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Planning For Density

2011 June 10
by dan bertolet

On Tuesday both Mayor Mike McGinn and Councilmember Tim Burgess sent letters (pdfs here and here) to the director of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) asking that the proposed rezone for the Roosevelt neighborhood be reworked to allow for greater heights and densities.

Here’s the KOMO news headline: “McGinn pushes city for taller height limits near Roosevelt light rail.” Am I dreaming?

This may seem like a big yawn, though not if you are familiar with the context. Because what McGinn and Burgess have done is to publicly defy the will of a well-organized, proactive neighborhood group—an almost unheard of move in Seattle politics. But indeed, it’s just the sort of leadership Seattle needs a lot more of when it comes to planning for our light rail station areas.

In 2006 the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association (RNA) handed DPD their completed neighborhood plan update, which included the proposed station area rezone currently in question. Then for four years the rezone effectively sat on a shelf (some speculate that the Nickels administration believed it was inadequate and privately put the kabosh on it).

In 2010 the RNA plan was dusted off and began chugging through the process to the point where  a Council vote was expected this summer. And it did not go unnoticed that the proposed rezone is insufficient for a high capacity transit station area.

One might expect Councilmember Sally Clark, chair of the Committee on the Built Environment, to provide leadership on the debate, but she has kept quiet. Considering the neighborhood orientation of Clark’s political base (she once worked for the Department of Neighborhoods), and given that she’s up for election this Fall, this is not a shocker. In contrast, Tim Burgess—also up for election—is much more aligned with the downtown business community, and so has less to lose by saying “no” to a neighborhood.

Regarding rezones in Seattle’s light rail station areas, the ones to also keep an eye on now are Beacon Hill, Mount Baker, and Othello. The recently completed draft Urban Design Frameworks include the latest rezone recommendations, which will be moving to Council in late Summer. So far, there has been no backsliding on the preferred upzones that came out of the neighborhood planning process, but future push back from the neighborhoods should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Getting past such resistance will hinge on Seattle’s political leadership acting in accordance with the point of view that Burgess nails in his letter: “I have been very concerned that the City is not adequately addressing density opportunities near our transit station areas… I don’t want to wake up in 15 or 20 years and find ourselves asking, ‘Why didn’t we properly plan for density in these areas?'”