Baffling “neighborhood” planning continues

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. The new outreach model doesn’t have geographic boundaries. DPD is concerned about reaching communities of color regardless of where they live.
  3. 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.

Frederica Merrell
Baffled Organizing Volunteer

12 thoughts on “Baffling “neighborhood” planning continues”

  1. This was the first of these planning meetings that I have attended, but there is an aspect of the “options” presented that bothers me a bit. There was no option that included upzoning the existing NC property without maintaining the Single Family zoning of the El Centro property. Is it a forgone conclusion that the El Centro property will be upzoned to allow them to develop it? This may sound anti-El Centro, which I’m not, but I think it would be good for the neighborhood to preserve the school/community-center feel of the entire school lot by maintaining the SF zoning and potentially returning the southern portion of the lot that is currently used as LINK staging/parking back to public use. A portion of that part of the lot could be developed into a small neighborhood park or public market space in the middle of what I would expect to be the first blocks to be redeveloped as taller, multi-story mixed use buildings.

    Regarding the 65-foot and 165-foot options; under these options the northern half of the El Centro lot is upzoned NC 40 or 40+ and the southern half is NC65. This doesn’t make any sense. First, why is there a need to upzone the northern half of the El Centro lot? At a minimum, the school itself and the part of the lot north of the school building should remain SF. If the southern half of the lot is allowed to be 65-foot, it contradicts the policy that Lyle described that requires a buffer between a 65-foot zoned lot and a SF lot. If I recall correctly, the sketch that Lyle passed around had a 65-foot tall building up against 17th street, with single family zoned lots on the other side.

    I suggest that anyone who cares about how the core of N Beacon Hill surrounding the light rail station looks and feels in the years to come should get your hands on the recommendations when they come out and send Lyle your comments.

  2. These points in particular baffle me:

    # 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.

    The way I see it, Red Apple may be benefiting somewhat from rail, but their main business model still relies heavily on car traffic, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. I think a lot of people look at the Red Apple site and think to themselves that it’s the perfect location for a mixed use building, with a grocery store at street level, and housing above. This probably could work at 40′, 50′, or 60′ heights.

    Most developments of this sort in close-in neighborhoods include underground parking to support the businesses. You can probably think of examples on Broadway, in West Seattle, and even in the Central District.

    The current zoning is at odds with a development of this sort. Parking is not a requirement for new buildings, and driveways are actively discouraged. So, boosting the heights to encourage density could conceivably end up costing the neighborhood its largest grocery store, thereby encouraging even more car use as we all go down to Rainier for our “six bags and a thing of milk” trips.

    Of course, if the lot is developed in this way the developer can ask for a variance, but that puts it potentially into a long process cycle with an uncertain outcome. If you’ve driven by the big ugly hole in the ground on Stone Way where the neighbors stopped Safeway from finishing their multi-story mixed use building, you’ll understand why that scares me.

  3. Regarding the parking requirements; my understanding is that it wouldn’t prevent a redevelopment project from including parking, such as an underground lot below a mixed-use building. That is what the DPD guy stated at the meeting last night. It just doesn’t require parking. To me, it means some of the smaller lots can be developed easier, because parking is not required. However, I would think that in your example it would not make good business sense to construct such a large multi-use building without incorporating some off-street parking, similar to the Trader-Joes on Madison or the Safeway on 23rd. However, the pedestrian overlay, as well as the neighborhood design guidelines (, dictate, or guide, how the parking is incorporated into the lot.

  4. That’s my point. Yes, they can have a lot, but the pedestrian overlay limits the access to it. I think it would have to be a zoning variance.

    Ever since people started using the pedestrian overlay as a point of objection to the car wash, I’ve been struggling to understand how exactly a business district at the intersection of two significant arterials is supposed to thrive under those zoning restrictions. It’s a tough topic to broach without sounding like I’m advocating for cars over transit, which I’m not. I’m just trying to think like someone wanting open a new business, or a property owner thinking about developing. It makes things a little challenging.

  5. Freddie — I don’t understand this Lyle guy’s weird Orwellian doublespeak (“neighborhood” = “entire city”?). He’s part of the Nickels administration, right? Maybe we’ll get some straight talkers in with whoever the new guy is. Let’s hope.

    Note that this DPD document says that community members may participate in the planning for “their area” — not “other people’s areas.”

    God, how bizarre.

    “Neighborhood planning is a way to tailor the comprehensive
    plan and implement it in areas with urban
    villages or centers and adopted growth targets.
    It is also a means by which members of any Seattle
    community may participate in planning for the future
    of their area within the context of the City’s Comprehensive

  6. Here is one of the arguments against going tall from that site.

    “Black’s argument for low height limits is this: Wouldn’t it be better to have four blocks of eight story buildings, each contributing to an active street-level experience, rather than one thirty-two story building, with three blocks dead and empty? Keeping buildings short actually contributes to a lively urban environment; tall buildings encourage property owners to hold lots vacant in hope of scoring a tall office tower.”

    Another thing I realized yesterday is that this is only a ten-year update to our neighborhood plan. The zoning recommendations we make are only for a limited time period. Which makes me think the “40 PLUS” proposal is a good ten-year idea. Let’s see what happens with a new zoning code, kind of unique to our neighborhood. The 40 PLUS allows for one more story than current zoning. If we look at some of the neighborhood plan updates from other neighborhoods (Roosevelt) there are zoning recommendations like this.

    I think the way it is worded is if you want another story, you can provide some open space, build low-income units, or build a “green” (LEED) building. So there is an incentive to do some cool things and another story is made possible.

    Among other questions we need to decide is do we want to change the zoning all the way down Beacon to the park to make it all consistently NC-40 (or NC-40 PLUS)? Right now there is a little strip of L2 which allows for construction of townhouses with first flooring housing as opposed to retail/storefront on the first floor.

    The arguments I have heard pro and con are: Yes, let’s get commercial all the way to the park to create a lively street scene. The argument against is let’s create a more nodal and concentrated retail core at the center (near the station) and build on the little nodes at each end (Horton cluster and around Baja Bistro). I worry about having too much retail spread out too far and having empty storefronts.

    What do people think?

  7. At the moment, I’m not too worried about empty storefronts. The biggest problem with the business district is that it’s full. There just isn’t enough business space available for small retail. What sits vacant are oversized spaces like the 1500+ feet on the main floor of the ex-Culinary Communion building, or the enormous yellow thing attached to the New Beacon Market.

    I think we need more buildings with second stories where service businesses like hair salons and tax accountants that currently use a ton of sidewalk-facing space in the neighborhood could relocate, opening up the first floors for retail. The additional concentration of foot traffic would be good for all.

    There’s a ton of opportunity for this sort of development right in the core now, but I wouldn’t want to discourage more retail along Beacon to Spokane either. My hope would be that with more commercial zoning, lease rates would scale naturally depending on how close they were to the core, and businesses would find their appropriate locations.

  8. Does anybody know what exactly, if anything, is planned for that empty gravel lot outside the Beacon Hill station between Lander and McLellan?

  9. Most of the lots, especially on the east side of the block still belong to the property owners who owned them before construction began, and it is up to them what they want to do with them.

  10. Hey, I don’t live on Beacon Hill, but I’ve attended similar neighborhood meetings in SLU which were very informative to me. I wouldn’t get too hung up on absolute heights (though 165′ sounds pretty wild). Matt Roewe of VIA Architecture did a great presentation “Bread Loaves and Pencils” on the importance of specific design features as well as absolute heights. Some guy named Mike McGinn also spoke: “Design, open space, affordability, and our environmental aspirations need to be taken into account as well.”

    Here’s much of the info:

    Roosevelt is a great model. I highly recommend talking to their neighborhood group.

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