Taller buildings, bigger Super Block: Council gets look at draft concepts for Town Center core

Mountlake Terrace city councilmembers got a first look at draft concepts for possible new land use designations in the city’s Town Center core that could include taller buildings and an expansion of the existing “Super Block” area.

In an update during the council’s Thursday, Sept. 13 work/study session, Assistant City Manager Stephen Clifton reviewed three concepts presented during the Sept. 6 meeting of city’s Economic Vitality and Town Center Task Force. He stressed that they are “intended to only be concepts just to start the discussion.”

The 11-member Town Center Task Force includes local developers, business owners and residents, plus City Councilmembers Laura Sonmore and Doug McCardle as council liaisons. The council created the task force to assist in the development of an updated Town Center Plan, which was originally adopted by the city council in 2007.

Clifton explained that during the Sept. 6 meeting, the task force identified three draft land use designations and their locations for what the group is calling the “town center core.” The task force forwarded recommendations on basic land use types that will be included in the land use designations and potential building heights for each designation, Clifton said.

The concepts also include the idea of expanding the Town Center core outside of the city’s existing “Super Block” bounded by 56th and 58th Avenues West and 232nd and 234th Streets Southwest.

In addition, the task force expressed support for additional street-pedestrian connections or tightening of the street grid to create a smaller block sizes.

Finally, Clifton said, the task force said it supports an activity corridor in Town Center for locating retail, commercial, restaurants, coffee shops, and similar amenities which city staff has envisioned could be part of a “newly created 57th Avenue.”

Clifton cautioned that a few task force members expressed concerns about the time frame of the proposals — “more specifically the speed of the process along with the conceptual maps, preferred land uses as well as building heights.”

Clifton said that city staff will be discussing those concerns.

Councilmember Laura Sonmore, who was present at the Sept. 6 task force meeting, said she was “disheartened” by several aspects of the process. She noted that the Town Center A and B concepts were introduced to task force members with 30 minutes left in a two-hour meeting, followed by creation of a third task force-driven (TF) concept “in about 20 minutes,” she said. In the past, developing these types of plans have included a robust public engagement process but, Sonmore said, “I felt this time it was really shoved down my throat.”

By Sonmore’s estimation, based on the concepts presented, “If everything was to get built downtown, it would increase by about 10,000 people depending on the size of all those apartments that could possibly go in,” she said.

“I wouldn’t want a council making a decision for me when I didn’t even have a say in it, and my house is now going to be shadowed by a 12-story building,” Sonmore said.

Clifton agreed that approval of the concepts happened quickly and assured the council that there will be more discussion about them at a future task force meeting.

Sonmore also said it’s key for the council to be able to understand what types of businesses “are coming and want to be in Mountlake Terrace. Because I’ll still take that stance that Mountlake Terrace is that diamond in the rough and I want what’s best for the city — I want the best builders and I want the best businesses — what we can get.”

Another area of concern mentioned by both Sonmore and Councilmember Kyoko Matsumoto Wright was the importance of encouraging condominium development in the city, instead of only building rental apartments. However, it’s been acknowledged this is problematic due to existing local and state regulations regarding condominiums, and the hope is to address that in the state Legislature.

Several councilmembers also reiterated that they wanted to preserve and possibly enhance Veterans Memorial Park as Town Center development proceeds.

Councilmember Bryan Wahl called the three concepts “potentially exciting,” but asked Clifton to walk the council through the process of how they were created.

The Town Center Plan that the council adopted in 2007 and updated in 2009 — and which included the original boundaries for the Super Block — made sense at the time because it was before the Sound Transit 2 plan was proposed and approved to bring light rail to Mountlake Terrace, Clifton explained

The MLT light rail station is seen as “the game changer” that will drive Town Center development, he added.

Concepts A and B were the result of an exercise with staff and Town Center Plan consultants to draw draft land use designation maps. Staff and consultants also revisited the July 2018 panel discussion involving the council and task force, where the focus was on what could distinguish Mountlake Terrace from other communities. The third concept, TF, was developed based on a Sept. 6 task force discussion of boundaries after the first two concepts were presented.

The concepts “are wrapped around the Town Center with the tallest buildings near the transit center, where you have the highest density, the tallest structures because it’s near the freeway, and then transitioning out to the single-family neighborhoods,” Clifton said.

Among the overall ideas discussed during the task force meeting was creation “of a smaller street network, a smaller grid,” Clifton said. An example of a city with shorter blocks is Portland, Ore., which has a reputation for being very walkable, he said.

“You create a more intimate environment, a more walkable environment, there’s more connectivity for pedestrians, bicyclists and automobiles,” Clifton said.

From there, the task force discussed the idea of an activity center and a redeveloped 57th Avenue that would include roadways and wide sidewalks to accommodate cafes.

Wahl said he’s interested in learning more about the economics of the concepts. In particular, he wondered whether it’s realistic to expect such development can be built — especially given the ongoing challenge of being able to assemble enough individual properties to make it worthwhile economically.

Wahl also said he’d like to learn more about how the various proposed building heights — ranging from two stories to 12 stories depending on the concept and the zone — were arrived at.

Clifton said that staff and consultants spend a lot of time touring other Puget Sound cities. He mentioned that Bothell and Burien are successfully building downtowns from scratch, and much of it is five to seven stories, with residential over commercial.

As for taller buildings suggested for along the freeway and close to the new light rail station, “we have had people who have expressed interest in building 100,000 square feet (basically a 100 x 100 by 10-story building) here in the city,” Clifton said. “There’s just no land for them to do it yet and there’s no opportunity for them.”

“Our sense is the possibility is out there,” he added. “I think we need more refinement, we need the modeling to take place to see how feasible it is.”

Matsumoto Wright stressed it was important to have a “right balance” between retail and residential, and Clifton said he agreed.

Councilmember Doug McCardle said it was key to also consider that some of the taller buildings could be office buildings rather than mixed residential and retail. “There are other options to bring in a daytime population,” he said.

According to Clifton, next steps include completion of a draft Town Center Subarea Plan — anticipated by the end of the month — which will be submitted to the task force for review and comment.

Revisions by the task force are likely and an open house will be held to allow the public an opportunity to review the draft plan maps and provide comments and feedback. The task force will meet again and will work to forward a recommendation to the Mountlake Terrace Planning Commission for review. After that, the matter comes to the council for discussion and a public hearing.

You can see background information and documents considered so far by the Economic Vitality and Town Center Task Force here.

— By Teresa Wippel

  1. Thank you very much to the Mountlake Terrace News for this timely article. It contains a great deal of very good information. I hope that our community use this opportunity to comment, ask, get involved, and voice their opinions. Mountlake Terrace is at a huge junction, and I hope that the path we take is truly reflective of the community’s voice.
    Also- by whom was the article written: I don’t see a by-line.

    1. Thanks, Sarah. I (Publisher Teresa Wippel) wrote this story as I cover MLT city council meetings. The byline was left off but we will add it.

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