The North Rainier rezone

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City Council is currently considering a rezone of the North Rainier area surrounding the Mt. Baker Transit Center. Development of the North Rainier area is an issue that the City and community have been working on for over 15 years. The North Rainier Neighborhood Plan was adopted in 1999, and formally updated in 2010. In 2011, the Mt. Baker Town Center Urban Design Framework was adopted, which provided a vision for design of the Rainier blocks near the light rail station in order to try to create a more vibrant business- and pedestrian-friendly environment there. You can learn more background at the DPD’s North Rainier project website.

In the Fall of 2013, the Department of Planning and Development transmitted rezone legislation implementing the changes envisioned in the urban design framework. The Council held an initial discussion on that legislation in November 2013.

This spring, the Council resumed deliberation on the proposal by hosting a public hearing on May 1, 2014, to hear feedback specifically in regards to the rezone proposal put forward by the Department of Planning and Development (links to the ordinance and DPD Director’s analysis and recommendation). In the original neighborhood plan and throughout the plan update processes, the community has consistently called for a plan that yields a true “town center” feel by bringing economic revitalization and a more walkable environment to North Rainier.

I support the North Rainier rezone and think it has the potential to realize transit-oriented development in Seattle. The rezone will set the table for future development that brings jobs, housing and various commercial uses that everyone wants to the North Rainier area. Critically, the plan promotes a more walkable and bike-friendly neighborhood that is better connected to the investments we have made in bus and light rail there.

The rezone itself includes many components, including changes to the height limits of buildings near the light rail station.

  • Expansion of the station-area overlay district to support activation around the transit station.
  • Application of the “Seattle Mixed” zone along Rainier to provide a better pedestrian-oriented environment. These changes also increase heights from 65’ to 85’ on several parcels.
  • Upper-level set-backs and street-level development standards that bring more light onto the street and require transparent street-facing facades along Rainier and parking to be behind retail rather than in front.
  • Increase heights up to 125’ on two blocks where the current Lowe’s store is, to create the potential for a future campus-style hub for a major employer. Lowe’s has a long-term lease on this site, so is not planning to leave anytime soon and has been engaged as part of this rezone effort.
  • Implementation of the incentive zoning program on blocks that are increasing in height to provide workforce housing in new construction.
North Rainier Rezone map

The map of the area to be rezoned (click to enlarge).

At the public hearing, people who spoke for the rezone and against the rezone all expressed a desire for a healthy retail businesses, more good jobs, less traffic through their neighborhood and a place where kids and families feel safe walking.

There are divergent views however on how to achieve this vision. Many folks who want to see this expressed opposition to 125’ building heights along Rainier or MLK. We heard fears that the jobs at Lowes and Pepsi could be lost in part because redevelopment could bring more housing rather than commercial uses.

I support 125’ buildings because I believe they are the key to bringing in a large employer or employers in the Rainier Valley who will bring new jobs to fill up those 10 to 12 stories of offices. I don’t believe we will see high-rise residential develop in this area because of the economics—it is not likely that the rents will support high-rise steel residential construction. We also don’t see low-income housing developed at this scale, as the economics of buildings at four to six stories work better for our non-profit housing partners in the city.

This site is unique because it is two large parcels that have the opportunity to create a campus-style development. Few of these plots of land are left in the city and the rezone proposal has provisions for pedestrian-oriented crossings and open space as part of the development in order to attract this type of development.

I have also heard many concerns that there has been insufficient community outreach to people in the North Rainier area. My staff has counted 44 community meetings in the past five years related to the update of the neighborhood plan, the development of the urban design framework and this rezone. This has been a long and thoughtful planning process and one that does not stop here. After the land-use decisions, SDOT will be working with the community to design and implement the transportation improvements associated with the neighborhood plan (see this slide and memo from SDOT on TOD at Mt. Baker).

I believe this rezone is the culmination of years a planning and a good step towards creating a healthier North Rainier neighborhood where it is safe to walk and bike, where retail succeeds and where new jobs for the Rainier Valley could be located.

We will continue our discussion on the proposal in committee today – May 20 at 2:00pm in Council Chambers and again on Tuesday June 3 at 2:00pm.