Harbor Square proposal stays alive

Council rejects motion to deny application
By Paul Archipley | Feb 07, 2013

The City of Edmonds is about to test the old proverb, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.”

That’s because the City Council on Tuesday decided to proceed with a Port of Edmonds’ application to amend the city’s Comprehensive Plan with a redevelopment proposal for Harbor Square.

By a 4-3 vote, the council rejected Councilmember Lora Petso’s motion to deny the Port’s application.

That doesn’t mean the application was approved, only that a council majority decided leaving the door open to further discussion was the best route forward, rather than wipe the slate clean and start over.

But council and public comments suggest that the Port’s plan faces a potential barrage of amendments that could make its proposal all-but unrecognizable by the time the city is done.

And the Port, which had previously indicated it wasn’t much interested in making big changes to its plan and that the project could become economically unfeasible if the city disallows its most controversial aspects, could find itself largely on the sidelines as the process moves forward.

Due to schedule conflicts, the council agreed to delay further discussion and action until its March 19 meeting, which would give staff time to incorporate council and citizen ideas into the proposal.

The Port’s Harbor Square Master Plan envisions a mixed-use project that would include up to 358 residential units, 50,400 square feet of retail space, 123,410 square feet of recreational uses, office spaces and public uses.

Among its most controversial elements are the addition of residences, which would require a zone change for the property, and the request to increase height limits from the current 35-foot maximum to up to 55 feet (five stories) for some buildings.

Port planners argue some of their requests – particularly the height limit increase – are necessary to make the project economically feasible.

Supporters of a height limit increase are few and far between.

Resident Katherine Gold’s comments were typical: “There’s no reason why the Port shouldn’t have to work with the 35-foot restriction,” she said. “If the plan doesn’t work economically at 35 feet, it is not a plan for Edmonds.”

Some, however, argued that overly-strict development standards would drive developers away.

“Show us the financial data to support 35-foot buildings,” said resident Michael Schindler. “If not, you’re going to stop attracting talent to the city, and then you’ll have an insolvent city.”

That was a theme realtor Dave Page touched on, too. Noting the financially-strapped city is likely to put a tax increase proposal on the ballot soon, Page said citizens need to put their money where their mouth is.

“It’s obvious the preponderance of people don’t want 55 feet,” Page said.

“Citizens have a choice. We can stop growing and fund our city with our tax dollars, but we need to vote enough taxes to fund the city.”

Pointing out Edmonds’ banks are “stuffed full of cash,” Page said, “So why don’t we give a little of it to the city we love so much.

“Then we’ll get what we want: low-rise buildings.”

A reduction in building heights likely will be just one of the changes the council will debate as it moves forward.

Councilmember Strom Peterson, who voted with the majority to keep the process alive, said the Port plan would then become the city’s plan.

“The Port is no longer in the driver’s seat,” Peterson said. “This plan has things I like; other parts aren’t gonna fly.”

Councilmember Joan Bloom, who voted with the minority to deny the Port’s application, said, “Everyone knows I’m strongly opposed to the Port proposal.”

In particular, she opposes a zone change to allow residential development that, she said, would mean increased heights couldn’t be avoided.

In addition, she noted, because the property is in a seismic hazard area, the city would be violating its own code by allowing people to move into homes where their safety could be endangered.

“If we do everything according to code, then the plan the Port presented to us will be unrecognizable,” Bloom said, “and following the code is what the citizens want.”

In the end, however, four councilmembers agreed moving forward was the best option.

“Everybody has their own ideas,” Councilmember Frank Yamamoto said. “To start over is a major disservice to everyone.

“If you quash an idea, how do you get anywhere? You’re stuck in the mud.”

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