SEATTLE -– One of the city’s fastest growing neighborhoods could soon see another spurt of development as the city council considers legislation to rezone South Lake Union, clearing the way for taller buildings.
The rezoning plan -- the culmination of 8 years of work -- could lead to 22,000 new jobs and 12,000 more housing units, the city said. But critics say the plan is excessive and that the neighborhood's current growth rate is just fine.
“The mayor’s proposal, in our view, is extreme,” said John Pehrson of the Lake Union Opportunity Alliance. “The current zoning is fine, the marketplace is saying, ‘Let’s invest money in that.’”
City planning director Marshall Foster disagrees.
“It would be a missed opportunity not to take advantage of South Lake Union,” Foster said.
Under current zoning rules, buildings in the neighborhood are limited to 85 feet (about 8-10 stories), with a couple of exceptions.
Under the proposed zoning changes, residential buildings just south of Denny Way could reach 400 feet high (about 40 stories). Heights would decrease the closer a project is to Lake Union, but towers on three prime lakefront spots north of Mercer Street could still hit 240 feet (about 24 stories).
“That’s been controversial,” Foster admitted.
Pehrson said he worries the taller buildings will hinder views throughout the city. Using Google Earth, his group mapped out what might happen to views of the Space Needle and other spots under the new zoning rules.
“It puts 240-foot, fat towers right next to the lake,” Pehrson said. “I don’t understand how that is a social good.”
The city insists that views will be protected because towers must step back from the street’s edge, residential towers will be skinnier (described by Foster as “pencil towers”), and the number of towers will be limited to two on most blocks and only one per block near the lake.
“Unlike what some people think, the number of towers is not going to be that many, and they will be spaced throughout the neighborhood,” said Jerry Dinndorf, president of the South Lake Union Community Council, which supports the new zoning.
In return for having the right to build taller structures, developers would have to give something back, including money or space for affordable housing and child care. It is a concept known as incentive zoning, and supporters believe it could help solve many of the problems facing the neighborhood.
“If we don’t get the rezone soon, then any opportunity to achieve the benefits of the rezone will be lost,” Dinndorf said.
The new zoning is supported by Vulcan Real Estate, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s company, which owns about 30 percent of South Lake Union.
Ada Healey, Vulcan’s vice president, pointed to an undeveloped space known as Block 45. She said under the new zoning, development on that block could generate $2 million for affordable housing, child care and other improvements through incentive zoning, along with $2.5 million in sales tax revenue, $300,000 a year in real estate taxes, space for 500 permanent jobs, plus 200 temporary construction jobs.
“When you look at the tax benefits there, pretty dramatic in dire budget times,” Healey said.
Matt Roewe, a director at VIA Architecture, has studied the proposal. His firm's analysis concluded that only 25 percent of the blocks in South Lake Union would likely get towers in the next 20 to 33 years, Roewe said. (Read the analysis, which includes graphical views of what South Lake Union would look like after new, taller towers are built.)
“The momentum is now and we must act fast to best capitalize and responsibly guide this growth,” he told KING 5 News.
Dave Figueroa, owner of Scraps Dog Bakery, an early adopter of the South Lake Union vision, believes the rezone would be good for his business. He moved above Whole Foods in 2006, just a couple blocks from where Amazon.com is hoping to build a trio of towers.
“It’s exciting to me,” he said. “There’s a lot of dead space in this area and has been for a number of years.”
A public hearing on the proposed rezoning will take place Wednesday night at 5:30 p.m. in city council chambers.
Some critics are concerned the rezone will lead to even more congestion problems in a neighborhood that is already dealing with transportation issues. KING 5 will take a closer look at that issue on Friday night at 11 p.m.