A towering controversy in the Rainier Valley

125-foot-tall buildings may rise on this Lowe's site on Rainier Avenue South. Credit: Photo: Bill Lucia

Armed robbers stormed into Bux4Gold on a sunny Saturday afternoon in August 2011. Surveillance video shows one assailant holding the counter clerk at gunpoint while his accomplice smashes the pawnshop’s glass display cases with a hammer and empties jewelry into a bag. The men then drive away in a white minivan.

When a man wielding a sharp metal stick barged into the shop last May demanding money, owner Patrick Kane drew his permitted handgun, handcuffed the would-be thief and called the cops.

“I promised myself I wouldn’t let that happen to my business again,” Kane says.

Kane’s shop is a few blocks north of the Mount Baker light rail station on Rainier Avenue South. It is nestled in a corridor of the Rainier Valley known for crime and heavy traffic. Bux4Gold also happens to be kitty corner to a Lowe’s Home Improvement store, which sits at the center of a hot button land-zoning proposal about to make its way through the City Council. (Lowe's shares a parcel of land with an Amazon order fulfillment center. The adjoining 3.8-acre parking lot is technically a different property.)

The council’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee began discussing a bill in late November that would rezone 109 parcels of land across a 26-acre area in the North Rainier Valley. The zoning changes in the bill are part of the North Rainier Neighborhood Plan, which Department of Planning and Development crafted between 2009 and 2010. The plan is intended to provide a blueprint for making the area around the light rail station more walkable and more dense with housing and businesses.

While the zoning bill is laden with details about facade requirements and sidewalk widths, the debate surrounding it mostly hinges on the prickly issue of how to increase the number of apartments and businesses around light rail stations — while preserving nearby single family neighborhoods. Residents in the North Rainier Valley and others involved in the planning process express a range of views about these topics that are, at times, starkly contrasted.

Local residents are especially sensitive about the proposed increases to building height limits, which would presumably pave the way for large residential structures on the edge of adjacent — and more affluent — blocks of single family homes in the Mount Baker neighborhood. The maximum allowable height would go from 65 to 125 feet on the Lowe's site itself; height restrictions would also change from 65 to 85 feet in areas to the south and west of the store. The bill would also classify most of the rezoned land as "Seattle mixed," a zoning designation that allows for a variety of residential, commercial and light industrial uses. 

Kane’s shop falls within the boundaries of an area that would be rezoned to allow 85-foot buildings. He did not know about the proposal, but said he’d welcome the changes and that more buildings would make the neighborhood safer. “If there’s more density, there’s going to be more phone calls and that’s what drives police,” he says, adding that one of his shop clerks has been mugged twice at the light rail station.

“We would welcome taller buildings, more buildings, more businesses,” says Kane. “This could be another Ballard or Fremont depending on the type of buildings that are built.”

The plan’s critics argue that tall buildings are out of character with the surrounding neighborhood, that more residents would exacerbate parking problems and that the city has not thoroughly consulted local citizens about the rezoning proposal. Community members who support easing the height restrictions argue that the current zoning wastes opportunities created by the light rail station, inhibits business growth and guarantees that the area will remain blighted and crime-ridden. Department of Planning and Development officials, meanwhile, contend that the neighborhood plan and the zoning changes have been discussed in over 50 public meetings dating back to 2009 and were influenced by that community input.

While controversy over the plan has smoldered for about four years, it was recently stoked when the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee scheduled its first discussion of the rezoning less than 24 hours in advance, on the day before Thanksgiving.

Around the same time, an aide in committee chair Richard Conlin’s office sent out an email, obtained by opponents of the plan, which suggested that the committee was trying to rush the legislation through the council before Conlin departs in January. (The four-term councilmember recently lost his re-election campaign.) Following the fracas over the meeting time and the email, the committee postponed further discussion about the rezoning bill until next year and asked the Department of Planning and Development to prepare a report about its community outreach efforts.

Lyle Bicknell is the Department of Planning and Development’s principal urban designer. He has been instrumental in creating the North Rainier Neighborhood Plan, which includes the zoning changes the council will consider. Bicknell says the department has worked to design a plan for the North Rainier Valley that balances single-family homes with growth around the light rail station.

“Right now, the problem with North Rainier is that there is no there there,” says Bicknell. “It’s a very difficult place for pedestrians to negotiate. It’s just a sad area to have a light rail station. It should be an active, vital, walkable neighborhood.”

Bicknell points out that Denver allows 16-story buildings near RTD light rail stops and that Vancouver British Columbia permits 40-story buildings near SkyTrain stations. “It’s not like we’re proposing something crazy or outrageous here,” he says.

Jin Lee, Mount Baker Community Club’s Zoning, Land Use and Transportation Committee co-chair, is an architect. He lives near Franklin High School, a few blocks from the light rail station. Lee got involved in the neighborhood planning because he was bothered by the tenor of the rhetoric about issues like rezoning. “It was so negative and alarmist,” says Lee.

The Community Club is a neighborhood organization that has been one of the main venues for distributing information on, and debating the merits of the neighborhood plan. The Department of Planning and Development has held at least 10 community meetings there since 2009, and many of the club’s members carefully track zoning and planning developments in and around the neighborhood.

The area around the light rail station is “like Goldilocks for criminals right now," says Lee. "That whole zone right now, it’s scary." He's concerned that opponents of rezoning could derail potential progress in the neighborhood. Which would be a shame, says Lee, because "anything is better than the status quo."

Not everyone is sold on the virtues of adding more density near the light rail station. “There’s nothing around there that’s at those heights,” said Mount Baker Resident Linda Finney at the Nov. 27 Planning and Land Use Committee's public meeting. “It would impact our single family neighborhood greatly.”

The area where the taller buildings would be allowed is in one of the lowest parts of the Rainier Valley. Supporters of the zoning changes say the topography will make any new tall buildings stand out less against neighborhoods on the surrounding hillsides.

To the west of Rainier Avenue South, the streets climb steeply toward 23rd Avenue up to Beacon Hill. To the east is the Mount Baker neighborhood, where the terrain rises 175 feet above the valley floor before falling away dramatically toward Lake Washington. Mount Baker Park cuts a 21-square-acre rectangular swath through the area, extending north to Coleman Park and recreational sites along the shores of the lake. The transition is abrupt and striking between the four-lane traffic and rundown lots on Rainier Avenue South and Martin Luther King Jr. Way and the quiet, leafy side streets of Mount Baker, where on a recent Saturday kids used a garden hose to make a front-yard ice-rink and bundled couples took late afternoon walks.

Mount Baker Boulevard winds gently eastward into the heart of the neighborhood, eventually leading to streets named after Mount Rainier, Adams and Saint Helens. Craftsman-style homes gradually give way to larger houses, many of them brick, some flanked by majestic old trees. Property values in the range of $1 million to $2 million are not uncommon. About a half mile east of the area that would be affected by the rezone is Cascadia Avenue South, which offers residents a sweeping panorama of the lake, the State Route 520 Bridge, Bellevue and the Cascade Mountains. From Cascadia Avenue South it is less than a 10-minute drive back down the hill to the Lowe's and Kane’s twice-robbed pawnshop.

“Mount Baker has had an incredibly strong community,” Kimberly Kemp a 30-year resident of the neighborhood said at the recent City Council committee meeting. “We just need to slow down and make it a good development for everybody.”

“That might mean fewer rentals,” she added. “Because rentals don’t really bring a building of community.”

That remark, and other similar comments offered up at the meeting, stuck in councilmember Mike O’Brien’s craw. "I get the fear of change," he says. "That you have a neighborhood and a place you worked on and you have a community and now someone comes along and says they’re going to make it different. I honor that and I listen to that. But I reject any notion that your ability to be a good neighbor is related to your ability to buy a house in Seattle. That’s just pretty offensive to me."

O’Brien says there is a “very good likelihood” he will chair the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee next year. He hopes to vote on a version of the zoning bill by the end of January.

Asked if anyone on the committee has suggested scrapping the portion of the legislation that would allow for 125-foot buildings on the Lowe’s lot — which has turned into something of a lightning rod — Conlin, the current committee chair, says the "specific details of the zoning are all up for discussion."

“I think most of the plan will probably be approved,” says Conlin, “The council will have a vigorous debate about whether it should be 85 feet or 125 feet and there will be a lot of discussion about transportation and how the roads will work.”

“We’re not going to be able to please everybody,” says O’Brien, who emphasized that the committee would try to address concerns raised at the meeting by residents who say there has not been enough community outreach about the proposal.

Lyle Bicknell, at the Department of Planning and Development, says that the agency conducted an open and transparent process to come up with the North Rainier neighborhood plan and the zoning changes. Sign-in sheets show at least 90 people attending a March 2009 meeting and at least 75 at another meeting in May of that year. The Department of Planning and Development also used interpreters who spoke Somali, Mandarin, Cantonese, Eritrean and other languages to convey the details of the plan to neighborhood residents for whom English is a second language.

“We bent over backwards to meet with the Mount Baker neighborhood,” Bicknell says. 

Nevertheless, some commenters at the Nov. 27 council committee meeting felt that they’d been left out of the discussion. “Mr. Bicknell, when he first started, it was kind of like it was a done deal, you just listen,” said Mariana Quarnstrom, adding “to me there has been a whole lot of lack of outreach.”

Near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and McClellan Street sits a building that houses the City Café and Restaurant and Seattle Hair Salon and Beauty Supply.

Zahara Arero emigrated from Ethiopia in 2001 and her family has owned both businesses since 2010. She says on most days the café isn’t busy. It was empty on a recent Saturday afternoon around 2 p.m. The Arero’s lease their business property, which is across the street from the eastern boundary of the area that would be rezoned under the proposed plan.

“I didn’t know,” she says, of the rezoning proposal. “I've got to know my options, this is our place to work and live.”

After he returned from serving as a radio operator in the Vietnam War in 1969, Bill Davis bought a house in Mount Baker. He went on to work for Pacific Northwest Bell and later started his own software company. These days he’s semi-retired and serves as secretary of the Mount Baker Community Club. “There are a lot of fragmented views in southeast Seattle,” says Davis. “It’s impossible to find one voice for southeast Seattle and even the voices that you do find are going to change over time.”

Davis attended some of the Department of Planning and Development meetings. During one session he says the department asked participants to share their zoning preferences by placing color-coded buildings that represented different heights on a neighborhood map. Red buildings represented a height of 125 feet. According to Davis, several members of the local Chinese immigrant community stacked the red buildings on top of one another on the Lowe’s site. “They wanted to build a 200- or 300-foot structure and turn the surrounding area into parks,” he says, adding that most people at the meeting, including him, didn’t support that idea.

“People know that it’s coming, but don’t necessarily like development and this kind of expansion,” he says. “I don’t want us to become another South Lake Union, but I think we’re kind of headed in that general direction.”

The Lowe’s site is currently worth $23.7 million and is owned by Rainier Electronics LLC, according to King County Assessor’s Office records. The Lowe's parking lot, while technically a different plot of land, is owned by the same company and valued at $11.8 million. Both properties were transferred to Rainier Electronics Park LLC from a general partnership called Rainier Electronics Park in March 2008, according to a "quit claim deed" filed with King County. The Rainier Electronics Park partners listed on the quit claim deed are Merideth Tall, Lisa Carol Tall, Bent Kjos, Carole HL Hsiao, Joan HM Hsiao, James Bromley and David HY Hsiao.

David C. Hsiao passed away in Aug. 2013, according to an obituary in the Seattle Times. He was a longtime business partner with Leonard Tall, founder of Tall's Camera Supply, who died in 1998. Tall, according to his Seattle Times obituary, briefly dropped out of Garfield High School to serve in the Navy during World War II and then returned to the states, finished his education and started the camera supply store. Born in Tientsin, China, Hsiao, who graduated from University of Washington in 1953, actually worked at Tall's camera shop for about 12 years before they went into business together. Among their ventures was a real estate investment company called Rainier Northwest Group. Leonard Tall's daughters are named Merideth and Lisa. And David C. Hsiao's daughters are named Carole and Joan; his son is named David. Nobody at Rainier Electronics Park LLC could be reached for comment.

Bicknell, however, says that he did not know of any specific developers who had expressed interest in building a structure on the Lowe’s site. “In some ways that actually makes it harder,” he says. “Because when you have owners that are actively engaged they can tell you what they want and you can involve the community in a very specific project.” He also says there were no imminent plans to close down the Lowe's or the PepsiCo bottling facility across the street to the north.

“We can change the zoning,” Bicknell says, “but that in no way means that things will go away and there will be radical change tomorrow.”

Suspicions about the rezone nevertheless abound. “Our development is driven by the developers, not by the people,” said 40-year Mount Baker resident Megan Cornish at the recent City Council committee meeting. “That’s why Seattleites are so furious.” The email sent by a Conlin aide the day before the meeting only fueled these sorts of concerns.

“Of course, less than 24 hours notice isn’t ideal,” the email said, referring to the fact that the rezoning proposal was added to the agenda the day before the meeting. “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 a copy of the email forwarded to Crosscut, the only visible recipient was Steve Moddemeyer, a principal architect at the firm Collins Woerman. Opponents say the email was evidence that the councilman was trying to pull a fast one. “Conlin is obviously trying to get this through for his development buddies,” charged Pat Murakami, a staunch opponent of the proposed rezone. While Conlin admits the email was “poorly worded,” he insists that the Mount Baker Community Club was given advance notice of the meeting.

Mike O’Brien understands why some people are concerned about the Council’s scheduling process. They “felt like, ‘they’re trying to sneak one by on us,’” O’Brien says. “We really don’t do that at the City Council. We’re not trying to sneak this by anyone.”

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