U District rezone continues to crawl forward

Last Thursday, the Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee held another discussion of the proposed rezone of the University District.

The committee’s discussion mainly focused on a first reading of a lengthy set of proposed amendments. But before that, there was once again over an hour of public comment, deeply divided between proponents and opponents of the rezone. Much of the organized opposition comes from a group of small business owners, many along the Ave, who are pushing to have the rezone delayed until a “business impact analysis” they are self-funding can be completed.

The list of potential amendments cover seven main themes:

  1. University Way, better known as “The Ave”
  2. Adjustments to the Mandatory Housing Affordability program implementation for the U District, one of the primary reasons for the rezone.
  3. Livability concerns
  4. Zoning adjustments north of 50th Street
  5. Zoning for the site of the light rail station, and in particular the building above it; University of Washington, which will be constructing and owning the building, has asked for some variances
  6. Environmental concerns
  7. Schools and childcare

There was nothing particularly dramatic in any of the proposed amendments. The most interesting comments came from Council member Lisa Herbold, who asked whether the zoning changes along the Ave could be separated out from the rest of the changes and delayed for a few months, in deference to the small business owners’ request. Committee chair Rob Johnson seemed open to the idea and asked the Council’s staff to look at feasibility of doing so. Both Johnson and Herbold expressed a strong desire not to delay the rest of the U District rezone — the main reason being that new development projects continue to move forward and a further delay would forego the opportunity to apply the MHA rules to those projects and reap additional affordable housing in an area that desperately needs it.

Even if the changes to the Ave were to move forward, the amendments being contemplated would soften the blow to the “character” of the street.  The Council is contemplating reducing building heights from 85 feet to 75 feet, limiting building width to 160 feet, and placing a size limit on retail spaces.

And in the spirit of appeasing the small-business community, the Council is drafting a resolution to accompany the rezone ordinance that:

  • recognizes the U District Urban Design Framework as a key document;
  • commits to convening a U District childcare Task Force to “explore opportunities to create a multi-employer voucher fund;”
  • states the city’s intent to “continue working with the merchants on the Ave to maintain the vibrancy and businesses found on the Ave” and listing several specific actions to that end;
  • commits to implementation of the University District Parks Plan;
  • commits to “collaborating with the U District Community, Sound Transit, and King County Metro to integrate transit systems to best serve the U District community and surrounding neighborhoods.
  • commits to supporting the network of social service shelters in the U District, and specifically the ROOTS shelter for young adults.

The current draft of the resolution is Attachment 3 in the back of this memo.

No actions were taken in Thursday’s meeting; Johnson stated his intent to vote on amendments and hopefully vote the rezone ordinance out of committee at its next meeting on February 7th.

The city maintains a comprehensive web site of information on the proposed rezone. The Council’s running collection of documents on the actual ordinance is here.