Up to 12-story buildings approved for MLT’s Freeway/Tourist District

Mayor Pro Tem Laura Sonmore,, Mayor Jerry Smith and Councilmember Bryan Wahl discussing the Freeway/Tourist District building code changes that were ultimately approved by the city council by a 5-2 vote.
Mayor Pro Tem Laura Sonmore, Mayor Jerry Smith and Councilmember Bryan Wahl discuss the Freeway/Tourist District building code changes that were ultimately approved by the city council by a 5-2 vote Monday night.

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.

Freeway Tourist District map, colorThe 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

  1. With Councilmember McCardle only tentatively asking if neighbors might object (height being the objection I voiced at most of the 4 Zoning code change meetings I attended) and Councilmember Sonmore only wanting more concessions from builders, this City Council continues to push an agenda unrepresentative of our small suburban city. Letting the TDR height of 20 stories stand (they were reworking the same code) they indicated their satisfaction with buildings three times higher than the existing Sterling Building on that property even closer to the neighborhood to the east. Sad.

    1. You keep using terms like “unrepresentative of our small suburban city” and “out of character for our community.” The majority of the Council members have been elected or re-elected by the people that live here more than once, some up to 4 times. I don’t think any of them have hid the fact that they are for putting the “urban” back in to suburban. Wouldn’t this continued support at the ballot box indicate that maybe MLT residents are okay with the character of our community changing a little from what it has been the past several decades?

      I’m not saying you’re wrong about the 20-story heights. One thing I think the city could have done better back in 2010 was to spend some time on visualizations so residents have a better idea of what the buildings would look like. What most people are led to believe is that it would be something between buildings “hovering over the entire southwest portion of the city” and “hidden behind the trees.” I did some quick trigonometry and it appears that the result would be more the latter than the former in most areas but it would have been nice to have something visual.

  2. Actually, Dustin, the city DID provide a visualization of the twelve story proposal on the staff’s second (or was it third) slide show, page 7, I believe, on the presentation available via the 4/21 agenda on cityofmlt.com. Note that their own presentation puts that size two thirds above the neighborhood trees, twice the size of the Sterling Building depicted in dots and they neglected to show how a mammoth 20 story building would overshadow all the neighborhood to the east. That may sound grand to you but the myriad of people I talked with this last election cycle disagree.
    Stephen Barnes 2062932366

    1. You might be referring to this:


      I think the relevant figure is on page 8. The homes are at an elevation 50′ higher than the base elevation of property ‘C’, to begin with, which goes a long way toward reducing the effect that a tall building might have. Then there are the trees already in place west of the residences, which screen quite a bit of what might be built.

      The premise of the whole post written by Mr. Petrowski (I assume you read it) is that no one is actually going to put 20 stories in MLT, even if it’s permissible to do so. What everyone envisions is something not far removed from what already exists in the form of the Sterling Bank building. It’s just incredibly expensive to build a skyscraper, and getting a payoff from something like that is not realistic. One needs to ignore this economic reality if one is really going to continue to try to scare people about potential ‘mammoth’ buildings. An evidence-based approach to this does not support your stated concerns, Mr. Barnes.

      If you really care about maintaining a forested view, agitate about planting trees on the slope and in the east buffer. Big trees, planted now and at significant expense, will be a whole lot bigger once the building actually begins, several years or more from now.

    2. I’m aware of the section views that you’re referring to but I don’t think they help all that much and don’t give a good feeling for what it would look like. What really would have helped people would have been a photograph looking west overlaid with some conceptual buildings behind the trees.

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