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Sorting Through Roosevelt Station Area Rezone Conflicts

The City Council's committee handling the Roosevelt neighborhood rezone meets again tomorrow morning at 10:30 a.m. to consider and possibly vote on this package. The Council's decision will be important for the Roosevelt neighborhood but also carries implications for the entire city. It involves balancing different policy priorities, including respecting the needs and values of neighborhoods and managing the City’s strategy to concentrate density around transit centers in order to protect single family homes and reduce suburban sprawl. 

The Council’s decision is complicated by a few very important factors.

First, many in the Roosevelt neighborhood harbor deep frustration and anger over the behavior of one particular major property owner, Hugh Sisley, who has not been a good neighbor.  The City’s Law Department has filed 26 code enforcement cases involving 21 different properties against Sisley since 1999.

The anger aimed at Sisley is clearly justified; I wish that the City’s Chronic Nuisance Property law had been in place many years ago when it could have been used effectively against him.  After fighting Sisley for so many years, it is understandable why neighbors have a difficult time considering a rezone package that will benefit him.

Second, the engagement of the Roosevelt neighborhood on this issue has spanned many years across changing political and policy landscapes. (I realize I have entered the game in the relatively late stages myself.) As a result, the expectations for the neighborhood have evolved as the City’s feelings about growth management and transit-oriented communities have evolved.

To their great credit, Roosevelt residents have been actively engaged at every step along the way. They fully embraced light rail coming to their neighborhood and even persuaded Sound Transit to move the station a few blocks to the core of their business district. Additionally, and very important to our Council decision on Wednesday, the Roosevelt neighborhood embraced a higher level of residential density in the area around the station.

Third, there is often tension between the role of grassroots neighborhood planning and the Council’s responsibility to make decisions in the best interest of the entire city. When it develops, this tension is sometimes healthy but always hard.

My colleagues and I approached this decision with a serious determination to gather the facts, understand the issues and many divergent perspectives and then make what we feel is the best decision possible for the long-term common good of both the Roosevelt neighborhood and the entire city. 

Over the last six months, I've stayed intimately involved with this process, sitting with neighborhood residents on numerous occasions to hear them out, attending multiple committee meetings and a public hearing at Roosevelt High School, walking the neighborhood, talking with urban growth specialists, and meeting with potential developers. I've asked questions and pushed our Council central staff and planners to consider stronger neighborhood benefits to protect the high school and to create a pedestrian-friendly station area that is attractive to small businesses and will attract new residents, especially families with children.

Over time I realized a conversation focused on numbers around height and density often leaves little room for a shared path forward, so I compiled a list of values that I had heard from the neighborhood through public testimony and written documents. I then shared this list with Roosevelt neighborhood leadership to make sure I had heard them right. Here they are:

  1. Maintaining Roosevelt High School's central impact on the neighborhood by protecting views from the high school to the south and views of the high school from the streets.
  2. Creating a streetscape environment that is activated, vibrant, walkable and pedestrian-friendly, including a pedestrian green way along Northeast 66th Street.
  3. Creating effective transitions from the core to the single-family zones.
  4. Creating additional open green space.
  5. Keeping a safe, clean environment for everyone, including Roosevelt students.
  6. Increasing residential density to accommodate a fair share of new residents.
  7. Providing a fair share of affordable housing.
  8. Honoring the planning process and involvement to-date by Roosevelt neighbors.

Most of the Roosevelt rezone proposal is noncontroversial and includes numerous elements that will further these values. The blocks immediately south of the high school, however, have created a firestorm.

What is the best way to meet the neighborhood’s values listed above in these blocks?

One option is to maintain the current zoning for the three high school blocks which allows 40 foot buildings built out to the property line on all sides, with some combination of commercial offices, retail shops or residential units on the ground floor facing the school. Under this option there would be no mandatory set aside for workforce housing, no additional setbacks to create wider sidewalks and wider north-south view corridors to and from the high school. Setbacks for 40-foot buildings would essentially constitute a reduction from current development capacity, something the Council is very reticent to consider so close to the light rail station. Forty foot structures built immediately south of the high school would block nearly all views to and from the high school.

Another option is to allow buildings up to 65 feet because, by allowing the higher height, the Council can mandate many of the types of amenities the neighborhood wants. If passed, the legislation we will consider tomorrow, mandates landscaped setbacks at the ground level to achieve wider sidewalks and wider view corridors to the high school, further setbacks between 35 and 45 feet to create building modulation and an even wider view corridor, incentives for workforce housing, a requirement that any off-street parking that may be offered go underground, residential units only on Northeast 66th Street facing the high school except at the corners of the buildings, and preservation of appropriate scaling to the east across 15th Avenue Northeast which has an existing 40 foot height limit. I understand many in the neighborhood may not be satisfied with this option, but I support it as the best way to honor the core values of the neighborhood and achieve the kind of concentrated density we have established as city policy. 

In addition to the Council Bill that includes the technical code language, there are design considerations taken into account through the Design Review process where developers must ensure their plans don’t run afoul of specific guidelines. Tomorrow, the Council will vote on a resolution that asks the Department of Planning and Development to update Roosevelt’s Neighborhood Design Guidelines in the coming year to better achieve the policy goals of livability, social equity and neighborhood revitalization.  We will also allocate funds to pay for development of the Northeast 66th Street green street concept plan, a cost of approximately $40,000.

Stepping back here at the end of a long and arduous process, there is much in the legislation the neighborhood can be proud of and pleased with. The rezone package prepares Roosevelt for the changes that will inevitably come with the arrival of light rail. It will create attractive, pedestrian-friendly green streets, allow for more affordable housing for individuals and families, and encourage the growth of a vibrant neighborhood business district.

Tomorrow, I will vote to support the modified station area rezone. I believe it is a pro-neighborhood package of changes and incentives that will achieve the core values identified by the neighborhood, advance our city’s concentrated density strategy and lead to a family-friendly quality of life for the residents, students and workers of the Roosevelt neighborhood.

 

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