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The Year 2016 in LURC

The year 2016 has been an auspicious year in Central Area development and land use, and in turn, a full one for the Central Area Land Use Review Committee (LURC). We’ve studied, commented on and hosted meetings on all of the following projects, including some lively events that if their potential is captured, will lead to community-building beyond the occasionally confrontational discussions.

The heart of the district at 23rd and Union has been humming with activity, both on paper and in construction. Two mixed-use buildings that herald the next generation of urban form opened their doors: the Central, a 65’, six-story project at the southeast corner, and the four-story, 45’ Stencil at 24th and Union. One more broke ground in November, East Union, also a 65’ six-story project, on the former Richlin’s gas-station/Cappy’s gym properties at the northeast corner. The eponymous Liberty Bank Building (LBB), a low-income housing project by Capitol Hill Housing, is currently moving through the permitting process, slated to start construction in late 2017. And at the very tail end of the year, we all learned about the Lennar/Regency redevelopment of the Mid-Town mega-block at the southeast corner (currently owned by the Bangasser family, site of the Post Office).

These last two projects are of particular interest in light of the ongoing gentrification of the Central Area in particular, and urban centers around the country in general. In both cases, the developer is building a partnership with community groups, with the potential end result being an ownership model that would itself be groundbreaking. The non-profit Africatown is a common thread in both, with a memorandum of understanding that 15 years hence could land them and Cornerstone in an ownership position at LBB, and at Mid-Town, could see them with an actual financial stake in the project. This is all happening at the heart of the once redlined zone, at a time when the ethnic demographic of the area is flipping.

Down the road a piece at 23rd and Jackson, the redevelopment of Promenade 23 is moving ahead. In February, LURC hosted a gathering of over 125 people, interested enough to jam into the lobby of Ernestine Anderson Place. The 500-unit, 65’ high project is targeted to begin construction in fall of 2017. Along with a full-grocery store and various retail spaces down to the pop-up scale, it will re-establish a direct pedestrian connection along the 24th Avenue alignment from South King Street to Jackson. At Jackson, this aligns with the current crosswalk to Walgreen’s occurs, and at the south side, it is currently the blank back wall of Red Apple. This feature is a clear public benefit, only diluted somewhat by the proposal that it be gated off after hours. What becomes of Red Apple – or a reasonable facsimile thereof – during the two-year construction period is still unresolved.

Kitty-corner to this, and much less on the radar for most folks, Community House, next door to the more prominent Flowers-4u shop, is in permitting for a four story mixed-use project, and has plans to redevelop that entire corner. More should be learned at the beginning of 2017.

Other projects in the pipeline include six-story mixed-use proposal at the northeast corner of Rainier and Dearborn, and one of similar scale immediately to the north at Rainier and Lane. A multi-building project at 13th and Fir (behind Washington Hall) looks likely to break ground in 2017.

In addition to bricks and mortar, there are other policy initiatives that continue to warrant attention. The HALA effort will be moving forward in piecemeal proposals, with some portions possibly applying projects that become vested in 2017. The “Backyard Cottage” (detached accessory dwelling unit, or DADU) rules update hit a stall recently, with a hearing examiner ruling in December that the city needs to go through an EIS process before the changes can go into effect.

One of the bigger impacts that received some commitment is the approval of the master plan at the Swedish Hospital Cherry Hill campus. The allowable building heights there will be dramatically higher than existing, which has put residents in the nearby blocks on edge for years, bracing for what will be a parallel increase in traffic and other impacts.

To address the prospects that the future holds for our neck of the woods, LURC also has been involved in reviewing proposed changes to the Design Review program – the process that multi-family and commercial projects go through to refine the quality of what we all look at every day (important reminder: single family projects do not go through Design Review). Several of our members also participate in the Central Area Design Guidelines Coalition – a group formed in May of this year to document criteria that will guide designers working here, and the design review boards that review their work, to solutions that fit their context. The process will likely take years to complete, not unlike the timeline for any construction project.

LURC also participated in its first “Land Use 101” seminars this year, providing residents with some fundamental grounding on how development works, with the hope being that an informed community can better steer its own future.

No doubt, the one project that most of us deal with directly is the ongoing 23rd Avenue Corridor Improvements, even if it is not exactly in the purview of LURC. Thankfully for the denizens of north-south travel, the year saw the completion of this massive water-main replacement/street-rebuild project between Jackson and Union. At the time of this writing, a war zone persists between there and Madison (and will extend to John Street…and at some point, south of Jackson). If fortune be with us, the future for the Central Area will be as smooth and gracious as the newly paved 23rd Avenue.

~Jeff Floor, Chair Land Use Review Committee

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