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Politics Northwest

The Seattle Times political team explores national, state and local politics.

February 28, 2013 at 10:29 AM

Debate about South Lake Union affordable housing heats up

The City Council and Mayor Mike McGinn agree, Seattle needs to get more benefits when it creates wealth for property owners through upzones allowing taller buildings.

The questions now are “how much” and “when”?

The consensus for increased benefits emerged after a council consultant’s report said the city could seek more benefits, such as affordable housing, and developers would still make healthy profits from taller buildings — and more than they’d make if building heights remained at their current limits.

Council member Richard Conlin, who chairs the South Lake Union Committee, says the city should put off a decision on the appropriate level of public benefits and move ahead with a sweeping zoning proposal by McGinn and Vulcan, South Lake Union’s largest property owner. That proposal would allow buildings as tall as 400 feet, or 40 stories in parts of the neighborhood. Conlin has supported that proposal.

In an email to his colleagues, Conlin argues that there’s too much risk in changing the city’s so-called incentive system — which allows developers to pay for extra height — now. That’s especially so, he says, if the city’s changes are based on a single consultant’s report. Conlin says developers could sue the city, claiming increased incentive payments are unjustified and possibly “a taking” of property. Such a court challenge might invalidate the city’s incentive program, Conlin said.

A better course, Conlin said, would be a “transparent and thorough process” involving stakeholders and chaired by recently retired Seattle Housing Authority chief Tom Tierney. Conlin said the mayor’s office has agreed to such a process.

Council member Nick Licata, who chairs the Housing Committee, disagreed in an email response to Conlin Wednesday evening.

Licata says that Conlin’s delayed approach would amount to a lost opportunity as some developers would build under existing rules, costing the city incentive fees that could provide affordable housing in South Lake Union for restaurant workers, researchers and administrative staff in the area. The city has a goal of creating some 4,000 affordable apartments in South Lake Union in the next 20 years. The city’s current incentive fees would fund an estimated 450 affordable apartments in that time.

Lastly, Licata said “council conversations about whether we do this now or later should happen in public open session” not in private talks with the mayor.

Council member Tim Burgess, who is running for mayor, said “I’m leery of kicking the can down the road. I think the public benefit should be achieved at the same time the private benefit is granted.”

The council may carry on the debate at its Monday meeting.

The Seattle Times Corp. owns property that would likely benefit from the mayor’s proposal. The company has supported that proposal.

Jill Mackie, the Times’ vice president for public affairs, said she sent council members an email supporting Conlin’s approach. Mackie argues that incentive fees should be revised citywide so that South Lake Union developers aren’t put at a competitive disadvantage. “We understand the commitment to affordable housing and believe it merits a more thoughtful, less rushed conversation,” Mackie said.

Comments | More in Politics Northwest, Seattle City Council | Topics: Nick Licata, Richard Conlin, South Lake Union

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