Once again, ensuring Sound Transit keeps its commitments when it comes to light rail construction was top of mind for the Mountlake Terrace City Council during the council’s work/study session Thursday, Feb. 1.
During the past two years, the council has tangled with the transit agency on a variety of issues related to building a light rail station at Mountlake Terrace. Concerns about making sure the agency keeps its promises to cities regarding construction have been heightened since Sound Transit announced last year that it was over budget and behind schedule on its light rail extension from Northgate to Lynnwood.
Last Thursday night, the latest concern surfaced: Sound Transit is planning to close the existing 200-space surface parking lot at the Mountlake Terrace Transit Center, perhaps as soon as this year. The lot would remain closed for several years while construction takes place. The current parking lot and the nearby parking garage are filled to capacity with commuters by 7:30 a.m. each weekday.
City Manager Scott Hugill told the council that Sound Transit documentation indicated the agency would place temporary parking within a quarter of a mile of the existing lot, “if it’s feasible.” Now, Sound Transit “has raised the possibility” of putting the parking as far as a mile away, using existing lots so the agency doesn’t have the expense of building a new one, Hugill said. Sound Transit would then shuttle riders to the transit center during the morning and evening commute hours, Hugill said.
That’s why, Hugill said, it’s important that the city include clarifying language in its 2017 Comprehensive Plan, which is scheduled to be considered by the council during its Monday, Feb. 5 business meeting.
“We want to remove that somewhat gray language, that ‘feasible’ language, and say no, we expect Sound Transit to put that parking within a quarter of mile,” Hugill said. The hope, he added, is that the temporary parking can be located “right next door” to the current parking lot, at the cul-de-sac at 59th Place.
Hugill also stressed that access from the Mountlake Terrace Transit Center is a key element to the success of the city’s Town Center. “The next five or six years are critical for the Town Center,” he said. “That’s when development is really going to happen, in anticipation of light rail. It’s going to be great guns and we have to be ready for it.”
The city wants to ensure that commuters are “in the habit of getting off the bus at the transit station, not be shuttled a mile out of the Town Center but so they can get out and walk…and see what’s happening and use those businesses as they come in,” Hugill added.
That particular Comprehensive Plan amendment related to Sound Transit is one of several the council will consider Monday night, and the decision comes with several related consequences. For starters, the council is late in approving the 2017 Comprehensive Plan. It was originally supposed to be okayed in December but was delayed due to a procedural error.
Some on the council — including Councilmember Bryan Wahl — have asked whether approval could be delayed further, so that the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendments could be sent back to the city Planning Commission for further review.
That move was prompted by recent feedback from local developers — discussed in detail during a community forum Dec. 9 — who say the city is moving too slowly on approving proposed projects, particularly those in the Town Center area currently bounded by 56th and 58th Avenues West and 232nd and 234th Streets Southwest.
Since the city’s Comprehensive Plan can only be updated once a year, approving any one of the amendments Monday would be considered an update — and would mean the city can’t consider another update — for 2018 — until late December.
“I’m frustrated that December is the earliest that the 2018 comp plan could be adopted,” Wahl said. Instead, Wahl asked if there was a way to further delay 2017 Comprehensive Plan adoption so that it could be sent to the Planning Commission for work on the Town Center update. “What remedies do we have in the meantime?” Wahl asked.
Hugill replied that he and Christy Osborn, the city’s new Community and Economic Development Director, would need to further investigate whether other options would be possible. He promised an answer by Monday’s meeting “as to whether there may be a different approach.”
In other business, the council discussed a proposal to create a separate residential zoning district for the transitional use areas — involving townhomes and parking lot development — that is currently permitted in a narrow band of lots abutting the Town Center zoning district. The purpose of the transitional uses area is to provide a buffer between the more intense development permitted in the Town Center district and the surrounding single-family residences.
An open house was held just prior to Thursday’s council meeting so that citizens could view the display boards related to the proposal and talk with city planners.
During the meeting, Senior Planner Edith Duttlinger told the council that the height limit for the townhomes in the new transitional zone would be the same as allowed in the city’s other RS 7200 and RS 8400 districts — 35 feet or three stories.
Lot coverage was an area that stimulated council discussion. Boards around the room illustrated three different lot-coverage outcomes — 60 percent, 55 percent and 45 percent. While the city’s Planning Commission has not made a recommendation on lot coverage, councilmembers indicated they were comfortable with the idea of 60 percent, which is the amount preferred by the development community.
In addition, councilmembers said they were OK with the proposed idea to refer to the new zone as the TZ zone.
Next steps for the transitional uses proposal include a Planning Commission public hearing Feb. 12, followed by a recommendation to the council; and a council work session Feb. 15 with a public hearing and action on Feb. 20.
The council also talked about the formation of a city economic development task force, as proposed earlier by Councilmember Doug McCardle. Councilmembers explored a range of options for the composition of the group to ensure it represented a broad range of those with a stake in the city’s development. McCardle suggested pulling several members from the newly-formed CLEAR group, a coalition of Mountlake Terrace developers, real estate brokers, business owners and citizens that has been meeting since December to discuss ways to revitalize the city.
Councilmember Laura Sonmore said she worried that having members from CLEAR, which stands for Civic Leadership Educating Achieving Revitalizing, would result in “group think” that would dominate the task force. However, during the public comment period later in the evening, resident Victor Eskenazi, who belongs to the CLEAR group, said councilmembers should attend CLEAR meetings so they can see for themselves what the group is about. He noted that both pro- and anti-development voices are represented in CLEAR and “we get along fine, we listen to each other,” he said. “There’s no way you are going to have a group better than what we have there.”
Councilmember Bryan Wahl said it’s critical that the task force be formed as soon as possible, so it can work with newly-hired consultant SCJ Alliance to help staff update the city’s 2006/2007 Town Center plan.
Councilmembers agreed that next steps should be to decide how large the task force should be (they settled on 11 as the right number) and also to develop parameters for what the group should consider. City Manager Hugill said he views the task force’s scope as narrow: to work with SCJ Alliance to ensure that the community’s wishes are represented in their work on the Town Center Plan, and that the plan is financially feasible.
Hugill recommended that the council ask CLEAR which members from the group should be included on the task force, while at the same time inviting the community to apply, to ensure there is balanced representation.
The council also set its annual retreat for Saturday, March 24, at 9:30 a.m.
— By Teresa Wippel