by Shirley Nixon and Nancy Bocek, co-leads of Livable U District
Increasing allowable building heights in the U District by 400% to nearly 500% in many cases (current 55’, 65 and 85'maximums to 240’ and 320’) is a too massive and unnecessary upzone!
The U District is indeed to become a sacrifice zone, with its unique character destroyed forever. We need to tell our elected officials that this upzone proposal is unacceptable, unsupportable and unfair. But Council Member Rob Johnson seems determined to vote it out of his PLUZ Committee and adopted by the full council in just a few short weeks.
If this is to be prevented, City Council members must hear now from residents and independent business owners who want a more Livable U District and First Things First instead of an upzone ordinance that will only blanket the community with taller densely packed buildings, less livability, and more displacement.
Where do we fit in all this? Dispelling the myth that this upzone is what "the community" wants and needs.
The planners admit, it’s in the EIS, that the U District’s current zoning is enough to accommodate anticipated growth! But for city officials, it’s more about "how we want density to grow" and who they prefer to please: powerful special interests rather than community members. City planners see skyscrapers (controlled by UW, parking lot owners, and large corporations) as more desirable than low and midrise buildings that are better integrated with the community. Livable U District likes to see the sky and have sunshine on the streets. We like being able to look up past the roofline of a building without bending over backward. Midrises are replacing old houses right and left, but they are of a human scale and of a neighborhood; not slick corporate, cold and imposing glass and steel towers built to the lot lines.
It’s up to all of us to demand the Council make provisions for current residents, small businesses and students so they will not be driven out by massive development demolishing old buildings and homes, and by skyrocketing rents and property taxes. We're told that the “Grand Bargain” MHA-R will make it possible for some low income people to live here after developers either include a small fraction of affordable units in new residential projects or pay an “in lieu” fee into a city-wide affordable housing fund. But this is too little and too late to help low income residents whose homes will be demolished, and does nothing whatsoever to improve U District livability for it’s already economically squeezed middle class workers and families.
Dispelling the myth that the upzone will solve the U District's housing affordability problems.
Councilmember Rob Johnson, District 4 and Chair of the PLUZ committee, claims that putting affordable housing payments into a "pot" is desirable because the money can be used more quickly (supposedly it will take longer for the U District "housing pot" to grow - which is questionable considering the extent of development we'll see straight away). He says affordable housing can then be consolidated onto less expensive sites on transit lines and have more bedrooms for family units. However, those who need affordable housing are those who live, study and work in the U District and are those who can least afford transportation costs. This is why the Livable U District has been calling for onsite one-for-one replacement of affordable U District homes that are demolished.
As John Fox of Seattle Displacement Coalition said in Daniel Beekman's recent Seattle Times article about Upzone measures that would supposedly add affordable housing: "Those units wouldn’t necessarily be built in the U District, Fox warns. The city should stem displacement first - the upzone would make things worse, he says. “Like pouring fuel on a fire, like destroying a village in order to save it.”
There are many affordable housing solutions the city has not explored. They should do so, and stop the propaganda about this upzone being a critical solution to the lack of affordable housing in the U District. But – there’s another unacceptable feature of the mayor’s so-called “Grand Bargain” of trading upzones for developer contributions to affordable housing: some developers have already threatened to sue to stop them. The courts could overturn the linked MHA measures yet leave us forever stuck with the “bargained for” upzones.
Getting real about whose interests are driving this upzone and who stands to benefit.
For CB 118862 to prescribe such drastic height and FAR increases (fourfold or more for heights, up to 153% for FAR) in an over 60 block area of the U District is a staggering and unprecedented proposition simply from a bulk and density perspective. This is especially so when considering the combined effects of doubling and tripling heights for UW buildings, as contemplated in the next decade in the UW’s Campus Master Plan.
Identifying who will benefit most from exponential increases in development potential is telling. In the pending U District upzone bill, CB 118862, it is as if the City and UW want to greedily grab all the height and upzoning they possibly can, all at once. They refuse to compromise or give even an inch. Powerful special interests have their eyes on maximizing profits from this upzone, and are undoubtedly exercising their considerable influence at city hall to make sure there will be no back-tracking.
Identifying those whom this upzone can hurt, and developing meaningful mitigation measures
Small businesses are asking to delay the upzone vote on CB 118862 for at least three months so that they may complete an impact study that the City neglected to do when developing the upzone plans. LUD believes it is irresponsible for the Council to proceed with the upzone without considering the data this study will provide
It is essential for the city to understand how best to protect and preserve the viability of our small businesses at risk of displacement or going out of business. The U District small businesses have defined the character of the U District for decades. We don’t want to lose them! Any rezone ordinance for the U District must incorporate requirements to protect our small, independent businesses. Reliance on good intentions expressed by city departments or so-called community-based “partnerships” to address business concerns is not good enough.
Furthermore, Livable U District has asked some critical questions that deserve answers, and also offered a list of amendments to address very serious concerns with CB 118862, including numerous revised code sections that give the OPCD Director the authority to privately waive or modify development and MHA requirements.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
It’s important for upzone opponents to be seen and heard at the PLUZ committee meeting on Thursday afternoon, January 19 (2 PM). Sign up to speak at 1:30 PM. Please also send emails to city council and call their offices.
Your comments are vitally important. City officials are being swamped with messages from the pro-density/pro-upzone crowd, most of whom do not live or work in the U District, but who respond and show-up en-masse – urged on by well-funded organizers who are supported by developers, and whose agenda is to push through upzones citywide.
The vast majority of the U District Community has serious concerns about the U District Upzone and want their concerns addressed. Don’t let those espousing a different agenda speak for you, or mischaracterize silence for acceptance.
Send a clear message to elected officials that CB 118862 – the University District Upzone bill – must be tabled. For more information and council contact information, please visit Livable U District’s What You Can Do page.