In an attempt to address concerns about a new zoning designation in the city, Mercer Island’s recently rebranded Community Planning and Development department hosted an outreach meeting on Jan. 24 present the code revisions — particularly how they would apply to the three properties on East Mercer Way that asked for the change.
The Stroum Jewish Community Center (SJCC), French American School of Puget Sound and Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation requested that the city of Mercer Island’s Comprehensive Plan be amended to create a new “community facilities” designation, which was approved on Nov. 20, 2018.
Earlier that summer, neighbors learned about the proposal to change the zoning on those properties, followed by a plan to remodel and expand. Since then, the city has been conducting outreach in person and online to identify concerns, which include the size, bulk and density of buildings, traffic, safety, parking, construction impacts, cost and “(lack of) trust in city government to address community concerns/needs,” according to past community meeting minutes.
Last week, Community Planning and Development director Evan Maxim and senior planner Nicole Gaudette presented parts of the draft code that aim to address the issues, including larger setbacks to concentrate most of the development to the center of the property.
For the new zone, the city is proposing a “tiered approach,” meaning that the farther a site is from a residential use, the taller it can be, and the more lot coverage and gross floor area it can have. There are also different regulations for different sized properties. The SJCC/French American School site on the west side of East Mercer Way would be considered a “large” site, while the Herzl site on the east side would be considered “small.”
The properties, comprising 18 acres, are adjacent to Interstate 90 to the north and residential-zoned properties to the south, east and west. Recently, the French American School bought three houses on Southeast 40th Street, according to King County Assessor records, and two on 97th Avenue Southeast. Those lots would be included in the “community facilities” zone, according to the draft code.
The zone is intended to be applied to private community facilities that are located in residential zones, including country clubs, churches and as of late, equestrian facilities, though it would initially apply just to the SJCC/French American School/Herzl sites.
But some of the proposed regulations can be circumvented if a site undergoes a master planning process, Maxim said. A master plan, which would have to be approved by the Design Commission, would “allow some flexibility to ensure good design.”
A master plan would also enable a mix of uses and sharing of facilities, which is in line with what the SJCC originally proposed. SJCC wants to do a land swap between Herzl and the French American School, according to plans submitted to the city, enabling them to either build new facilities or expand existing ones to provide additional programming.
Those plans sparked concern among neighbors, especially in the Mercerwood area and along Southeast 40th Street and East Mercer Way, who feared they would be looking at tall fencing, bright lights and other infrastructure they said doesn’t belong in a single-family neighborhood if the current draft of the master plan moves forward.
The meeting didn’t seem to placate neighbors who have been suspicious of the process from the beginning, and who feel the facilities already are encroaching on their neighborhood. They also accused the code of being a “spot zone” that shouldn’t apply to the entire Island.
Concerned islanders also wanted the zoning code and the development regulations for “community facilities” to be drafted at the same time. Neighbors plan to file at least three appeals with the Growth Management Hearings Board this week, they told the Reporter after the meeting.
They are also concerned about the traffic, noise, parking and safety impacts of the expansion, as well as how many off-Island users will be coming to the facilities. They say membership and enrollment at the SJCC and French American School could double, but the city says increased usage is one of the elements it cannot regulate in the new zone.
When the properties came to the city with a plan to redevelop, a new zone was suggested as a way to benefit both the applicants and the neighbors, Planning Commission chair Daniel Hubbell told the Reporter in previous coverage. He said some of the neighbors’ concerns are “unaddressable under the current code.”
City staff also talked about ways to regulate items that impact the neighborhood, including lighting, screening, sound, vehicle and pedestrian access and safety. The draft also “greatly increased the amount of parking” required, Maxim said.
The SJCC’s architect, Ed Weinstein, was at the Jan. 24 meeting, and said the process started when the SJCC was thinking of redeveloping but knew it was “short on parking.” Citizens submitted requests for the minutes of the preliminary meetings between the architect and the city’s planning department, which was then known as the Development Services Group (DSG). The DSG director at the time steered the SJCC toward the current process.
“The conditional use permit update and variances would not have the same level of focused public outreach and engagement,” Weinstein said. “Everything that we’re talking about here, that has been occurring through the Planning Commission, is an example of the proper public outreach. I think if we stubbed our toe on anything, it was that we did not come talk to the community on Southeast 40th before this process got started to understand the antipathy and all of the frustrations that have built up through the years.”
Representatives from the Mercer Island City Council and Planning Commission were also at last week’s meeting. The Planning Commission will meet on Jan. 30 to discuss the community facilities rezone, and review the preliminary draft. There will be another meeting on Feb. 20 and a public hearing on April 3 before it goes to the council.
“At the end of this exercise, what I expect the community, the Planning Commission and the city council to do is look at the proposed draft regulations and the proposed bounds of the zoning, and come to a decision about whether or not this is a good choice for Mercer Island,” Maxim said. “If it’s not, the council is not obligated to approve it.”
See www.mercergov.org/CCBIndex.asp?CCBID=7 for more.