A group of about 50 developers, real estate brokers, business owners and residents sat around long tables at the Nile Shrine Center Saturday, Dec. 9, with a collective mission: To discuss a shared vision for the future of Mountlake Terrace, and create a road map for getting there.
The meeting was organized by Duane and Deanne Landsverk, owners of Mountlake Terrace-based Landsverk Homes, with the stated purpose of identifying “what we as a community can do to support and drive the revitalization of Mountlake Terrace in a proactive manner.”
Those attending included developers with a significant stake in current and future city projects, from Arbor Village on the corner of 56th Avenue West and 236th Street Southwest and the planned Atlas 236 building across the street, to the Gateway project at the city’s south end, to the Roger’s Market property in Town Center.
A few of those in the room identified themselves as interested citizens. (The meeting was open to the community.) Nearly all Mountlake Terrace City councilmembers were there too, along with City Manager Scott Hugill, but they sat or stood around the edges of the room as observers. That’s because the meeting wasn’t sponsored by the city — although the work of city staff and elected officials was a main point of discussion during the afternoon.
Several developers and business owners in the room expressed common sources of frustration: The city’s project permitting process is slow, unpredictable and inflexible. City staff are, in the words of Duane Landsverk, “overworked and underpaid.” The city’s Planning Commission and City Council approve changes to the city code based on recommendations from city staff, but with little input from the development community that is often most affected by those changes.
The question in the mind of local developers, Duane Landsverk said, is how to get projects approved “in a timely fashion.”
“What do we, as a group, have to do to be a little more visionary and get ahead of the curve instead of what we’ve been doing today, which is reacting to every stumbling block, every impediment?” Landsverk asked. “That’s what we’re all here for, and we’re all frustrated about it.”
Mountlake Terrace resident Jerry Osborn expressed concerns both about the city’s ability to accommodate future growth and how that growth — including the addition of high-density buildings and accompanying traffic — could change the city’s character. He asked Landsverk and others in the room to define what they meant by “in a timely fashion.”
Added Osborn: “Mountlake Terrace is a commuter city and that’s how it’s been developed. “It’s not a destination city and I think for the people who live in Mountlake Terrace, that’s one of its charms.”
Resident Victor Eskenazi, who lives in the Town Center neighborhood, said he also worried about the effects of growth, including the increased population and related traffic and parking headaches.
Several in the room replied that growth is inevitable, especially with light rail coming to Mountlake Terrace by 2024, putting the city an estimated 16 minutes away from Seattle. Skyrocketing home prices in addition to commercial and residential rents are pricing people out of Seattle, and Mountlake Terrace can offer an affordable alternative for both residents and business owners, they said.
“It’s the Field of Dreams concept,” said commercial real estate broker Duane Hodges, who is working with Roger’s Market property developer Alan Clark. “You build it and they will come – this is what’s going to happen in Mountlake Terrace.”
The going rate for leasing 20,000 square feet of office space in Seattle is $80,000 to $90,000 a month, but a developer could offer the same amount of space in Mountlake Terrace at half the price “and it still pencils out nicely,” Hodges said.
In addition, a commercial tenant of that size in Mountlake Terrace “would do a couple of things,” Hodges said. “It would create a daytime population so we’re no longer a bedroom community so much. We would have synergy for retailers. Retailers love the demographics of Mountlake Terrace. You have I-5, you have access points from Edmonds, from Canyon Park, to get to Mountlake Terrace.”
Similarly, residential rents would also be lower, Hodges said, comparing the cost of nearly $4 a square foot for a Lake Union apartment, to $2.25 for one in Mountlake Terrace.
Some present also noted that the Mountlake Terrace Town Center Subarea Plan, which was adopted by the City Council in 2007 and updated in 2009, was designed to accommodate more density. The Town Center covers about 72 acres along 56th Avenue West from about 228th Street Southwest to 244th Street Southwest.
“I think that the vision in creating the Town Center is there,” said Steve Stone, general manager of AFCO & Sons, which owns both the completed Arbor Village mixed-use development and the planned Atlas 236 project across the street. The question, he said, is how to “effectively implement it and streamline it in a fashion that benefits the community, that doesn’t just feel like sticks in the air getting forced town their throat.”
The city’s revitalization, Stone said, “is going to be unbelievable if it’s done with some thought.”
Duane Landsverk also wondered whether it might be time to revisit the current Town Center concept, given that it is now 10 years old. “Do we want that same vision 10 years later?” he asked.
Landscape architect Ray Robinson pointed to the importance of the stakeholders in the room, as well as others in the community who may become involved later. Using the metaphor of a three-legged stool, he defined the three legs: “one is the city, the second are the residents and third is developers and consultants and engineers. It really takes the triad to create the vision. If one of those pegs isn’t working well, the stool falls over.
“The potential of forming a stakeholders group to enable this change, will go toward creating the vision,” Robinson added.
Also weighing in was Steve Cox, a developer for the Gateway project that will be located between 236th Street Southwest and 244th Street Southwest, on the site of the old Evergreen Elementary School, north of Gateway Place. The project includes 600 apartments and more than 100,000 square feet of retail and commercial space.
“We’re not going to get away from the traffic and congestion we see,” Cox said. “It’s part of our lives.” The question, he added, is “how do we manage that?”
Cox also acknowledged the concerns of citizens in the room. “What you say is important,” he said. “We get it. We hear it. We are trying to develop what’s right.”
He talked about the need for affordable housing and how it’s tough for developers to accommodate that “when you can’t keep up with construction costs. When the labor market is so tight. When prices are so high. It’s a difficult thing to manage.”
Cox pointed to the state law that allows cities to offer multifamily tax exemptions to developers who provide 20 percent affordable housing in a project.
“If the city wants to be more proactive on affordable housing…there is a tool available to do that,” Cox said.
There was a discussion about nearby communities that are managing growth well, including the City of Bothell. But Cox noted that projects in Bothell “didn’t happen right away. In fact, it took Bothell eight to 10 years to get to where they are today. It takes time,” he said.
“You do need a catalyst project,” Cox added. “You need something to stimulate the market’s attention. Mountlake Terrace is such a cozy little community but right now you drive by it and you don’t even know it’s there.”
A project that has been mentioned as a possible catalyst is the Mountlake Village development for the former Roger’s Market property on 56th Avenue West, and owner Alan Clark told the group Dec. 9 that he plans to unveil his plan for that site at a future meeting. The city in March presented to citizens the idea of modifying the city’s Comprehensive Plan process to include taller buildings in the Town Center — possibly up to 12 stories high — and one of those that could take advantage of any future height change would be Mountlake Village.
After spending time talking about a vision for the city, members of the group then began discussing what they defined as “impediments” to revitalizing Mountlake Terrace.
One of those roadblocks, they acknowledged, is the difficulty of assembling enough properties for a development project, since nearly all of the downtown core is made up of single-family properties — and they come onto the market at different times. Another “impediment” mentioned is the sheer number of single-family homes in the downtown core. The reality, they said, is that the city needs a solid tax base to ensure it can provide services for its residents and hire enough staff to accommodate the regional growth that is likely to come Mountlake Terrace’s way. That means looking beyond single-family homes to mixed-use development and more office space in the downtown core — which comprises less than 2 percent of the property in Mountlake Terrace, they said.
There was some pushback by residents Osborn and Eskenazi about the area’s ability to accommodate growth — and about whether Mountlake Terrace residents share the vision that more development represents a positive change.
“It is a commuter haven,” Osborn said of Mountlake Terrace. “It’s supported lower-income development and there’s not many places left in this region for that. We don’t need to be another Mill Creek, but that seems to be everyone’s vision.” Osborn instead pointed to nearby North City in Shoreline as an area that has managed to accommodate planned growth without increasing traffic congestion.
Chris Lee, who owns Chez Grand Pere Bakery on 56th Avenue West, offered a perspective that showcased the issue. Osborn pointed to Lee’s bakery as a perfect example of a local, non-chain business that he is happy to support. Lee explained, however, that his bakery — while popular — doesn’t bring in enough income to support his business. He instead relies on income generated through the bread he bakes in the back part of bakery for his Yeh Yeh’s sandwich shops in Lynnwood and Bellevue.
Lee said he believes that an increased daytime population, generated by new downtown development, would not only help his bakery business but would also draw more artisan stores to the city.
Lee added he has had his own frustrations regarding his idea to develop the back part of the Grand Pere Bakery property. He wanted to build studio apartments, he said, in an effort to provide more affordable housing. “But the opposition that came to me was they wanted retail on the bottom, which didn’t make any sense because where my back property is, you can’t see retail,” Lee said. When he approached the city about the issue, he was told: “That’s the code. We can’t do anything.”
Later in the meeting, resident Linda Rogers weighed in. “We don’t want a city that’s obsolete because we haven’t been forward thinking,” Rogers said. Addressing the development community’s concerns about inflexible zoning regulations, Rogers suggested that the city may want to consider making code changes or adding incentives to address those issues.
“I appreciate those who are concerned about what those changes are like,” Rogers added, “but my concern is that if we don’t move forward we are not only going to become stagnant, we are going to become a depressed city and I don’t want that to happen.”
Rogers also commented on stories shared Saturday about developers who are experiencing delays after their plans have been approved, with some even losing their funding as a result. “I don’t understand the ‘why’ of that,” she said. “It would help the citizens to know and be more educated on what causes these issues to happen.”
The fact citizens don’t participate in city council and planning commission meetings where development-related decisions are made was mentioned as another impediment to the city’s progress.
At the end of the meeting, the group agreed it would meet again in January, with the goal of further engaging citizens in the process.
“All are welcome,” Deanne Landsverk said. “This is open to anyone that has an interest in Mountlake Terrace.”
— Story and photos by Teresa Wippel
(Publisher’s note: City Manager Scott Hugill was invited to comment on issues raised during the meeting, but so far has not responded.)