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.”