Rumors have been swirling for months that Vulcan Inc. is hoping to score Amazon.com as a tenant for one of its many properties in South Lake Union. The developer has requested a major rezone for the property—from 65 to 85 feet up to 160—to accommodate at least two new 12-story buildings. In exchange, Vulcan has agreed in principle to contribute to a housing and child-care fund; to build energy-efficient buildings; and to ensure that most of the employees in the area get to work by transit or carpool instead of driving alone.
Initially, Vulcan balked at the requirements, reportedly saying that Amazon might start looking elsewhere. The neighborhood, in turn, considered challenging the upzone in court, going so far as to consult with attorney David Osgood. "The Cascade [neighborhood] people talked to me about challenging the land use [changes]," Osgood said, but dropped the idea after Vulcan talked them out of opposing the development.
Malaika Lafferty, a longtime neighborhood resident and a member of the Cascade Neighborhood Council, says Vulcan assured the group that they would provide affordable housing and other community benefits. "The feeling was just that with Vulcan having made that statement... [appealing] would have been a spiteful move." Instead of launching into a battle with Vulcan that they would inevitably lose, Lafferty says, the neighborhood will try to improve the package to include more low-income housing and other benefits.
Vulcan's package of benefits still has to be approved by the city council, and that's where it may be running into trouble. Council Member Peter Steinbrueck, head of the Urban Development and Planning Committee, which oversees zoning changes, has asked Council President Nick Licata to hold the rezone legislation, arguing that Vulcan's zoning should be developed in conjunction with a more sweeping citywide zoning proposal that would require developers to pay for public benefits in exchange for the right to build taller. As a side but related point, Steinbrueck's also mad at the mayor for, in his words, "holding back" legislation to rezone Port of Seattle property on the north shore of Elliott Bay; last August, the council rejected a proposal by the Port to turn the land into a large office development. "They knew I was eager to take that legislation on and they're sitting on it," says Steinbrueck, who will leave the council in January.
Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis says the Port overlay has nothing to do with the South Lake Union rezone. And both Ceis and Vulcan have said the company can't wait for the larger zoning proposal because its potential tenant needs to move forward now. A two-month delay "could mean the loss of the proposal," Ceis say. "That would be a real tragedy. This is a lot of jobs."
The Vulcan-specific rezone would exempt some of the extra height the company would receive from affordable-housing requirements that would apply under the mayor's citywide proposal. "They're more than doubling the development capacity of their properties, which doubles the value of their land... and they're getting some height and density for free," Steinbreuck says. Neighborhood resident Lafferty acknowledges Steinbrueck's point, but says Vulcan has too much "financial power, political influence, and... policy resources" to be worth fighting. "We felt we'd have a better chance of reaching a compromise we can live with by working with Vulcan" instead of against them.