Council continues its discussion of MHA rezones for Downtown and South Lake Union

This morning, the Council continued wading through the details of the proposed rezone of the downtown and South Lake Union areas in order to implement the Mandatory Housing Affordability program.

Here’s a recap of their previous discussion, where they did a high-level overview of the program. And here are the slides from today’s presentation and discussion, which built on the first one. Some notes from today as they started diving into issues:

  • The city doesn’t expect significant displacement from the MHA rezone. Their analysis identified only seven buildings, representing 78 residential units, as candidates for development. In contract, the downtown/SLU MHA rezone is expected to generate 21,000 new homes, including 2,100 affordable units.
  • The city is changing the way that tower separation requirements are implemented. Currently if two projects are simultaneously in development but together would violate the separation requirement, the first project that receives its Master Use Permit is allowed to build and the second one must change. But the MUP is fairly far down through the design and permitting process, which turns it into a race to see who can run the gauntlet the fastest; that creates unpredictability and additional cost for a project that might not get approved. The City’s proposed change would enforce the separation at the time the project submits it “early design guidance,” much earlier in the process.
  • Related to this, in downtown commercial highrise (DOC) zones, there is currently no tower separation requirements because the area was thought of as primarily commercial where views are secondary to maximizing floor area. Currently there are no developable or redevelopable lots in DOC-zoned blocks with residential towers, so the issue is unlikely to come up often. There are, however, a few lots on blocks that could accommodate two new towers. But the city believes that developers already have an incentive to push towers as far away from each other as possible. Further, they claim that tower separation requirements tend to result in preventing towers or driving them to skinnier designs, in conflict with the basic goals of the MHA program. So instead of imposing new tower separation requirements in DOC zones, they intend to create design guidelines.
  • They are trying to make provisions for modifications to the MHA requirements for specific sites if development standards disallow use of the additional granted capacity. For example, if a site near Lake Union can’t have a taller building because of the seaplane flight path height limits, then the city can reduce the MHA requirement on that site.
  • They city is trying to make the MHA program attractive to development projects already in the permit pipeline. This is a big priority for Council member Rob Johnson as well, who emphasized it also as part of the U District rezone, in order to maximize the opportunity to create additional affordable housing units. SDCI has defined a process for any projects in the pipeline that would like to opt-in, and is reaching out to those developers. They expect that a “significant majority” won’t opt in, and they claim to have been approached by a few.
  • The city is lukewarm on trying to encourage the creation of more “family size” 3-bedroom residential units in the downtown and SLU areas. Currently less than 1% of units in the area are 3-bedroom, and they claim a big subsidy would be required to make them more common given the cost to create them. On the other hand, they observe families opting to rent or buy single-family homes. Also, they point out that there is no guarantee that 3-bedrooom units would be used by families, and fair housing laws prohibit discriminating on the basis of family size. Staff feel that money for subsidizing 3-bedroom units would be better spent on affordable housing.
  • There are several city projects underway to simultaneously increase “livability” in the downtown and SLU areas, including the One Center City plan, green street and open space projects, the Central Waterfront megaproject, the Market to MOHAI Trail, the Downtown/Belltown design guidelines, site planning for a downtown school, and the Pike/Pine revitalization efforts.
  • Council member Johnson asked whether the city staff had considered imposing minimum building height requirements in the area. SDCI said no; they claim that the land downtown is so valuable there is already a strong incentive to “build big.” Johnson wasn’t convinced, however, and said that he might introduce an amendment to that effect.

Next Monday, March 13th, there will be a public hearing on the proposed rezone. Johnson expects that the Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee will take up the bill again, and consider amendments, at its meeting on March 21.