The proposed upzone of the University District provides many benefits too often missed in the public discussion, writes guest columnist Rick Mohler.
LATE last month I testified in favor of the city’s proposed upzones for the University District before City Council members Lisa Herbold, Rob Johnson and Mike O’Brien at the Decca Hotel. The standing-room-only crowd — with several hundred others testifying for and against — illustrates the level of interest and controversy generated by the proposal to upzone the first of Seattle’s designated “urban centers” outside of Downtown and South Lake Union.
However, discussion of the proposal has been largely focused on only one aspect of the plan — to allow residential and commercial towers as tall as 320 feet (about 30 stories for a residential tower and 24 for an office tower). This focus has been fueled by radio sound bites, 30-second TV coverage and signs decrying the upzones in nearby Wallingford.
Unfortunately, this fails to acknowledge what the city and neighborhood stand to gain in exchange for buildings of this height, and fails to recognize the strength of the overall urban design framework — arguably the first real vision the city has proposed for a neighborhood, and one that was developed with extensive neighborhood input.
The U District is being upzoned for several reasons. The neighborhood is adjacent to the University of Washington, which is among the largest employers in the city and state. In 2021 it will be home to the U District light-rail station, and a key to leveraging our substantial rail investment is called “Transit-Oriented Development” or TOD. TOD is an essential strategy to combat traffic congestion and climate change.
TOD locates dense residential and commercial development within easy walking distance of transit stations. By making it easy to get around on Link light rail, Seattle reduces traffic and its environmental impact.
Seattle is facing a housing affordability crisis, and the U District plan calls for 5,000 new housing units; 500-700 of these will be affordable units as required under the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability policy. This will allow more people, including those of modest means, to live close to employment, educational opportunities and transit. With conveniently located light rail, many can live without a car, which for some can exceed the cost of housing itself.
The city is proposing tower development, in part, to leverage the benefits of TOD. Towers have been part of the U District’s neighborhood character for 80 years: The Decca Hotel, built in 1931, is 190 feet tall, the UW Tower is 325 feet tall, and the University Plaza Condominium is 270 feet tall.
Much of the neighborhood core consists of surface parking lots. By building new towers on these parking lots, growth in the number of housing units and commercial space is achieved while minimizing the demolition of existing buildings and the displacement this entails. While the proposed height limit in the neighborhood core is 320 feet, commercial towers will fall well short of this height due to regulations that limit the total building area on a given parcel.
Unfortunately, the best aspects of the U District plan have received little attention. The neighborhood is envisioned as a rich and varied urban experience combining density with human scale, much as one finds in Portland’s Pearl District and the West End of Vancouver, B.C.
With a variety of zoning requirements and incentives, the U District will mix new buildings with old, towers with low-rise buildings and multistory apartments that feature stoops and entrances on the street with commercial towers that offer ground floor retail. Buildings will be limited to 200 feet in length to prevent monotonous building bulk.
Incentives will encourage the preservation of existing buildings, new mid-block pedestrian greenways, open spaces, day-care centers, social services and cultural amenities. Proposed open space includes the expansion of University Heights Park, Christie Park and Portage Bay Park. Brooklyn Avenue will become a designated green street, with more landscaping, extending to the Portage Bay waterfront.
The U District plan proposes a balance between growth, livability, affordability and sustainable urbanism. It is unfortunate that oversimplified and misleading caricatures of the neighborhood plan overshadow its positive vision.