The Mercer Island City Council is considering how tall buildings ought to be in its Town Center. The issue has pitted those who want to retain a small-town feel against those who want to see more housing, restaurants and shops around a coming light-rail station.

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With light rail expanding around the region, many cities are planning for taller buildings near their future stations.

Shoreline, for example, will allow buildings up to 140 feet, if developers provide an array of public benefits including affordable housing or green, environmentally friendly design.

Near Northgate Mall in Seattle, buildings can rise to 125 feet. In Bellevue’s planned Spring District, up to 150 feet.

But Mercer Island, where the City Council is set to adopt new height restrictions, is embroiled in a debate over whether a maximum height of five stories, 63 feet, in part of the Town Center, is too high and should be rolled back to four stories or even two.

The council is scheduled to vote in early June.

About 700 residents have signed an online petition to cap heights at two and three stories to “protect our small-town feeling and quality of life.”

Saralee Kane, a 17-year resident, said islanders “see the disaster that has occurred in Seattle and Bellevue,” and don’t want to duplicate the problems of traffic, parking, light-less canyons between high-rises and generic designs that lack a sense of place or style.

“I’ve traveled extensively all over the world and lived in different countries,” Kane said. “Places that don’t keep their uniqueness and charm — they almost always regret it.”

The prospect of Mercer Island rolling back some building heights alarms advocates of denser development around transit. They argue that adding shops and housing nearby reduces traffic and pollution and creates more vibrant commercial and entertainment centers within walking distance of where people live.

“I don’t know of a single city in the country that has down-zoned in anticipation of light rail. Frankly, it would be embarrassing to all the people trying to build walkable, livable communities if it was one of our cities,” said John Hempelmann, a Seattle land-use attorney who chairs the national Transit-Oriented Development Council of the Urban Land Institute, which advocates for sustainable land-use policies.

Hempelmann, who is also representing a half-dozen property owners on Mercer Island who want to see their land redeveloped, said residents can protect their suburban, residential character while still allowing for growth downtown, a 15-block area that he said represents a small fraction of the island’s total land.

Moratorium to expire

The character of Mercer Island’s Town Center seems caught between two worlds.

Near Interstate 90, where the light-rail station is scheduled to open in 2023, new five-story apartment buildings with ground-floor shops create a modern, suburban feel. But blocks away, the downtown of the 1960s still predominates, with strip malls surrounded by big parking lots.

Last year, the City Council slapped a moratorium on new construction downtown because of a public outcry. The entire Town Center has a base zoning height limit of two stories, but developers were allowed to go up to five stories (except in the most southern blocks) if they added a public benefit, such as open space or landscaping.

What residents say they got in some cases were plazas up a flight of stairs behind a locked gate or two big pots each with a single, pointy tree.

In one instance, because of a sloping lot, the five-story limit became seven stories along the street.

“Significant public amenities turned out to be a few planters or a gated plaza. The public got cheated,” said City Councilmember Dave Wisenteiner, the only one of several candidates elected in November from a slate supported by the island’s slow-growth, save-our-suburb partisans.

Wisenteiner said people live on Mercer Island because of the small-town atmosphere, excellent schools and the high level of safety. He said that over the past few months he’s gotten hundreds of emails from residents urging him to preserve those qualities. A total of one, he said, asked him to “embrace density and save the human race.”

Opposing views

Business owners and developers take a different view. They say the lack of development in parts of the Town Center, and the closure of some businesses over the past few years, can be traced to the low heights allowed and too few people living downtown.

Judy King, the 82-year-old matriarch of King Enterprises, which owns a 1961 cement-block building on about an acre of land in the middle zone of the Town Center, said the property is much less likely to be redeveloped if heights are rolled back from five stories to four.

In a recent letter to the City Council, she wrote that a low height limit “typically results in aging buildings, vacant space and empty parking lots.” King acknowledges the family has a financial interest in the results. “This is the source of my retirement income and they’re trying to take it away,” she said.

The Mercer Island City Council is considering a proposal from the Planning Commission that followed a lengthy community “visioning process” and several months of joint meetings with the city Design Commission. That plan recommends a 5-4-3 story building plan in three Town Center zones from north to south.

Some members of the Design Commission dissented from that recommendation. At the final joint meeting they released what they called a 5-4-3 Plus Plan that would allow builders to go up to five stories in the middle zone and four in the south, in exchange for adding 10 percent open space to the project.

Rich Erwin, the Design Commission chairman, said he did not support the Planning Commission recommendation because it would impose requirements on developers such as parking and setbacks without giving them enough height to ensure a reasonable profit.

And he’s not sympathetic to the island’s slow-growthers. “There are people who want this to be Vashon or Bainbridge. That’s not going to happen. We live between the two largest cities in the region,” Erwin said.

Members of the joint commission who supported the 5-4-3 plan said they heard loud and clear that Mercer Island residents not only don’t want to be Seattle or Bellevue, they don’t want to be Redmond (nine stories) or Kirkland (eight stories), either.

Jon Friedman, chairman of both the Planning Commission and the joint commission, said members of both agreed on a number of changes that will end the vagueness in the current code that developers were able to exploit. And the 5-4-3 height limits will keep the downtown profile low.

“I am confident we will get quality development with our current proposed code,” Friedman said. “If I’m wrong, we can always make adjustments. But we can’t chop down a story of a building if we get something we don’t like.”