Amazon’s Warehouse Plans Have No Place in Mount Baker and Should Be Halted

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The Lowe's site is near Mount Baker Station and suited to transit-oriented development. (Image by JLL)

Amazon is planning a distribution center at a coveted site in Mount Baker, Brian Miller of the Daily Journal of Commerce reported Tuesday. Despite zoning allowing 145-foot towers and top notch transit that includes nearby access to Mount Baker Station, plans envision a low-slung warehouse and a colossal parking lot. Simply put, this plan must be stopped. (Sign our petition here).

The plans span two sites on the east side of Rainier Avenue S — a Pepsi plant and Lowe’s superstore. The Lowe’s site alone is almost 13 acres in size and could host almost five million square feet of development built out to capacity (floor area ratio (FAR) tops out at 8.25 including bonuses for affordable housing and open space). Developed primarily as housing, this could work out to more than 4,000 apartments, many of them multi-bedroom homes next to a new open space amenity. The Pepsi site is 10 acres and zoned to 75 feet (5.5 FAR — it’s just outside the station overlay district or this would rise to 6.0), which works out to 2.4 million square feet of developable space and could add another 2,000 apartments or more. Instead of a sprawling warehouse and parking lots, these sites could be 6,000 homes housing 12,000 people or more.

The warehouse proposal is at odds the City’s comprehensive and neighborhood planning and hopes for transit-oriented development near Mount Baker Station (and also within a 15-minute walk of the soon-to-open Judkins Park Station). The City added a section about the Lowe’s site into municipal code trying to limit uses and established a station overlay district to further promote density and walkability with a midblock crossing. Warehouses are not a permitted use in the station overlay district, but Amazon must think they can get an exception. When the City chose to upzone the Lowe’s site to 145 feet — 50 feet higher than anywhere else in Mount Baker Urban Village or nearly all of South Seattle — they did so hoping somebody would actually build highrises there. Instead, the property owners (the families of David Hsiao and Leonard Tall) are trying to make a quick buck selling to Amazon at the expense of the community who lives nearby or would like to.

Disrupting safe streets plans

And the impact on the neighborhood could be severe. The City has pledged to make Mount Baker more accessible and safe for pedestrians, not less. The project is called Accessible Mount Baker after all. Adding a massive distribution center in what should be the bustling mixed-use heart of Mount Baker jeopardizes those plans and adds traffic rather than calming it. The Accessible Mount Baker vision was to “untie” the convoluted intersection of Rainier Avenue and MLK Way and shunt freight and commuter traffic onto MLK Way in order to calm Rainier Avenue and make the street a more walkable, safe, inviting place. More of a destination and less of a cut-through. Historically, Rainier Avenue has been known as the deadliest road in town, regularly competing with Aurora Avenue as the site of most deadly crashes.

Pre-application site plan for the Lowe’s site shows a whole lot of parking. (Credit: Kimley Horn)

The proposal calls for a curb cut on Rainier Avenue emptying the giant parking lot onto a busy corridor with people walking, rolling, biking, and on transit trying to compete for space with motorists. Route 7 is supposed to achieve RapidRide status (eventually) and a busy trucking interchange where a bus lane should go is a terrible idea. A giant parking lot undermines efforts by safe streets advocates to improve station access to Judkins Park Station. Adding a curb cut on a major transit corridor across pedestrian overlays contradicts the Land Use Code and the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections Director Nathan Torgelson could (and should) reject this aspect of the proposal outright.

Costing us affordable housing

The undersized proposal also would cost the city in affordable housing payments via the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) inclusionary zoning program. At the sites, the residential MHA requirement is $15.36 per square foot (or 6% of the units) and the commercial is $8.29 per square foot. Seven million square feet of housing would pay $107 million into the affordable housing trust fund or add about 360 affordable homes on-site.

An MHA zoning map shows SM-NR 145 zoning at the Lowe's site and C2-75 zoning at the Pepsi site.
Mount Baker zoning tops out at 145 feet at the Lowe’s city and tapers quickly. (City of Seattle)

In contrast, Amazon’s proposal repurposes the existing building on the Pepsi site and adds a 68,000 square foot structure to the Lowe’s site. The copious surface parking is exempt from MHA and so too apparently is the structure since it can claim an industrial use rather than commercial one. Industrial uses are exempt from MHA. Thus, both of Amazon’s proposal would pays zero into MHA and would have paid just $564,000 into the affordable housing trust fund had MHA-Commercial applied. This industrial loophole, by the way, sets up a very uneven playfield where Amazon’s distribution centers are exempt from affordable housing contributions while the brick and mortar business they’re competing with would have to pay in when they develop property.

This massive underuse of the site will result is far fewer affordable homes in the neighborhood. Many urbanists are skeptical when defenders of apartment bans use buildable lands reports to argue enough housing capacity already exists, and this story is a perfect illustration of why. Capacity for thousands of homes is no sure thing, but it may still count on a buildable lands report because technically someday housing developers could build there. Tenants don’t have that kind of time to wait for more housing.

A diagram shows the Pepsi site would see additional surface parking, but the existing structure would remain. The north parking would have ingress and egress on 25th Ave and the south parking lot on S Bayview St. (Credit: Kimley Horn)
The Pepsi site would see additional surface parking, but the existing structure would remain. (Credit: Kimley Horn)

This land doesn’t come cheap either. The Pepsi site sold for $65 million three years ago. That sale price suggests the Lowe’s site would likely sell for north of $100 million given its larger size and zoning envelope. It goes to show the economic power of Amazon that they wouldn’t bat an eye buying up this valuable land mostly to store delivery vans. Amazon will argue this project brings jobs, but jobs tied to big warehouses and giant parking lots belong in the industrial areas of the city, not in an urban village steps from a light rail station. Amazon’s concurrent proposal for a four-story warehouse on Commodore Way in Interbay make far more land use sense. It’s an indictment on our industrial land use policy (and it’s long delayed update) that big box stores routinely go up in industrial zones, while warehouses are proposed in station overlay districts where 15-story residential towers should go.

Amazon boosters argued their dense South Lake Union campus shows their urbanist bonafides — and indeed it was a much better choice than that of a suburban office park. However, if Amazon wants to be seen as an urbanizing and positive influence on Seattle growth, it can’t just coast on South Lake Union. It has to walk the talk in the Rainier Valley, too. The best Amazon can do is walk away from their Lowe’s plans, allow someone to develop it as 4,000 homes (many of them affordable), and perhaps even help finance the project as part of the company’s affordable housing campaign. Conspicuously all of the announced investments have been in the Eastside thus far. This could change that.

What the City can do

But if Amazon does back away, the opportunity here is too large to squander — 23 acres next to two light rail stations and a future RapidRide is a rare commodity. The City really should step in to block the biggest sites for social housing in the Rainier Valley from being claimed as a warehouse and giant parking lot. A design review board would have good reason to kill the project, but the Pepsi plant project likely wouldn’t need to face a full design review as a renovation.

To send a clear message early, the City should do a warehouse development moratorium at the Lowe’s site (or across all station overlay districts) since the zoning intends dense mixed-use towers. That would be similar to what the City Council did with self-storage facilities in Aurora-Licton Springs or to save the Showbox. Another option would be a surface parking surcharge in station overlay areas to discourage such uses in prime light rail-adjacent real estate.

The site’s history adds another wistful dimension since it used to be publicly owned. In a different life, the site was Sick’s Stadium and hosted the Rainiers baseball club. Owner Emil Sick, who also owned the Rainiers Brewery, sold the stadium to the city in 1965, but the City in a foolish move sold it off again to be developed (circa 1977, according to Miller) rather than keep the land in public hands. It’s timely a reminder that this city could sorely use a prohibition on selling off public land to private developers.

An even more assertive option: The City could pass a right-of-first-refusal law similar to how Paris did and start lining up funds to buy the land once more and then serve as the master developer. We have to get better at seizing the opportunities in this city and building social housing as a matter of course rather than an afterthought.

Take action: Sign our petition.

Correction: This article has been updated to note that the Amazon warehouse proposals are exempt entirely from MHA payments due their use being defined as industrial rather than commercial under the municipal code.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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Michael

It would be nice to see Amazon use their vast resources on a better plan. Perhaps it could be possible to integrate a distribution center with housing and other uses. There is quite a bit of change in grade on both of these sites. Why not push the warehouses underground and build housing and office on top and all around it? Certainly Mount Baker should include tons of housing, but it would be even more valuable if it could be a trule mixed-use hub with housing, retail, and a mix of job opportunities (not just service industry and office workers). With the closing of the UW Laundry this could be a way to bring some much needed jobs to a convenient location in South Seattle, but it will take a lot more progressive thinking than this banal and unimaginative plan is showing.

Vince Slupski

The City seems plenty happy about covering Northgate with multiple one-story hockey rinks. They couldn’t even stack them? Yeah, there are plans for residential – “later” – just like there were plans for residential – “later” – back around 2002 when I participated in a master planning process for Northgate Mall. The only residences built were on the site that Simon Properties was shamed into selling. The City talks big about TOD, but when opportunities come up, they rubber-stamp the low-rise desires of the Kraken and Amazon.

Peter B Sanderson

“””The copious surface parking is exempt from MHA and so too apparently is the structure since it can claim an industrial use rather than commercial one. Industrial uses are exempt from MHA. Thus, both of Amazon’s proposal[s] would pay[] zero into MHA and would have paid just $564,000 into the affordable housing trust fund had MHA-Commercial applied.”””

Can you clarify the code that allows this exemption? A cursory read through  23.58C.040 doesn’t appear to provide an automatic exemption for Industrial uses

Douglas Trumm

If you look at 23.58B.020.B and SMC 23.84A.006 for “commercial use” definition you’ll see the code defines Commercial use pretty narrowly.

Without on-site retail sales, the Amazon warehouse could appear to be exempt. You can see that MHA is not targeted at industrial zones/uses because the Duwamish Industrial District isn’t included in any of the maps showing MHA areas and the charts showing MHA rates will show “not applicable” in industrial zoning designations.

Last edited 2 months ago by Douglas Trumm
Arlene

My guess is an Amazon distribution center would translate daily into hundreds of long trucks and thousands of cars and other vehicles. While some of the vehicles might be electric, the majority is unlikely to be so–and at least for a decade or more. Consequently, the south end will once again get the short end of the environmental justice and social justice stick: decreased services (housing & a store like Lowe’s), increased difficulty in getting around, and increased levels of air pollution. The latter can mean large particulates, often implicated in asthma and other health challenges, and also disproportionately affecting children (see the local school and local neighborhood).

Because of the above and more, I give turning this part of Seattle into Amazonland a resounding NO. And, yes, I will fight to have that not happen. The area needs and deserves housing, affordable housing, and even more green space.

Last edited 2 months ago by Arlene
Art Lewellan

“While some vehicles will be electric, most won’t for decades” BEV freight trucks are a crime against humanity. An estimated distribution of battery (and charging) resources is roughly: “1” BEV freight truck 500kwh pack (5+packs over 10 years). “70” BEV Tesla ‘S’ packs of 85kwh. “340” Chevy Volt PHEV packs of 18kwh. As many as “1000” Prius PHEV packs of 5kwh. Should we empower globalization on BEV freight trucks that go through battery packs year after year, or, manufacture thousands of PHEVs that get 150mpg on combustible hydrogen ONLY by driving less than 20 miles daily or using the stored electricity to keep the house lights on?

Ben

I completely agree that a distribution center at this site is a bad idea, especially considering the lost potential for high-density housing at the site. I thought this piece at Seattle Transit Blog had some good complimentary analysis:

https://seattletransitblog.com/2021/04/09/on-warehousing-in-mt-baker/

And the last part of the article raises some important questions:

“city hall ought to do some soul searching. The fact that no housing developer outbid the warehouse for the land is revealing. How much can we squeeze developers in exchange for affordable housing? Are we confident we’ve set the MHA dials correctly, especially in a world of more remote work? Do we want to encourage housing near transit or are we so confident that it will happen that we can extract concessions from it? And how much should we rely on payments from a few big projects to meet our affordable housing goals”

The demand for housing in this region is crazy right now and it seems like developers should be clamoring to build something at that site. The fact that the economics of building housing at that site doesn’t seem to pencil out is really concerning.

Douglas Trumm

Do we have any evidence they actually bid this out to housing developers? This seems speculation at this point. Amazon had an established relationship with the landowner since they already rented at the site so perhaps they just got an early crack it and the owner’s assumption maybe was that nobody wanted to build 15-story towers there. Maybe private developers aren’t ready to take the leap on highrise there (I don’t know), but that’s where the City could lead the way on that by pushing for a social housing tower on at least part of the site.

Once private developers see a highrise go up and the deveoper not got belly up my guess is they’ll get pretty bullish about it. Likely once East Link opens the site will be even more desirable and towers will pencil out sure enough. There has to be a reason why the Vancouver metro area gets towers around its stations and we mostly don’t. I don’t think it’s a 6% inclusionary zoning requirement. That seems like a pretty lazy villain on a project this size.

Ben

I hear you on that last point, and I think the potential loss of this site to a distribution center should spur some investigation into why. 6% inclusionary zoning doesn’t sound like a lot to me either, but I’ve also never developed a high rise residential building. So maybe it is too much?

What would be great would be for someone to try and find out if a housing developer was in fact out bid for the site. Did Amazon really just come in and make a Godfather offer that the property owner couldn’t refuse. That could definitely be the case.

I’d also be interested in an empirical analysis of the economics of building dense housing at a site like this. Does it pencil out? If it doesn’t then I think that should force some hard questions about the regulatory burden on housing developers.

Douglas Trumm

Making the permitting process simpler and less time consuming is important and could help encourage some more proposals. But regulations are hardly the root of all evil. Having building codes that make it much less likely that buildings fall down in earthquakes, burn down in a fire, or waste energy needlessly is pretty nice actually. Some less useful building requirements could be pared back, but some of the big cost drivers have a good reason for being.

The demand side could also be a big part of the equation here. Developers are a cautious lot. Few large buildings have opened in this area, but that’s changing quickly with some construction projects going up now. If those buildings lease up quickly, the whole equation could change considerably. You’d have a hard time convincing a developer to plop down 4,000 apartments anywhere in the city today with the uncertainty in the pandemic era market (even if you trim their regulatory costs a bit). But as the economy picks up and new projects lease up, you’ll see them ready to take the plunge, I expect.

TVR

I don’t think anyone talks of reducing building quality regarding regulations – it’s the asinine processes we’ve witnessed with projects like the Queen Anne Safeway Design Review that you have rightfully pilloried. If the choice is between a near term return or years of uncertainty, it shouldn’t be a surprise the lower risk option can be a preferable choice.

The Lowe’s site also showcases a major shortcoming in the MHA discussion. MHA has centered too much on expanding capacity on properties that were already viable for development versus expanding the number of viable properties. Within the context of Capital Hill, where there is proven demand, a percent allotment or buy-in makes can be covered due to the massive surplus conferred by the building bonus. However, properties without the same certainty of return may not be able to support the fee even with the density bonus. Also, as a build out assumption is reasonable. Wood goes 5 stories atop whatever the concrete podium is. At 15 you’d be required to be using steel or concrete which is the most expensive construction type, but unable to build to the most economical heights using those materials. Given the local rental rates, you’d more likely be looking at something like Yesler Terrace where the zoning allows higher but everything is in the 6-9 story range with wood frame.

Regarding MHA, the properties on the boundary of developable feasibility don’t get enough attention. 7% is the proforma return required for multi-family projects, if that return can’t be hit it won’t happen. 6% of all units or $15.36 per sq/ft may seem small, but if it’s a boundary project, it very well could be the difference between building and not. MHA operates from a basis of scarcity, using excess revenues of some units to subsidize others relative to market rate (the scarcity itself created by overly restrictive zoning). What do you do when your market rate units are only delivering a 7% return? You wait. The land value increases, the carrying cost in terms of tax is small, and no risk exposure (the big one).

The high rate of return is a function of risk, of which time is a critical factor. Carrying cost and delay can torch a project’s finances (it’d be interesting to see what the financial toll is on the Queen Anne Safeway). Imagine, hypothetically, your solvency being dependent upon opening by a certain date, and a debate about brick treatments stalling your project? If there was more build by right and less opportunities for challenges and design review, it could be pushed down. What happens is we get to a place where fractions of percent of projected return decides what gets built and what doesn’t. Additionally, a Lowe’s size property carries major additional risks from its size – increasing political exposure, questions of whether the local market can support that many units (and at what rates), and duration of development. It falls into a category of strategic project that probably requires enabling by the city, not additional burdens.

Personally, I think the city should have public development corporation like you get in northern Europe that maintains a big pipeline of strategic size projects. A city can weather little or no returns and can pursue countercyclical policies. Developers who survive are cautious by nature, anyone that lasts has a personal horror story or knows someone who was wiped out when a project/economy turned.

TVR

whoops typo in paragraph two should read “Also, as a build out assumption, 15-stories is unreasonable.”

Ben

Helpful perspective, thanks!

Ben

I definitely didn’t mean that regulations are the root of all evil. If there’s any confusion, I think that buildings should be made so they don’t collapse in earthquakes or burn down in fires easily.

I also don’t think the demand side point holds up. There was a drop in rents in 2020, but it’s starting to reverse, and across the region median monthly rent increased 64% from 2010 to 2019, according to HUD.

https://www.seattletimes.com/business/real-estate/rents-are-ticking-back-up-after-pandemic-plunge/

This site was upzoned in 2015, I think. Why didn’t any developers take the plunge in the last 5 years?

TVR

My guess is there is a very small number of developers that are even capable of considering a project this big, especially in the multi-family market. Even more so there’re more desirable areas to build. I mean Beacon Hill and Columbia City are the next immediate stations, and much more desirable to live. Rainier is the most dangerous road in the city, the intersection with MLK is terrible and the nearest restaurants are Wendy’s and McDonald’s.

Thornton Place out in Northgate is the most similar type of project I can think of and that took like a decade, a couple economic cycles, and occurred when Northgate Mall was a going concern. It’s also quite a bit smaller. IMO what makes Mt. Baker most exciting from a potential standpoint also makes it really difficult to realize, it’s a huge canvas to be working on that’ll require a lot of buy in from the community, political support, and likely both public and private financing, similar to Thornton Place. I mean it just sounds really hard to pull off even if you do have the resources to try it.

RossB

I agree with everything you wrote. Thanks for writing this.

Apu

Thank you for calling attention to this. This is alarming. What our South Seattle communities need is affordable family housing, walkable neighborhoods, and vibrant community space, not giant multi-acre warehouses.

Allison Delong

Also worth noting it is very close to a high school. Terrible plan!

Martin Pagel

The city had some great ambitions for this area: Accessible Mt Baker – Transportation | seattle.gov, I just hope they will find the funds to make it happen and wrap a bus loop around the Link station to allow for seamless transfers. There should be enough bus parking around the station that a separate transit center wouldn’t be necessary and could be sold to fund the reconfiguration and the Lowes site should be developed as part of the effort.

Renee Chu

I emailed the DR board staff. Not sure if there is a project yet for us to comment on, but emailing them early seems like a decent start:

Lisa Rutzick, Program Manager
lisa.rutzick@seattle.gov
(206) 386-9049
Erika Ikstrums, Program Specialist
erika.ikstrums@seattle.gov
(206) 684-3160
Brinn Campaz, Scheduling and Administration
brinn.campaz@seattle.gov
(206) 684-8919
Daniel Kopald, Public Relations Specialist
daniel.kopald@seattle.gov
Heather Harris, Public Relations Specialist
heather.harris@seattle.gov

Josh

145 feet in the middle of Rainier Valley is a very unique opportunity bestowed on to the Hsiao family property back in 2013. This property is the only one that has these unique zoning allowances and it makes no sense for them to give it all up for industrial use when the city planned for dense development there. It is not in the interest of the property owner, neighbors or city to allow Amazon to build here, especially when they are actively expanding at other sites around WA.

Krystal

Terrible location for a distribution center, from practically every angle. Speaking to the safe streets angle, those of us who pass through Georgetown frequently realize how much congestion the distribution center at EMW and 4th Ave S brings, even in an area that caters to commercial and industrial vehicular traffic. This would be tragic.

I appreciate the last section on paths the city could take to bring this project to a halt, good to know what we could push city leadership on.

Phil

I’m assuming that it’s meant to distribute mostly to Mercer Island.

Michaela

This is a terrible idea! There’s so much wrong with it, I can’t even! So thanks for writing this article and doing it for me.

As an additional insult to injury, that Lowes is the closest hardware store for most of the Rainier Valley and the next one up Rainier looks to keep banking hours. Yet one more retail desert for SE Seattle.

WendellM

Just throwing this out there. Amazon is the solution to retail deserts in any case. Brought to your house > Searching at the store. Lowers the number of retail trips too!

Macs

2x4s, piping, toilets, plywood, etc. aren’t items that should be shipped individually, nor could they easily be.

Barns

I disagree with “Brought to house > Searching the store”, especially regarding construction material. Every 2×4 is different and you need to search and “sight” the material that will work for your project.

WendellM

Fair enough. I’ve had more luck with things like hard to find parts and such

Laura Loe

This is a great article and I learned a lot.