Mercer Island Town Center vision blurry as hearings conclude

The city hosted its third and final Town Center public hearing on March 31 at Lakeridge Elementary, hearing from more than 20 people with conflicting views on the future of Mercer Island's downtown.

The city hosted its third and final Town Center public hearing on March 31 at Lakeridge Elementary, hearing from more than 20 people with conflicting views on the future of Mercer Island’s downtown.

The debate is about the existing character of Mercer Island’s downtown and its potential to change, especially with the impending arrival of East Link light rail. Some desire to maintain a small town, “village” feel and limit the heights of buildings and amount of people living in Town Center, while others argue that mass transit could bring density and corresponding vibrancy to a dormant business district.

The Town Center visioning and code development process has been ongoing for two years, and started when the city and its citizens noticed a problem with the five story buildings going up along 27th Street: the public benefits developers promised in exchange for height bonuses weren’t being realized as envisioned. The code, written in 1994 after a similar visioning process, had loopholes.

“The general assessment was that the Town Center vision continues to be an accurate reflection of the community’s values, but that actual development has fallen short in terms of delivering hoped for amenities and other goals for Town Center,” according to a Town Center report released in August 2015.

The city’s Planning and Design Commissions are meeting as a “Joint Commission” for this phase of work, which has involved fine-tuning the Town Center vision, analyzing reports from economists, parking specialists and other consultants, drafting a more prescriptive development code, reviewing related Comprehensive Plan policies and listening to a lot of public input from developers, land owners and citizens.

The commission will have three more working meetings in April, and will present recommendations to the City Council in May. Mercer Island’s moratorium on major downtown development expires on June 15.

The commission is considering two plans for building heights: Alternative A, which would leave the zoning similar to what is dictated in the current code and yield 714 housing units, and Alternative C, which would limit building heights to three stories south of 27th Street and yield 592 units — a 25 percent reduction from the 787 units allocated in the current plan.

If taller buildings are proposed, they may be required to be stepped back from the street to allow more light to reach the ground floor. Many citizens fear the “urban canyons” created by big buildings in bigger cities, said Development Services Group (DSG) Director Scott Greenberg. He likened the proposed building forms to “a Mayan temple, or Devo hat.”

Lawyers for Mercer Island businesses, developers and property owners, including Dollar Development, Gull Industries and Twenty-Four Eleven, cautioned against the stricter standards for building forms and the proposed downzoning, saying it could lead to stagnation in the Town Center and legal trouble for the city if it is accused of spot zoning or “taking” from property owners. They encouraged the Joint Commission to stick to the five story maximum throughout the downtown area.

Greenberg noted that projected residential growth, no matter which building height plan is accepted, is unlikely to support an additional demand for retail. However, it could strengthen the performance of existing businesses and add “vibrancy,” which has become a loaded word in the Town Center debate.

The commission is proposing a retail plan that would center shopping activity in a core area, rather than spreading it throughout Town Center. Greenberg said that shopping trends are shifting toward more local-serving retail with a focus on “experience.”

The Mercer Island demographic shows a lot of purchasing power, but most of those dollars are spent in Seattle, Bellevue or online. However, some of the speakers noted that as traffic worsens in the Puget Sound area, they will look more for services to be provided in their Town Center.

The parking study commissioned shows that parking is “sufficient” to meet the current demand in Town Center, though residents expressed frustration with parking especially at QFC and in the parking garages of the new buildings.

The commission is proposing to increase the sizes of spaces and aisles to alleviate the cramped feeling in future garages. It may also plan to add more on-street and walk-off parking, along with more mid-block connections to help activate the Town Center streets.

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