Fighting Urban Sprawl
12:10 pm
Tue July 24, 2012

Seattle deal would trade iconic views to preserve farmland and forests

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and King County Executive Dow Constantine have proposed new development incentives for Seattle's bustling South Lake Union neighborhood.

The program would allow dramatically taller buildings in exchange for extra funds from developers to preserve farmland and forests in rural King County.

Under the new zoning proposal, towers as tall as 400 feet could rise up just a few blocks south of Lake Union. That's nearly twice as high as is currently allowed.  But Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn says they would only be allowed if builders agree to help the county buy up farms or forest land outside the city and keep it agricultural. He says developers are already pushing for the changes.

“We will give them the capacity to add more height in this area in exchange for buying up those development rights," McGinn says. "And what the city gets in return is we get a portion of the new tax revenues, from those new property values that would flow to the county, get to be invested here in the city.”

The extra revenue would help pay for infrastructure or urban amenities such as new parks, to support the added density from new apartments or office towers in South Lake Union.

Criticism of the proposed zoning changes has come from residents worried about ugly new towers interrupting iconic views.  McGinn responded by outlining some provisions in the legislation meant to preserve them. For example, only one tower would be allowed per block in areas closest to the Lake. But the mayor says sacrificing some views is worth it.

“We actually did do quite a bit to identify the view corridors and protect views to the Space Needle," McGinn  says.  "But the fact of the matter is that there’s a lot of benefits towards the increased growth and if we preserved everybody’s view, we wouldn’t have new growth.”

And he says the deal would help preserve surrounding forests and farmland that can improve quality of life, by providing local food for the city, while helping keep the air and water clean.

King County Executive Dow Constantine says the proposal would vastly expand protection of open space under the county's Transfer of Development Rights Program.

So far, the cities of Issaquah, Samammish and Bellevue have offered developers deals under the program, but the land involved in each case is about a tenth of what is  proposed for Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood. Constantine says it's smart development that would help create a more sustainable future for the region.

“This agreement will help create a healthy, thriving urban environment here in South Lake Union, while preserving 25,000 acres of the region’s working forests and farms -- the same farms that supply the city’s restaurants and farmer’s markets with fresh local food,” Constantine says.

The deal was developed in cooperation with the conservation group Forterra (formerly Cascade Land Conservancy.) Another non-profit, PCC Farmland Trust, is eagerly awaiting the opportunities the deal would generate for preserving farmland on the edges of cities, such as in the Snoqualmie valley, or even to create new farms out of land that's currently undeveloped, on the outskirts of urban areas.

Seattle's City Council will hold a public hearing on the South Lake Union rezone ordinance necessary for the deal at 5:30 today in Seattle City Council chambers. The mayor and supporting council members in the city and county hope to get the remaining legislation passed by the end of this summer.