Misguided decision on Edmonds building heights | Guest View

By Dennis Derickson | Jun 12, 2018
Dennis Derickson

As a longtime Edmonds resident and huge fan of our charming downtown, I was dismayed by the quick decision of a slim majority of our City Council to completely reject any consideration of the Economic Development Commission’s well-thought-out proposal to study the current regulations controlling downtown building heights.

I was particularly upset by the dismissive attitude expressed by some councilmembers. Despite the current vibrancy and economic vitality of our downtown, it has some serious needs and problems that threaten its long-term vitality.

This is the proverbial “elephant in the room” it appears these council members continue to ignore. This is the same elephant that I have seen other city councils also ignore with, often, unfortunate results. I say this as a city planner with more than four decades of experience working with numerous small and medium cities in our region on a variety of downtown revitalization programs.

The Economic Development Commission’s downtown building height study proposal was a very well thought out approach for how the Council and the community can work together to ensure that our downtown will be able to maintain its vitality and character over the long term.

It provides reasonable and modest proposals for allowing the moderate amount of carefully regulated real estate investment necessary to make this happen. This is the “elephant in the room.”

While charming to look at from the street, many of our downtown buildings are beginning to reach the end of their reasonable life expectancy. A great deal of capital is going to be required to renovate or replace these structures in order to ensure that our downtown will be able to maintain and attract the types of businesses we all need and want.

Business tenant needs and demands continue to change at a faster and faster rate. Building owners will need to accommodate these needs through significant renovation or even replacement/expansion to remain viable and competitive.

Edmonds also needs to accommodate some additional growth to our downtown, not only to attract more desirable new businesses, but also to help keep commercial rents more stable for existing businesses, as noted by the commission report.

Unfortunately, the well-intended 2007 ordinance that imposed the 15-foot minimum ground floor height did not achieve any of its intended result, as documented the Economic Development Commission.

This “experiment” was a total failure.

In fact, it has produced a near de facto moratorium on significant construction of new or expanded downtown buildings.

Apparently, the current majority of the City Council seems content to maintain this de facto moratorium into the foreseeable future. The current 30-foot height limit has really turned into a virtual freeze on existing downtown building height. Of course, this prevents the 30-foot high “canyon” the council majority fears so much, now technically allowed by the existing code.

This is extremely unfair to downtown Edmonds property owners. However, it is even more unfair to all citizens of Edmonds, who need assurances that our city leaders have a workable plan based on economic reality for maintaining the long-term vibrancy and charm for the downtown we all love so much.

Well-designed 30-foot high downtown buildings with three floors are not a threat to downtown Edmonds. What the real threat to our downtown will be the failure for the city to allow reasonable and needed reinvestment in our downtown buildings.

The next, inevitable serious economic recession, combined with increasingly aging downtown Edmonds buildings, could spell serious trouble for our downtown.

Edmonds has a talented and experienced economic development and city planning staff, supporting dedicated and expert citizen commission volunteers.

And all these good folks are backed up by a very savvy mayor who really knows this stuff, too. My experience for the past 47 years working for other cities has shown that city councils that stubbornly reject the well-documented recommendations of their own staffs and commissions, usually end up making seriously bad decisions for their communities.

For the past five years, Dennis Derickson has assisted the Port of Everett with planning, design and permitting for its 62-acre, $450 million Waterfront Place Central mixed-use redevelopment project. The first major private-sector phases of this project are under construction.


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