Capitol Hill homeowners mount last-ditch effort against MHA upzoning… in Eastlake

The view from Harvard Ave E (Image: CHS)

They know they are probably too late. They know that after a multi-year journey of hearings, community meetings, public comment, and legal challenges, the Seattle City Council wants the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) legislation, which connects affordability mandates to upzoning parts of the city’s densest neighborhoods, to reach its destination during a final vote Monday afternoon. Perhaps they even know Monday’s vote is basically pro forma, as council members have worked on it for years and voted unanimously to advance the legislation last month.

And, yet, a group of North Capitol Hill homeowners, along with the Eastlake Community Council, is trying to fight the upzoning of a seven-block-long (and mostly half a block-deep) sliver of I-5-bordering properties in Eastlake. The amendment for zoning increase, from low-rise to mid-rise with a height limit of 80’ on Boylston Ave. E and a short stretch of Franklin Ave. E was recently introduced and approved by the city council as part of a series of amendments that scaled back upzones across neighborhoods and increased some others.


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“We feel blindsided by this amendment,” says Kris Olson, a board member of the North Capitol Hill Neighborhood Association, and unofficial spokesperson of North Capitol Hill Against Rezoning Misuse (CHARM), which he says is more of an “email list” than an official organization. Olson said he found out about it in the Seattle Times.

The amendments 4-18 replace the so-called “preferred alternative” which would have only increased the low-rise zoning height limit from 40’ to 50’. CHARM wants to go back to the preferred alternative, they say. They argue that taller buildings will block both public and private views of the Olympic Mountains and the water, as well as reflect the highway noise and pollution up to the Hill. They also say upzones threaten the “already available affordable housing,” an argument often made by neighborhood activists opposed to MHA, in Eastlake. They also contend, among other things, that the amendment goes against MHA implementing principles that state that “design that allows access to light and views in shared and public spaces” would be encouraged.

The group has hired attorney David Bricklin of Bricklin & Newman LLP to advise them and help write letters to City Council members, including Kshama Sawant of District 3, which includes Capitol Hill, and Rob Johnson of District 4, which includes Eastlake. Bricklin and Newman also represent the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability, and Equity (SCALE), a coalition of neighborhood groups who filed a legal challenge to the proposed rezones. CHARM has also joined forces with the Eastlake Community Council, which is part of SCALE and opposes the 4-18 amendments and other upzones in the neighborhood.

CHARM has gone door to door in the neighborhood, sent out postcards, made calls and sent emails to council members and attended public comment during city council meetings in their effort to fight the upzoning of Boylston. But their chances of getting amendments 4-18 removed from the consent package are low.

Theoretically, it could be removed from the package, though it would require a council member to introduce a new amendment to reverse the original amendment and get enough support for it in a vote, which is unlikely. The amendment passed unanimously out of committee. Staff of Johnson and Sawant have confirmed to CHS that the council members are not planning on removing the amendments from the proposal.

During a meeting in early March, in the darkened cafeteria of after-hours Seattle Preparatory School, Olson tried to keep a positive tone: “We have until March 18th to let the council know about this,” he said. He hoped to inspire action in the over 20 North Capitol Hill homeowners gathered for the bi-yearly meeting of the North Capitol Hill Neighborhood Association.

“It feels like this neighborhood is under attack,” said Joan Talder, referring to the upzones and SR 520 construction. Talder brought a printout of a rendering of four huge square buildings blocking the view to the water. “The scale of this reminds me of Manhattan.”

Olson later handed out an info packet that showed another drawing, this time of two square buildings blocking views of the mountains. The top of the Space Needle peeped out from behind the buildings. Olson, who has a view of the water from his attic, said he wanted to emphasize it was not about their view (or property values) but rather “Seattle’s view” from Harvard Ave, a public asset that everyone should be able to enjoy on, say, the 4th of July or New Year’s Eve.

The topic of views, public and personal, as well as property values or taxes, came up multiple times during the meeting. One attendee cautioned he didn’t want to “go the view route.” “Everyone’s going to attack you as a NIMBY. Noise, pollution, among other things, are things that people can relate to.”

The man, who also gave a brief presentation on “protecting yourself from crime” on North Capitol Hill, says he is mostly concerned about the increase in noise and pollution that this “higher wall of buildings will create. It’s already bad, and it’s only going to get worse.”

Ted Virdone, who is working on MHA for council member Sawant, said he had “not gotten any [convincing] evidence” for noise reflection or pollution. He said the office considers “affordable housing more important than the concerns we’ve heard thus far.”

Both the Eastlake Community Council and CHARM, as well as their lawyer David Bricklin say they are particularly troubled by what they perceive as a lack of notice about the amendments from Johnson’s office.

“They had discussions for more than two years, and then suddenly, Council member Rob Johnson unveils this amendment,” says Chris Lehman of the Eastlake Community Council. “There’s been no substantive discussion. It was basically a last-minute thing.”

The mid-rise zoning proposed in amendment 4-18 did not come out of nowhere. Though it was the lesser discussed of all the scenarios, it was studied as a third alternative in MHA’s Environmental Impact Statement.

“Very few people were paying attention to it,” says Bricklin, who argued that there was “zero outreach” to the community about the amendments since January. The lack of neighborhood input is an argument Bricklin has made before.

“We had a public discussion in January before voting in February,” council member Johnson said. There was potential for public comment during committee meetings and a public hearing earlier this year.

“This is a piece of legislation more than three years in the making. Respectfully: there were literally years of feedback opportunities. At some point, we need to move beyond the Seattle process and take action.”

Johnson, who is chair of the city’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee and the Committee on Citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability formed to shape the plan over the past three years, says the strip near I-5 was “an appropriate place to look for increased density” citing a future RapidRide bus line and relative proximity to the UW Husky Stadium light rail station as well as parts of I-5 being lidded in the future.

Johnson, who is not seeking reelection and is set to take a job with Seattle’s new NHL franchise, said though there was pushback, he is also getting support for the measure. He said that during focus groups and community design workshops in previous years, “we heard interest in increasing density near I-5,” specifically “step-down-style or wedding-cake-style zoning.”

In response to the group’s argument that the amendment will “undercut the city’s efforts to provide more affordable housing,” per Bricklin, Johnson said: “We’re in an affordable housing crisis. This one particular amendment has generated a lot of concern from neighbors on Capitol Hill; that leads me to think it’s more about views than affordable housing.”

Regardless, CHARM is not ready to give up on their last-ditch efforts.

Olson said they were looking into whether Harvard Ave is a protected view. He also said the group has been advised by a consultant that the county assessor factors views into the value of property, which means, they say, that the “taking of the view” could represent a taking of value from individual homeowners. Olson said they weren’t sure yet whether to explore that avenue. An urbanist counter might be that property values will only rise in a city that does more to solve its livability and affordability crisis.

Olson sees a glimmer of hope in the fact that Johnson had agreed to remove University Way from the MHA plan. It’s probably not a path for CHARM to follow: Johnson’s office said the measure is just procedural and that they hope to upzone “The Ave” later this year.

Anti-MHA neighborhood activists are not entirely out of options after the council passes the legislation. SCALE, the neighborhood coalition Bricklin also represents, could sue the city once the council adopts the legislation. Theoretically, the opposition from CHARM could be rolled into SCALE.

Olson said he was not opposed to that. “After the 18th, there are still options. Maybe this is in some way the end of it, but maybe the beginning.”

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29 thoughts on “Capitol Hill homeowners mount last-ditch effort against MHA upzoning… in Eastlake

    • Great Ryan. City council should just upzone the entire city then. Seattle is not known for being one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Let’s just keep building up.

      • Ryan – why do you live here?

        Please relocate to a nice concrete jungle like NYC. You’ll be much happier renting there.

      • So Nettles… if you can’t have it no one can eh… When you were a child, did you like to break your friends’ toys when they wouldn’t let you play with them?

      • Agreed with Ryan: more upzones, not less!

        @NoMoreRentalRyans:
        Cities grow. Always have. You don’t have the right to keep your city at the same size as it was when you arrived, whether you were born here or migrated.

        Turning your own logic on its head: why do you live here when you know it’s a fast growing city, and has been off and on since it was first founded? And indeed was what the city founders were aiming for? Why not move to a city where upzones are less likely, like Everett? Or Detroit?

        Final question for you to ponder during your day: how often do you work in, shop in, attend events in, get healthcare in, etc. buildings that blocked other people’s views when they
        were built?

        (PS I own a beautiful old single family home in a LR zone. Doesn’t mean I think I have the right to keep other people from acquiring homes. Indeed my view has twice been shrunk, and will probably eventually disappear)

      • [To be clear: I’m not actually suggesting to @NoMoreRentalRyans they s/he leaves Seattle. I think the idea that anyone would say “You need to agree with me about my vision for Community X or leave Community X” is highly problematic. My point was to switch the logic around to show how absurd it is. But I realized after the fact that folks who don’t know me might think I was serious.]

  1. I’m desperate to know WHO the throngs of supporters were? I’ve yet to see anyone advocating for reducing public viewpoints and destroying existing affordable housing in Eastlake for fancy 80′ condos built for wealthy Amazon millennials?

    There are just so many better places for LEGITIMATE affordable housing around this ginormous and beautiful city.

    It’s similar to the poor decision to allow that old Amazon building which blocks Rainier views from just about everyone in the city. Why?

    I5 is not only a horrible eye sore, but it also creates health issues for everyone in close proximity. Let’s cover it up and put a park on it… Don’t increase the noise and pollutants for residents, cyclists, runners, and visitors. Need more long term thinkers in office. Not Rob Johnson. http://www.lidi5.org

    • ‘There are just so many better places for LEGITIMATE affordable housing around this ginormous and beautiful city.’

      And therein lies the perfect summary of the problem: wherever it is you happen to think is a “LEGITIMATE” place to build affordable housing, some loud subset of the people who currently live there will have some explanation for why that choice is illegitimate, and why the city should obviously be upzoning near your home instead.

      • Bullsh**. Density is not the only way to “save” the planet. It isn’t been the best way. A significant human population crash will work wonders for the environment. You know what else is better for the environment? Low-density, widely dispersed populations and subsistence-level lifestyles.

  2. As he exits the Council, Rob Johnson ( and his pro-MHA buddies….rich developers included!) will be leaving a lasting legacy of expensive (not affordable!), ugly, out-of-scale buildings in our (previously) fair city. Shame on him.

    • Bob, you’re wrong. The whole point of this is to create more affordable housing. And it will. Take note of the multiple news stories in the past year of rent increases slowing, or even dipping back down, thanks to the increased supply of apartments. That’s what this is all about. The more supply, the lower the cost of housing (or at least it won’t increase as quickly).

      • I disagree. There are many factors which go into the cost of housing….to attribute the leveling off of rents to MHA is just too simplistic.

        Do you really think that providing 5-9% affordable units in new buildings (if any…most developers will opt for paying into the fund, at low rates) will significantly increase the supply of affordable units in desirable neighborhoods? It’s better than nothing, but really a drop in the bucket.

  3. I thought the plan was to lid I5 and then build affordable housing? Or is only low rise allowed so it doesn’t block the views of the wealthy from above.

    I’m sure that view only exists because when I5 was built anything in its way was bulldozed.

    • I could be wrong but I don’t think there’s any commitment from anybody in a position to say so, to lid I-5 at this point. So far I think it’s only study groups brainstorming to discuss it.

      • Or do you mean wasting several millions of dollars by hiring a consulting firm to
        brainstorm about this pie in the sky, mono-railesque project that will more than likely never happen… not to mention, I’m pretty sure the proposed covered area wouldn’t reach nearly that far north anyway…

  4. “An urbanist counter might be that PROPERTY VALUES WILL ONLY RISE IN A CITY THAT DOES MORE TO SOLVE ITS livability and AFFORDABILITY CRISIS.”

    The jokes write themselves.

    The livability half is missing from HALA, as demonstrated by the Council’s dismissive attitude toward the neighborhoods above, the inadequacy of the EIS, etc.

    Housing prices do rise with increasing density, so you got that right.

    • Wait an ever loving minute… I thought us mean, bad ole property owners were opposed to increasing density only because all we care about is our property values?

  5. “The scale of this reminds me of Manhattan.”

    Two things on this, and then I’ll shut up.

    (1) Anyone who compares current or proposed density in Seattle to Manhattan has either never actually been to Manhattan, or has no problem exaggerating beyond the point of laughabiity. In my 20 years here, through two major booms, Seattle’s density has increased from 6,800 people per square mile to 8,800 people per square mile. Manhattan has 73,000 people per square mile.

    (2) Never forget, the founders of Seattle first called it “New York-Alki”, meaning that someday they hoped it would rival New York City in size and importance. Why do you believe that your vision for the city’s “appropriate” size and density is more fundamental than that of the people who first created it?

  6. It’s sort of hard to feel sorry for wealthy white people who are getting squeezed out by slightly wealthier white people. It’s refreshing to see wealthy white people taking one for the team for climate change and affordability. A burden that is far too often carried by communities of color and the poor.

    Sorry you’ll lose your view, but yay for density, which is the only way to save the planet.

  7. Given-The Seattle Metropolis will continue to grow. If the given is true there are two options, up or out. Out means more roads (and other means of people transport), less land for trees, farms, recreation, etc., more utility infrastructure, more government in all its forms. Up means almost none of the above, more people spending money at existing businesses, way less commute time and expense (assuming live and work are both in the same community). I vote for up.

  8. I like that public view of South Lake Union, Queen Anne, the Space Needle and the Olympics. Rob Johnson monetized it with a extra thirty feet to spur redevelopment of already affordable housing in Eastlake. Where does that affordable housing go? and how does demolition of affordable housing in Eastlake for development of housing for the affluent (people who can afford views) desegregate neighborhoods? Will there be a requirement that the first fifty feet are affordable to offset the view monetization?

    Shaun Scott has a better proposal: no more than fifty feet unless it is all public housing.

    • Ha. Touché. Then see how fast all that support for density disappears when developers close up shop and beat feet, and there’s nobody that wants to build those song-to-be-slumhole towers, because they know there won’t be any money in building public housing.

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