A year ago, the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity challenged an environmental review of the city's plan to upzone more than two dozen neighborhoods.
Seattle’s environmental review of a plan to allow larger buildings and impose affordable-housing requirements in the urban cores of more than two dozen neighborhoods was almost entirely adequate, the city’s administrative-law judge ruled Wednesday.
Only an analysis of the plan’s impacts on historical sites needs additional work, hearing examiner Ryan Vancil said in a written decision. Seattle’s analyses of impacts in other areas, such as economics, aesthetics, traffic and tree canopy were sufficient, Vancil said.
The ruling in a legal challenge brought against the review moves the City Council closer to being able to approve legislation enacting the upzones.
But the political battle isn’t over, as council members will consider the legislation knowing their districts seats are up for election next year.
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Seattle’s plan would allow more density in parts of 27 neighborhoods and a number of commercial corridors while requiring developers with projects in those areas to build or pay for some apartments for low-income households. It’s supposed to produce thousands of affordable homes over the next decade.
The council member championing the plan, Rob Johnson, cheered the ruling and said the council now will take up the legislation and could vote as soon as February or March, as long as the extra historic-site analysis takes no longer than that.
“This is good news. The hearing examiner clearly ruled that the overwhelming majority of the work we did was exemplary,” Johnson said.
He said he needs to talk to Seattle’s law department about how long the additional work will take.
Toby Thaler, of the Fremont Neighborhood Council, which joined a number of other community groups in appealing the city’s environmental review, said the coalition will keep fighting.
“We’re disappointed in the ruling but pleased this proceeding has put the issues in front of the city,” Thaler said. “The City Council is going to need to look at what happened here.”
Established by the City Council last year in the University District, downtown and South Lake Union, Lower Queen Anne and the Chinatown International District, the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) policy is supposed to harness market-rate development to help generate rent-restricted apartments.
The policy has brought in more than $13 million this year, Johnson said.
A year ago, the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity challenged an environmental review of the city’s plan to upzone the additional 27 neighborhoods, such as Beacon Hill, Fremont, Ravenna, Wallingford and West Seattle Junction.
The review had determined the plan, by boosting Seattle’s housing supply, would combat gentrification, and it had concluded the plan’s negative impacts in areas such as transportation, public services, open space and air quality could be mitigated.
The groups appealing the environmental review said the MHA upzones could make Seattle less affordable by spurring too much redevelopment and could create parking, pollution and other problems. They described the review as inadequate, arguing the impacts should be studied neighborhood by neighborhood.
The legal challenge, described by Johnson as one of the longest such appeals in city history, blocked the council from advancing the plan.
In mostly OK’ing Seattle’s review Wednesday, Vancil said his ruling was limited to the letter of the law. He said the state Environmental Policy Act didn’t obligate the city to analyze economic displacement of residents that could result from the upzones.
“Appellants have raised many legitimate and compelling concerns regarding the proposed legislation and its potential impacts,” he wrote. “However, it is not the hearing examiner’s role to determine that such impacts should not be allowed, but only to determine if the city’s environmental review of those impacts is adequate.”
Like Johnson, the Martin Luther King County Labor Council hailed the decision, calling it a “win for affordable housing and Seattle’s working-class residents.”
“Seattle finally has a path forward to increase housing choices for the many working families unable to keep up with rising rents,” said Nicole Grant, executive secretary-treasurer, calling on the City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan to pass the MHA legislation.
The mayor said her administration will move quickly to complete the historical-site work.
“This ruling is a step forward,” she said. “We must build affordable housing as quickly as possible.”
City Hall representatives met behind closed doors with the appellants this past summer to discuss a compromise. The talks led nowhere.
Under the MHA plan, developers would need to devote 5 to 11 percent of their projects to affordable housing or pay $5 to $32.75 per square foot into a city fund that would be used to help nonprofits build affordable housing elsewhere in Seattle.
The upzones would allow developers to build one or several stories higher than they can now. All blocks now zoned for apartments and commercial buildings would be affected, along with 6 percent of lots currently zoned for single-family houses.