Article by Daniel Beekman
The Seattle City Council voted unanimously Monday to approve an upzone of the Chinatown International District.
The legislation will allow developers to build one to three stories higher while triggering a new program that requires developers to help create affordable housing.
The upzone that includes parts of Chinatown, Japantown and Little Saigon will increase maximum heights from 240 to 270 feet on some bocks, 150 to 170 feet on other blocks and 85 to 95 feet on still others.
The historic heart of Chinatown, situated west of Interstate 5 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, will be excluded from the changes.
The vote was 8-0. Councilmember Mike O’Brien was absent.
With the upzone in effect, Mayor Ed Murray’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program will require developers to either include affordable housing in their projects or pay fees to help the city and nonprofits build affordable housing elsewhere.
In Chinatown ID, developers in most cases will need to devote 7 percent of their projects to affordable housing or pay $20.75 per square foot, according to the city. For some blocks and projects, the requirements are 5 percent and $8 per square foot.
The city expects few Chinatown ID developers to include affordable housing on site. If all developers in the area pay fees, the result could be $13 million over 10 years.
Combined with other financing, that could result in an estimated 145 units of income- and rent-restricted housing affordable to households making no more than 60 percent of the area’s median income, according to the city.
Those units could be in Chinatown ID or in other parts of the city. This year, 60 percent of the median income for a family of four is $57,600 per year.
When the council began considering the Chinatown ID upzone in April, residents and business owners raised concerns about displacement and gentrification.
Some described Little Saigon as particularly at risk, pointing to a city study last year that identified nearly every parcel there as developable or redevelopable.
Several large projects are planned for the area, which is close to downtown, Interstate 5 and stations for commuter-train, light-rail and streetcar lines.
The city expects construction in Chinatown ID to involve the direct displacement of very few residents through the demolition of existing buildings. And the city says new affordable housing will help people of modest means stay in Seattle.
Critics say development will drive up rents, and they worry about Little Saigon’s small businesses — pho restaurants, hair salons and grocery stores — being pushed out.
Council members initially planned to vote on the upzone last month. They delayed taking action and held a town-hall meeting in response to the concerns.
Rather than dramatically change the upzone legislation, the council members instead augmented a resolution stating their intent — along with the mayor — to explore other ways to help the community as development occurs.
For example, the city will consider reducing maximum store sizes in Chinatown ID and explore using public property to support community projects, the resolution says. The council voted 8-0 to approve the resolution.
“There’s a lot that goes alongside housing affordability that can’t be undertaken in our land-use code,” Councilmember Rob Johnson said Monday.
Addressing community members who had testified about the need to preserve the area for existing residents and businesses, Councilmember Lisa Herbold added, “I heard loud and clear that what comes next is really important.”
The council has this year approved Mandatory Housing Affordability upzones for the University District, downtown, South Lake Union and three Central District intersections. It plans to consider upzones for dozens more neighborhoods next year.