a “green street” requiring extra landscaping and trees, making it more than the linear parking lot it is now.

The Roosevelt neighborhood plan update and these rezones have always been about more than just the high school blocks. Despite the anger some feel about the difference of 25 feet in three blocks of the entire station area, I still believe Roosevelt has set the standard for communities undertaking a plan update and carrying out a technically and philosophically challenging conversation about current conditions and how communities we love may change over time. The results will be better buildings, better streets, better public spaces – better building blocks with which people build lives.