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Get ready for new neighbors! Seattle “upzones” U-District while region prepares for more growth

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The face of the U-District could change dramatically with new high rise development allowed in city's re-zoning.

SEATTLE — There’s always a hustle and bustle on “the Ave”, the nickname for the commercial strip along University Way NE near the University of Washington campus. But bigger, taller buildings are now in store for parts of the University District.

On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council voted 9-0 for a plan to allow for significantly higher buildings near the University of Washington. Buildings more than 300 feet in height, which translates to 20 to 30 floor high-rises, will eventually pop up where aging one- and two-floor buildings sit today.

“I’d think I’d want to live here,” says UW Student Brian Lee. “I spend four hours a day on the bus.”

Lee thinks bigger buildings in the U-District would be OK. More housing could mean lower housing costs. But it certainly could change the current neighborhood. “I feel like there are some things we’d want to keep, just maybe things that have nostalgia.”

"It's part of life," says Seattleite Jonathan Dupen. "Everything is getting bigger."

The Dupen family of Jonathan, his wife Melissa and their young son Cameron live in the Northgate area. It's a part of North Seattle that's seeing its own boom of multi-family housing units in preparation for the light rail that's currently under construction in that direction.

Northgate is a prime candidate for the what's called "upzoning", re-zoning existing areas to allow bigger and taller buildings to grow the city's density. Places around mass transit hubs are prime spots for this kind of upward growth.

"I think everyone is getting priced out of Seattle because of the growth," says Melissa Dupen. "I can't believe the price of housing."

The Puget Sound Regional Council development plans call for additional growth near existing population centers.

The Puget Sound Regional Council development plans call for additional growth near existing population centers.

Making sure that doesn't happen falls onto the Puget Sound Regional Council. They're tasked with planning growth in Kitsap, Snohomish, Pierce and King counties.

"The challenge  is how do we do it so this is still a great place to live?" asks the Regional Council's Executive Director Josh Brown. "And what do we love about our local communities that aren't eroded by the growth that's taken place?"

The Puget Sound Regional Council is made up of elected officials from cities, tribes, and the four counties themselves. That part of Washington state already is home to 4 million people -- a milestone just passed in the past year. By 2040, it's expected that number will climb to 5 million people.

"And [the planned growth] is different depending on the size of the community. What you're seeing in the U-District -- you're not going to see 20-30 story towers in every neighborhood in the Puget Sound. Each community is planning differently."

Brown says growth in Bremerton will look different than growth in Lynnwood than it will for Issaquah.

"For our region, one of the things that we're trying to do is ensure the way that we're adding and growing by a million people in the coming decade just doesn't mean we're creating more sprawl. Because so much of what people love about the Pacific Northwest, the trails, the open space, Puget Sound itself," the solution is not to add "rings of new cities, which is a choice made by other regions."

Brown says we can learn from prior mistakes in places like California, Phoenix and many of Texas' sprawling metro areas around Dallas or Houston.

"And be thoughtful about preserving green space, forests and farmland, says Brown. "So that's a balancing act that we have. How do we accommodate the growth but do it in a way that makes the community stronger better and more vibrant? And doesn't take away the things that are really special about the Northwest."

The special ways Seattle has localized their growth is a new mandatory percentage of affordable housing of any new large project. At a contentious City Council meeting Tuesday afternoon, there were loud boos and cheers during the discussion of exactly how much that percentage would be.

Supporters of making real estate developers contribute more to the cause of affordable housing cited places like Boston's 15% affordable housing requirement or New York City's 20-30% sliding scale depending on the project.

City Councilor Mike O'Brien suggested an amendment that Seattle raise that requirement from 9% to 10%, saying that the city should seize this first "upzone" opportunity in the U-District to set a precedent about the importance not squeezing out existing small businesses and those of modest financial means from the area. While that amendment failed in a vote of 6 to 3, many citizens who came to give public comment at the meeting say they'll continue to push for more affordable housing.

If you'd like to read more about some of the "smart planning" happening for our region. Click the link to read the Puget Sound Regional Council's Vision 2040 plan

www.psrc.org/assets/366/7293-V2040.pdf