This City Council and the Planning Commission have spent much of the summer discussing a proposal by City staff to modify allowable buildings height at the corner of 236th St SW and 56th Ave W in the Town Center. Both groups have discussed the topic several times as well as had several opportunities for public comment. On Monday night the Council voted 7-0 to approve the proposal. What the proposal does is modify the zoning designation of 17 properties in the vicinity of 236th/56th. The existing zoning designation has a mixture of 3, 4, and 5 stories maximum. The new zoning designation would allow developments similar in size to Arbor Village at all 4 corners.
I spoke briefly at the public hearing at the City Council meeting and my comments are after the image below.
The City’s 2007 Town Center Plan document sets the vision for what the City and the community would like the Town Center neighborhood to be. Many of you are listed by name as one of those instrumental in crafting the plan.
The opening page of the plan says this [emphasis mine]:
For Mountlake Terrace, like many communities, the primary purpose of a newly created town center plan lies in creating an economically healthy and revitalized downtown that will enhance the community’s quality of life. By “quality of life,” we mean being part of an attractive, prosperous community where residents enjoy where they live, work, shop and play.
Ultimately the Mountlake Terrace Town Center Plan will be successful if it is based on sound economics, is feasible, benefits the community, and encourages quality development, a pedestrian-friendly environment, and healthy downtown businesses. So yes, a plan may be a collection of thoughts and visuals – but it represents the voice of the people who live in and care about their community as they look ahead to tomorrow.
I want to pull out a couple of points there that are directly related to the proposed minor change that you are considering tonight: those are 1) the plan must be based on sound economics and be feasible, and 2) the plan must encourages healthy downtown businesses and is an economically healthy downtown. We all know that development is currently focused at the intersection of 56th/236th. Arbor Village at the southeast corner was completed last year and the northeast corner is currently for sale with strong developer interest. City staff has previously highlighted many of reasons why development is focused here and why the City should keep it a focus.
First to address the part in that Town Center Plan excerpt about being based on sound economics and feasibility. Due to current building codes, parking standards, real estate trends, and the desire to maintain on-street parking, multi-story, mixed-use, small lot development is economically not very feasible. For example, an elevator can cost a developer hundreds of thousands of dollars while underground parking is in the range of $25,000 per parking spot. Without the economies of scale, these types of costs for mid-rise mixed-use buildings often don’t pencil out.
While Arbor Village is a beautiful building and a fantastic start to Town Center development, what many people love about traditional downtowns is the urban texture that smaller lot development provides. I do believe there are many steps the City can take to make small lot development in our Town Center more feasible and Mr. Osguthorpe brought up some of these changes to be looked at later on. But for now, to be able to keep the development momentum in our Town Center going, the proposed minor change at 236th/56th makes sense.
Voting yes on this proposal is not a City Council bending to developers’ wishes to increase their profit, what it is is the right choice after looking at the economics and feasibility of quality development near that intersection.
The other point I want to highlight in the 2007 Town Center plan is that of an economically healthy neighborhood and encouraging healthy businesses. As Mr. Osguthorpe has said in regards to questions about Arbor Village’s retail vacancy rate, a single building does not make a Town Center. The single greatest thing that will create a healthy business climate in our Town Center is a high density of people in close proximity to each other and to Town Center businesses. I spoke with the real estate agent working to fill the spots at Arbor Village and what he mentioned was that many businesses looking at Arbor Village thought there was likely not enough people in the direct vicinity to support the restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops we would all love to see. Allowing developments of similar size to Arbor Village at the other corners of the intersection would make it much more likely to reach that critical mass of residents sooner to support the types of businesses we desire. And as that intersection is built out and businesses prosper, development to the north, and on smaller lots, will will be more viable as there will already be a healthy base of potential customers near by.
These reasons can’t be taken alone, out of the greater context of our vision of the Town Center. For example, they could reasonable be used to justify a Town Center full of skyscrapers but we know that once you get above 5 or 6 stories, extra building heights only diminish the pedestrian experience. If you judge this proposed minor change against the Town Center Plan as a whole, you’ll see that it is still in line with the overall vision.
A lot of time and hard work was put in to the 2007 Town Center Plan by many of you here and many others who have moved on. Making sure that the Town Center vision is implemented and successful is going to require a close monitoring of the development and business climate, transportation and housing trends, and what’s happening on the ground in our Town Center.
This proposed minor change is a response to just that and I encourage you all to vote yes.