The Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) has released their comment summary on the draft proposal for the University District rezone and urban design regulations. Scores of individuals and organizations provided feedback on issues ranging from open space and parking to building form and allowed heights.

In taking a pulse on support for the rezone, OPCD noted that a plurality of comments received online were positive:

Approximately 36% of the comments received were supportive of the zoning proposal.

Approximately 28% of the comments indicated that they would be supportive if certain things were changed in the proposal and/or addressed. In general, people were asking for changes to the specific provisions of the proposed zoning or wanting certain conditions to be met prior to implementation of the proposed zoning.

Approximately 26% of the comments received were opposed to the zoning proposal.

Approximately 10% of the comments were either unrelated to the proposal, or very specific to an issue without stating whether or not they supported the proposed zoning. For example, expressing concerns about public safety, traffic, parking, etc.

However, those who attended the community meeting back in May were less clear on their overall support for the proposals. Only 20% indicated support whereas 20% expressed opposition, 20% wanted to see changes–which interestingly, most of those individuals wanted increased development capacity–and another 40% indicated the preferences on particular issues (e.g., tree canopy and tree preservation, impact fees, and schools and childcare).

Big Takeaways

Far and away, community members indicated that open space was their number one concern. 31 individuals said that the City should create a central public open space and another 10 people felt that open space in the neighborhood is inadequate. That’s not surprising given that the neighborhood sponsored a three-part community charrette in 2014 to identify open space priorities and has a strong open space advocacy group (U District Square) pushing for green space. However, OPCD received a lot of praise on the affordable housing front. Between incentive zoning and the Mandatory Housing Affordability requirements baked in the rezone, developers will contribute to more affordable housing in the neighborhood. 18 people indicated that they appreciated this aspect of the rezone proposal.

OPCD’s report also identified seven primary themes that seemed to resonate with the community: open space, urban design and development character, tree canopy, transportation, affordable housing, impact fees, and historic preservation.

  • On open space, the proposed urban design regulations would help realize many of the goals for more outdoor public space. New development on Green Streets like NE 42nd St would contribute to the development of calmer, greener streets. Some development incentives would also give developers additional height in exchange for publicly accessible outdoor amenities at the sidewalk or paying a voluntary fee for the development of park space in the neighborhood. OPCD says that they plan to continue collaborating with other stakeholders to develop a centrally-located public square, improve existing and planned parks, and coordinate with the UW to soften the university’s campus edges on 15th Ave NE.
  • Loss of existing neighborhood tree canopy was a big concern for many. OPCD contends that only 5% of the neighborhood core even has tree canopy. The proposed landscaping and urban design regulations would help boost this number above 15% by the City’s estimates.
  • Urban design and development character received a fair amount of feedback. OPCD intends to manage building forms through maximum heights, upper-level setbacks, maximum floorpates for towers, maximum building width, and size of ground floor retail spaces to name a few. Following adoption of the rezone, neighborhood design guidelines will be developed to help new development contextualize local neighborhood character and respond to desired design approaches.
  • Due to the proposed increase in density, transportation concerns were widely raised. OPCD says that major transportation improvements are already in the works. Going down the list: the University District slated to get light rail in 2021 and three RapidRide+ routes in the next eight years; bike lanes are increasingly being rolled out in tandem with the Bicycle Master Plan; urban design regulations call for increased setbacks on certain streets to expand sidewalks; and the City also has identified many blocks as Green Streets which should be improved over the coming years.
  • Honing in on Seattle’s affordable housing challenges, community members expressed concern about the amount of affordable housing planned and what might be lost. OPCD estimates that between 40 and 275 existing dwelling units will be lost regardless of whether the rezone does or does not happen. Under the rezone, however, 540 to 700 affordable housing units would be constructed and income-restricted for at least 75 years. Current zoning would add only 8 to 20 income-restricted affordable housing units over the next 20 years.
  • Many community members expressed a desire for impact fees to fund new schools, parks, and transportation facilities to mitigate the impacts of new development. The City, however, does not require impact fees for new development and the planners reiterated that this proposal will not establish them.
  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were many comments that focused on historic preservation. The University District has dozens of identifiable character buildings, many of which are built from unreinforced masonry materials (e.g., bricks and stone). OPCD’s urban design proposal, for instance, would extend transfer of development rights (TDRs) to structures designated as landmarks allowing the TDRs to be sold to developers in the neighborhood who wish to get additional floor area above the base maximums. Profits for the sale of TDRs would be reinvested in the landmark properties. But OPCD is also looking into how more buildings along The Ave (University Way)–that might not otherwise receive landmark status–could be preserved.

Planners fielded a lot of recommendations from the public with varying opinions, including some of the following:

Prioritize bonus floor area incentives based on community priorities – make bonus for open space worth more than other incentives.

Provide a large free 2-hour parking garage near the Ave.

Remove all parking requirements.

Lid I-5 between 45th and 50th for open space.

Rezoning should be done in phases (rings), as development reaches 80% of capacity on one phase, allow increased zoning in next ring, then next.

Increase allowable floor plate area in SM-U zone.

Reduce tower spacing corner-to-corner to 20’.

OPCD is now in the process of refining the final legislation based upon the issues and feedback that they’ve heard. A draft ordinance should be handed off to the City Council where the Planning, Land Use, and Zoning (PLUZ) Committee will deliberate on the proposal. The rezone itself represents one of the first three possible rezones that would implement the Mandatory Housing Affordability requirements, an important step in the Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda. The first PLUZ briefing is expected in September and a hearing could happen sometime in November. So conceivably, it could be adopted this year.

Article Author
 | Website

Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.