Belltown Neighbors Concerned About Upzoning

By Daniel Beekman

Seattle leaders say a proposed upzone of downtown and South Lake Union would help make the city more affordable and diverse.

But some Belltown residents are worried it would fail to stop their downtown neighborhood from becoming more expensive and exclusive.

The upzone would enable new buildings to climb one or several stories higher than is now allowed.

Though it would trigger a new Mayor Ed Murray program requiring developers to create rent-restricted housing, the developers would be allowed to pay fees to the city rather than include the affordable units in their own buildings.

And downtown, officials have said, they expect developers of high-rise buildings to choose to pay those fees.

The fees would serve a worthy purpose: The city would use them to help nonprofit organizations develop rent-restricted housing.

But Murray’s program wouldn’t require that housing to be located in the downtown neighborhoods generating the fees.

The Belltown residents say the affordable units funded by the fees would most likely end up in neighborhoods far from downtown, where land is cheaper.

“This legislation would treat our neighborhood like an ATM,” Evan Clifthorne, of the new community group Project Belltown, wrote in a letter to the City Council last month.

Downtown and South Lake Union are among more than two dozen parts of the city that Murray wants to upzone this year and next, each in tandem with the requirements of his Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program.

The mayor has said the MHA program can produce 6,000 units of rent-restricted housing in a decade, and he’s counting on downtown and South Lake Union development to generate about 2,100 of those units.

The council got started in February, approving an upzone of the University District. A final vote on the downtown and South Lake Union upzone is happened for Monday.

In certain neighborhoods, debates about Murray’s plan are following a familiar script.

Some homeowners are accusing the city of acquiescing to overdevelopment, while some urbanists are slamming the mayor’s critics as “not in my backyard” obstructionists.

Belltown’s narrative is somewhat different, says Merlée Sherman, a 24-year-old food educator raising two children with her partner in a 250-square-foot studio apartment.

Sherman and her neighbors aren’t afraid of density. Belltown already is very urban. And they aren’t particularly upset about what the upzone would do. They’re more upset about what it might not do — help people of all incomes remain in their neighborhood.

“I want other families to be able to live downtown,” Sherman said earlier this month. “We walk everywhere. Everything is accessible. You’d think 250 square feet would be hell, but when we walk outside we have everything.”

Sherman discussed the upzone with Clifthorne after taking part in a Project Belltown “visioning event” last month. They and some of their neighbors say the legislation should ensure the construction of affordable housing in Belltown. They say it should also consider the needs of people struggling to climb into and stay in the middle class.

The MHA program is set up to create housing for families making no more than 60 percent of the area’s median income. For a single person, 60 percent of the median is about $40,000 per year, and for a family of four, 60 percent is about $55,000 per year.

By giving Belltown developers the option of paying fees and by helping households making below 60 percent, “you say no” to some middle-class workers, Sherman said.

“You say no to the insurance broker, to the mechanic, the list goes on,” she said.

Terique Scott, who moved to Belltown from Cleveland four years ago, shares Sherman’s perspective. The 30-year-old Belltown Community Council board member says a neighborhood “where you still have black, white, rich, poor, homeless” has become less diverse as rents have soared.

“There should be more workforce housing,” Scott said, sitting around a meeting with Clifthorne and Sherman in the Makers co-working space on Lenora Street. “They’re just making it low-income and high-income. They’re killing the middle class.”

Fees option

Clifthorne, who was an aide to former City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, says council members are well-meaning and says the MHA program is a good idea, overall.

But some details of the plan bother him. Clifthorne says the fees option exists partly because developers believe low-income tenants make their buildings less marketable.

And he says the upzone could exacerbate segregation between neighborhoods by using luxury buildings downtown to fund affordable housing in less-wealthy areas.

“The perception that we can’t have poor people living close to rich people is a driving factor,” Clifthorne said.

For a better Belltown, the city could let downtown developers include units for households making up to 80 percent of the median, he says.

The council also could boost incentives for developers who buy existing buildings near their luxury buildings and then keep the rents affordable, Clifthorne says.

Finally, the MHA program could allow developers to spend less on the rent-restricted units they include in their luxury buildings. The program now requires a building’s rent-restricted and market-rate units to have similar dimensions and amenities.

“We’re not being creative enough,” Clifthorne said.

Councilmember Rob Johnson, who ushered the upzone through the council’s land-use committee, says he understands the anxiety in Belltown but stands by the plan.

The fees option is valuable because construction dollars go further in neighborhoods such as Rainier Beach and Lake City, Johnson says. In other words, a downtown developer paying fees rather than including units means more affordable housing.

“There’s a natural tension around this throughout the city,” Johnson said.

Though the MHA program doesn’t require the city to use the fees in the same neighborhoods where they were generated, the program makes proximity a consideration, the council member says. The city has a track record of funding low-income housing in all sorts of neighborhoods, including Belltown, Johnson notes.

By targeting families making no more than 60 percent of the median, Johnson says, the program is meant to help people making up to just above the minimum wage.

That’s different from most of Belltown’s existing affordable buildings, which are reserved for people making no more than 30 percent of the median, he says.

Another angle

Clifthorne doesn’t expect the council to make any drastic changes Monday in response to Belltown concerns, he says.

But another angle on the upzone could lead to heated debate. Councilmember Lisa Herbold plans to propose an amendment that would increase the requirements on downtown developers, who are being asked to do less than developers elsewhere.

She says the upzone, as proposed, could yield fewer affordable units in some cases than Seattle’s existing Incentive Zoning program, which is voluntary for developers.

Syndicated from The Seattle Times.

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