Some downtown Seattle high-rise residents are blocking part of Mayor Ed Murray’s affordable-housing plan because they want tower-spacing requirements and other measures added.

Share story

Some downtown Seattle high-rise residents have filed a legal challenge to block a key part of Mayor Ed Murray’s affordable-housing plan, saying zoning changes would worsen traffic jams in their alleys and rob their homes of sunlight and privacy.

They argue the changes should be tweaked. But plan backers are upset with the downtown dwellers standing between the city and more low-rent housing in order to preserve what they have.

“We need to understand our connections to each other and make decisions in the best interest of the collective, not the individual,” said Gregory Davis, a supporter of the mayor’s plan who co-chairs the Rainier Beach Action Coalition’s board of directors.

Murray’s Mandatory Housing Affordability policy would allow developers to build larger and taller projects in commercial and multifamily residential zones across the city, including downtown. In return, the developers would include some low-rent housing in their projects or pay fees to help the city build low-rent housing elsewhere.

The Downtown Residents Alliance supports the concept of the policy, insists John Sosnowy, who lives in Escala, a luxury condominium tower near the Westin Hotel.

But the zoning changes lack livability protections for high-rise residents, such as requirements that alleys be wider and that developers leave more space between buildings, he says. Some areas downtown have tower-spacing rules now. Others don’t.

“They should slow down, get this right and make something that will really continue to fund affordable housing and not screw up a great downtown,” said Sosnowy, 74.

Last month, Seattle’s planning department issued a State Environmental Policy Act ruling that the zoning changes would have no significant adverse impact on the environment of downtown, including transportation, open space and views. The Alliance on Thursday appealed that ruling to the Office of the Seattle Hearing Examiner.

Until the case is resolved, the City Council won’t be able to approve the zoning changes. And until the changes are approved, Seattle won’t make developers pay.

The council passed Mandatory Housing Affordability framework legislation for commercial projects last year and is now considering legislation for residential projects.

The council hasn’t yet begun to consider the zoning changes, however. And according to the agreement the mayor struck with developers last summer, those changes must occur before the affordable-housing mandates can actually take effect.

Sosnowy says the Alliance had no choice except take the policy hostage. He says high-rise residents have been lobbying Murray and the council for tower-spacing requirements and other protections since last year and have been ignored. He says the downtown zoning changes should encourage more height, not more bulk.

“We didn’t want to file the appeal. We don’t want to stop the funds for affordable housing. We just can’t seem to get our point across,” he said.

Sosnowy claims his stance has nothing to do with a Not In My Backyard attitude. The protections sought wouldn’t benefit him personally because they wouldn’t apply retroactively to a tower in the works next to Escala. That project will reduce his sunlight and privacy — with other people living 22 feet away, he says.

“This is about the future of downtown Seattle, it’s not about us at all,” he said. “We can’t do anything about our block. We’re saying, ‘Don’t do it to the next guy.’ ”

But Davis, of the Rainier Beach Action Coalition, says the city’s first priority should be to reduce rampant inequality in the Seattle area rather than preserving views.

And Alice Shobe, interim executive director of Bellwether Housing, said the nonprofit low-income-housing developer supports Murray’s policy in an urgent way.

“There are 127,000 households in King County paying more than 50 percent of their income on rent,” Shobe said. “The need is so great.”

Planning-department spokesman Jason Kelly says the Alliance is holding up a good policy based on an unrelated issue.

“These downtown residents appear to be concerned about existing rules rather than the proposed Mandatory Housing Affordability legislation, which does not seek to change the existing rules on downtown tower spacing,” Kelly said.

Sometimes hearing-examiner appeals resolve quickly and sometimes they take a long time, said Claudia Newman, lawyer for the Alliance.

Kelly said the city believes the examiner will sustain the planning department’s ruling.

“With the average price of a one-bedroom apartment rising 35 percent in the last five years, Seattle is in the midst of an affordability crisis,” he said. “Seattle residents want more affordable housing now.”