Rob Johnson represents Wallingford on city council and is ushering HALA through the council as land use chair. This is a follow up to our January interview with him. Topics include Limiting Demolitions, Wallingford Neighborhood Planning, HALA Leaving Car Centric Communities Untouched, Transportation, Developer Impact Fees, The HALA Split on City Council, ADU / DADU Triplexes, and Meeting Rob in Wallingford.
Q1- Limiting Home Demolitions: The main concern with HALA is that upzones will drive redevelopment that happens too quickly, destroying livability while the transformation happens and forcing residents to either sell out to developers or live in a construction zone, then be surrounded by concrete walls (case study: Ballard). It seems that HALA could be enhanced and this concern could be addressed if there was a mechanism to auction off a certain number of demolition permits on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis. The auction would not only generate funds, it would discourage and leverage the replacement of modest homes with modern mcmansions. While not in developer interests, the folks at [email protected] were encouraging of the idea and the city’s legal department said they could work, either fitting into MHA or as a separate measure. Seattle is changing, but that does not mean we must destroy livability while change takes place.
Do you support demolition auctions or any other mechanism to control the rate of demolition in Seattle?
A1: The City does charge for demolition permits, but it is legally limited to the cost of issuing those permits as per RCW 82.02.020. Legality aside, I would be open to discussing it, but on first glance I am not sure how that type of program would fit into the HALA framework or goals, which is to create more housing at all income levels.
Q2- Wallingford Neighborhood Planning: In our chat in January, you said the reason that Wallingford is being upzoned by HALA is because it has “amenities”, but you offered no specifics. We have zero neighborhood elementary schools and must bus our kids out of the neighborhood, a middle school overflowing with portables, no community center, no access to light rail even planned, raw sewage outflows that are tops in the city, and a couple small parks that turn to mud due to overuse. There’s a plan to open Lincoln High School back up but it won’t have a sports field, so the plan is to use Lower Woodland Park for student athletics. Our only meager amenity seems to be a few lousy bus stops on clogged 45th street, bus stops that are to become “rapid” in name only.
Seattle used to be a model for the country on how democracy could work from the bottom up with neighborhood planning. In the best examples the community would be brought together to create maps that defined plans for transportation, land use, and parks, then as funds became available those plans were developed, but out neighborhood plan hasn’t been updated since 1998. Will you empower Spencer or HALA folks or the Department of Neighborhoods to work with our community to draw up a new map for investments in our neighborhood?
A2: Throughout the engagement at the workshop in Wallingford earlier this year and the citywide open house event held in Ravenna, staff from multiple city departments and ongoing projects have been available and seeking input on those issues. As a city, we regularly update and prioritize projects through implementing plans.
Many of these specific infrastructure projects are outlined in departmental development and implementation plans including the Parks 2017 Development Plan and Gap Analysis Update, transportation modal plans like the Seattle Pedestrian Master Plan and Transportation Master Plan, as well as SPU Stormwater Management Plan.
Seattle Public Schools also maintains a series of Continuous School Improvement Plans to set forth strategies to improve the quality of our existing schools as well as investments in updates to existing and creation of new facilities through the Building Excellence Program (BEX), the most recent BEX IV was approved in 2013. Improvements to Lincoln High School and Hamilton International Middle School were included in the suite of major projects within BEXIII and BEXIV, totaling over 160 million dollars. As a part of this work, SPS has identified the need for additional K-5 capacity in Northeast Seattle, resulting in the new facility for the Thornton Creek School at 7712 40th Avenue NE.
I believe that DoN is working very intentionally to expand their outreach and involvement with the community. Initiatives like the Community Involvement Commission and the Renter’s Council exemplify an innovative approach by the department to amplify many different voices throughout our city. Our three Community Engagement Coordinators will also be out in the communities, meeting with neighbors, assisting with groups, and serving as liaisons to provide the essential link to government, and to respond to your questions and concerns. The Community Engagement Coordinator for the North Sector (including D4) is Laurie Ames, and you can reach her at [email protected] or 206.684.0320.
Q3- HALA Leaving Car Centric Communities Untouched: Last time we chatted we offered you a mechanism to upzone and redevelop elite, car centric country clubs like Broadmoor, Sand Point, and the Seattle Golf Club. You said that those areas and all other car centric communities in Seattle are ignored by HALA because they “do not have any, or very few, of the community assets needed to support growth.” A private, luxury golf course obviously lacks public amenities, but when a country club is redeveloped, there is space for new schools, transit, and parks. The square footage of those golf courses are comparable to existing urban villages and new development is exactly what developer impact fees were designed for, so there is already a mechanism to pay for schools, parks, and transit. Retrofitting places like Wallingford that currently lack amenities will be much more expensive and disruptive.
Strictly from an urban planning perspective, it seems we should be looking to create more urban villages at a human scale and transform car-centric neighborhoods instead of tearing down the urban villages we have now. Can you articulate how our most wealthy, car-centric neighborhoods need to change going forward and how you are going to make that happen?
A3: As you know, the City instituted the Urban Village strategy as a way of accommodating growth, to prioritize our investments in transit, parks, community centers and to support small neighborhood business districts. As you mentioned in Q2, there are still investments that need to be made in our existing urban villages. Creating more urban villages would only spread our resources thinner, and would actually decrease our ability to provide those investments in existing Urban Villages, like Wallingford.
Q4- Transportation: On the recent find it, fix it walk in Wallingford, several long standing transportation issues were raised, and I’m hoping you can speak to their progress. First up was adding medians and crosswalks to Green Lake Way between Aurora and 50th. That stretch is a long neglected, 5 lane, 1660 foot wall that splinters the neighborhood and that SDOT has refused to add crosswalks to despite district council prioritization because not enough people are running across traffic lanes right now. Second up was crossing I-5 on 45th by bike, an investment that is demanded by the language of Move Seattle by the time U-District light rail opens but that we have not seen any plans for. Third, the Mayor was told of the challenges we face with getting Waterway 20 re-opened for public access to Lake Union. It is now illegally occupied by the Harbor Patrol. We are waiting for the city to sign a lease prepared by DNR that would transition the waterway back to the public. The Mayor was clear in stating all three of these neighborhood concerns should be addressed, but there hasn’t been any visible follow through since the find it / fix it walk, raising concerns that this is more empty promises from an ADHD city government. Can you clarify status on these projects and provide follow through?
A4: My office has asked SDOT for a status update on these three projects and we are still waiting for a response back. Given the extremely high volume of requests that SDOT receives, I expect a response within the next few weeks. I will share any information on these projects as soon as I have it.
Q5- Developer Impact Fees: Speculative redevelopment packs in more people without providing any funds for the new schools, transit, and parks required to support them. Developer impact fees are the state approved mechanism to collect these funds. When we last chatted in January you mentioned a specific implementation plan for developer impact fees in Seattle was supposed to completed last year by the mayor and that you would follow up with him. Can you clarify the status of that report and the possibilities for developer impact fees going forward?
A5: There is staff at the Office of Planning and Community Development who is working on an assessment of impact fees, but I do not have an estimate of when that work will be completed.
Q6- The HALA Split on City Council: In the recent U-District upzone debate Mike O’Brien attempted to bump the rate of affordable housing from 9% to 10% (M1 to M2), but as land use chair you joined 4 of the 7 council members to oppose this change while also expanding the area to be upzoned. It is interesting to see this split on city council developing over HALA. How would characterize this split, and do you endorse current M1 / M2 designations for Wallingford or want to see changes like what happened in the U-District?
A6: In our adopted MHA framework, affordability requirements for new development are set through several mechanisms. The first is by dividing the city into low, medium, and high cost areas. In general, higher cost areas have higher affordability requirements. A second factor in setting the affordability requirement is the capacity given in the zoning changes. The higher the value of the capacity given, the higher the affordability requirement – and in most areas this is indicated by using the M, M1 and M2 suffix, with M being the lowest value of capacity increase and M2 being the highest value of capacity increase. This leads to a range of affordability requirements from 5% to 11%.
The Office of Planning and Community Development recommended an affordability requirement of 9% in the core of the U District. This was a reflection of the fact that while the area was an urban center receiving a relatively higher amount of additional capacity, the economic analysis did not clearly support the highest affordability requirements. There was a proposal to increase the affordability requirement to 10%, which I did not support. My concern was that higher affordability requirements could delay new projects which would delay new affordable and market rate units for an unknown amount of time, missing the opportunity to start generating new affordable units and funds sooner rather than later. I successfully passed an amendment that, when market conditions change, could reclassify the U District from a “medium” cost area to “high”, increasing the affordable housing requirement to 10%.
I believe there are areas of the city which are currently proposed for the “M2” designation and would require the highest affordability requirements, which I support. However, I believe the decision should be rooted in our best economic and zoning analysis, to ensure that we do not inadvertently limit the creation of the new housing that our city needs.
Q7- ADU / DADU Triplexes: We have been sympathetic to some changes that promote affordable ADUs and DADUs, for instance we favor eliminating the requirement to build off street parking for them. We would also like the city to go neighborhood to neighborhood with offers to help residents create affordable ADUs using vetted contractors, like how city light rolled out rooftop solar. On the flip side, we are concerned about changes that promote speculative redevelopment and teardowns, such as reducing owner-occupancy requirements.
We have heard you made comments lately that you believe backyard cottage legislation should also allow a house + a DADU + an ADU, effectively a triplex. Is this a proposed change city-wide and not just in urban villages? What do you think of proposed changes to the owner occupancy requirement, and what do you say to people that are concerned about this legislation leading to more teardowns? Are there other backyard cottage changes you want to see happen?
A7: I hear quite a bit of support from constituents about changes to make it easier for people to build accessory dwelling units, and I agree. It is a great way to provide small, neighborhood-based housing for a wide-range of households and provides homeowners with a way to generate additional income, provide homes for aging parents or young children, or even allows homeowners to downsize and live in the smaller unit while renting out the original home. I support many of the changes proposed in the Office of Planning and Community Development recommendations.
My understanding is that the original proposal would make changes in all of the areas where ADUs are already allowed, not limited to urban villages. I do support the change to the owner-occupancy requirement. Currently, we allow any single family homeowners, as well as any owner of a duplex or apartment building to rent out units without living on site and I don’t believe we need a different standard for an accessory dwelling unit. Regrading tear-downs, my understanding is that during the appeal hearing, the City expert’s analysis indicated that the proposed changes would not lead to additional tear-downs, but that is one issue that will be further studied as part of the Environmental Impact Statement that will be prepared later this year and I look forward to seeing the assessment of possible impacts before commenting further on the recommended changes.
I think that some lots can accommodate both an ADU and a DADU. The original proposal did not increase the amount of development that could go on one lot, but just changed the configuration. I would prefer to see additional small homes added to a lot rather than homes being torn down to build one, much larger home.
Q8- Meeting Rob in Wallingford: Thanks for taking the time to chat with Wallyhood again. You could hunker down with the “New Urbanist” blog and talk about how great Seattle will be once developers replace everything that’s here now, so we appreciate you taking the time to talk to us obstacles to progressive utopianism. As you know, there has been some frustration that you were not at the Wallingford HALA informational meetings or the find it / fix it walk with the mayor, as all three meetings were each attended by hundreds of residents protesting HALA. You also promised during the campaign to attend 4 community council meetings per year, but have attended only one since being elected. We understand you have small kids and you have attended private events in the neighborhood, but it’s arguably part of the job to be publicly accessible in your district neighborhoods.
For residents that want to speak with you in person, what is the next time you will be available in Wallingford for a public meeting? Can you announce some regular public availability in Wallingford?
A8: The reason I worked swiftly when I took office to open a district office was because of my goal of being accessible to my constituents. We expanded that accessibility to include public drop in hours at our booth at the Farmer’s market year-round. While both are located in the University District, we view this as a central location in the district and are opportunities for all constituents to take advantage of.
One of my staff members is at the district office every Friday morning, between 9-12. I am usually at the district office every other Friday afternoon, and constituents can always call the office to make an appointment. As for the Saturday Farmers Market hours, my staff members and I all take turns with those shifts. Each of us is at the Farmers Market once every 4-5 weeks.
We don’t have any specific Wallingford dates to share at this point, that does not mean we will not be present in Wallingford and to our Wallingford constituents. We are routinely available at our district office and at the farmers market to all of our constituents, in a public or drop in style. Regardless of neighborhood, constituents can always contact the office to schedule a time to chat, and either myself or my staff will continue to attend WCC meetings on at least a quarterly basis.