Councilmember Rob Johnson said the quirky neighborhood strip would not be upzoned — for now.

Share story

Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson has agreed to remove University Way Northeast from a sweeping plan to allow taller buildings and denser construction in neighborhoods across Seattle while requiring developers to help the city create affordable housing.

But Johnson, who’s shepherded the plan through the council, still hopes to upzone the quirky strip known as “The Ave” separately later this year, he said Sunday. He chairs the council’s land-use committee and represents District 4, which includes the University District.

“This is a win, but we know Rob isn’t done yet,” said Big Time Brewery owner Rick McLaughlin, an opponent.

Johnson’s new approach is the latest twist in a long-running battle over what should happen to the street near the University of Washington known for books, thrift shops, coffee and pho — mostly occupying old buildings.

When Seattle upzoned most of the University District in 2017, some small-business owners persuaded the council to spare The Ave by postponing changes there, asking for time to study how the policy would affect them. They worried the zoning changes would spur redevelopment, leading to building demolitions and higher rents.

More than 50 percent of businesses that responded to a survey by former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck said they had five or fewer employees, and 70 percent said they had minority and immigrant employees.

In recent months, as the council has debated a plan that would upzone The Ave and some additional U District blocks along with 27 other neighborhoods, the business owners have again objected.

On Sunday, Johnson said he would again postpone upzoning the street, citing a legal reason: The Ave was included in an environmental analysis of the U District upzone in 2017 but wasn’t included in an analysis for the plan now being considered. For the U District, the council has been relying on the old review.

The council is expected to vote to approve the neighborhoo0d-upzones plan on March 18.

“We’ve decided, out of an abundance of caution, to split all the U District changes into a separate bill” later this year, Johnson said, referring to The Ave and some blocks north of Northeast 50th Street.

The council member said allowing developers to build up to 75 feet on The Ave rather than 65 feet wouldn’t lead to any more displacement than would otherwise occur.

Without the upzones, developers who build on The Ave won’t be required to help the city produce affordable housing, he said, pointing to a new Target store recently built on the street. That could soon make the strip more likely to be redeveloped, compared to other neighborhoods, Johnson said.

“That makes zero sense to me,” McLaughlin responded, arguing the housing requirements in the city’s plan are too low.

The brewery owner said a pho restaurant recently closed. “This business district doesn’t need any more hardships,” he said.

The Seattle Displacement Coalition also has opposed an upzone, predicting cheap apartments would be lost. The council should preserve The Ave’s historic character, the coalition’s John Fox said.