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University District upzone will set pace for other neighborhoods

Apartment buildings in the University District, Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott
Apartment buildings in the University District, Seattle.

Seattle lawmakers are on the verge of rezoning each neighborhood to be denser, taller versions of what they are now. 

The Seattle City Council is scheduled to start the process Tuesday with a vote to rezone the University District. It’s part of what city leaders call HALA (Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda), the city’s response to Seattle's affordable housing crisis.

On the University District rezone in particular, it's been a lively five years of public meetings.

It has included neighborhood residents like Jeannie Gorman, who said “our neighborhood will become as characterless as Ballard if this goes through," and architects who would be affected like Matt Hutchins who said "this is not mandatory affordable housing, this is a mandatory premium to build in Seattle."

All along, city planning officials have argued the reasons that a rezone is necessary. They say over the last five years Seattle has added 35 new jobs a day on average, but only 12 new homes a day.

The city's U-District rezone would allow more high rises to fit more people. In exchange for gaining extra floor space, high rise developers would need to make 9 percent of units available to lower-income households.

But Councilmember Mike O'Brien is making a last minute push for 10 percent instead — the max the city's willing to require.

O'Brien: "If we don't do that here, I worry about where will we ever do that high number of affordable housing? When we're setting the record for the country for the number of tower cranes in Seattle, development can still be profitable and will be profitable."

He said it’s a small increase, but would bring about 50 more new affordable units to the neighborhood, above the 600-900 expected at the 9 percent requirement.

Outside of City Hall, developer advocates have argued for a lower number of mandatory affordable units.

The U-District rules are expected to be precedent setting, because the City Council will rezone four more neighborhoods this year.

Citywide legislation is expected by the beginning of 2018.