Proponents’ simplest argument for a University District upzone? Locating new apartments and jobs near transit is common sense.

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Seattle’s proposal to allow taller buildings in Seattle’s University District is generating a lot of heat as the City Council prepares to vote.

The University of Washington wants to turn the neighborhood into an incubator for tech startups. There are questions about whether the proposed upzone would make housing more or less affordable, help or hurt small businesses, clean up the neighborhood or ruin its quirky character.

But proponents say those debates shouldn’t overshadow the simplest argument for change: Taxpayers are spending billions of dollars on a light-rail line with a U District station, so the city should make it possible for more people to live and work there.

“Putting dense buildings by a light-rail station is good for the environment and good for society,” said City Councilmember Rob Johnson, who represents the neighborhood and backs the upzone.

Under construction on Brooklyn Avenue Northeast, the U District station is scheduled to open in 2021. It’s part of Sound Transit’s North Link extension.

The $1.9 billion extension, which also includes Roosevelt and Northgate stations, will add 50,000 to 60,000 daily riders to the system, according to Sound Transit estimates.

That sounds about right. Light-rail ridership has surged by 30,000 daily riders with the recent openings of the Angle Lake, Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium stations.

Sound Transit is taking no position on the U District upzone but generally supports growth around light rail. One reason: The greater the number of people who live and work near stations, the greater the number who use the light-rail system.

“You have a positive impact on ridership,” said Kimberly Reason, a spokeswoman.

Sound Transit’s involvement is limited to the properties it owns, but the agency has arranged for the UW to build an office tower above the U District station.

Sprawl stopper

Johnson says the upzone would raise maximum heights from 65 and 85 feet to 240 and 320 feet on some blocks, and it would encourage other sites to consider the type of construction Sound Transit is allowing the UW to build on top of the station.

He agrees that higher ridership is an important goal.

That’s partly because riders pay. Sound Transit is using taxes to build light rail, but rider revenue can help mitigate fare hikes and service cuts during tough times, he says.

Furthermore, stacking apartments and offices next to stations gives taxpayers a better return on their investment, the council member says. The region is building light rail to quickly move people while reducing reliance on polluting, traffic-causing cars.

“Driving is the city’s largest source of greenhouse gases,” Johnson said.

By housing people in the city rather than the suburbs, transit-oriented development stops sprawl from gobbling up farms and forests. People living in apartments near stations can commute to their jobs quickly and affordably, Johnson says.

“Study after study has shown that access to frequent and reliable transportation is one of the best ways to get people out of poverty,” he said.

There are knock-on benefits, such as healthy living. Walking to light rail is an easy way to exercise, Johnson says.

Few people in Seattle oppose transit-oriented development on principle. But some, including Peter Steinbrueck, say the U District proposal would change the neighborhood too much.

The former City Council member says the upzone, by raising property values and spurring redevelopment, could accelerate the displacement of low-income renters and small businesses.

Steinbrueck, hired by concerned businesses to study the upzone’s potential impacts on them, says high-rises should be allowed only very close to the light-rail station.

The U District can accommodate thousands of additional housing units under existing zoning, he says. Apartments are already allowed.

That’s partly because the council approved an earlier upzone of the U District in 1998, also in anticipation of light rail. It was based on a neighborhood plan and paved the way for much of the construction happening in the U District now.

“The U District is already dense enough to support transit,” added Steinbrueck, who at one point was part of an effort to have a public plaza built above the station.

Dave LaClergue, a planner with the city, says the neighborhood can expect to add 3,900 housing units and 4,800 jobs under existing zoning, versus 5,000 units and 4,800 jobs with the upzone.

So the upzone wouldn’t bring the U District more jobs, according to LaClergue. But it would bring the neighborhood more apartments, and more growth would occur within a 10-minute walk of the station, he says.

A good fit

Unlike Steinbrueck, the proposal’s proponents insist the U District is well-suited for a dramatic upzone.

In 1994, Seattle officials and residents designated the neighborhood one of six urban centers most able to absorb growth.

There was no light rail, but other characteristics made the U District special — and still do. It abuts the University of Washington, the city’s largest employer, and has three existing towers.

The neighborhood is well-served by buses, and it has sidewalks and bicycle lanes. Developers are interested in building high-rises there.

“There are a limited number of stations where this makes sense,” said Tim Trohimovich, planning director for Futurewise, a pro-density environmental organization.

“The Paine Field station (in Snohomish County) won’t make sense for housing because of all the heavy industry there. But the U District works.”

Though many neighborhoods are in line for upzones, work on the U District proposal began long ago, before Mayor Ed Murray decided the changes would require developers to create affordable housing.

Gordon Price, who heads the urban-studies program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C., says the U District is primed for transit-oriented development because it was born that way.

The neighborhood sprouted more than 100 years ago around a streetcar station, and it remains walkable today, he said. The upzone would change the U District’s scale but not its basic character, he says.

“You use the same template,” Price said.

Generational divide

Last month, Johnson leaned over a meeting table in his office, arguing for the upzone. He wore a skinny tie and cradled an “I (heart) Seattle transit” coffee mug.

That the 38-year-old council member has become the public face of the U District proposal and the subsequent upzones slated for other neighborhoods is no accident.

An urban planner by training, a transit advocate by trade and a fifth-generation Seattle resident, he ran for office because he wanted to guide growth.

“I really started thinking about land use and transportation when I was 13 and taking three buses a day from Bellevue to North Seattle for middle school,” said the council’s land-use committee chair.

To some extent, Johnson represents a growing number of people in Seattle who consider themselves urbanists. They tend to be pro-transit and pro-development. They also tend to be younger.

“You do see a generational divide,” Johnson said. “More often than not, people I talk to in their 20s and 30s and 40s are supportive of building dense housing by transit.”

Noah An subscribes to Johnson’s view. The 21-year-old believes the upzone is needed because it would boost the neighborhood’s housing supply.

“Students are being pushed away from campus as they compete with other people who make more money,” said An, president of UW’s Young Democrats club.

The upzone would trigger Murray’s affordable-housing plan, requiring developers to construct or pay for some below-market-rent units. That could yield up to 900 units over 20 years.

It sounds good to Brooke Brod, who was raised in the U District. The 45-year-old bought a house there from a family member for a reduced cost several years ago.

Brod says she endorses the upzone because she wants to share the light-rail station and other amenities with newcomers. “I want to welcome other people,” she said.

Not everyone is optimistic. Many UW workers believe the upzone would make U District housing more costly, says Tom Small, UW chapter president for Service Employees International Union Local 925.

That would mean longer commutes for the workers, who rallied in the neighborhood recently. They want the council to require that the UW and other large employers pay for transit passes.

“We need more housing. We need as many units as we can get,” said Patience Malaba, a union organizer who took part in the rally. “But housing and transit need to be affordable.”

Johnson says he understands why some are worried. But he calls the upzone one of the most important steps Seattle can take to grow sustainably.

“We can bury our heads in the sand or we can take advantage of this opportunity,” he said.