by Frederica Merrell
(Freddie is heading up an effort to wrangle the city’s planning department, to get it to more fully engage with the community and develop concrete neighborhood-enhancing proposals, with an ad-hoc group of neighbors as the North Beacon Hill Planning Advisory Committee. At tonight’s committee meeting, Lyle Bicknell with the Seattle DPD was invited to come and discuss the next steps in the neighborhood planning process. See the event calendar for upcoming meetings. — Ed.)
The City is speeding to a conclusion on our neighborhood plan update! Lyle Bicknell, our man at Department of Planning and Development (DPD), came and chatted with 17 residents who attended the North Beacon Hill Planning Advisory Committee meeting tonight. He shared sketchy preliminary plan recommendations and described next steps for the process. Here are my best notes on what I heard. Please pipe in with your own views if you attended. We met at El Centro thanks to Executive Director, Estella Ortega giving us a nice space in room 307.
Mike Podowski from DPD, who is an expert on zoning, generously gave us 30 minutes of his time to start. We received a “primer” on the neighborhood commercial zone rules and proposed multi-family zone rules. He provided handouts and I am putting the extras at the library. I won’t go into all the details but here are points of note:
- Most of the existing zoning in our urban center is neighborhood commercial (NC-40) with a pedestrian orientation.
- We also have some multi-family zoning intermittently along Beacon Avenue and on 14th (L2, L3)
- Within the lightrail overlay near the station, there is no requirement for parking to be built for new multi-family housing or for commercial development.
- We have a pedestrian overlay which also precludes the construction of parking or street entry between any new business development and the sidewalk.
- Many of our existing businesses do not meet this code but are grandfathered in, so the pedestrian character will only develop as new buildings are constructed.
After Mike gave us an education on zoning, Lyle presented the status of draft recommendations for the North Beacon Hill Plan update. He didn’t have a good write-up, it was very sketchy, thin, and incomplete. He said he would post the final draft of the recommendations by September 21st, about one week before our last neighborhood planning meetings. He passed around a map of some of the street recommendations. It looked like a consolidation of street graphics developed by the community, but much harder to interpret. Finally, he gave us a pretty good summary of the four options for proposed zoning changes that the city will be presenting and I will describe those here. This he seemed to have prepared, which gives the overall impression that indeed, this process is mostly about upzoning.
The first proposal is existing conditions, basically NC-40. He didn’t go into any detail on this.
The second proposal he called “40 plus”. This proposal would add just 10’ to all NC-40 to make it a new zoning classification that goes about 50’ high. This would allow for 4 stories instead of the current three. For scale comparison, the El Centro building is the highest building in the urban center at 67’. The bottom of the eaves are at about 54’. This proposal could involve incentives that allow for an additional 10’ if certain things are provided (like open space or other amenities). It would also require setbacks near single-family zoning. As a part of this proposal, El Centro would upzone their property from single-family to neighborhood commercial as well. I didn’t get the height on this, but I presume it would be NC-40 Plus too, putting the development just at the eaves but not as high as the existing building. Could be nice, because the landmark building would still hold reign.
The third proposal is the NC-65 option where key development parcels would be rezoned to go as high as 65’ including the Red Apple site, Bank of America triangle, the properties just north of the library, and the west side of the Sound Transit block. I didn’t hear a proposal for the zoning at El Centro on this option.
The third proposal is pretty out there (sorry, my opinion), 165’ tower in the urban core. It would take up some mix of parcels, including the Red Apple site. Lyle got some strange looks from us on this one and he explained that he felt he had to put it out there because some people suggested it. I wonder if someone said to build a space station on the Red Apple site if he would put that in too! One thing he said about this approach is that it can suck up all the commercial development activity for the next decade (or three) into one project and leave everything else undeveloped. He mentioned that this phenom even has a name, “loose tower syndrome”. Somebody look that one up!
Proposals will move forward by consensus according to Lyle, though he didn’t indicate how consensus would be measured.
We ended with a contentious discussion after Lyle revealed that our last planning meetings, where people would actually get to see and comment on these recommendations, would not be held in our community. His plan is to hold two big joint meetings with North Rainier and Othello community down in the valley at the Asian Counseling and Referral Center on MLK. One is scheduled for Sunday the 27th and the other is for Wednesday the 30th in the evening. These would both be open houses where you just drop in and make comments. People can also comment by e-mail.
Participants posed the following objections to this format:
- We want to meet with our neighbors in the community for our last meeting and not be overwhelmed with other participants and interest groups making comments about our neighborhood plan.
- We want the meeting place to be highly accessible to the neighbors here so that lots of people from the neighborhood will come. We have had really good turnout at the El Centro meetings in May and March.
- We want a meeting where we get a chance to talk about these proposals as a community, not just give our individual comments to the City.
- We don’t trust the City to make sure that people who live, run businesses, own property and have an investment in North Beacon Hill actually get to make the recommendations for our plan as opposed to political groups, developers, or people from outside our area who just have strong opinions about what kind of development should occur around lightrail stations regardless of community, topography, or other considerations.
- Validation of our neighborhood plan cannot be measured if the meeting isn’t held in the community; the three SE neighborhoods are all meeting at once, and there is no ability to distinguish who is giving comments.
Lyle made a lot of interesting rebuttals to the objections including:
- E-mail comments are plentiful and provide enough opportunity. He claimed he had received over 4000 comments by e-mail. He admitted he had no way of knowing where the people live who are making the comments.
- The new outreach model doesn’t have geographic boundaries. DPD is concerned about reaching communities of color regardless of where they live.
- He felt that everyone has a stake in the neighborhood plans no matter what neighborhood they live in or work in and that every opinion holds equal weight. Just because someone is a resident of the community doesn’t make their opinion more important. Neighborhood means the whole City.
This last discussion was pretty eye opening and brings up very basic questions about what a neighborhood plan is, who stewards it, and what it represents. If you have some opinions about how a neighborhood plan differs from other City, County, and State plans, please comment here. We could use some clear definitions at this point.
Call me weird, but I thought a neighborhood plan was a tool for people who live, work, play, and own property in a given area to build a communication tool, a plan, for where they would like to see their community going in the next ten years. And then they get invested in making the plan come to fruition.
I guess I could go tell Ballard what to do because I go there for a beer a few times a year, but somehow I think people who hang there more often than I do might make better decisions. I also think the people who live in Ballard and have to live with the results of their neighborhood plan ought to get to decide what goes into it. I mean isn’t the root of the word neighborhood, “neighbor”? Besides, am I going to go help make sure a traffic circle gets built in Ballard? I don’t think so.
Anyway, it was a weird ending to a constantly baffling process. Next elucidating meeting of the North Beacon Hill Planning Advisory Committee is September 1st.
Baffled Organizing Volunteer