On January 8th, the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the University District Urban Design Framework (UDUDF). Prior to this FEIS, the Department proceeded with a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) in June 2014 to gather feedback on the issues and proposals identified in the DEIS. During the DEIS process, a No Action Alternative–growth under current development patterns–and two Action Alternatives–growth under different development patterns–for the neighborhood were evaluated by DPD. At the time, we encouraged readers to provide public comment on the project to support our own Alternative, dubbed “Alternative 4“, which was a combination of the best elements from the two Action Alternatives. We also provided a brief background on the overall project. In light of the released FEIS, we want to provide a debrief on the proposed changes, a call to action, remaining issues, and what’s next in the process.

DEIS and FEIS Proposals

At the heart of the UDUDF are options for growth in the University District, and the best ways to achieve it. The UDUDF examines a wide range of environmental issues like transportation, parks, emissions, utilities, and urban design to support and mitigate impacts from additional growth. The FEIS had only minor changes in respect to these issues when compared to the original DEIS Alternative Actions. A summary and deeper analysis of these background changes (if any) are discussed by the FEIS. However, the larger piece of the UDUDF FEIS are the proposed land use zoning changes. Broadly speaking these can be summarized as follows:

  • Alternative 1 and Alternative 1B focus development in a somewhat disperse pattern. In the core study area, mid-rise towers be added to the skyline and range from 125-160 feet while low-rise development would be encouraged in northern and southwestern portions of the neighborhood.
  • Alternative 2 and Alternative 2B focus development in a more compact pattern. In the core study area, high-rise towers could range from 240-340 feet while fewer areas outside of the core area would be candidates for additional growth potential. Where zoning changes are recommended outside of the core area, low-rise development would be encouraged.
  • In all four of the aforementioned Alternatives, no changes are proposed to the University of Washington Major Institution Overlay and existing industrial zoned areas.
  • Alternative 3 is the “no action” alternative, which would maintain existing zoning and approaches to development.

On the face of it, the FEIS Action Alternatives 1B and 2B would appear to be the same as the DEIS Alternatives 1 and 2, respectively. And, while the counterpart Action Alternatives for the DEIS and DEIS are based upon the same development standards and geographic distribution for growth, they differ in the underlying growth assumptions. The FEIS Action Alternatives assume that 1,100 more dwelling units would be accommodated than under the DEIS Action Alternatives, resulting in 5,000 additional dwelling units over current zoned capacity.

The FEIS anticipates Alternatives 1B and 2B could each see additional buildings over the DEIS projects of up to 8 buildings in Alternative 1B and 3 buildings in Alternative 2B. More specifically, Alternative 1B would accommodate up to 9,130 new dwelling units while Alternative 2B would accommodate up to 9,802 new dwelling units over the next 20 years*. In addition to the new dwelling units, the DEIS and FEIS Action Alternatives anticipate that 4,800 new jobs would be provided in each case over the baseline capacity of 8,401 new jobs.

In the maps below, you can see the zoning changes proposed for Action Alternatives 1/1B and 2/2B. It’s important to remember that DPD grouped the counterpart Action Alternatives from the DEIS and FEIS together since actual zoning proposals did not change, only total dwelling unit numbers under the scenarios.

U District UDF - Alternative 1BU District UDF - Alternative 2B

 

The DEIS generated over 100 comments with most in favor of some form of Action Alternative. An incredible number of comments even cited our Alternative 4 (see below) option for the UDUDF. The quality of the comments were certainly of high caliber with important issues raised like the need for more affordable housing options, increased transit service, more jobs and business, better public spaces, and the conservation of historic structures. But perhaps the most important outcome from the DEIS process was the forwarding of both Action Alternatives to the FEIS. This happened precisely because of the positive feedback that the Department received from the public and stakeholders on providing more opportunity and capacity for growth within the neighborhood. And, it’s for this reason that we believe some combination of the Action Alternatives are viable.

Maximizing the potential for development opportunities in the University District is an absolute necessity. Artificial restrictions through a less intense rezone would cause faster demolition and replacement of existing historic and affordable structures while also potentially reducing the capacity for new residents, jobs, and businesses over the 20-year planning horizon. These should be serious concerns for all when looking at both Alternative 1B and Alternative 2B as individually proposed. But there’s also a broader set of reasons that a bolder rezone should be presented to Council and ultimately adopted into code.

We previously noted that now is a pivotal time for the University District because “[it] is undergoing many major changes, including a new light rail station, an improved Burke-Gilman Trail, expansion of the UW’s West Campus, and dozens of mixed use projects in the heart of the neighborhood. The University District will be growing rapidly over the next 20 years. As the light rail station opens, and the network expands to Lynnwood and Bellevue, the University District will only grow more important as an educational, shopping, employment, and residential center, for students and long-term residents alike.”

We also said that “[t]he neighborhood core could become a strong anchor for research and development organizations, local services, offices that serve the University of Washington, and any private businesses that want space outside of Downtown Seattle. The University District’s convenient location and light rail access will make it a highly desirable place to live (even more than today); the more housing (and variety of housing types) that the neighborhood can accommodate, the better.”

For these reasons, we stand by our Alternative 4 and endorse it as the superior option for growth in the University District.

While we don’t know precisely when DPD will make their final zoning recommendations to Council, we encourage you to get ahead of the game and let them know now that you, too, still support our Alternative 4. And, perhaps more importantly, you should let Council know that approving the rezone at the earliest possible date is of utmost urgency. When you send comments to DPD (Dave LaClergue, Project Manager) and Council, please be sure to give very specific details about why you support Alternative 4. Doing so will add value to your overall comments so that Council understand why things like increased housing options, greater affordability, larger tax base, and efficient utilization of public resources are important to an Urban Center like the University District.

Alternative 4 - High Res
The Urbanist’s Alternative 4 for the University District.

Next Up: Green Streets Plan

DPD is slated to issue a Green Streets Plan for the University District in the next month. While we enthusiastically approve of most elements in the draft plan, we are deeply concerned by the street plans for NE 43rd St and Brooklyn Ave NE. The future Link Light Rail subway station for the University District will be located on the corner of NE 43rd St and Brooklyn Ave NE. In response to this, Metro will likely reorient its bus network to allocate some bus lines to directly serve the subway station.

Brooklyn Ave NE festival street, courtesy of DPD.
Brooklyn Ave NE festival street, courtesy of DPD.

By the nature of this facility, a massive number of passengers (12,000 at the very least) will be entering and exiting the station on a daily basis. Most passenger trips will be headed to and from the University of Washington campus, University Way (The Ave), local offices and residences, and presumably connecting bus services adjacent to and in proximity of the station. This also means that a great share of these trips will be directly funneled along the length of NE 43rd St from the station to the west edge of the University of Washington campus since bicyclists and pedestrians will want to go the shortest distance and most active way to and from their destinations. Despite whatever traffic engineering went into this plan, desire lines of foot-powered users will ultimately rule the day. Given this situation, the plans for the above-mentioned streets are wholly inadequate.

For instance, NE 43rd St is planned to only provide a 20-foot sidewalk on the north side of the street and a 10-foot sidewalk on the south side of the street between Brooklyn Ave NE and 15th Ave NE. Meanwhile, constant access will be given over to car traffic via two travel lanes (no different than today). Moreover, the Green Streets Plan explores a popup weekday farmers’ market on Brooklyn Ave NE–immediately adjacent to future bus bays–which would likely require the rerouting of buses when transformed into a festival street or over-programming of the space.

NE 43rd Street design and features, courtesy of DPD.
NE 43rd St design and features, courtesy of DPD.

In light of this, the prioritization of the streetscapes seems poorly pieced together. NE 43rd St should give pedestrians and bicyclists full priority over all other modes. The street should instead be closed to vehicular traffic in its entirety between Brooklyn Ave NE and 15th Ave NE. This could also double as the festival street due to the wide right-of-way and two blocks of pedestrian orientation. Meanwhile, Brooklyn Ave NE should remain free of uses that might force reroutes of buses off of the street. While that doesn’t mean a farmers’ market or other festival uses in some form couldn’t exist, they should not impede the right-of-way or bus boarding areas. To do so would cause constant confusion to passengers intending to use any future bus facilities adjacent to the subway station.

Down the Road: Future Action on Zoning

Again, while we are not certain of a particular date for DPD to forward legislation to Council on the rezone, we anticipate that this will occur sometime in the summer. We are hopeful that the process will not expand beyond this period and that Council will act quickly in the interest of allowing development to occur sooner rather than later. Legislation must first pass the Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability Committee, which is chaired by Councilmember Mike O’Brien, before being transmitted to the full Council. In the meantime, getting comments in to all of the key decision-makers and policy-crafting bodies is very important so that this process can come to a swift and desirable conclusion for a better University District.

*This number is based upon an average dwelling unit size of 850 square feet and maximum residential capacity assumed under current and proposed zoning alternatives. It is not a calculation discrepancy. 

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  7. I completely agree with your assessment and recommendation.

    I started reading the documents and independently came to many of the same conclusions. There are a few things that are very important to keep in mind:

    1) The station entrances are on the east side of Brooklyn Avenue. One will be a bit south of 45th, while the other will be on 43rd.

    2) There is a wall of buildings between 43rd and 45th, along the west side of the Ave. There is a similar wall on 12th, as part of the Safeco Tower (now UW Tower) complex. This means that everyone who walks from the east or west will use 43rd or 45th. The mid-block crossing will primarily benefit those who work in Safeco Tower (unless, of course, buses travel along Brooklyn).

    3) The bulk of the UW itself is south of 43rd. None of it is north of 45th. This means that the vast majority of students will exit from the 43rd station and head east on 43rd. About half the people headed to the Ave will walk the same way. All of this will lead to huge numbers of pedestrians on 43rd, especially between Brooklyn and 15th NE.

    4) 43rd is closed right now and it hasn’t increased automobile congestion in the least. It is a very minor roadway because it doesn’t continue very far (unlike 45th).

    5) The UW is the second biggest urban center in Washington. It deserves to be treated as such.

    6) The UW is not only a destination, but a major bus transit hub. Right now the buses travel on the Ave as well as 15th (north to south). They also travel on 45th. There are no buses on Brooklyn or 43rd.

    With that in mind, there are a few key points (and I’m repeating many of these):

    There is no need for parking along Brooklyn. Even a so called “kiss and ride” area is unnecessary. This isn’t Northgate or Lynnwood. This is the UW, an area where pedestrians outnumber cars by a huge number. Those that want to drop off a passenger can do so on nearby streets. Adding spots like these can severely hamper bus travel. Someone pulls up, assuming that the spot will be open. But the pullout is full, so they switch on the flashers and let out the passenger. Multiply that by dozens of similar drivers, and you have congestion.

    Bus connections should be high priority. It doesn’t make sense for a rider to walk a block (from the Ave) when this can be avoided by changing the routes. There are several ways to do this, but only one if you don’t go along Brooklyn between 45th and 43rd:

    Have southbound buses turn west on 43rd and University, then turn south again on 43rd and Brooklyn. This would very problematic. As of today, there are very large number of people in the area, making it difficult for buses to make right and left turns. As mentioned, there will be a huge increase in the number of pedestrians, which means that it would be extremely difficult for those buses to make those turns. Widening the street to accommodate the extra pedestrians on 43rd would make the bus travel even more difficult. In short, you would have a major conflict with buses and pedestrians.

    The alternative is to have buses travel on Brooklyn instead of the Ave. This has already been proposed, as part of the frequent network service plan. North of 45th, it is unlikely that a bus would travel a significant distance on Brooklyn. But there are numerous options for a bus route. In other words, if a bus travels on Brooklyn between 45th and 43rd, there are dozens of different ways it can arrive there. Each one of which is better than having the bus cut over on 43rd (which is probably the worst street to use for that purpose).

    Furthermore, if buses are removed from much of the Ave (and it is likely they will) then it is the Ave that can host the farmers market (as it does now) as well as the street fair (as it does now). Buses won’t have to be re-routed. The Ave could be made more friendly for bicycles (since you won’t have to worry about bus-bike interaction). If closing the Ave for a weekday farmers market causes too much traffic, then the market should be on 43rd instead.

    Brooklyn needs to be designed for fast bus to train station service. 43rd should be designed for pedestrians and bikes. The best way to do that is to simply close it, as you suggest.

    • You know it well!! We have a group forming in the U District to discuss potential changes to Metro routes in the neighbourhood to help guide them to come up with recommendations that align with the Transit Master Plan, Green Streets Plan, Bicycle Master Plan, and other related documents and desires of residents and interested parties. Let me know if you want to show up to the upcoming meeting.

        • Great. When we shoot out an invite here in a week or so, I’ll make sure you’re on the distribution list. A small group of us already met this week to scope some of the background issues and lay out preliminary thoughts and findings.

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