To encourage business, Council grapples with Town Center codes

It looks like the empty storefronts in the Town Center will remain so a bit longer.

The City Council mulled changes to the existing ordinance that dictates what kind of businesses can or cannot lease space in the new buildings in the Town Center.

The building owners have been frustrated with the code, saying it keeps many potential tenants away. As the space remains empty, the owners lose money. The Council has agreed, saying that the vacant space was not what was intended by the code.

Earlier this year, the Council asked the Planning Commission to examine the sections of the Mercer Island City Code regarding the proportional use requirements of the ground floor of buildings within the Town Center.

As it now stands, the code requires 60 percent of the ground floor street level to be occupied by retail, restaurants and/or other personal services. Forty percent of the ground floor street level must be occupied by a hotel, motel, public facility or office within the Town Center.

Included in the existing ordinance is what is termed the ‘no net loss rule.’ The rule says that there cannot be a net loss of retail or restaurant space if new businesses come into the center. If a business is allowed to move into the Town Center, it cannot represent a loss to the existing amount of ground floor retail and restaurant (that existed on the street) over the past three years.

When the ordinance was originally set, the goal was to limit the types of businesses in the Town Center neighborhood to those that would encourage foot traffic, serve the needs of new residents who live in the Town Center neighborhood and create ‘vibrant’ community, not only during the work day but on weekends and evenings.

Some, such as Councilman Mike Cero, are critical of any government effort to shape the business mix in the Town Center.

“Who are we to judge what is good or what is bad?” Cero said.

The city turned to the Planning Commission in hopes of investigating a way to revise the rule to encourage businesses but to also meet the city’s vision for the Town Center.

The Planning Commission sent back a recommendation to the Council to allow for a greater variety of uses within the ‘60 percent’ category to fill the storefronts. At the same time, the Planning Commission was split on allowing more professional services, including law firms or architectural services that would give more of an “office park” feel to the Town Center and would not encourage pedestrian uses.

Planning Commissioner Jon Freeman said that the commission had a difficult time with the vote.

“Going into this, we tried to keep to the spirit of the ad hoc committee [brought together to make the rule based on the city’s comprehensive plan],” he said. “But there were concerns that we couldn’t get past.”

One of those was parking.

Commissioner Steve Marshall said that it was his opinion that rents are still a barrier to more businesses coming to the Island.

The City Council voted to direct city staff to prepare another set of amendments to the city code regarding the Town Center.

“The Council directive to staff is to come up with amendments that would provide flexibility to property owners to help them fill their empty spaces on the condition that the property owners provide more flexibility in allowing people to park in their lots,” Rich Conrad explained.


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