Council moves UW campus plan one step closer to the finish line

This morning, the Council’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee moved UW’s proposed update to its Major Institution Master Plan one step closer to adoption, making a handful of amendments and voting it out of committee.  However, while the full Council is likely to approve it on Monday, what happens next is unclear.

The update process for UW’s campus master plan is governed by a handful of laws, including the state SEPA, the Growth Management Act, local zoning ordinances, as wells as the City-University Agreement (CUA) that lays out many aspects of how the city and the University coexist. Complicating the legal landscape further, UW is officially a state agency, which for some matters of law makes it a higher authority than the city.

The UW submitted a proposed update to its campus plan to the city along with an Environmental Impact Statement (included here in multiple parts). The Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) then reviewed it and recommended its approval in November 2017, with a long list of conditions and modifications. The Hearing Examiner then conducted a public hearing in December 2017, and recommended approval with modifications in January 2018.  It then moved on to the Council, which treated it as a “quasi-judicial” matter. During an open comment/petition period, the Council received petitions for further consideration of the Hearing Examiner’s recommendations from 29 parties, then four responses to those petitions, and three replies to those responses. All of that information went to the Council’s PLUZ committee, along with briefings in July, August and September. In late September, the Council adopted a resolution giving its conceptual approval of the plan with modifications and conditions — mostly in line with the Hearing Examiner’s recommendations, but with a few of its own twists based on the feedback it had received (as required by the quasi-judicial process). Here’s my previous writeup of the Council’s action.

That put the ball back in UW’s court: the Board of Regents reviewed the Council’s resolution, and sent a response. Other interested parties also reviewed the resolution and submitted responses to the Council, most of which are small variations on the same form letter. You can read UW’s 60-page response and the other letters here.  That all led up to today’s hearing where the Council needed to decide what to do with all the new feedback.

Things to keep in mind about this process:

  • According to the CUA, both the city and the UW Board of Regents must approve the master plan. Neither side can force its will on the other.
  • That said, because it’s a quasi-judicial process, the Council can’t just sit down with UW officials and negotiate an agreement. The communication must go through the official petition/comment channels — that’s the only information the Council is allowed to consider in its deliberations. In fact, it is not allowed to have any ex parte communications with any parties on the matter.

So what did UW say? Mostly it is fine with the Council’s conditions and modifications. However, it objected to seven items:

  1. The Council increased the amount of affordable housing that UW is required to build for staff making under 80% of AMI, from 300 units to 450 units. UW said that the city lacks authority under local and state law to require that. But interestingly enough, rather than fight a legal battle over that (and lose, setting a precedent for future battles), UW agreed to the higher amount so long as the conditions were rewritten to note that the university is voluntarily agreeing to the amount, rather than meeting a requirement.
  2. The Council lowered the future requirement for the percentage of the University’s commute traffic that is single-occupancy vehicles from 15% to 12%. UW cited SDCI officials in saying that 12% was an unreasonable goal and it the target should remain at 15%.
  3. The originally proposed Master Plan left UW’s maximum number of parking spaces on-campus at 12,300, excluding those associated with student housing. The Council lowered it to 9,000 and included student parking. While UW acknowledged that 9,000 is more than is in use today, they argued that it is lower than what will be needed given the university’s growth projections. They asked for a compromise: 12,300 including student parking.
  4.  UW’s original proposal increased the allowable building height on a parcel on the west end of campus known as “W22” to 240 feet from the existing 105 feet. The neighboring residential community objected, based on a long-standing agreement between UW and the neighborhood that the parcel would be part of a “gateway” between the campus and the surrounding residences and as such would be a transition rather than a sudden jump. It’s complicated, because the parcel is two blocks away from the new light rail station and is supposed to be prime territory for high-density development. The Council left it at 105 feet; UW wants it restored to 240.
  5.  The Council required UW to pay a portion of the cost of various RapidRide lines, on the city’s implementation timeline and with no cost cap. UW counter-proposed that the schedule be tied to the university’s development plans, not the city’s, and that costs be capped.
  6. The Council required UW to construct separate pathways for pedestrians and bicyclists on the section of the Burke-Gilman Trail running through campus by 2024. UW objected, saying that it had already committed to separating pedestrians and bicyclists, but not to building entirely separate pathways.
  7.  UW wanted some technical language to be amended to reflect UW’s assertions of its legal standing, particularly as a “state institution of higher learning.”  Basically, legal positioning in advance of future court battles.

Through a set of amendments today, the Council assented to UW’s demands of four of the seven items, partially assented to one, and held its ground on two.

Where UW got its way:

1. Affordable housing: the Council changed the language to say that UW is voluntarily complying.

4.  “W22” height: In a contentious debate, Council members Johnson and O’Brien voted to boost it back up to 240 feet, while Council member Herbold voted to keep it at 105.

5. RapidRide schedule:  UW and SDCI negotiated a mutually agreeable schedule and jointly presented it to the Council, which accepted it.

6. Burke-Gilman Trail mode separation: the Council changed the language to what UW requested.

The partial agreement was on item #7, the technical language changes.

The two where the Council didn’t budge:

2. The single-occupancy vehicle rate: it remains at 12%.

3. Capping parking at 9,000 stalls, including student parking. Quite frankly, there was no way that O’Brien and Johnson (especially “Shoupista” Johnson) were ever going to budge on this.

Assuming the full Council approves it next Monday, the amended Campus Plan heads back to the UW Board of Regents. So far, they have indicated that they would litigate if any of their objections weren’t accommodated. That will now be put to the test, as they weigh whether they can live with capped parking and a more stringent single-occupancy vehicle requirement in order to avoid further extending the approval process for their campus plan. The answer will likely be “no,” for a different reason: since they believe that the city doesn’t have legal authority to require either, they will probably litigate to prevent setting the legal precedent of complying with it and thus reinforcing the city’s claim to that authority. Lawyers!

Since the list of issues in now short — just two items — it shouldn’t take long for the UW Board of Regents to respond.