Council committee votes U District upzone out of committee

This morning the Council’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee amended, and then voted out of committee, an ordinance rezoning the core of the University District and implementing the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) requirements.

The Council had a long list of potential amendments, and many were neither significant nor controversial. A handful did engender more discussion, however, among the seven Council members present (everyone except Harrell and Juarez):

  • The Council decided to strip out the changes to “The Ave” in order to give a group of small business owners time to complete their study of the business impacts of the rezone. It will be revisited in the summer of 2018 when (if everything goes according to plan) the city considers zoning changes all at once to much of the city.
  • Likewise, they voted to also “pause” on changes to another section of University Way, between 56th and Ravenna.
  • In a controversial decision, they voted 4-3 to upzone a residential area between NE 50th Street and NE 52nd street. On one hand, Council member O’Brien expressed the concern that the housing there is “naturally affordable” and would prefer to see it preserved. On the other hand, Council member Johnson said that he had spoken with many people in that area who were seeing their rents rise anyway, and he doesn’t want to forego the opportunity to build housing there that can be guaranteed affordable for 75 years under the MHA rules.
  • A proposal, requested by UW, to allow for bigger floorplates for its building above the Light Rail Station, was withdrawn from consideration. The Council members are trying to ensure that the city’s goals of maintain light an air down to the street level is not undermined by tall, bulky buildings, and are guarding the required setbacks.
  • Another proposal, by O’Brien, to change the MHA designation from M1 to M2 for the zones designated for the tallest buildings (240 – 325 feet) was debated then withdrawn.  “M1” requires a 9%  set-aside for affordable units; “M2” requires 10%. There are two competing interests here: maximizing the amount of affordable housing created by developers through MHA, and ensuring that the MHA (and other) requirements placed on a developer are not so onerous as to make construction projects no longer feasible. Unfortunately, there is no definitive model that determines feasibility, not is there a clear idea about what construction costs and rents will be like in a few years. There is agreement that high-rise projects are “on the cusp of feasibility” right now. In the end several Council members, including Johnson, expressed the belief that affordable units today are more important than affordable units 10-15 years from now, so if there is a risk that changing to M2 will extend the time before highrise projects are feasible, it wasn’t worth making the change. Johnson argued that he would like to see the issue revisited in the summer of 2018 when there is better data on the effects of the MHA program — he says there are already developers with permitted projects who would like to “opt in” to the MHA program — though O’Brien was skeptical that the city would be able to change the designation at a future time without granting even more building capacity at the same time.

O’Brien also mentioned that he was working with the Council’s staff on another potential amendment to address the risk that the court might find the MHA program illegal. The amendment would tie the zoning changes to the MHA program, to limit the chance that the increased zoning allowances would stay in place if MHA was struck down.

In the end, the seven Council members unanimously voted the ordinance out of committee. Because some of their amendments require the bill to be re-titled (and thus re-introduced), it will go in front of the full Council for inevitable approval on Tuesday, February 21st.