After a lengthy discussion concerning building heights and affordable housing options, the Mountlake Terrace City Council on April 7 tabled a vote concerning proposed code changes in the Freeway/Tourist District along I-5.
The council is considering changes that would allow building heights of up to 20 stories or 285 feet in portions of the mostly-vacant land along I-5 south of 236th Street Southwest to the King-Snohomish County border. The council is scheduled to reconsider the code changes at its April 21 meeting.
Current city code allows for new building construction in the Freeway/Tourist District of up to four stories, but city officials want to increase the height allowance to attract major developers to the area. The proposed changes are a complicated mix of rules for different zones within the entire district, different options for developers to meet in order to qualify for taller construction, and allowing developers to purchase Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) with rural areas of the region to qualify for taller construction.
“The intent here is to provide public benefits for developers’ opportunity to go higher in building heights more consistent with the market,” explained Bill Trimm, MLT Interim Community and Economic Development Director.
Developers could qualify for higher 20 stories or 285 feet in building heights if they purchase TDR credits, 12 stories or 180 feet if they meet two of four special conditions, or eight stories if they meet one of the four special conditions. The city’s proposed special conditions are:
• “Green” building practices that qualify for special Leadership in Energy & Enviornmental Design (LEED) ratings
• Low-impact stormwater management techniques
• Provision of 100 or more housing units, of which at least 30% are dedicated for 12 or more years for affordable housing
• A public plaza that is accessible from a public street, and includes artwork and landscaping
Much of the council discussion on Monday was centered on two aspects of the proposed code changes, the allowable height limits that development could reach and the use of a regional “Area Median Income” (AMI) figure that would define “affordable housing” in the district.
In the public hearing on the issue, Mountlake Terrace resident Charles Tupper told the council that any buildings taller than 90 feet in Freeway/Tourist sub-district D would block views of I-5 from homes in his neighborhood.
“The height requirements concern us greatly,” said Tupper, who lives in the 6000 block of 238th Street SW. “The people on the top of that hill in my entire neighborhood are going to be looking in the windows of people’s apartments. That’s what we’re going to have for a view in the future.”
City officials are counting on the 60-foot wide tree buffer along the east side of the Freeway/Tourist District to separate any potential development from the single-resident housing that sits at a higher grade further to the east.
Council members also spent time discussing the condition of affordable housing in the district. To qualify for higher building heights, developers could exercise the option of providing housing in their plans that are intended for those earning less than half of the AMI, approximately $86,000. Concerns of council members ranged from apprehension the condition may lead to low-income housing to the idea that the AMI didn’t give a true assessment of what the median income really is in the city.
“If we are doing this to … enable the developers to go higher, it benefits them; what’s the benefit to our local citizens if the median income is $86,000 that we’re using,” questioned City Councilmember Doug McCardle. “That’s not really what it is in this area.”
Noting that the council had plenty of good questions concerning the potential code changes, City Manager Arlene Fisher suggested that the issue be tabled until later this month. The public hearing that began at Monday’s meeting will also be continued on April 21.
Trimm admitted that the circumstances of the issue are extraordinary. “It’s frankly a little bit unusual to have a high-intensity zoned district like this directly adjacent to single-family neighborhoods,” he said.
— Story and photo by Doug Petrowski