The city has updated its website with all the materials from the April 26 open house, as well as an online comment form. You can access that information here.
With a light rail station coming to Mountlake Terrace in six years, there is no question that the city’s downtown core will see an influx of new development, especially as people seek more affordable housing outside increasingly-expensive Seattle.
But just what that development will look like, and whether it should include buildings up to 12 stories high, is the new question facing Mountlake Terrace residents.
A group of about 60 citizens gathered in the Mountlake Terrace Library April 26 to discuss whether the city’s current plan for Town Center — which covers about 72 acres along 56th Avenue West from about 228th Street Southwest to 244th Street Southwest — should be revised to allow more building height.
During his presentation, Mountlake Terrace Special Projects Director Steve Osguthorpe explained why such a change is being examined as part of the city’s 2017 Comprehensive Plan amendment process.
“We’re here to see if you want to consider additional height and what the benefit and challenges are,” Osguthorpe said.
The presentation was framed as a review of the city’s current Town Center Subarea Plan, which was adopted by the City Council in 2007 and updated in 2009. Both Osguthorpe and Senior Planner Edith Duttlinger noted that since the Town Center plan was approved in 2007, the city has seen a variety of demographic changes, including an increase in younger residents who prefer transit over cars, and amenities and entertainment over big houses with yards.
In addition, when the plan was developed, “light rail was nearly 20 years away, and now we are looking at construction to start and the station opening in Mountlake Terrace in 2023,” Duttlinger said.
Construction is expected to begin soon on a major development nearby: The Gateway project between 236th Street Southwest and 244th Street Southwest, on the site of the old Evergreen Elementary School, north of Gateway Place. The transit-oriented development near the light rail station will include a total of 600 units of multi-family housing, built in phases. The first 300-unit building is expected to bring 450 additional people to the area, Duttlinger explained.
But now the attention is turning to the Town Center, where developers are making their wishes known for the types of buildings they would like to bring to that area, Osguthorpe said. One of those is Mountlake Village LLC, which purchased the property on 56th Avenue West that housed the now-closed Roger’s Market.
Roger’s was the only grocery store in the downtown core, and Osguthorpe noted that many residents have expressed a desire for a new grocery store on the site.
Mountlake Village developers “want to build something there,” Osguthorpe said. “They want open space. They want plazas. They want to build a grocery store. This is the kind of environment they hope to create.”
The challenge, however, is that for such a building to “pencil” financially, it needs height, he said.
(The principal for Mountlake Village LLC, Alan Clark, attended the April 26 meeting and noted that the company plans to hold a community open house soon for residents to share ideas for the multi-use project.)
Currently, the Town Center is zoned for buildings of five or six stories, depending on the particular location. “Five over one” multi-use buildings — five stories of residential on top of one story of commercial –“are typically made of wood,” Osguthorpe said. “It doesn’t afford the higher quality materials, such as steel and concrete, that you see on high rise-type buildings.”
Taller buildings would allow for a variety of amenities that developers find attractive, including higher ceilings to attract retail. In addition, high rises would provide residential units with expansive views, encouraging home ownership for people who want to purchase condominiums in such buildings.
The current Town Center is dominated by surface-level parking — “a bunch of small buildings around the perimeter and a parking lot around the back side consuming a bunch of the ground level,” Osguthorpe said. “Where’s the ground floor space for our grocery store? It doesn’t work here.”
Underground parking “would be the answer but it’s expensive and it’s not feasible under the current code limits,” Osguthorpe explained.
If parking were underground, there would be more ground-level space for amenities that all could enjoy, including pedestrian plazas, fountains and other open spaces, he added.
Osguthorpe explained that the Town Center is the focal point for providing jobs and housing options in Mountlake Terrace, as well as commercial and retail businesses to serve downtown residents.
The goal, he said, is “to create a climate that invites investment.”
To support a robust retail area of shops, restaurants and related businesses, Town Center will need a daytime population, and that requires the development of professional office space. “You have to require people to be here during the day for those types of businesses to want to open up here,” Osguthorpe said.
The city’s location, directly next to Interstate 5 and just 15 miles from downtown Seattle, is drawing the attention of developers who want to build here. A light rail station “makes the commute attractive to professional office development, so if we want professional offices, light rail is really going to help…get the daytime population that we need,” Osguthorpe said.
Another point raised during the April 26 meeting was the economic benefit that increased development could bring to the City of Mountlake Terrace, which has seen financial challenges in recent years.
Osguthorpe explained the details of a program known as LCLIP, which stands for Landscape Conservation and Local Infrastructure Program. It’s a program that uses a real estate tool called Transfer of Development Rights, which provides a public financing opportunity for cities — and is one that Mountlake Terrace could take advantage of with Town Center development.
According to Forterra.org, Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) “is designed to promote growth in places it is desired while conserving farms, forests, ecologically significant areas and open space. Using this tool, landowners can sell the development value from their property as an alternative to building. Developers who purchase these rights receive bonuses, such as additional height or square footage, in areas more suitable for growth.”
One example of this is a partnership between the City of Seattle and King County, where Seattle has agreed to accept 800 TDR credits into the South Lake Union and downtown neighborhoods, which will conserve over 25,000 acres of farm, forest and rural land, Forterra said.
Osguthorpe said the City of Mountlake Terrace could receive $10 million over the course of the LCLIP program, and that revenue could be used to finance a variety of infrastructure improvements throughout the city.
As the April 26 meeting drew to a close, City Councilmember Laura Sonmore said it was critical for residents to share their opinions about Town Center building heights with City Council.
“It’s important if you want your voice heard to come to a city council meeting and even speak for the five minutes (during public comment period),” Sonmore said. “That 12-story building could happen just like that.”
“We really want to hear what you have to say,” she added.
— Story and photos by Teresa Wippel