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Council withdraws parking ordinance
The Mercer Island City Council grappled with two big topics last Monday night that are near and dear to Islanders. First, their ability to navigate the Mercer Ways; and, the viability of the Town Center.
Mayor Bruce Bassett and other members of the Council heard from many residents dismayed by a proposal to limit parking on the Mercer Ways.
“Thank you for speaking up — we have heard from more than a few of you,” said Bassett.
There was a common theme, he continued, “A sense of frustration at the loss of parking and frustration with cyclists.”
As a result, the Council decided to go back to the drawing board.
“We want to re-think this,” Bassett said. “This is not the night we will pass the ordinance.”
Earlier, the Council had directed staff to design an ordinance to limit parking on the Mercer Ways; in particular, in places where new shoulders had been paved to widen the roadway to offer more room for cyclists.
Instead, it appeared that some residents had begun to use the space for parking cars, negating much of the reason they were widened in the first place.
The parking ordinance was first on the agenda. The City Council chambers were packed. The group included residents and cyclists. Both groups know the roadway intimately, from the design of the drains to the stretches and corners with limited sight distance.
Most were there to protest the ordinance, which would limit parking with some exceptions from dusk to dawn each day. Commenters were concerned about how the parking restrictions would interfere with their ability to use their property on a daily basis — how they could accommodate guests or workers. Others pointed out that wider shoulders did note increased safety for cyclists, since they were often filled with debris and avoided them.
Islander Bob Rowe told the Council there are two issues that need to be taken into account when considering more restrictions on the Mercer Ways.
“The first,” he said, “is the tensions between cyclists and drivers. Next, the fact that cyclists do not use the wider shoulders unless they absolutely have to and as a rule use the center of the roadway.
“Cyclists don’t ordinarily use the larger shoulders because they are filled with debris, and the drains in the roadway can catch wheels and create a hazard,” Rowe said.
Adding parking restrictions, he continued, would likely increase tensions between cyclists and drivers.
Others who spoke pointed out that the roadway already works.
Tom Gallagher, a homeowner and contractor who is also a cyclist, said that he felt that the ordinance created an undue burden on residents and that it would not improve anything.
“The roadway already works as it is,” he said.
Don Gonzales also noted that the use of the shoulder as a bike lane is unsafe. “The road is best used as a ‘sharrow,’” he concluded.
As a result, the Council decided to take a second look at the ordinance either with a citizen committee or with more staff input. Councilmembers Cero, Meyer-Brahm and Senn, however, questioned whether an ordinance or even signs were even needed. What is the specific problem we are trying to solve, they asked.
The Council also heard from several individuals who are intimately involved in the business side of the Town Center.
A good deal of brand new commercial space in the mixed-use developments in the Town Center has remained empty for months. Some spaces have never been filled.
The reason, said building owners, is that the zoning in place now restricts who can use the space.
The space is governed by what is termed the 60/40 rule, which stipulates what percentage of ground floor space is retail or restaurants, versus services and professional offices.
The idea behind the 60/40 rule is to keep the spaces open beyond 5 p.m. on weekdays. A successful commercial district needs to have a mix of businesses open at different times of day.
Island developers James Cassan (Island Square) and Michael Crist (of the 7700 Central building) came to tell the Council that the 60 /40 rule and the ‘no net loss rule’ (which means that any retail space that existed on the property before redevelopment must be replaced) has prevented them from leasing the ground floor space in their respective developments to anyone.
City planners acknowledge that the zoning needs to be changed.
“The reason that the city took up the issue once again was what we heard from building owners and prospective tenants,” said Tim Stewart, development services director at the city. “Something needs to be done.”
There are a few different ways the city can allow more types of businesses in the Town Center.
One way, he said, is to broaden the definition of what the city will allow within the 60 percent.
“The worst thing we can have is vacant storefronts,” he said. “We have to make a plan that those spaces are filled with profitable businesses.”
As the meeting concluded, the Council decided to send the issue to the Planning Commission to work on an amendment to the zoning that would help developers lease their space, yet preserve the intent of the original rules.