MHA rezone for Chinatown-International District voted out of committee, sort of

This morning the Council voted to pass the pending MHA rezone of the Chinatown-International District out of committee and forward it to the full Council for final approval. But they did so knowing they still had much work to do on the bill.

The fact that it’s not done was made clear by the number of community members who spoke during the public comment session, many saying essentially “We support the MHA rezone in principle, but we’re still not happy with some aspects of the bill and we don’t feel like you’ve listened to our input.” In response, Council member Johnson, chair of the Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee, suggested that they still move it out of committee but hold it for a few weeks before the full Council takes its final vote so that they can continue community discussions and make some additional amendments based on that feedback.

There are competing time pressures that led Johnson to that approach. On one hand, there is some urgency to get the new zoning and MHA rules in place, so that projects about to enter the permitting process can both take advantage of the additional development capacity and also contribute affordable housing to the CID community. But the issues the Council and community are grappling with — including gentrification, displacement, affordable housing, and affordable commercial space — will take time to sort through in a process best handled in committee. Further complicating matters, Johnson noted that his committee has a large backlog of legislation it needs to get through in the coming weeks before the fall budget season arrives, and with the 4th of July holidays and the Council’s August recess, it would be challenging for them to find more time to revisit this particular bill in the committee’s schedule.

There is one additional twist: for this land use bill, without further public hearings in committee any new idea incorporated into an amendment must be published 30 days before the Council takes a final vote, so if the anticipated community discussions over the coming weeks yield new ideas, that will push the passage of the bill out even further.

In addition to the two amendments the Council adopted this morning (which we’ll cover in a moment), they discussed six additional ones that are still under development. Given all these constraints, the Council decided to:

  • pass the bill with the two adopted amendments out of committee this morning;
  • make a best effort to draft and publish any other potential amendments by next Monday;
  • hold the bill for final vote until the July 17th Full Council meeting, which fulfills the 30-day requirement.

So long as their community conversations don’t produce any other big new ideas between now and mid-July, their plan will allow them to finish the bill and vote it into law next month.

The two amendments adopted this morning are:

  • consolidating all of the Chinatown-International District under one Design Review board. It’s currently split across three, which creates inconsistency in design feedback and approvals. Also adding Little Saigon to the International Special Review District;
  • exempting affordable housing projects –those with 40% or more of the units offered at prices affordable to those making 60% of Seattle’s annual median income (AMI) — from the rest of the requirements for the city’s Incentive Zoning (IZ) program that requires open space, green street improvements, transfer of development rights from historic building sites, and providing child care. Johnson championed this, arguing that the city already asks much of affordable housing developers and it shouldn’t ask them to meet the IZ requirements too.

Amendments they are still considering include:

  • asking OPCD to study increasing the MHA affordable housing performance/payment requirements — and how much additional development capacity would need to be granted in return;
  • looking at adding more development capacity in return for changing the affordable housing target from 60% of AMI to 30%;
  • relaxing some other zoning requirements for affordable housing projects such as setbacks to enable developers to maximize the amount of affordable housing built — but while still adhering to good urban design principles and fitting in with the neighborhood;
  • ensuring that development projects that displace residents or businesses comply with federal relocation standards.

The Council also passed out of committee a companion resolution to address issues that can’t be dealt with in the city’s land use code. They made several amendments there as well, including:

  • some changes to the rules and guidelines for the International Special Review District;
  • a commitment to promoting economic development and commercial stability;
  • establishing a mandate and a deadline for the Parks Department to look at improvements to parks and public spaces, as well as programing of public spaces;
  • anti-displacement strategies, including a pilot program to address unreinforced masonry.

Both the MHA rezone ordinance and the amended resolution passed unanimously out of committee, and both will likely be held until July 17th; but by Monday we’ll know what other amendments are being pushed forward.

Here’s a memo from the Council’s Central Staff that lists al the amendments to the ordinance and resolution considered today.