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August 17, 2018

City looks at upzoning, expanding urban village at Rainier Beach

  • New zoning would allow taller buildings near the light rail station — with some up to 125 feet.
    Journal Staff Reporter

    Map from city of Seattle [enlarge]
    The dotted lines on this map show the proposed Rainier Beach urban village expansion area.

    The Rainier Beach light rail station opened in 2009, but there's been little new housing built around it.

    In fact, since 2006 only 37 apartments, townhouses and houses have been constructed in the 219-acre urban village that encompasses the station, said Jason W. Kelly, director of communications for the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development.

    This is despite the fact that the urban village is designated to accommodate growth, and that Sound Transit's light rail stations were built to promote transit oriented development.

    Change may be on the way.

    The city is proposing to upzone the Rainier Beach Urban Village and expand it by 49 acres. The expansion would add one block south of the existing boundary, four blocks to the west and six blocks to the north.

    The city council is expected to vote on the expansion and upzones early next year, after an appeal of the environmental impact statement is resolved.

    The area around the station is zoned for single-family houses, low-rise townhouses and small apartment buildings.

    The city is proposing a new zoning designation — Seattle Mixed Rainier Beach — that would allow buildings of 55 to 125 feet within one or two blocks of the station, with the tallest closest to the station, Kelly said.

    Another block from the station, the city is proposing that Neighborhood Commercial zoning replace Low Rise 3 on Henderson Street. That would generally allow buildings of 55 to 75 feet, to encourage more retail and housing, Kelly said.

    Any parcels in the urban village will get a zoning change. For instance, sites zoned Neighborhood Commercial will generally be allowed an extra floor.

    Parcels within a quarter mile of the station will be upzoned from Single Family to Low Rise 1 or 2, allowing for buildings of up to four stories. For parcels beyond a quarter mile away, the city proposes a gentler upzone — Residential Small Lot — for existing Single Family zones. That would allow small-scale cottages and duplexes/triplexes.

    Rainier Beach is an ethnically diverse neighborhood in the southeastern corner of the city, near Lake Washington.

    It has a number of immigrants, people with low-incomes and renters. Kelly said the city is concerned about displacing current residents so in some areas it is proposing less intensive upzones. However, he said the city is trying to balance potential displacement while creating density around an expensive piece of infrastructure — the station.

    Since 2000, employment in Rainier Beach has remained static. In 2000, it had 1,118 jobs. In 2,016, it had 1,075 jobs, according to the city.

    Kelly said that in response to requests from people in the community, the Seattle Mixed Rainier Beach zone will offer a floor area ratio incentive for these type of spaces: college, job training, food processing, light manufacturing, child care and affordable housing.

    Ben Bakkenta, senior program manager for Puget Sound Regional Council, said the city and Rainier Beach residents have been focused on economic development around the station associated with the Rainier Beach Food Innovation District. They have not been as focused on mixed-use development typically associated with transit station areas.

    The Rainier Valley, which includes Rainier Beach, is very ethnically diverse. It also has historically been an area affordable to people with lower incomes. The valley has many houses, but, there has been comparatively little investment in mixed-used apartments and condos, Bakkenta said.

    Redevelopment has been complicated, he said, by institutional ownership of some properties near light rail stations, such as the University of Washington's consolidated laundry at Mount Baker, and by private ownership of large parcels that may cost significant time and money to redevelop.

    This slows development near stations because smaller investors are not inclined to jump in without some larger parcels being redeveloped, Bakkenta said.

    Major arterials can also make redevelopment more difficult. And the prevalence of single family houses and other small lots near stations has made assembling land tricky, he said.

    Bakkenta said multifamily development at Othello was hurt by the recession, but that area is seeing more projects, including a large one proposed by HomeSight.

    A number of successful market-rate mixed-use apartment projects have been built near the Columbia City light rail station in recent years, paving the way for people to look at the station areas, he said.

    Recently, Mt. Baker Housing said it expects to start construction in 2020 on 160 units of low-income housing with a community food center at 8600 Rainier Ave. S., near the Rainier Beach station.

    Bakkenta said he's heard from some nonprofit housing developers that land in the valley is already “out of reach” for them, without subsidies.

    As market-rate development comes in, current residents may get squeezed out. For instance, PSRC said about 87 percent of the 8,000 people who live near Othello are minorities. The area also has low incomes and large households compared with other station areas in the region, “indicating a potential risk of displacement.”

    The new zoning plan for the Rainier Beach urban village is part of the city's implementation of the Mandatory Housing Affordability policy, which will require new development include or contribute to a fund for affordable housing. The city said zoning changes that add development capacity and expand housing choices are necessary to put MHA into effect.

    The city has 30 urban centers and villages, and MHA will be implemented in all of them, said Brennon Staley, a strategic advisor with the city's Office of Planning and Community Development

    He said the city is proposing to expand and do upzones in 10 villages with frequent transit, including light rail.


    Lynn Porter can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.

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