SunBreak | City Council gets an earful of support for South Lake Union rezone

At a packed Seattle City Council hearing Wednesday night, on whether to dramatically raise the building heights west of Capitol Hill, almost 100 people spoke about the proposal. The majority voiced support for Mayor Mike McGinn’s proposal to rezone parts of South Lake Union to allow for towers up to 400 feet tall or about 40 stories. At that height, buildings could obstruct some views of Puget Sound, the Space Needle, and Lake Union from Capitol Hill.

A number of those who urged council members to seize the “extraordinary” opportunity to foster urban development pointed to new details of an offer from Vulcan Real Estate. Earlier in the day, it was revealed that Paul Allen’s firm would give the city “Block 59”–about an acre of land next to Aurora Avenue and Republican Street–for affordable housing and social service facilities. In return, Vulcan would be able to build three 240-foot residential towers near the southern shoreline of Lake Union.

“It’s a golden opportunity for the city,” said Sharon Lee, director of the Low Income Housing Institute. She and other advocates said the land would help the needy in the form of affordable apartments and room for a cluster of social services.

Other speakers said while they support helping low-income residents, the Vulcan donation does not change the fact the proposal is too extreme. They say the “upzone” violates existing management acts and betrays the city’s long history with “stepping down” building heights. In so doing, they say the new towers would eliminate many existing views, while worsening the traffic mess that already clogs South Lake Union streets during rush hour.

“The mitigation simply is not adequate,” said former City Council member Peter Steinbrueck who represents a coalition of Lake Union community members.

John Larson, who lives adjacent to South Lake Union, said the city needs to moderate the “radical” proposal in order to preserve the character of Capitol Hill, Fremont, and other nearby neighborhoods.

Other trends in the comments:

  • Debate within Cascade – The proposal has split the Cascade neighborhood into two factions: those who oppose the greater heights and those who think they aren’t high enough. Specifically, some residents who live in the area just west of I-5 say the giant towers would raise a curtain over their homes, blocking sunlight and views, while hurting the neighborhood’s character. Meanwhile, under the current proposal, some residents in Cascade would see no change to their zoning. These folks say they’re being left behind while their neighbors enjoy the riches that are sure to come with development.
  • Builders and Businesses Unite – Representatives from Sullen Construction, Lease Crutcher Lewis, Skanska, and others in the construction trades spoke overwhelmingly in support of the proposal and the jobs it would create. These builders were joined by business groups such as the Greater Seattle Business Association and the South Lake Union Chamber of Commerce who see the increased density as a boon to their bottom line.
  • Queen Anne Support – Speakers who identified themselves as living or working in Queen Anne seem to largely support the proposal. Representatives of the Queen Anne Community Council and Queen Anne Chamber of Commerce say they welcome the continued growth of their neighbors to the east.

This was the second public hearing of the Mayor’s recommended proposal. City council member Richard Conlin said the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability committee has been briefed on the legislation five times. The full council will take up the issue in December and a vote could come in January, he said.

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