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Transit high-density housing requirement not likely

A recently proposed bill pushing for high-density development around transit stations, if passed, could significantly change development on the North end of Mercer Island. Yet local politicians doubt that the legislation will get very far.

House Bill 1490 aims to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions through land use and transportation requirements” by mandating density around transit hubs such as Mercer Island’s soon-to-be light rail station. More specifically, the bill stipulates that any transit station must have an average of 50 units per square mile within a half-mile radius of the station, among other stipulations.

HB 1490 has already spurred Seattle residents into protest. In particular, The Seattle Displacement Coalition is lobbying against the bill, which is currently being heard in Olympia. The group argues that HB 1490 will cause unwanted gentrification to neighborhoods with light rail stations.

Few residents on Mercer Island, however, are aware of the legislation. Seattle resident Jenna Walden is concerned about this fact.

“Anyone living in a light rail neighborhood needs to hear about [HB 1490],” said Walden, who serves as the chair of the Othello Neighborhood Association in South Seattle. “The bill will mandate neighborhood density without addressing infrastructure. It puts single-family, suburban zoning at risk, using light rail as a tool.”

Yet, Mercer Island City Manager Rich Conrad is little alarmed. First off, he believes that the bill has a slim chance of passing.

“I would be very surprised that any bill that talks about vastly increasing densities will get passed in this session,” he said.

Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-41, backed Conrad’s statement.

“I really don’t see [HB 1490] passing in its present form,” Clibborn said. “It’s one-size-fits-all, and it won’t work. If you take one element, 50 units per acre within a half-mile radius — well, that would have residential neighborhoods looking like downtown Seattle.”

When light rail comes to Mercer Island, it will be situated above the I-90 corridor, between the Park and Ride and downtown Mercer Island. This neighborhood includes single-family residential zoning to the north and high-density zoning to the south, in the Town Center — a perfect example of the demographic problem that HB 1490 is up against.

“If you draw a one-half mile radius around the Island Park and Ride, well, you’ve got ravines, single-family houses, the Town Center,” Clibborn pointed out. “Unless it is seriously amended, the bill is just too much of a cookie-cutter for such neighborhoods.”

With downtown developments such as The Mercer building and Island Square, Mercer Island easily meets the state’s Growth Management regulations, Conrad said. As Mercer Island city developers are in no way blind to sustainable development, introducing a bill such as HB 1490 is somewhat obsolete.

“In our Town Center, we have [condominium] projects that are 100 units per acre. This was intentional. We made a major step to develop densities near the I-90 freeway, which is the state’s largest east-west highway.”

Yet Conrad emphasized that the City Council is devoted to — and has been for years — sustaining the Island’s suburban landscape. Developing downtown Mercer Island is one thing, he said, re-zoning residential neighborhoods is quite another.

“We have a long-established policy to maintain single-family neighborhoods and that won’t change,” Conrad said. “For 20 years, the City Council’s primary focus has been to revitalize the Town Center, so that’s where you see densities. I’ve heard no interest from the City Council in re-zoning single-family neighborhoods.”

And in the end, it is the city’s decision to make.

“Over the long haul, there may be state laws that steer communities to higher densities, but in the end city governments ultimately retain this power,” Conrad said.

The House Committee on Local Government & Housing is currently reviewing HB 1490 in Olympia. Three public hearings for the bill took place earlier this month and in late January. The full bill can be found at http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo.

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