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Nat Levy
Real Estate Reporter

April 24, 2014

Real Estate Buzz: Rezone could bring big changes to Mount Baker

Real Estate Reporter

When the Mount Baker light rail station opened in 2009, there was a lot of talk about rezoning the area around it. After years of planning and deliberating, stopping and starting, the city seems to be getting close to the finish line.

On May 1, the City Council's Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee will hold a public meeting to air the proposals and get public comments.

Much of the area subject to the rezone now is zoned for commercial buildings, with heights limited to about 65 feet. The plan calls for changing height limits and allowing mixed uses. The rezone option would boost heights up to 85 feet on some of the land, and a couple of parcels could have buildings up to 125 feet.

The city's principal urban designer, Lyle Bicknell, said the mixed zoning would accommodate everything from light industrial and office to medical research and apartments. The zoning requires an inviting element on the ground floor such as retail, restaurants, libraries, parks or art spaces.

Image courtesy of GGLO [enlarge]
Land around Mount Baker’s light rail station could become a dense, pedestrian-oriented neighborhood.

“We really wanted to provide enormous flexibility in the range of height that could be achieved and range of uses,” Bicknell said.

The rezone boundaries vary throughout the neighborhood, but in general the area is bounded by South Bayview Street — just north of the Lowe's Home Improvement store — on the north, South Byron Street on the south, Rainier Avenue South on the east and 25th Avenue South on the west. Most of the parcels that would get taller structures are north of Cheasty Boulevard South/South Mount Baker Boulevard.

Bicknell said the rezone is part of the city's plan to concentrate density around major employment and transit hubs. Much of the city is zoned for single-family houses, and that isn't changing. New development is encouraged in areas designated as urban villages and urban centers like South Lake Union, Northgate, Capitol Hill and Ballard.

Bicknell said the city estimates 70,000 new households and 115,000 new jobs will be added in the next 20 years. Officials are trying to figure out where to put them, and how to create transit-oriented neighborhoods to avoid adding more cars to already congested roads.

The goal of rezoning Mount Baker is to create a walkable town center with transit, jobs, entertainment and housing, Bicknell said.

Some of the firms that have worked on the rezone are GGLO, Mithun, Fehr and Peers Transportation Consultants, and Heffron Transportation.

The city is also pursuing similar rezones in transit-heavy neighborhoods like Northgate and the University District.

After the Mount Baker public meeting, the council committee will take up the rezone. Bicknell said the full council could vote on it this summer.

But rezoning has been a hot button issue in Mount Baker for several years.

Much of the discord centers around the 13-acre site where Lowe's Home Improvement store sits. The city has proposed a maximum height of 125 feet on the site, which once was home to Sick's Stadium. Bicknell said he envisions a variety of uses there such as a research or higher education facility, with a more urban version of Lowe's on the ground floor.

May 1 meeting on rezone plan
There will be a public meeting at 6 p.m. May 1 at 2100 24th Ave. S. about plans for the North Rainier/Mount Baker rezone. Sign-up sheets to comment will be available and each person will have two minutes to speak. The Seattle City Council’s Planning Land Use and Sustainability Committee could vote on the proposal as soon as May 20. Mike O’Brien is chair of the committee, and Tim Burgess and Nic Licata are on it. More information and zoning maps are at http://seattle.gov/dpd/cityplanning/completeprojectslist/northrainier/documents/default.htm

Bicknell said he doesn't think there is enough demand yet for 125-foot structures there given the cost of high rises. Bicknell said buildings that tall are allowed in downtown neighborhoods, parts of South Lake Union and the University District.

Redevelopment of the Lowe's site is not likely to be soon. The retailer has leased the land since 1992. A Lowe's spokeswoman would not say when the lease is up, but she said the company has no plans to relocate.

Some residents see problems with the rezone. Jeannie O'Brien is a fourth-generation Rainier Valley resident and an attorney. She said 125-foot buildings don't make sense in a neighborhood that today has buildings of six stories or less. O'Brien said the best compromise is to change the zoning to “Seattle mixed” with a maximum height of 65 feet.

With Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and Rainier Avenue South, the area is defined by its major roads. O'Brien contends that pedestrian-friendly improvements don't mesh with these large roads. They won't make the neighborhood walkable and will make the traffic worse, she said.

Taller buildings make more sense in downtown neighborhoods, O'Brien said, pointing out some people move to Mount Baker to be in a less dense area.

“I think that what they are creating belongs in a suburb in a new plan where there is nothing to disturb,” O'Brien said.

But others in the community embrace the idea of adding density. Jin Lee lives a few blocks from the light rail station near Franklin High School.

Lee said he thinks Mount Baker will be safer and a better place to live if more people walk there. He said in nearby Columbia City many people walk to stores and restaurants, while Mount Baker is mostly pawn shops and parking lots.

He called parts of Mount Baker a “Goldilocks situation for crime” — just right for criminal activity because there are too few eyes on the street. He wants higher density and walkable streets.

“Doing anything to get something happening in this neighborhood would be a benefit,” Lee said.

Top spots for green housing?

Downtown Bellevue and Columbia City are among the top 10 neighborhoods in the country when it comes to houses and condos with green features, according to an analysis by Seattle-based brokerage Redfin.

Downtown Bellevue had the third highest percentage of listings with green features at 36 percent, and Columbia City was eighth at 30 percent.

The greater Seattle area has 20 neighborhoods where more than 10 percent of the listings have some sort of green features, the most of any city Redfin analyzed.

What makes houses here so green? Solar panels, low-flow faucets, dual-pane windows, energy-efficient appliances, and environmental certifications like Energy Star, Built Green and LEED.

Not only do these homes benefit the environment, Redfin said they also sell better: The median sale price of houses and condos with green features was $47,600 higher than those without green features.

Got a tip? Contact DJC real estate editor Brian Miller at brian.miller@djc.com or call him at (206) 219-6517.

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