What is the North Rainier Rezone / Mt Baker Town Center and why is it doomed to fail?

Current proposed legislation contained within Seattle City Council Bill 117979 provides for a rezone of 109 parcels surrounding the Mt Baker Light Rail Station.  The plan is for redevelopment of 30 acres of land from an area currently characterized by “auto-oriented businesses, surface parking lots and underutilized land” into a “high performing transit oriented community.”  Source:  GGLO website.  The majority of these parcels are currently zoned C-65.  Legislation provides for Seattle Mixed 65, 85, and 125, allowing for a building up to 13 stories tall on 13 acres at Rainier and McClellan, currently home to Lowe’s Hardware Store, their highest performing store in the region and one of Rainier Valley’s largest employers.    The city has an elaborate plan for a dense, walkable urban village with no plan for the economic development that must come first.

  1. Area Demographics don’t support Mt Baker Town Center
  2. Crime in Rainier Valley is not a perception, it is a reality
  3. Most land targeted for rezone to Seattle Mixed is currently zoned Commercial 65 that includes offices and apartments
  4. Sufficient Zoning Exists to Accommodate Mandated 2035 Growth Targets; No Need to Rezone
  5. Hope is not a Plan.  Without an anchor tenant, we can only expect more of the same:  Low Income Housing
  6. Seattle Mixed leaves nothing left for bargaining with a Developer
  7. Seattle Mixed adds to Gentrification with Higher Property Taxes and Higher Rents
  8. Failure of TOD Retail can be seen throughout the Valley 
  9. Single family home owners and tenants in Rainier Valley still drive cars
  10. All stakeholders and the entire Rainier Valley Community must be engaged in any plan for it to succeed

Read more, below, for support to these reasons.  Email GOESSeattle@gmail.com to join us in our opposition to this legislation. 

  1. Area Demographics don’t support a Mt Baker Town Center

Outside of Columbia City, the valley is a retail wasteland.  Our numbers do not support the grandeur of the proposed Mt Baker Town Center.  While 98144 and 98118 together contain more than 10% of our city’s population, per capita incomes are significantly lower than the city wide numbers.  The median household income is also lower than the city wide average, with 98118 doing better in this area than 98144.  The number of wage earners in a household explains this discrepancy:  98144 has an average 2.33 persons per household; 98118 has an average 2.81 persons per household. We have the population necessary to attract a large, retail urban town center with anchor tenants, but we don’t have the income necessary to support it.

Rainier Valley Demographics

98144 and 98118 Demographics from 2014 STDBonline

2013 Estimates                             98144          98118        Seattle

Households                                   12,345        15,538       294,681

Population                                   28,824         43,759       631,267

Housing Units                              13,219          16,640      316,763

Median Household Income         $49,968        $51,118     $57,514

Per Capita Income                      $32,451       $24,974     $39,138


  1. Crime in Rainier Valley  is not a perception, it is a reality

With the increase in violent crime, the ghetto perception of Rainier Valley continues.  Rainier Valley is “economically depressed, stigmatized as a low income, blighted area.” Kidder Matthews Best Use Study March 2014

All Rainier Valley neighborhoods have a consistently high rate of property crimes compared to the rest of the city.  The uptick in violent crimes, particularly robberies, is most disturbing.

South Precinct Sam Sector (Rainier Beach and Othello light rail stations) has seen an increase of robberies from 147 in 2011, 160 in 2012, and 186 in 2013.

South Precinct Robert Sector (Mount Baker and Columbia City light rail stations) has seen an increase in robberies from 103 in 2011, 101 in 2012 and 127 in 2013.

Powerpoint presentation, Public Safety Committee Hearing May 7, 2014

In the two sectors with light rail stations, we have reported 88 robberies since January 1, 2014.  Looking back, the Rainier Valley may not have be the smartest market to kick off light rail.  The criminals haven’t gone away; they just have more victims.

  1. Most land targeted for rezone to Seattle Mixed is currently zoned Commercial 65 that includes offices and apartments

Typical land uses in commercially zoned property include restaurants and bars, offices, medical services, general retail sales, and residential uses.  Street level commercial uses are required for all spaces along a major arterial, and strictly residential properties are not allowed.

Seattle Mixed requires the following street level uses on all lots abutting streets designated as Class 1 Pedestrian Streets:  General sales and services uses, eating and drinking establishments, entertainment uses, public libraries, public parks and arts facilities.  60% of the street facing façade must be transparent, and only clear or lightly tinted glass in windows, doors and display windows are considered transparent.  On pedestrian streets, parking IS NOT permitted at street level.  If there is surface parking on non-pedestrian streets, it shall provide 3 foot high screening along the lot lines abutting all streets.

So what is the difference?

Seattle Mixed provides higher height limits, does not require parking, restricts parking if provided, does not allow surface parking on pedestrian streets, and has very strict requirements for ground level retail uses.  Is that difference significant enough to warrant a massive rezone?  No.  Building becomes more expensive with the rezone.  Developers have seen vacant and underutilized land along Rainier Ave S and MLKJ Way for many, many years.  If they were interested in investing, they would be here.  Building 5 floors of housing over 1 floor of retail to 65 feet is much more practical and much less expensive than an 85 or 125 foot building.

  1. Sufficient Zoning Exists to Accommodate Mandated 2035 Growth Targets; No Need to Rezone

Land surrounding Mt Baker Light Rail Station is sufficiently zoned for growth mandated in Growth Management Act.  North Rainier is on track of meeting its 20 year growth management target of 900 units reaching 64% of that target just 9 years into the 20 year plan. “Even though new targets thru 2035 likely will require addition of another 1350 units, the current zoning has capacity to add about 7700 units.  [This is} 600 percent above needed capacity when the Comprehensive Plan and Growth Management Act say you only need excess capacity at 125% of your target.” John Fox, Seattle Displacement Coalition

Multi family, market rate housing in Rainier Valley is on the decline, with the only new market rate housing in the past 40 years being the Greenhouse Apartments in Columbia City, a community that was revitalized before light rail, attracting residents who choose to live in the Valley because of the community and the proximity to Light Rail.  Other new market rate apartments are the Station at Othello Park, with many units substantially discounted to accommodate lower income tenants, and 999 Hiawatha at the north end of the market, with an 80% vacancy rate as of January 2014.

The Rainier Valley market “has lost a net 116 market rate units since 1996.  Most of the loss is due to conversion to low income housing between the end of 1996 and 2013 (517 units).”  Kidder Matthews, numbers from Dupre + Scott

  1. Hope is not a Plan.  Without an anchor tenant, we can only expect more of the same:  Low Income Housing

With existing C-65 zoning along the valley floor, the only recent developments up to 65 feet in North Rainier are the Pontedarra, Wellspring Family Services, the 2100 Building, the Claremont, the Dakota, and Courtland Place.  Upzoning for a phantom tenant is an unnecessary expense.  Seattle and DPD are “set(ting) the table.  That is really our job.  We can’t necessarily guarantee the guests will come.”  Lyle Bicknell, KIRO TV report on Rainier Valley Facelift 5/8/2014   Are there other neighborhoods that have created an urban village before securing an anchor tenant?  University Village and the Landing in Renton certainly weren’t developed this way.  We can’t do an upzone with a hope that someone might want to develop an office building and provide jobs.  Jobs first, contract zone second.  When Amazon, Google or Microsoft comes forward is the time to consider a rezone.

We are not opposed to low income housing.  We feel that jobs need to come first, so that those in low income housing can have an opportunity to be employed and move into market rate housing.  Southeast Seattle already has more low income housing than any other Seattle neighborhood besides downtown.  Other neighborhoods need to accept their fair share.

  1. Seattle Mixed leaves nothing left for bargaining with a Developer

The rezone eliminates any hope of negotiating with a developer for open space, affordable housing, improvement of infrastructure, tree canopy cover, schools, parking.

  1. Seattle Mixed adds to Gentrification with Higher Property Taxes and Higher Rents

The upzone inflates property values, resulting in an increase in property taxes and higher rents.  New, higher rental rates are documented with each new transit oriented density (TOD) apartment building, speeding gentrification.  Microbusinesses run by and relied upon by our immigrant community will not survive with higher rents.  City wins, ethnic diversity loses.  Sales tax revenue will decline significantly when Lowe’s leaves.

  1. Failure of Transit Oriented Density Retail can be seen throughout the Valley 

All new buildings with ground level retail required by zoning continue to have high retail vacancy rates, and the lack of parking for some of these retail tenants is a contributing factor to their decline.  Ground level retail units at Rainier Vista, the Pontedarra, the Claremont and the Station at Othello Park are mostly vacant, and businesses that rent are struggling to survive.  Nevertheless, Sound Transit is doing it again, having just awarded Mercy Housing the contract to complete a similar project a block away from the Station at Othello Park.  We can look forward to 108 residential units for low income individuals and families, and another 8,000 square feet of ground floor retail.  Lots of retail space and no anchor tenant, again.  How many times does this experiment have to be tried and fail before it is tabled?

  1. Single family home owners and tenants in Rainier Valley still drive cars

The Mt Baker Urban Town Center plan calls for significant development on either side of Rainier Ave S, a mainstream arterial that sees an average of 35,000 car trips a day.  With or without the bow tie traffic redesign, the level of service will continue to receive a failing “F” grade.  Fehr Peers Seattle Station Area Analysis May 2011.  With the density, the number of car trips will increase.  The majority of the North Rainier population resides in single family homes, and these homes continue to rely on automobiles for some part of their transportation needs.

Rainier Valley should become the destination, not the journey.  If the Mt Baker Urban Town Center materializes as planned, without required parking for all of the new ground floor retail, people will continue to drive through on their way downtown, to the eastside, or to Renton for their shopping.  In this utopian vision is the replacement of Lowe’s with a 12 story mixed use building.  While we may not love Lowe’s, it serves the needs of our immediate neighbors and our friends in nearby neighborhoods, is always busy, and provides building materials and equipment for the single family homes that dominate Rainier Valley.

Lowe’s in North Rainier is the highest revenue store among all Lowe’s stores in our region.  Lowe’s is the ONLY major retail anchor tenant in the Rainier Valley.  This fact alone should be justification to nix the rezone plan.

Commercial vehicles are hampered by the bad traffic now.  It will be difficult to entice new businesses to the Valley if the situation isn’t remedied now.

     10.    All stakeholders and the entire Rainier Valley Community must be engaged in any plan for it to succeed

Who was invited to the table that DPD is setting?  Not business owners and property owners along Rainier Ave S.  Outreach was made to the QFC/Rite Aid property owner.  Outreach was made to the University of Washington.  Outreach was made to Pepsi, and shortly thereafter Pepsi bottling operations moved out of Rainier Valley.  We know that the most vocal proponents of the plan all have something to gain by it.  They are architects, developers, project managers, city employees, employees of Sound Transit, and members of boards of directors of low income housing providers.  Opponents to the plan have tried to participate but became frustrated when their input was ignored or ridiculed.  No effort was made toward consensus.

When I asked Mike O’Brien’s legislative aide about notice to the neighborhood, residents (of course) but especially business and property owners all along Rainier Ave, as every parcel will be affected, Josh Fogt thanked me for my suggestions, and concluded with this:  “Our office is not planning, nor do we have budget for, a physical mailing to everyone in the area.”  Email response from Josh Fogt 4/4/14

When other Seattle neighborhoods have faced upzones or changes to low rise zoning’s maximum heights, neighbors have united against the towers and the taller multi-family homes and have prevailed.  Here, unfortunately, we are divided.  300+ residents have signed a petition against 125 foot building heights.  And some of these signers only learned of this proposed legislation through the petition.  At the recent public hearing of Seattle’s PLUS committee, proponents of the plan were outnumbered 2 to 1 by us, the opponents to the plan.  One resounding theme shared by almost everyone who spoke was the desperate need for economic development.

Rainier Valley does need revitalization, but this plan is backwards.  Let’s find anchor tenants to grow the economy first and the housing will follow.  Growth must be organic, equitable and smart to succeed, not wide brush strokes removing our valuable commercial zoning in favor of Seattle Mixed.

Show us the Guest List for this Dinner Party.  Who will show up for dinner when your A List doesn’t show and the table is set?  I think we know the answer.