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Proposal for height rezoning near Mount Baker station raises controversy

An aerial view of the region that will be affected by a height rezoning proposal. Credit: Photo: Department of Planning and Development

Towers up to 12 stories tall would be allowed in a section of Seattle’s North Rainier neighborhood, if the City Council decides to approve a rezoning proposal that ignited some controversy on Wednesday.

The “up-zoning” is a part of a broader plan that the Seattle Department of Planning and Development has proposed for an area around the Mount Baker light rail station. The changes would increase the maximum allowable building height to 125 feet from 65 feet on a parcel of land currently occupied by a Lowe's Home Improvement store, and would also relax height restrictions to 85 feet from 65 feet within some of the surrounding blocks. 

“The Lowe's site is about 13 acres. We don’t have 13 acres in, you know, a single parcel or a couple of parcels anywhere else in the city,” Lyle Bicknell, a principal urban designer at the Department of Planning and Development, told the committee. “To have it so close to light rail, we see as a huge opportunity.”

Opponents say the tall buildings would be out of character with the surrounding neighborhood. 

The council's Planning Land Use and Sustainability Committee was considering a vote on the zoning changes as early as Dec. 20. But at the Wednesday morning meeting, committee members decided to wait until next year. The decision came after an email sent out by committee Chair Richard Conlin’s office got into the hands of residents opposed to the proposal and set off a brouhaha.

The discussion about the proposal was added to the committee’s agenda less than 24 hours before the meeting. And the email suggested that the committee was trying to speed up a vote on the legislation before Conlin, who was recently defeated in a re-election race, departs from the council in January.

“Of course, less than 24 hours notice isn’t ideal,” the email said. “But given our circumstances, we decided at the last minute to rush the legislation before Conlin leaves office and the agenda was finalized late yesterday.”

On the copy of the email forwarded to Crosscut, the only visible recipient was Steve Moddemeyer, a principal architect at the firm Collins Woerman.

The email also wound up in Pat Murakami's inbox. President of the South Seattle Public Safety Council and the former president of the Mount Baker Community Club, she was upset by what she read. “What’s the big rush?” said Murakami, who opposes the zoning changes. “I can’t see any reason to shove this legislation through.”

During the meeting, committee member Tim Burgess brushed off criticism that the proposal was being rushed. “A better accusation, that would have truth to it, is that we’ve been delaying too long,” he said.

The committee nevertheless decided to push off a vote on the zoning changes.

“Apparently there is more controversy about this proposal than we had anticipated,” Conlin said in a statement after the meeting. “We have therefore canceled the December 20 hearing, and will leave that stage of the process for next year’s Land Use Committee to conduct.”

The rezoning proposal is not new. It was first floated by DPD in the 2010 North Rainier Neighborhood Plan Update.

“It is completely out of scale in the neighborhood,” said Murakami. “You don’t put a building that would look fine in downtown Seattle in the middle of single family structures.”

The land where the proposed changes would allow 12-story buildings is bounded by Rainier Avenue South and Martin Luther King Jr. Way South to the West and East, and South Bayview Street and South McClellan Street to the North and South.

Referring to the rezoning proposal, Bicknell said the department realizes “there are many diverse opinions on this subject.” He said officials are “trying to find the right middle ground.”

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