By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
The City of Seattle is weighing a proposal that would allow for taller buildings in the International District (ID). The rezoning plan hopes to bring more people to the ID, revitalize the neighborhood, and stimulate the economy in the ID through development of additional businesses and housing. The concern surrounds whether the proposal would displace current residents and affect the historical integrity of the ID.
The measure would allow for an increase in the building limit in Japantown from 15 stories to 24 stories. The limit in the southern area of the ID along Dearborn will be raised from seven stories to 15 stories. Chinatown’s limit will remain at seven stories, but owners will be able to sell unused development rights to pay for improvements.
In parts of Little Saigon, new heights will be raised to 15 stories.
The plan is part of a larger rezoning proposal that includes height escalations in other South Downtown neighborhoods, including Pioneer Square. “Almost everybody is in agreement that the ID needs more people there to care about it,” said Seattle City Councilmember Sally Clark. Clark heads the Committee on Built Environment (COBE), which oversees the changes in rezoning. “The city did a great job in talking with the community in finding out what the community wants.”
Community stakeholders in the ID, known as the Vision 2030 group, collaborated on planning for the future of the ID. Among its findings, it believes that a mix of housing and businesses would benefit the neighborhood. Significant to the neighborhood vision is a residential population that is made up of a third of people earning 50 percent or below median income, a third of people earning 50 to 100 percent of median income, and a third of people earning 100 percent and above median income.
“Basically, it comes down to feet on the street — without a strong residential base that can afford to shop, eat, and play in the neighborhood, businesses struggle — counting mostly on destination visitors,” explained Don Blakeney, executive director of the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area.
“There are various stakeholders in the neighborhood. People are very supportive of raising heights in the neighborhood,” said Tom Im, neighborhood planner of the International District Improvement Association (InterIm). Im indicated that property owners believe that new development will increase the value of their properties.
Not everyone supportive
“I think the additional housing would be good for the neighborhood,” said Quang Nguyen of the Washington Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce. “I think the question is, what is reasonable? I think the two particular recommendations by DPD (the City of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development) are unreasonable.”
First, the allowance of up to 150 feet in Little Saigon. “That’s out of scale with the neighborhood. The highest building is about 2 stories. … By placing them (buildings at 150 feet) right next to a residential neighborhood with single and multi-family housing, it does not fit the scale of the neighborhood.”
“The issue is whether it will cause displacement,” Nguyen said. “If the city truly supports small businesses, they will take a careful look at this in Little Saigon.” Nguyen explained that upzoning Little Saigon would price many of the current property owners out of the neighborhood. “[Taller buildings] closer to downtown makes more sense because the heights are elevated. Property values are more in line with the surrounding neighborhood. But going from low to higher density will have a whiplash effect (in Little Saigon) by becoming less affordable in a short time span.”
The second issue Nguyen has with the city planners is the need for Little Saigon to have ample parking. The city’s recommends that businesses in Little Saigon are given two parking spaces per 1,000 square feet for non-residential use. “No one is going to develop retail in the neighborhood,” said Nguyen. “Most of the customers are coming from outside the neighborhood. People come from the Eastside, Renton, Everett, and Lynnwood, and if you put a limitation of two (parking spaces) per 1,000 square feet, you are going to kill the businesses.”
“That would be a real shame,” Nguyen added, “It will be the biggest mistake the city will ever make.”
The sentiment is felt by many businesses in the Little Saigon section, said Nguyen, who stated that many of the businesses in the Little Saigon neighborhood have voiced their opposition, but due to their need to attend to their businesses, they cannot always attend meetings on the zoning proposal.
“[Business owners have] voiced it many, many times already. Small businesses don’t have time to testify in front of the city council. It is difficult for them to participate in this process. … Hopefully, we can get some signatures and a petition to give their input through other means.”
Clark recognizes the concern in Little Saigon. “Specifically, we did hear from business owners in the 12th and Jackson area,” she said. “There is concern about wide-scale change and wide-scale changes in rents. … It’s a real challenge,” acknowledged Clark. “The city is very restricted in how to help small businesses.”
Outside Little Saigon, small business owners are not as concerned about the impending zoning changes. “I don’t think they are thinking about upzoning. They are trying to get through what’s happening right now,” said Maiko Winkler-Chin of the Seattle Chinatown-International District Preservation and Development Authority. “Small businesses are concerned about the current market conditions.”
Tom Im indicated that InterIm would oppose large retail chains coming into the ID. “It would be an embryo that would proliferate through the neighborhood,” he said. Im hopes that the rezoning proposal would include restrictions, allowing smaller retail footprints to look out for small business owners.
Future of housing in the ID
“We fear that there will be displacement due to individual redevelopment of properties.” Im added.
“It’s good to have some balance to support smaller businesses for the use of discretionary income. How do you preserve this? That’s tricky. If there is displacement, hopefully, there will be additional affordable housing units that are being built by nonprofits. We want to see market rate housing in the neighborhood, but we want to see a balance.” Im’s organization thinks incentives should be put into place, so that when new development comes, money is put back into the community. “If we create extra value, then some of the value should be returned to the public,” said Im.
“The thing that we’ve been hopeful of is that there are not only incentives that could help make this neighborhood more livable, it’s trying to find help for historic buildings in the neighborhood,” indicated Chin. SCIDpda, InterIm, and CIDBIA support incentives tied to new development, as well as developing public spaces for the ID neighborhood.
Preserving historic buildings
A part of the zoning proposal may include transfer development rights for historically preserved buildings. It would allow owners of historic buildings the opportunity to sell unused portions of their sites to developers. Essentially, it would allow developers the right to purchase height on historic buildings in exchange for a monetary sum for property owners to reinvest in the building. “It’s creating revenue stream for the owners of the historic buildings,” Clark explained.
With the new zoning proposal, Clark pointed to the International Special Review District Board (ISRD) as the board in charge of regulating changes in the ID. In lieu of the increase in heights, “[T]he ISRD Board has been drafting an expanded and revised set of design guidelines for the International Special Review District,” wrote ISRD Board Coordinator Rebecca Frestedt in an e-mail. “The revised guidelines will provide design guidance intended to protect the historic structures and character of the District, while supporting rehabilitation and new construction within the District’s boundaries.”
City Council could vote on the rezoning proposal in mid-April. Prior to the vote, public comment on the ID height issue was scheduled for Wednesday, March 23. In addition, the city invites concerned citizens to contact city councilmember offices directly at any time. ♦
Jason Cruz can be reached at email@example.com.