Oh, brave new U District

Citizen planners struggle to hash out the Ave of the future, and a future for neighborhood planning in Seattle.

THE EAST SIDE of 12th Avenue NE just south of 45th Street is a typical college ghetto: a row of tiny rental houses, all peeling paint and sagging porches. Two college-age fellows haul rack after rack of recyclables—mainly beer bottles—out to the parking strip. The row of houses ends abruptly with a three-lot-wide hole in the ground surrounded by a temporary chain link fence—a new apartment building waiting to rise.

Change is coming to the University District, even as its residents (those who are paying attention) watch their neighborhood plan edge toward City Council approval. Of the 37 Seattle neighborhood plans now in various stages of completion, the U District's ranks as one of the more ambitious. And it is a test case as to whether city officials will back bold changes proposed by citizen planners. Even with several proposals dropped after the first round of public review, the plan's third draft includes 11 proposed zoning changes. This mix of upzones and downzones represents a subtle redistribution of future growth throughout the area, which includes the area south of NE 50th Street (and a few areas to the north) and the adjacent Ravenna neighborhood. But such substantial changes lead to second-guessing by property owners, some of whom didn't know anything about the plan until recently.

An August 7 public hearing at University Heights Elementary School was a forum for the plan's satisfied participants and its critics. Particularly unhappy are business and property owners on the north end of University Way (above N 52nd Street), who object to a series of design guidelines tailored for and by merchants on the Ave's south end. These two strips are markedly different; the main shopping area to the south is filled with restaurants and other businesses serving students, while the north hosts small destination businesses and others who can't afford the south's higher rents.

Jorgen Bader, co-owner of a north University Way building, stormed at what he called "regulations which aren't productive are in the form of a de facto tax" and "planning by a committee which is totally out of touch with the community." Other merchants say the proposed design changes just don't fit the upper Ave. Louis Coulson of the Last Exit coffeehouse says business owners don't want to build awnings that could attract congregations of homeless kids. Atlantic Street Pizza's Harry Nagamatsu argues that until the city addresses the problem of street people, it has no business imposing new aesthetic requirements on merchants.

In Ravenna, a group of landowners, mostly seniors, have hired their own consultants and planners fighting the proposed downzone of 13 Ravenna Avenue properties from three-story-apartment to duplex-triplex zoning. One of them, Brian Doherty, argues that the downzone would "put valuable property into atrophy and rob the city of room for expansion." But Allison Kurke, a member of the Ravenna planning group, says it was proposed, and should be considered, in tandem with a proposal to upzone several blocks south of Ravenna Park.

THE SQUEAKY WHEELS may well get what they seek. Many changes and compromises have already been made since the early plan drafts, including the elimination of a major rezone on blocks just north of the University of Washington. Among the ideas considered and scrapped were a historic-district designation for Greek Row and an inclusionary zoning requirement (which would make all developers include some units for low-income people in their projects). The planners have also backed off on their earlier call for the formation of a nonprofit community-development corporation (CDC) to manage much of the district's further development. This was partially based on the cool reception the proposal received from Mayor Paul Schell's office—the mayor would prefer to see existing nonprofits pick up these duties. Matthew Fox, president of the University District Community Council, is happy to see the mayor sideline talk of a neighborhood CDC. "Do we really need yet another unelected, unaccountable, quasi-governmental board in this town?"

Carla Main, the neighborhood-planning staffer managing the plan, says city officials are reluctant to form multiple community development corporations for various parts of town. "I think we've got some work to do to see what kind of models work for neighborhoods," she explains.

Although some at City Hall don't expect the proposed zoning changes to spur much new construction, even under the existing zoning, the area could easily absorb the 2,110 housing units expected in the planning area by 2014. And upzones like the six blocks of midrise zoning proposed near the Ave between N 41st and 43rd streets could lead to a few new projects where the city—and neighborhood—want them.

But the citizen planners are proud of their work and plainly impatient with the complaints of those who grumble about being left out of the process. Jerry Cathey, an Ave business owner, notes that the effort involved endless meetings, comments, and compromises, all in open, public sessions. Steve Goldblatt, who monitored the plan for the University of Washington's faculty senate, says he doesn't recall any locked doors or closed meetings.

"Try as we might, we were not able to get everyone to look at those fliers in their mailbox or read the paper," sighs planning committee member Duane Jonlin. The U District plan points up the essential dilemma of neighborhood activism: Despite ambitious outreach efforts, support from established community groups, and careful tallies of public comments, the plan is still the work of a hundred or so people in an area with thousands of residents. Will the city honor the work of the active few, or erase all the plan's controversial elements in order to sell it to the greater community? The latter course would mean no real plan. The outcome in the University District will be a bellwether of neighborhood planning's prospects in Seattle.

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