December 13, 2012 marks the six month anniversary of the Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability (PLUS) Committee’s first discussion of the South Lake Union rezone proposal. As we enter our seventh month of analysis, it is useful to keep in mind several facts that informed the legislation and that should frame our consideration going forward.
1. South Lake Union is an Urban Center and the proposed density implements Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan. In 2004, the City Council officially designated South Lake Union as an “Urban Center” in the Seattle Comprehensive Plan. Urban Centers are a key element in the region’s implementation of the Growth Management Act (GMA). They are intended to have high levels of housing and employment growth, in contrast to the rest of the City, which is intended to grow more gradually.
In 2004 South Lake Union was assigned a twenty year growth target of 8,000 households and 12,000 jobs, approximately 17% of the City’s household growth and 19% of the employment growth for that period. The planning horizon for this rezone extends out twenty years, and by 2031 South Lake Union would have to absorb some 12,000 households and 22,000 jobs in order to continue to meet its share of future growth. The rezone provides the required 125% of targets mandated in State law. It also provides additional capacity that recognizes that South Lake Union is developing very rapidly, and that decisions made on this rezone will shape the neighborhood for the next hundred years. The City is not likely to rezone the area again for many years.
As Seattle continues to grow, if we fail to ensure that South Lake Union and other Urban Centers can accommodate this growth, other neighborhoods will have to absorb greater numbers of residents than are currently planned.
2. This zoning proposal is endorsed by the South Lake Union Community Council, the designated stewards of the South Lake Union Neighborhood Plan. The South Lake Union Community Council includes residents, businesses, and property owners in the South Lake Union neighborhood. It has been the recognized stewardship organization for the neighborhood plan for more than a decade. The Council worked with the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) for three years on this proposal, made some difficult decisions and tough choices, and developed a consensus position in support of the final proposal. The rezone has also been endorsed by the Uptown and Queen Anne Community Councils, who are the closest neighbors. The Cascade Community Council participated in the rezone process and asked to keep the current zoning in the Cascade Neighborhood on the east side of South Lake Union, and that request was accepted, with no change proposed in the zoning in Cascade.
3. The proposed zoning embodies the principles of good urban form. Across Denny Way, the Denny Triangle has zoning up to 500 feet high. The south side of Denny Way has a 400 foot height limit, and the proposed rezone will extend that 400 foot height to the north side – making it consistent. The zoning then tapers down to the 240 foot height on the Mercer blocks, with further tapering provided by the 100 foot drop in elevation between Denny and Mercer. Good urban design is further reinforced by development standards and incentives that will encourage a diverse urban form rather than the full-block build-outs that current zoning would allow. Proposed towers are widely spaced, with no more than two to a block with required separations. Only one tower per block would be permitted on the Mercer blocks. There are strong street-level design standards and incentives to ensure a lively and vibrant pedestrian environment, and a series of subarea standards designed to ensure that development maintains the character of specific communities. There are also incentives to preserve landmark properties and existing open spaces and a new program that will preserve farm and forest lands by transferring development rights into the urban area.
Projects using the incentive program will also be required to meet the Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) certification of silver or better for building environmental performance, have a transportation management program that ensures that no more than 40 percent of trips to and from the project will be made using single‐occupant vehicles, and have an energy management program and conservation strategy.
4. Public views are protected; the City does not – and should not – decide who gets private views. The City protects public views from designated viewpoints, parks, and street corridors. These views would be protected, as would the views of the Space Needle, a designated landmark. The proposal carefully spaces out higher buildings, limits the size of the floor plates and the density of towers, and uses setbacks to preserve public view corridors.
While the City does take private views into account in zoning decisions, which is one of the reasons that tower spacing was included in this proposal, in general private views are explicitly not protected in City code. Protecting private views would require the City to make choices elevating the rights of one property owner over another. Protecting private views would also threaten the City’s commitment to the urban forest, as a mature tree can block views. There will be impacts to private views from this rezone proposal, but the new views will be consistent with current views in the downtown area, combining the urban landscape with natural features. In some cases the more diverse urban forms will provide less view blockage than is allowed under current zoning.
5. The residential towers on the Mercer blocks will have positive impacts on Lake Union Park. The three Mercer blocks are separated from most of South Lake Union by a wide Mercer boulevard. Current zoning or zoning that does not allow towers would most likely encourage commercial rather than residential development on these blocks because office space is very valuable in South Lake Union. The proposed zoning only permits residential development fronting on Lake Union Park. Having people living close to Lake Union Park will ensure that the Park is activated, with users having easy access at all hours of the day. In addition, the zoning requires street-level retail uses that will spill out on the street and help activate the park, as well as requiring that 20% of the block area be set aside as open space. As with many urban parks, Lake Union Park is beautiful but not heavily used, because it is currently a destination rather than a neighborhood amenity. The only way to ensure that urban parks are active, well-used, and safe environments is to ensure that they have nearby residents who can easily access them on a regular basis. Because they are south of the Park, the proposed towers will have some shading effects, but will not block sunlight.
6. The South Lake Union proposal includes a comprehensive transportation package that will improve travel in the neighborhood. Completion of the Mercer project and the SR 99 tunnel will increase the number of east-west streets from two (Mercer and Denny) to five (Mercer, Denny, Thomas, Harrison, and John). The rezone includes transportation mitigation that will further improve access – ensuring that new developments fund transportation improvements and enhancements. Transportation analyses show that the proposed mitigation will improve or stabilize travel opportunities around South Lake Union.
7. There are significant benefits for affordable housing. New housing is inherently more expensive than existing housing, and it is difficult to provide low income or even work force housing in new projects. While new development in South Lake Union will not displace existing affordable or low income housing, it will not increase the supply unless there are incentives and requirements for developer contributions. These provisions must be carefully designed to ensure that it will still be attractive for developers to construct housing, especially in an area like South Lake Union where commercial office space can be a profitable competing option.
Current Seattle incentive zoning provisions require developers to either include affordable housing in their projects or to contribute to funds that will build low income housing if the developer wants to build to the maximum height and density. These provisions are generally well accepted, and the proposals for South Lake Union will ensure that there is a significant contribution to low income housing production in the City. In addition, the Mayor’s office has negotiated a draft agreement with Vulcan, owners of the Mercer blocks that would provide land that could be used for additional low income housing and other public benefits. This would be part of the conditions for allowing an additional eight stories of tower development on those blocks (to the maximum of 240 feet).
The Council will carefully review these provisions and proposals to ensure that the City gets the best possible contribution to affordable housing. We will balance that goal against the risk of raising the cost of residential development so much that it causes developers to build offices instead.
Conclusion: The City Council should consider modest adjustments that would strengthen the proposed rezone, but should endorse the major elements of the proposal. The proposed South Lake Union rezone is the last step in a comprehensive update of the South Lake Union Neighborhood Plan. The Department of Planning and Development (DPD) has been working with the South Lake Union community since 2008 to develop this proposal. Most of the work was completed this summer, and the Council received the final legislation in September. We are exhaustively examining the proposed rezone, and considering some adjustments that are consistent with the environmental review of the proposal completed by DPD. I will encourage the Council to recognize these realities of the proposed rezone, to adopt the major provisions, and to allow South Lake Union to be the great Urban Center envisioned in the South Lake Union Neighborhood Plan.