Building height decision makes economic sense | Guest View

By Tim Raetzloff | Jul 01, 2018

The Edmonds Economic Development Commission recently suggested a change in design restrictions on buildings in BD-1 (Edmonds business district 1, the area near the fountain at Fifth and Main).

The Edmonds City Council voted not to review such a proposal.

The proposal would have changed ground-floor height requirements from 15 feet, as they are now, to 12 feet. The reason was that a 15-foot ground floor height doesn’t leave room for two floors above it in a 30-foot-height total limit.

Reducing the ground floor to 12 feet would enable two residential floors to be built above a retail ground floor, and new construction would “pencil out” for property owners and developers.

Articles that I have seen about the council decision noted that the Edmonds Historic Preservation Commission – which I am a member of – voted to oppose the proposal.

That isn’t exactly correct. The commission was given an opportunity to express our feelings about the proposal. We went around the table, and I believe that everyone aired their views. We did not take a vote.

I do think that most of the members of the Historic Preservation Commission were against the proposal, however. I don’t have the minutes of the meeting in front of me so I can’t quote the other commissioners, but I do remember my own thoughts.

BD-1 generally represents the core of the old Edmonds business district. Many of the most historic buildings are located there.

I was not sure how a rebuild or demolition and new construction would “pencil out,” but it seemed to me that this was a proposal that would encourage the destruction and replacement of the buildings in the historic core.

We would almost be inviting developers to tear down old Edmonds and build a new 30-foot deep canyon of uniform height.

Where this has happened elsewhere, developers have often not cared about what happens to retail space on the ground floor, as the profit will be entirely in the value of condominiums or apartments built on the second and third floors.

I believe that much of the attraction of Edmonds is in the old, core buildings. I think that tearing down the old to put up new only makes short-term economic sense. It doesn’t make long-term economic sense because Edmonds would become just another suburb like Lynnwood, Kirkland or Newcastle.

The unique character of Edmonds would disappear, and visitor traffic would decline.

I, and the other members of the Historic Preservation Commission, realize that economic vitality is critical to the continued viability of Edmonds. I have been an economic promoter for years.

But we don’t believe that economic vitality will benefit from tearing down the historic core and building it its place cookie-cutter commercial/residential buildings.

Examples near us include Port Townsend and Snohomish, but the best example is probably Snoqualmie. In Snoqualmie, I would certainly rather visit the old town than the new development in Snoqualmie Ridge.

We can look to our own city for comparison, as well.

The area west of BD-1 already has the same zoning that was proposed for BD-1. I don’t remember if that area is BD-2 or what, and it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we are seeing in that area exactly the kind of construction that members of the Historic Preservation Commission fear would happen in BD-1.

The old post office and the Mar-Vel Marble building have been torn down, and new three-story buildings are going up in their place.

Neither building was a gem of historic significance, but both are now gone, and the character of that stretch of Main Street is changing.

This disagreement is one that I expect will never end, and over time Edmonds will change.

If the city is going to make zoning changes in BD-1, the Historic Preservation Commission would rather see a Historic Preservation District in BD-1, but we have not pressed for that because we have not seen a consensus in the community for such a designation.

Tim Raetzloff, who writes the History Files column for the Beacon, is a member of the Edmonds Historic Preservation Commission.


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