Earlier this month, interim mayor Tim Burgess unveiled a plan to increase density in at least 27 Seattle neighborhoods. His announcement represented the broadest proposal for upzones as part of the city's Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), which asks developers to set aside space for affordable housing or pay a fee in exchange for the right to construct taller buildings.
The inevitable backlash to proposed upzones has arrived.
Today, a coalition of 24 local neighborhood, small business and anti-HALA groups held a press conference announcing their intention to appeal the proposal with the city's Office of the Hearing Examiner.* The group and press conference was organized by Seattle Fair Growth, an organization that has vocally opposed HALA.
Calling itself the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equality—SCALE, I suppose—the group argues the upzones will lead to displacement and gentrification. SCALE also claims that the city didn’t do enough to listen to neighborhood concerns. (Ironically, some of the groups that make up SCALE have been accused of being unwelcoming and anti-renter.)
Proponents of the upzones say Seattle's housing emergency demands developers to start building housing fast and as soon as possible, which is why they supported upzones already approved for downtown, South Lake Union, the University District, part of Central District, and the Chinatown-International District. HALA’s affordable housing requirements, they say, plan for growth while simultaneously creating space for the city's low-income residents.
Not so, said the line of neighborhood representatives who said their organizations will sign onto an appeal of the upzones proposal. One-by-one, most of them voiced a mix of concern over displacement and feelings that they haven’t been heard.
"City government under Ed Murray decided to impose top-down solution,” said Toby Thaler, a lawyer representing the Fremont Neighborhood Council.
There were some outliers: Tree PAC worries about what growth means for trees. Someone speaking for a group called Citizens for Architectural Diversity worries that old buildings will be replaced by uglier, new buildings.
In a statement, city council member Rob Johnson welcomed the appeal. "An appeals process is an important part of upholding the values of rigor and transparency of our government. It’s what ensures we have good information and affords everyone the opportunity to ‘check our work’. There has been a tremendous amount of attention given to the analysis within the [Final Environmental Impact Statement], and a responsiveness to additional analysis, especially around displacement and school enrollment, between the draft and [Final Environmental Impact Statement]. It will now be the Hearing Examiner’s role to determine the merits of the appeal," said Johnson, who chairs the city's Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee.
At question in SCALE’s legal challenge is the proposal's environmental impact statement (EIS), which is a standard step anyone must take before doing anything with land. SCALE, represented by Bricklin and Newman, says it will argue that the upzones don’t provide affordability, that impact studies were inadequate and that mitigation efforts don’t go far enough.
The appeal likely won’t slow down the calendar of open houses and City Council hearings over the up zones, which are scheduled for several months next year. However, the council won’t be able to vote on the proposal until the appeal is resolved.
Appeals to significant land use and zoning proposals are not uncommon in this city. A group called the Seattle Displacement Coalition filed an unsuccessful challenge to the University District upzone. And more recently, the Queen Anne Community Council successfully delayed a plan expand the use of backyard cottages.
At the time this post was published, SCALE had not yet filed its appeal, though at least one of its constitutent neighborhood groups (Junction Neighborhood Organization) filed its own this morning. I will update this post when the SCALE filing is available.
*Well, SCALE didn’t exactly announce its appeal today. The Seattle Times’ Daniel Beekman reported the legal challenge on Friday after the group mistakenly sent a press release early. Sarajane Siegfriedt, a public relations professional, confirmed that the release went out prematurely.
UPDATE: Here is the appeal.