Fairness in South Lake Union

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The following article was sent out in my City View Newsletter, which you can sign up to receive here.

The City Council is debating Mayor McGinn’s rezone recommendations for the South Lake Union neighborhood. Our decisions provide a historic opportunity to shape the future of our city in a way that properly balances public and private interests and creates an exciting, liveable mixed-income neighborhood.

Buried in the tongue-twisting zoning language of setbacks, floor-area ratios and set-asides is a simple idea: fairness. At the end of the day, can we craft legislation that encourages development in South Lake Union (and our other urban centers and villages) and also provides affordable workforce housing?

The answer is yes, and here are three guiding principles I will follow as we work to improve the Mayor’s zoning proposal.

1. Increase benefits to the public in exchange for value given to the private sector.

When city government proactively “up-zones” a neighborhood to allow more height and density, it automatically increases the value of the property, delivering a significant windfall to the private landowners. In exchange for the up-zone, state law encourages cities to re-capture some of the increased value for the general public and specifically highlights affordable workforce housing as a critical goal.

Unfortunately, Mayor McGinn’s proposal for South Lake Union does not achieve an appropriate public benefit for the value we are conveying to the private property owners who benefit from the up-zone. Just as we had to do with the proposed SODO arena deal, however, the Council can modify and improve the Mayor’s legislation.

At my request, the Council hired outside experts who are now analyzing the data and looking at best practices from other cities. This will enable the Council to provide more value to the public while also encouraging continued investment in our neighborhoods. To achieve a fair exchange of public and private benefits, we must craft a better deal for the people of Seattle.

2. Build homes for our workforce.

Nurses, school teachers, and construction workers deserve the opportunity to call South Lake Union home. Allowing moderate income workers (earning between $36,000 to $70,000 depending on household size) to live close to their workplace provides many benefits: it reduces commute times, traffic and pollution; it increases time at home or out in the neighborhood with family and friends.

Providing greater development capacity in exchange for affordable workforce housing is an approach used effectively in other cities throughout the nation. The Mayor’s proposal will generate some dollars for affordable housing, but stretched thin over 25 years it amounts to fewer than 10 affordable workforce units per year. To be fair, I believe Seattle can do much better.

3. Support our public school system.

Two weeks ago, Seattle voters once again demonstrated generous support for public education by renewing two vital levies at a time when more parents are enrolling their children in public school. City government can do more to support the school district by encouraging the development of an elementary school for the growing number of families in the greater downtown area. With this up-zone of South Lake Union, we must craft language that specifies what a developer would need to build for a school (such as space suitable for classrooms, cafeteria and a gymnasium) to earn additional building height.

As with any piece of land use legislation, the details of how we seek to accomplish these policies will be very important. The Council will meet on Monday in City Hall at 2:30 p.m. to discuss these provisions in further detail. But as the Council delves into the complexities of the land use language, I wanted you to know the principles I will follow.

I firmly believe we can craft zoning policies for Seattle that achieve significant public benefits while still preserving market incentives for development. In doing so, we will model a fair and equitable future for South Lake Union and our entire city.