Edmonds City Council votes against building height study

Mike Nelson: ‘I don’t need a study to know that our downtown is perfect the way it is’
By Brian Soergel | May 31, 2018

It turns out a renewed discussion among city leaders to consider adjusting height limitations in the downtown Edmonds retail core never had a chance.

If you want to start a conversation about it with those who admire downtown’s architectural appeal – “quaint” is an adjective you will hear all day long – get ready to settle down and stay awhile.

But last week, City Council members did the opposite, quickly rejecting a proposal by the Economic Development Commission to study – “study,” not to make a decision one way or the other – reducing the ground-floor building height from 15 feet to 12 feet in Business District 1 (BD1).

That study would then have gone to the Development Services Department and, eventually, the public for comment.

BD1 is the area surrounding the fountain and encompassing Main Street from Third Avenue to Sixth Avenue, and Fifth Avenue from Maple Street on the south to just before City Hall and the Edmonds Historical Museum to the north.

In January 2007, the Edmonds City Council passed an ordinance subdividing the downtown busi-ness zone into five districts, each with its own mix of permitted uses and zoning regulations.

The 15-foot ground floor height restriction in BD1 was pushed by then-Economic Develop-ment/Community Services Director Stephen Clifton, as other cities in the area – especially Seattle – were doing it to encourage a broader range of retail development, resulting in attractive develop-ment/redevelopment and a strong retail core.

The current zoning standards in zones BD1 through BD4 allow for structures 30 feet in height, and 25 feet in BD5. In all zones except BD1, the minimum ground-floor height requirement is 12 feet. With a maximum building height of 30 feet, three levels of usable space are allowed. However, in BD1, with the ground-floor minimum height requirement of 15 feet, only two floors of usable space are allowed within the 30-foot height limit.

After studying the issue, the Economic Development Commission found that the 15-foot ground-floor height requirement in BD1 might be restraining developers and potential business owners eager to move into the heart of town.

The city receives numerous inquiries from prospective retailers, gallery operators, lodging establishments, restaurateurs and office-based employers seeking downtown tenant space, the commission reported. But there is little available, as most existing buildings are small and mostly fully occupied.

Discussions with property owners and potential developers indicate the few vacant or substantially underdeveloped sites in BD1 are stymied from being developed or redeveloped by the two-story limit, the commission added.

Most of the Economic Development Commission’s research was completed by a subcommittee led by Mary Monroe and Darroll Haug.

The commission further reported that the 15-foot minimum ground floor height was originally enacted to attract retail to downtown to enhance the goal of a more vibrant retail district. But that has not proven to be the case, it added, saying builders and property owners “are not interested in investing in properties as development does not pencil out.”

The recommendation: Consider further study into changing the city code to reduce the ground-floor height requirement in BD1 to 12 feet from its current 15. This would be consistent with what is found in the four other business districts downtown, while also maintaining a 30-foot building height limit.

Allowing a 12-foot ground-floor height, the commission reported, would make developing three floors within the 30-foot height restriction possible.

It was thought, in addition, that 12-foot ground floors might encourage new construction and redevelopment of vacant sites and “deteriorating structures.”

The commission said that it did recognize that a change in the building code could alter the look of the current downtown, but was confident design guidelines adopted in 2008 would ensure the look and feel of downtown would be maintained.

In a memo to Mayor Dave Earling and councilmembers, Economic Development Commission chairman Jamie Reece – a real estate agent – wrote that a code change could bring jobs, housing opportunities and new cultural, shopping and recreation opportunities.

“Overall,” he wrote, “in the opinion of the EDC, the positives outweigh the potential negatives. We encourage council to amend the code in BD1 to reduce the minimum required ground-floor height to 12 feet.”

A waste of time

After a brief overview May 22 from Economic Development Director Patrick Doherty to the council, Councilmember Kristiana Johnson introduced a motion to dismiss the Economic Development Commission idea entirely – to not even study the proposal.

She noted that BD1 consisted of 50 parcels with 43 different owners – including retail, restaurants, residential units and real-estate and health services.

“Does the public understand that this is not about how tall the first floor would be?” she said. “It’s really about the ability to build three stories in the downtown. The charm of downtown Edmonds would forever be changed with the Economic Development Commission proposal.”

Johnson was joined by other councilmembers in support of her motion.

“I’m a fiscal conservative, and I don’t think we should be wasting any of our staff time on this,” Councilmember Diane Buckshnis said. “This seems just like yesterday, and that was when we were discussing this. I mean, re-reading these minutes put me into like a nightmare. We have gone through this time and again – I’m not interested in wasting anymore staff time on this.”

“You can’t get more historic than standing at the fountain and looking in every which direction and seeing how wonderful our town is,” Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas said. “I stood there recently and pictured two stories above the downtown businesses, and that’s not Edmonds. I’m not interested in doing a study. I feel the BD1 zone should remain the way it is.”

Councilmember Mike Nelson said historic preservation in the zone makes economic sense – meaning charm and quaintness is what attracts visitors.

“Just like I don’t need a study to know that guns are killing our children,” he said, “I don’t need a study to know that our downtown is perfect the way it is.”

But Councilmembers Dave Teitzel, Neil Tibbott and Thomas Mesaros agreed that a study might be useful.

“We’re so afraid of the results of this study that we’re going to vote against it,” Mesaros said, who added that he was inclined to keep the 15-foot ground floor restriction. “We don’t want to be informed about what those results might bring to the table. It’s best to get the most information we can.”

Tibbott and Teitzel both said they would have liked to hear from business owners about the height change.

Johnson’s motion was approved on a 4-2 vote – meaning a study would not even be considered – with Teitzel abstaining, Tibbott and Mesaros voting against and Johnson, Buckshnis, Fraley-Monillas and Nelson voting for.

Also opposing height change

At last week’s council meeting, Doherty said the city’s Historic Preservation Commission’s position was that the current mix of mostly one- and two-story buildings creates a special ambience and charm.

In addition, the mix of staggered rooflines makes for pleasant landscape, and the Historic Preserva-ion Commission does not want to see a “canyon effect” of a continuous street facade comprised of 30-foot-tall buildings. Also, Doherty said, the commission said new regulations would drive out ex-sting tenants and new construction would bring higher rents.

That feeling is echoed by the Alliance of Citizens for Edmonds (ACE), a nonprofit association organized in 2004 whose stated goal is to preserve the small-town character of Edmonds by encouraging responsible development.

“The charm and character of the downtown retail core would be dramatically impacted by the change from 15 feet to 12 feet,” said ACE President John Reed, a former member of the city’s Planning Commission, retired construction financial consultant and a 41-year Edmonds Bowl resident.

“A small downtown core that encourages the small-town look and feel will best take advantage of Edmonds as a destination city. Mayor Dave Earling emphasized the importance of charm and character in downtown in his recent State of the City address.”

The change, had it gone to study and eventually been approved, would essentially lead to third floors, most likely of residential space, Reed said.

He added that city staff and consultants have emphasized the benefit of higher first-floor ceilings in the past. In 2005, a consultant told City Council that retail in less than 12-foot floor-to-ceiling did not work.

In 2006, Reed said, Planning Manager Rob Chave explained how allowing for spaces between the next ceiling and floor would significantly lower the ceiling and be harmful to retail. In other words, a 15-foot floor-to-floor becomes 12-foot to 13-foot floor-to-ceiling, and 12-foot floor-to-floor becomes 9-foot to 9.5-foot floor-to-ceiling.

“The 15-foot floor-to-floor requirement on the downtown retail core has been in place since 2005-2006, was supported by consultants and the Planning Board, and council decided it was still appropriate for this one zone. I agree with that decision, and ACE is pleased with it as well.”


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