On Wednesday, December 14, a major legislative rezone in the Roosevelt neighborhood was voted out of the Committee on the Built Environment (COBE). The legislation will come to Full Council on Tuesday, January 17. The only issue of controversy was whether the three blocks south of Roosevelt High School would be rezoned to allow buildings up to 40 or up to 65 feet high. Councilmembers present voted 5 to 3 in favor of the 65 foot height limit. I would have voted for the 65 foot height as well, but I was out sick that day.
It is ironic that this significant land use action is being defined by the controversy over the ‘High School Blocks’. The City and the Roosevelt neighborhood deserve better. Here’s why this legislative process turned sour, and what I think could prevent similar problems in the future.
Truth One: The City botched the process. When neighborhood planning began in the 1990’s, the City gave firm targets to neighborhoods and asked them to plan to meet those targets – and decide what else the neighborhood needed to make that work. Roosevelt was given a Comprehensive Plan growth target of an additional 250 units, and in 1999 the neighborhood endorsed zoning changes to achieve that goal. When the voters approved funding for Sound Transit in 1996, the City and Sound Transit began planning a light rail system with a station in Roosevelt.
In 2005 Sound Transit suggested that it bypass the Roosevelt neighborhood business core and place an elevated station near I-5 instead. The neighborhood rallied under the banner of ‘YIMFY’ (Yes, In My Front Yard) and persuaded the City and Sound Transit Board to commit to spending tens of millions of dollars to run the light rail tunnel through Roosevelt and put the station underground in the heart of the neighborhood. This was the missed opportunity: when the City should have followed up by identifying a new growth target and neighborhood planning process for Roosevelt. Unfortunately, it was still seen as so far in the future that the City put its energy elsewhere – leaving the neighborhood to develop its own plan using Neighborhood Matching Fund dollars.
Four years later, a planned rezone finally reached the Council – with DPD’s analysis of the neighborhood’s plan, and a revised City proposal sponsored by the Mayor vying for attention – to be followed this September by a revised neighborhood proposal that proposed more density than the Mayor, but in different places. Instead of a low key modest revision, the debate became one over a major rewrite to create transit oriented zoning – some eight years before the Roosevelt station is scheduled to open! And with the added complication of a quasi-judicial rezone proposed for a large portion of the neighborhood. It’s not surprising that the result was confusion and a perception by the neighborhood that the City policy approach had shifted from a leisurely pace and modest goals to a fast track and much more ambitious goals. This escalated the tension between the City and the neighborhood.
We can do better – and should have. We must provide more clarity for neighborhoods, a clearer timeline, and a more organized process. Next year, the Council will have the opportunity to create a clear policy for transit oriented development that can describe the goals any neighborhood effort must meet for zoned capacity. It’s too late to give this kind of clarity to Roosevelt, but hopefully other neighborhoods will have better direction.
Truth Two: Overheated rhetoric polarized the issue unnecessarily.
Some advocates accused the neighborhood of being ‘against density’ or even ‘against transit’, because there were concerns about the zoning proposals. This is an insult to the hard work and clarity of vision that Roosevelt has demonstrated over and over again, and damaging to the process of working towards a rational conclusion.
On the other hand, we are now hearing that the City Council has ‘destroyed neighborhood planning’ and ‘caved to developers’ because we approved an additional 25 feet of height on three blocks in the neighborhood. This is both a misread of the role of neighborhood planning and demeaning to the civic dialogue. The City Council has the legal responsibility for making decisions; neighborhood planning is an opportunity for the community to help shape those decisions by developing proposals for the Council to consider. The Council takes these plans very seriously, and has generally approved 95% or more of the proposals coming from neighborhoods, as we will in Roosevelt. That is a validation of neighborhood planning – and demonstrates how worthwhile it is. The City must do a better job of partnering with neighborhoods and providing clear guidance so that there is greater shared understanding of goals and constraints.
Truth Three: Height is a means, not an end.
Sadly, this wound up as a polarized debate. One side claimed that this 25 foot difference in height was the determining factor as to whether transit oriented development (TOD) will be real. The other asserted that it would determine whether neighborhood character would be preserved. The fact is that the 50 or 60 units of development that will be added are helpful for TOD, but are only a small portion of the estimated 800 or so units that will be added in other places. Similarly, the additional height could have impacts, but setbacks and other zoning conditions can protect views and ensure good design.
Height by itself does not tell much about the quality of the development. Advocating for height is substituting a fairly arbitrary position for what will actually have impact. Buildings of different heights can be good or bad for a neighborhood. The real impacts include design, shadow effects, view corridors, and appropriate relationship to adjacent zoning. Those are the issues that the City Council took into account in concluding that the interests of the neighborhood can be met at the higher height. More height makes it easier for development to have flexibility in design and setbacks and still work financially. Shadow effects and view corridors can be managed with the appropriate standards. And a height of 65 feet steps down very well to the adjacent 40 vote zoning on the east and south sides of these blocks, and steps up well to the 85 foot zoning on the west side.
Truth Four: Surprisingly, the outcome is a win for the City and for the Roosevelt neighborhood.
So the City gets a well designed transit oriented development plan that will ensure that the Roosevelt Station and light rail line serve the community efficiently. The City also gets a significant amount of workforce/affordable housing that is available to people around the median income (who generally cannot afford single family houses in Seattle). The City can also implement the vast majority of recommendations for design, view corridors, a green street, and other elements developed by the neighborhood through its planning process. And the City gets the first step towards eliminating the blight created by the Sisley properties.
These are all wins for the neighborhood as well. I am aware that there is an undercurrent of resentment because zoning changes will lead to Mr. Sisley making more money. Unfortunately, as the past decades have clearly demonstrated, our legal system does not have the tools to address effectively the issues associated with his property. Indeed, the City has levied over $400,000 in fines against him yet has no means by which to collect them. Nor can we prevent him from making more money when redevelopment takes place. The Council’s judgment is that the community will be better off when the blight adjacent to the high school is removed. A collaborative process between the developer and neighborhood representatives is already underway to help ensure the best possible project design and fit within the neighborhood for the potential development.
Again, I wish that the City had given clear goals and guidelines to the neighborhood back in 2006. We must learn from this experience and provide this kind of information to other neighborhoods. However, I think the Council has acted responsibly and effectively in making a set of good decisions that will work in the long run for the Roosevelt neighborhood and for Seattle. I expect that on January 17 the Full Council will vote in favor of the Committee proposal.