While pushing his pro-density agenda, Mayor Greg Nickels usually makes a point of standing up to the knee-jerk NIMBY temper tantrums that inevitably erupt in opposition to increased development. For example, over the last two years, the mayor has-in sequence-successfully beat back resistance in the U-District, Northgate, and South Lake Union.
Nickels wins praise from smart-growth advocates for sticking to his guns. "It's difﬁcult to overcome neighborhood resistance on [density and development] issues," says Aaron Ostrum, executive director of local environmental group Future Wise. "But Greg's been willing to take heat and get the job done."
Nickels evidently didn't want to take heat from one antsy neighbor, though: Harbor Properties, Inc., which owns at least $233 million worth of real estate in Seattle. Among the company's holdings: the luxury, four-tower Harbor Steps apartment complex at First Avenue and University Street, located in the thick of Nickels's downtown rezone plans. When Nickels sent his plan to the city council for approval last week, he obligingly stripped out one proposed upzone to accommodate Harbor Properties' objections.
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Unveiled last January, Nickels's downtown rezone calls for dramatic height increases in a stretch from Yesler Way to Denny Way, and from I-5 to Alaskan Way. But this spring, the president of Harbor Properties, Denny Onslow, lobbied the Nickels administration (getting a face-to-face sit-down with the Department of Planning and Development planning director, John Rahaim) to scrap one detail of the up-zone-a planned height increase along Western Avenue between University and Columbia Streets, just south of Onslow's Harbor Steps building.
Onslow seems to have had a big incentive to lobby against the six-block up-zone. The change would have allowed buildings just to the southwest of Onslow's luxury high-rises to shinny upward (from 160 to 240 feet), potentially blocking views at Harbor's $121.2 million property. That could have cost Harbor Properties millions since, it turns out, he was in the process of selling the property. Lo and behold: Just last week, as Nickels forwarded his revised downtown plan to the city council for approval-without the Western Avenue rezone-Harbor Properties announced it had sold Harbor Steps for an undisclosed amount to Equity Residential. Onslow says the potential rezone "didn't come up" in the negotiations with Equity. "We didn't have one conversation about [the rezone.]"
Maybe so, but that doesn't change the fact that Harbor Properties beneﬁted handsomely-and hypocritically. They've capitalized on Nickels's pro-density zoning changes in neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill, South Lake Union, and the U-District. But Onslow took the lead against zoning changes slated to affect his backyard at the Harbor Steps. It's classic NIMBYism.
This isn't particularly surprising. It's what big developers do. They lobby on behalf of their own interests. It's Nickels's hypocrisy that's most galling. Typically, Nickels balks at such selﬁsh whining. The mayor has had no problem denouncing complaints against pro-development rezones when the gripes come from neighborhoods like the U-District. Nickels, in fact, has a record of labeling neighborhood activists "anti-job" when they've protested. (At a recent, heated May 24 community meeting in the U-District, for example, Nickels stood up to angry neighbors who were opposing new market-rate, mixed-use development at 42nd Street and 15th Avenue Northeast, saying defiantly: "We're going to encourage development.") But when it comes to stepping on the toes of big property owners, like Harbor Properties, Nickels sings a more conciliatory tune. Such pandering lends credence to Nickels's growing chorus of critics, who denounce his density agenda as a sop to developers.
Nickels spokeswoman Marianne Bichsel did not return calls from The Stranger. However, Dennis Meier, a staffer with Nickels's Department of Planning and Development, was candid about the Western Avenue rezone. "There was a lot of opposition from residents in the area," Meier said.
How do these neighbors differ from the "anti-job" variety in the U-District? Well, they're richer, and they had a big developer on their side. After consulting with Onslow, residents of the Watermark Tower condos along First Avenue, next door to Harbor Steps, ﬁred off a March 7 letter to Nickels objecting to the proposed height increase. There's a parking lot just west of the Watermark that, neighbors feared, would have been developed into a high-rise that blocked residents' views of the Sound. (The average value of a condo at the Watermark is currently around $500,000.) One resident said, "We are not opposed to increases in downtown density. We just didn't want a wall of buildings right there." She went on to acknowledge: "Clearly we have a proprietary interest." Again: Classic NIMBYism, except this time Nickels caved.
Maybe that is because Harbor Properties is a key player in Nickels's South Lake Union revamp-where upzones enticed developers like Onslow to build. Working with Paul Allen's Vulcan, Onslow's company has built major projects in South Lake Union, including the Alcyone apartments and the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute building. Or maybe it's because Onslow greased Nickels's wheels. Onslow, his wife Holly, and Harbor Properties executive Robert Holmes have contributed a total of $1,250 to Nickels's 2005 campaign.
Certainly, Onslow and the neighbors made some reasonable-sounding arguments against the Western Avenue upzone: The waterfront shouldn't be "walled off" Miami-style; taller buildings along Western would screw up the intended sloping effect of building heights diminishing toward Puget Sound; and any changes along Western should wait until the sweeping Viaduct makeover plans are ﬁnalized.
There are, of course, rejoinders to these objections. For example, an increase to 240 feet along Western would have kept the gradually sloping waterfront gateway intact; the zones directly to the east and north of Western were set at 400 feet and 700 feet respectively as you move back into the heart of downtown.
But the details of this speciﬁc rezone aren't the point. Riled neighbors from the U-District to Northgate made thematically similar arguments when they feared Nickels's plans would change their neighborhoods. Nickels ignored those complaints, but demurred when the objections came from a deep-pockets developer like Harbor Properties.
A little consistency on Nickels's part would go a long way toward convincing Seattleites that the mayor isn't operating at the behest of big developers.