After lengthy debate, the Mountlake Terrace City Council voted 5-2 on April 21 to establish new building codes in sections of the Freeway/Tourist District south of 236th Street SW and along I-5 that will allow developers to build projects up to 12 stories tall in the district under certain conditions.
The approved ordinance updates 2010 codes and made some minor “housekeeping” changes to code language, set a minimum height requirement for development in sub-districts C and D, and established four options for developers to consider if they wish to build higher than the maximum height limit of four stories.
City officials are lauding the options as “public benefits,” conditions a developer must meet to increase the height of their building proposals. The four options are: an accessible public plaza including artwork and landscaping; extra low-impact stormwater facilities, construction of buildings certified as meeting standards of sustainable energy efficiency, and a new option approved by council members at the April 21 meeting, additional buffer along a stream through the area and construction of a multi-purpose pedestrian trail/pathway to the Mountlake Terrace Transit Center on 236th Street.
The city council voted 6-1 to make the pedestrian trail an option for developers, replacing a previously proposed option of building 100 or more housing units, of which at least 30 percent are dedicated as “affordable housing.”
While councilmembers were at a consensus for requiring developers to add public benefits to their projects in exchange for higher building heights, the disagreements were on how high the construction should go and how many of the benefit options should be required for the higher allowances.
The ordinance called for developers to meet just one of the four options to increase maximum building heights from four stories to eight stories, and two options to be allowed to build to 12 stories. Mayor Pro Tem Laura Sonmore was most vocal about not requiring more from developers in exchange for higher building heights.
“What I am saying is we need to do more in public benefits, services, to add to this,” she said.
“I know that property,” she continued. “I grew up in Mountlake Terrace; I played on those fields. I understand what’s down there, and it’s a beautiful chunk of property, and that’s why I am just saying we need to proceed with caution.”
Councilmember Bryan Wahl stressed the four options for developers to consider were all worthwhile; “The one I’m most excited about is the public plaza,” he said. “The other one that I like a lot is the one we just changed, which provides for enhanced stream buffer and potentially a trail.”
“But that’s only if they’re going up to 12 stories,” Sonmore replied. “Because if that builder wants to go up to eight stories, they only have to pick one. So you’re not getting very much at all for this.”
“I don’t think we’re getting enough bang for our change in our zoning,” she added.
Other councilmembers argued that the idea of seeking public benefit options from developers was necessary as the 2010 ordinance allowed for buildings of up to 20 stories in sub-district C and 12 stories in sub-district D if Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) credits were obtained. TDR is a regional program that allows developers to purchase “credits” that would set aside land in rural areas in exchange for increased development in more urban settings.
The TDR is still an option for any developer within the Freeway/Tourist District, but city officials are hinting that they do not foresee anyone wanting to go that route with development there.
“The status of TDR’s in our region, it’s a good program,” said Mountlake Terrace Interim Community and Economic Director Bill Trimm. “It’s been used quite well in major core areas of Seattle – the Denny Triangle area and also in the South Lake Union area – where development rights that have been purchased in rural and resource lands in either Pierce, King or Snohomish County and have been transferred to downtown Seattle to allow for higher building heights. So it’s worked quite a bit in Seattle and especially in a couple of those very urban districts. The problem is it really hasn’t worked well – it hasn’t worked at all, frankly – in the suburban market.”
Mayor Jerry Smith stressed that the new ordinance was needed to create some incentive for developers to add public benefits to their plans or else they may simply purchase TDR credits and build taller using that program.
While city officials believe 20-story buildings in the district, though allowable, will be unlikely, even the prospect of 12-story buildings drew questions from one councilmember. “I’m just kind of questioning the building heights, the maximum in that area of eight-story to 12-story,” said Council member Doug McCardle. “and just the encroachment on the property values of the residents who live on top of the hill, as far as is that going to have any adverse effect. If you’re looking out your back window and just see a big building, is that going to have an effect on their property value?”
Wahl argued that the 60-foot tree buffer along the east edge of the Freeway/Tourist District, plus a 65-foot stream buffer in the area also, provided some protection of adverse views into the district from the nearby residential community. Wahl also stressed that design standards already in city code protect open space, environmental and appearance concerns sometime raised with potential new development.
The building code ordinance for the Freeway/Tourist District passed 5-2, with Sonmore and McCardle casting the dissenting votes.
— By Doug Petrowski