Seattle City Council candidates Shaun Scott and Alex Pedersen don’t agree on much. But when it comes to the Ave, the two District 4 candidates are in complete alignment.
“We agree on a very important policy matter affecting our district: the current city council should indefinitely suspend its plan to upzone 'The Ave,’” Scott and Pedersen wrote in a co-signed letter to city hall on Friday.
That means regardless of who wins the election in two months, there will be a powerful voice on the nine-member city council arguing against any additional density to the stretch of University Way called “the Ave” in the University District.
Scott and Pedersen said in their letter that the city needs to implement “concrete measures” that will “preserve the historic character of the Ave, its businesses, and existing low-cost housing” before bringing any more density to the street.
The University District, which will get a new light rail stop in 2021, is growing rapidly denser with more than four towers over 20 stories in the planning or construction stages in the neighborhood. It was rezoned for more density (called an “upzone”) in 2017. Then, in March of 2019, the area was upzoned again as part of the citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) legislation. But during both zoning changes advocates were able to get University Way, or the Ave, as well as some surrounding blocks pulled out of the zoning changes.
Pedersen and Scott’s letter was a somewhat rare sign of unanimity during a divisive city council election year that has seen more than $2 million flow into super PACs running ugly ad campaigns.
But Pedersen and Scott’s NIMBYism toward density on the Ave was also another example of what happened when Seattle switched to district elections. From in-district backing for the expensive/unnecessary light rail tunnel in West Seattle (District 1), to hating bike lanes near boats (District 6), to the unnecessary bridge to Magnolia (District 7), council candidates across the city are bowing to local populist feelings for pet projects and NIMBYism.
Earlier this year, the city council proposed increasing the allowed heights for buildings along the Ave from 65 feet to 75 feet. Opponents of increasing density on the Ave say that upzoning this street will reduce the amount of affordable housing on the street and destroy the small business community.
A 2017 survey paid for by a local business group found that 85 percent of businesses that responded were owner-operated, 55 percent were at least 10 years old, 65 percent were owned by a woman or a minority, and 51 percent employed five employees or fewer. Upzone opponents claimed that increasing density would turn all of these small Korean restaurants, falafel shops, bookstores, cafes, and thrift stores into one long stretch of corporate businesses alternating between Target, Qdoba, Chipotle, a P.F. Chang's, and then another Target.
Rob Johnson, who represented the district until he abdicated his responsibilities mid-term to take a higher paying job with Seattle’s new NHL team, had argued that new development was coming to the street regardless of how the city acts. And upzoning would force the developers to pay into the city's affordable housing fund.
Pedersen’s signature on Friday’s letter is not surprising. He has been a vocal opponent of upzoning the Ave (as well as being a vocal opponent of ending Seattle’s apartment ban in single family zones), but Scott’s signature is slightly surprising, as he has been a vocal proponent of bringing more density to the city. Scott told The Stranger on Monday that he still supports legalizing apartments inside Seattle’s single family zones.
“This doesn’t do anything to reduce or mitigate or qualify my support for upzoning Seattle’s areas of single family zoning,” Scott said. “If we had rezoned some of these neighborhoods at an earlier point, maybe we wouldn’t be at a point where all of our hopes for density in the University District rest completely on the Ave.”
The Ave is now facing a very different fate from what has happened in Seattle’s central and south end, where cherished streets in the Central District, the International District, and the Rainier Valley have all seen dramatic upzones. The city appears to be taking a much more careful approach with the Ave, which, who knows, might be because a lot of white people love the Ave. It turns out it’s not whether or not a community cherishes a street, but rather which community cherishes a street that dictates how the city regulates it.
Scott noted the impacts upzoning the Ave may have on the minority-owned businesses and said just because a mistake was made in other neighborhoods doesn’t mean it needs to be repeated on the Ave.
“I would have liked to see some of the organizations that are vocal in fighting against displacement on the Ave and in white areas actually show up… when it was happening in areas where there was predominately people of color [that are affected],” Scott said. “But that doesn’t mean that we should allow it to happen to some of the immigrant- and POC-owned business on the Ave.”
When I brought up the same point to Pedersen during an interview on the Ave last month, he had a similar statement, saying the city should have upzoned less in those areas “on a couple of those streets that were more historic in nature.”
Pedersen said the MHA fees developers pay to take advantage of the taller zoning are too low and the city hasn’t done enough to make sure existing affordable housing is preserved. When I asked him if he thought new development was coming to the Ave regardless of upzones, he said bringing more density would exacerbate problems.
“I would rather see the new development come incrementally,” Pedersen said. “I feel like the city council would be throwing fuel on the fire by doing an upzone. This would signal to investors that this is when to get involved.”
The city’s planned upzone of the Ave also includes areas of the neighborhood surrounding University Way that were not included in the 2019 MHA upzone. Scott said his call for the upzoning to be indefinitely suspended was only specific to University Way, although he did have concerns about the impact on the surrounding area.
“I’m focusing on University Way,” Scott said. “It doesn’t mean that we are going to hold up every rezone in the city, even those a few blocks away.”