The Mayor’s trip to the UDistrict and why I told told him he should be ashamed of himself

“Mayor’s newest version of UDistrict highrise plan also includes an upzone on ‘Ave’ north of 45th threatening more minority owned and first generation immigrant shops”


100 year old Mary Grafious joins dozens of other protesters: “The Mayor doesn’t want us, the Community, here”

Last Monday, Mayor Murray came to the UDistrict to announce his plan to cover the UDistrict with highrises rivaling the height and density of downtown and South Lake Union.  If you walk this approximately 30 block area south of NE 50th to Campus Parkway and between 15th NE on the east and the freeway on the west, “ground zero” is full of  about 1200-1500 lower density low income and affordable units and dozens of longtime small shops and businesses many minority owned. 

Holding his press event in front of UHeights Community Center, (flanked by his staff, Councilmember Rob Johnson, and 3 handpicked ‘stakeholders’), at least 50 homeowners, tenants, and small business owners showed up on short notice in green scarves and holding home-made signs to protest the Mayor’s plans.  It was a broad mix of seniors, young people, students, people of color, formerly homeless – many of them longtime denizens of the UDistrict.

091816-upzone-u-districtWhile specifics of the final plan likely will be released Tuesday at a 930AM meeting of the City Council’s Land Use Committee, the Mayor did tell reporters that his mandatory housing affordability requirement (MHA-R) accompanying the upzone would produce as many as 910 affordable units – a gross exaggeration for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.

He also gave reporters a map showing heights along the ‘Ave’ north of 45th now also have been raised to match proposed upzones south of 45th.   Not included in any prior version of the upzone, this change contradicted direct assurances the planners made less than six weeks ago that no such change would occur.  Clearly it’s a gift to large property owners and the U of W that requested the change in late June in order to spur more development there.  This would, of course, dramatically raise the risk of displacement for dozens of small and minority owned shops along several blocks of that part of the ‘Ave’.

(Funny, I recall no instance over the last 3 years of choreographed city-sponsored workshops and focus groups where a single meaningful “ask” from the community wound up in this upzone plan, other than, of course, those coming from the U of W and large property owners.  The decision to ram highrise zoning through the community literally occurred in a backroom with city officials and these special interests months before they began processing ‘citizen input’ to serve the purpose of rubber stamping that prior decision).

But when the Mayor said we’re seeing displacement now under current zoning and only 40 additional existing low cost units would be lost as a result of the upzone, that’s when I yelled baloney in so many words and that he should be ashamed of himself.  Other protesters chimed in and then he abruptly and unceremoniously ended the press conference leaving quickly with his entourage.

Here’s what allows the Mayor and CM Rob Johnson to trivialize impacts of the upzone on longtime residents and small businesses


Mary Grafious, me, Earl Bell, and Aileen Langhans

The Mayor and Johnson are relying on conclusions contained in the City’s environmental analysis (EIS).  In that, the planners based their entire assessment of impacts on the assumption that upzoning the area for 240′-320′ highrises from current 45′ to 65′ heights would stimulate only a 20 percent increase in the amount of new residential growth over current zoning (from 4000 to 5000 new units over a 20 year period).  Further, they allege that a rezone to highrise would bring no increase in the amount of commercial or office development over current lower density zoning.  Either way, the planners allege we’d see the same 4800 jobs added through 2035.

Currently the District has a extra capacity for roughly 7000 housing units and 10,000 jobs- more than adequate to accommodate the planners projections of 4800 jobs and 5000 housing units respectively. This also is the UDistrict’s share of the City’s regionally assigned Growth Management Act (GMA) 2035 growth target.

Even though highrise upzoning would increase capacity dramatically to 20,000 jobs (4 times the UDistrict’s job target) and about 11,000 housing units (over twice the neighborhood’s housing target), city planners never analyzed the impact of development “built out” to these much greater “highrise” densities.

And since the planners proceed with this assumption, that the upzone brings no increase in job growth and a minimal increase in residential growth over current zoning, this allows them to conclude there will be few if any adverse impacts on the existing housing stock and little or no increase in the amount of housing demolition or displacement. City planners go one step further.  Since their highrise zoning will concentrate more of that preset amount of growth on fewer sites (and stacked into fewer but taller buildings), this also means fewer sites with existing low income housing on them would be redeveloped and thus less existing housing torn down. Voila, there is less demolition and less displacement accompanying the upzone.

The notion that such a substantial change in allowed density and zoned capacity would not accelerate rates of growth is of course ridiculous.  Why are developers and large property owners salivating over the pending upzones – because they know it will allow them more development and more profit.  (Large property owners also hope they’ll realize their long sought dream of turning the Ave into another boutique filled UVillage).

The U of W has sought this upzone because they believe it’s key to spurring more growth and turning the UDistrict into a “high-tech incubator hub”.  And why would the planners and the Mayor want to blanket the area with highrises if they too did not believe the upzones would attract substantially more development.

CM Johnson, elected with over $100,000 in corporate and developer donations, is an avid “urbanist” committed to pouring as much growth as possible into the UDistrict regardless of its impacts on our community.  It doesn’t matter to him that the neighborhood has far more zoned capacity now than we need to meet our assigned 2035 regional growth targets.  He’s backing this upzone because he expects it will bring a lot more growth to the area.

No one’s getting fooled but that’s the paper-thin masquerade going on here.  The City’s planners had a responsibility to assess the impact on the UDistrict of a full build-out to those highrise densities allowed under their proposal but shirked that responsibility and cynically manipulated their analysis to arrive at their pre-determined conclusion the upzone would cause little displacement.  And now Mayor Murray and CM Johnson are regurgitating such sophistry.

1200-1500 low cost units in area of upzones: all are threatened

dscn0870We went door to door last year and counted about 500 low cost units on sites the City’s consultants, Heartland, identified as likely to be redeveloped in the event of the upzone.  (Heartland was hired to examine the viability of highrise zoning).  Our report also identifies another 1000 low cost units we counted in the area of the upzone likely to be lost to speculative forces set in motion by the upzone.  As soon as the zoning changes, dramatically increased land values will push taxes up, much of which will be passed on to tenants and small businesses in the form of higher rents.  Speculators will move buying up properties, refinancing and reselling, passing these costs on to their renters as well, displacing still more.

More than one in three properties along the Ave and across the UDistrict where small businesses are located also are on sites Heartland has identified as likely to be redeveloped due to the upzone.  Yet the Mayor’s plan reduces  these impacts to a mere loss to a 40 housing units and did not even acknowledge impacts on small businesses.

The Mayor grossly exaggerates number of ‘affordable unit’ produced by his mandatory housing requirement

While trivializing the loss of existing low cost units, on the flip side, the Mayor alleges his MHA-R developer housing requirement would produce 910 affordable units, out of the 5000 total new units his upzone plan would produce over 20 years in the UDistrict as a result of the upzone.   How he arrived at this inflated estimate is a mystery.

We’re told the Mayor may raise the maximum requirement above 7% of all new residential construction expected in his plan over 20 years.  But do the math, even if developers were required to include 10%  of their new units as low income that’s only 500 of the 5000.

What brings the amount down further – the city has given developers an out.  They can pay an ‘in lieu’ fee instead of building these affordable units in the UDistrict.  The city’s planners say that about half the time developers will opt to pay this fee.  But these funds simply would go into a pot and doled out for subsidized projects built anywhere in the city not specifically the UDistrict.  So the UDistrict over 20 years will get a max of 250 total affordable units from the MHA-R, and to top it off, these can be priced at 60% of median, not affordable to existing lower income folks living now in the District and earning 30% or 40% or 50% or less.


Proposed area of highrise upzone – taller than building in background

The planners say the commercial linkage fee required of office developers would produce another 150-200 “affordable units” but here again there’s no requirement that these fees will pay for housing built only in the UDistrict.  Further their estimate assumes the fee would cover only 40% of the cost of each unit.  Other existing funding sources including levy and state trust funds would be used for the remaining costs of each unit.   So in reality,  the linkage fee would pay only for a maximum of 80 units.

So, we’ve currently got an area loaded with small vulnerable shops and businesses and about 1500 existing low cost units – all put at risk.  The palliative is a developer housing requirement producing only a fraction of the hundreds of units we’ll lose.  There’s no mitigation whatsoever for small businesses put at risk.  There’s no developer impact fees to help pay for schools, parks, and transportation infrastructure, and nothing to preserve the unique physical and historical character of the District.

The neighborhood has asked the city to put “first things first”, set aside any upzone and help address the UDistrict’s needs and problems now due to growth already occurring under current zoning.  But for CM Johnson and the Mayor, it is: “pour more fuel on the fire; no amount of added growth is enough…. to heck with the existing fabric and character of  the neighborhood.”

And this is why I yelled “shame on you” to the Mayor last Monday for good measure.


Community says no to upzone, “let’s address problems facing us now under current zoning, put first things first, not pour more fuel on the fire”

About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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