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Originally published June 10, 2014 at 9:31 PM | Page modified June 11, 2014 at 12:22 PM

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Debate over tall buildings splits neighbors near Mount Baker rail station

The City Council plans to rezone the area around the Mount Baker light-rail station to bring more density to the north Rainier Valley. While some residents hope for a vibrant feel, others say what the neighborhood needs isn’t taller buildings, but jobs, education and public safety.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Why hasn't this upzoning already been figured out? Doesn't Seattle have master plans for everything? All of this stuff... MORE
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6-8 stories seems more that sufficient. 10 is crazy tall. You'd think this would have been worked out when the train... MORE


Jin Lee grew up in Vancouver, B.C., and has worked in Portland and Singapore, three cities, he notes, with a vibrant, urban feel.

He looks critically at his current north Rainier Valley neighborhood and sees strip malls, heavy car traffic, hazardous pedestrian routes and almost none of the shops, restaurants and apartments that attract new residents and leverage the area’s proximity to the Mount Baker light-rail station.

He envisions a lively neighborhood like Granville Island in Vancouver with its combination of light industry — a working concrete plant, paint and paper makers — and artists’ studios, galleries and restaurants.

“We can’t keep going the way we’re going with giant, asphalt parking lots,” Lee said.

But not all his neighbors share the vision.

A proposed city rezone of a 10-block area around the Mount Baker light-rail station that includes allowing buildings up to 125 feet tall has drawn opposition from some Rainier Valley residents.

Similar “upzoning” has occurred in other Seattle neighborhoods, such as Roosevelt, with new or coming light-rail stations as the city tries to merge density with convenient transit.

Some Mount Baker residents say what the neighborhood needs isn’t taller buildings, but jobs, education and public safety.

And they’ve gotten a sympathetic ear from Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who cast the lone “no” vote on the rezone when the issue was before the land-use and planning committee last week. Harrell, who lives in Seward Park, likely would represent Southeast Seattle under the new council district election plan.

He said he recognized the new district dynamic was at play in his concern about some neighborhood opposition to the rezone.

Other council members emphasized the region’s billion-dollar investment in light rail and the city’s goal of adding density around light-rail stations to reduce car traffic and attract new businesses, so that people can live where they work.

The full council is expected to vote on the plan June 23.

Much of the opposition centers on the fear that a rezone would drive out family-wage employers, including Pepsi, Darigold and a University of Washington laundry facility.

“Our city planners use terms like walkable, transit-friendly, town center,” Harrell said about the plans for a Mount Baker urban village. “Who would object to that? But the concern with a rezone is the auto-dependent businesses ... that will no longer be part of the neighborhood. Lowe’s may not be here, McDonald’s won’t, Wendy’s won’t. That community discussion did not occur.”

Some see the dissension in the area as a struggle between older and younger residents, between newcomers and those who have lived there for decades.

Alison Van Gorp moved with her husband from a town house on Capitol Hill. She said her street, about three blocks from Rainier Avenue, is full of young families who rely on light rail to commute. Most of her neighbors, she said, support the rezone proposal.

She shares Jin Lee’s vision of a denser neighborhood with more shops, more restaurants and a greater sense of place.

“We chose to live here because of the nearness to light rail. We definitely gave up something in terms of neighborhood,” she said.

“Why 10 stories?”

Opposition also has focused on the 13-acre site of what is a Lowe’s hardware store and parking lot, where the city has proposed the highest buildings, 125 feet. The tallest heights around the Othello and Roosevelt light-rail stations are 85 feet, and at the North Beacon station, 65 feet, according to city planners.

“Why 10 stories?” asked Chuck Kusak, the owner of Kusak Crystal on South Rainier. “We have beautiful vistas of Mount Rainier here. Can’t you add density in six-story buildings? The answer is ‘yes, you can.’ ”

City officials say a large parcel of land just blocks from a light-rail station and freeway access could attract a major employer or educational institution, though they emphasize that Lowe’s has a lease on the property and no current plan to move. No projects in the area have yet been approved.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien, head of the land-use committee, agrees the city needs to address crime and economic development in Southeast Seattle. The South Precinct, which includes Beacon Hill, Mount Baker, Columbia City, Georgetown, Rainier Beach and Seward Park, regularly has the city’s highest crime rates.

But he argues that failing to rezone won’t help those problems, while a rezone could attract new businesses, new investments and more jobs.

“We want to do everything we can to attract private investors to that neighborhood,” he said.

Some residents, though, are skeptical about approving a rezone without a comprehensive city strategy to address the existing problems.

“The South End has gotten the short end of the stick forever. We have the lowest-performing schools, the most poverty, the highest concentration of low-income housing. What we want to see is the city engage in comprehensive planning that includes economic development, employment and training,” said Seward Park resident John Charles, a former employment and training administrator who also served two years in the Obama administration as deputy assistant secretary of the Commerce Department.

Other City Council members and transit advocates note that planning for many of Seattle’s light-rail stations has already been completed and that a rezone around the Mount Baker station, which opened in 2009, is long overdue. The city started a neighborhood planning effort that year and held dozens of meetings, including outreach to immigrant, minority and disabled communities, said Nathan Torgelson, deputy director of planning.

He said the outcome was a plan that identifies a walkable town center, with better pedestrian and bike access, convenient transit transfers, housing that serves a range of incomes, and development that creates a sense of place.

The city’s zoning proposal is meant to help realize those goals.

“Some [development] won’t happen for 10 to 20 years,” Torgelson said. “We’re laying a foundation for the future.”

Information from The Seattle Times archives was included in this report.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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