For the past few weeks, all eyes have been on Mayor Greg Nickels' bold plan to revitalize Broadway Avenue: The pro-density mayor would ease development regulations, allowing property owners to redo their buildings along the downtrodden retail strip. Buildings could soar 65 feet or roughly six stories instead of the currently allowed 40 feet or four stories (in reality, most buildings along the street squat between one and two stories), injecting life into the ailing business district.
Now, the mayor's plan-which also includes changes to open-space and parking requirements, plus "split zoning" ﬁxes-is in Council Member Peter Steinbrueck's Urban Development and Planning Committee. The neighborhood's anti-heights camp has been lobbying Steinbrueck to keep Broadway height limits capped at 40 feet, while developers have been sending letters urging Steinbrueck to pass the legislation quickly, so they can start building. (And Broadway's glaring vacancies-an empty QFC, Safeway, and Bartell Drugs-can be remade and then ﬁlled.)
Instead, Steinbrueck went his own route. On May 11, the council member released a proposal that's an amended version of the mayor's. Instead of simply upping Broadway's building heights to 65 feet-the height developers say they need to make projects ﬁnancially viable, a point backed up by a 2003 city-sponsored study-Steinbrueck would keep Broadway capped at 40 feet, like the Capitol Hill Community Council and other neighbors have requested. But developers could stretch to 65 feet if they're willing to build housing-including some units affordable to those making 60 percent of the median income, or $32,700 for a single-person household, Steinbrueck's response to neighborhood input. Steinbrueck also added criteria for taller developments, like setbacks on the top levels, and called for delaying the effective date of a rezone until after Broadway design guidelines are adopted.
Steinbrueck's proposal effectively kills the mayor's straightforward upzone, and the mayor's office isn't thrilled. "It's very prescriptive," Nickels' spokesperson Marianne Bichsel says of the new plan. "It creates disincentives in an area that needs investment... This is the wrong way to go."
The council member's plan reportedly got a warm reception at last week's Capitol Hill Community Council meeting, but the affordable-housing requirement is giving Broadway's developers pause. "The rest of it is reasonable," says property owner Bob Burkheimer, who owns the space at East Republican Street and Broadway Avenue East, anchored by a vacant low-rise grocery store. But while many developers plan to build housing on top of retail in their Broadway redevelopments, there's concern that the affordable housing component of Steinbrueck's plan would negate the ﬁnancial beneﬁts of being able to build taller buildings. "I don't think we're getting anywhere," says Burkheimer. "The purpose of the mayor's proposal was for economic revitalization. And I think Peter's mixing it up to try and get a compromise."
Sy Iffert, part owner of the building at the southeast corner of Broadway Avenue East and East John Street-home of Ace Barber Shop and Twice Sold Tales-hasn't examined Steinbrueck's proposal yet, but he was already planning on building housing over retail. As for the affordability requirement, he'd like to see what that translates to in terms of rent. "I have to get so much rent," to recoup construction costs, he points out, indicating that he'd need to lease units at market rates. Plus, he says, the requirement along Broadway may not be necessary, because building market-rate housing on Broadway will open up affordable housing elsewhere in the neighborhood if tenants relocate and vacate older units; it's the law of supply and demand. "The way to get low-cost housing is just to have more construction," Iffert says.
Meanwhile, the city's Ofﬁce of Housing points to a recent rent survey by Dupre + Scott, which shows Capitol Hill already boasts average rents affordable to those making 50 or 60 percent of the median income. "People at 60 percent [of the median income] can afford one bedroom apartments on Capitol Hill," says housing office director Adrianne Quinn.
Steinbrueck is currently vetting his proposal in the neighborhood and among his colleagues. The committee is set to vote on June 2. ■