Zoning changes will be good for Mercer Island

Change can be intimidating. Prospective change to our own cherished neighborhoods can be particularly intimidating. Add to that, the perception that neighborhood stability and property values may be denigrated and change becomes downright threatening. Such are the emotions raised when land-use zoning changes are contemplated, changes which could introduce smaller lots into the medium-sized lot zoning in an existing older neighborhood.

In this particular instance, the neighborhood in question is Mercer Island’s First Hill, and focus is a 2/3-acre property being considered for being declared “surplus” by the city. The City Council discussion has been tabled, and while no decision has been made, the debate among neighbors on First Hill has already begun. Two of the three alternatives contemplated for the property are designation as a park and development under current R-9.6 zoning, which mandates a 9,600-gross square footage minimum lot size. I would like to address the third alternative, which would consider using the site as a demonstration project per City Comprehensive Plan Policy 3.11, which states: “Adopt an interim ordinance enabling a demonstration project that would allow the development of one innovative housing project ... to examine the feasibility and desirability of allowing housing options.” The object of the demonstration project would be to create alternative housing opportunities on the Island — smaller, detached homes that would be lower in price than the million-dollar-plus new homes now typical of the Island, offering home ownership at prices currently unavailable. Who benefits? Older Islanders on lower incomes, those who work here but can’t afford to live here, and indeed, our own children, whose incomes may never reach the level required to buy a home in the community in which they grew up.

Several myths misinform the debate.

Property values around lower-priced homes on smaller lots will go down. Numerous new small lot developments throughout metropolitan Seattle prove that this is not so. Carefully designed, contextual, smaller homes, created in the context of neighborhood input and recommendations, bring quality and valued diversity of housing stock typical of our region’s heritage neighborhoods. First Hill is such a neighborhood, in which large and small homes, moderate to high incomes and a broad resident age span have maintained both strong vitality and consistently rising housing value.

There is no market for smaller homes on smaller lots. Indeed, the market is tremendous. National statistics state that 65 to 70 percent of new home buyers do not want a big house on a big lot, for reasons of lifestyle or cost. 2000 U.S. Census Bureau figures show that 40 percent of Mercer Islanders had incomes of $75,000 or less. With inflation, that income today would be $100,000 (well above the incomes of our teachers, firemen, civil servants and most health workers) and would qualify the purchase of a $480,000 home (20 percent down, 6 percent interest). What alternatives in new detached housing does Mercer Island offer in that price range? Few, if any.

Traffic congestion will rise to unacceptable levels. Homes at moderate cost levels will be smaller homes of two and three bedrooms, 1,200 to 1,500 gross square footage with one- or two-car garages. Such homes typically sell to single adults, young couples making their first purchase, or older, empty-nester couples. Unlike Island “mega-houses” with many more rooms and triple garages at the 4,320 gross square footage allowed under the existing zoning, transportation statistics show that moderate-sized homes have fewer residents and fewer cars making fewer daily trips.

The vitality of any neighborhood is strengthened by diversity. High-quality alternative housing opportunities, created in the context of neighborhood input, will assure that vitality continues on Mercer Island.

Bill Kreager, FAIA, is a 32-year resident of Mercer Island’s First Hill neighborhood. An architect and community planner with Mithun, he teaches nationally on sustainable, compact community design.

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