Another view of the Harbor Square Redevelopment Plan
By Richard Senderoff
As a commissioner on the Edmonds Citizen’s Economic Development Commission (ECEDC), I supported exploring opportunities for redevelopment/renewal of sub-areas including Harbor Square, as well as the Westgate and Five Corners business districts. As such, I’ve followed these on-going efforts with great interest and provided feedback when appropriate. My comments here are consistent with those expressed previously to the Port, directly to the Port Executive Director Bob McChesney, to the Planning Board, and to Council. And my intent herein is to address broad perspectives and offer a path forward, rather than focus on specifics such as compliance with the Shoreline Master Plan, specific setback requirements and height allowances, potential impacts on adjacent properties, etc. Note: These perspectives do not necessarily reflect others on the ECEDC or the ECEDC as a whole.
Upon review of the proposed Harbor Square Redevelopment Master Plan and the Planning Board’s recommendations, I cannot support incorporation of the proposed Harbor Square Redevelopment Master Plan into the City Comprehensive Plan in its current form. However, I remain supportive of redevelopment/renewal efforts for the Harbor Square property and believe the process should continue; addressing the concerns of others in the community and my own. Only in this way can we enact an approach that builds more community consensus regarding this valuable asset.
My primary concerns associated with the Harbor Square Master Plan are: 1) The Consequences of a Comprehensive Plan Change/Amendment, 2) The “Balance Between Certainty and Flexibility,” and 3) The Change from No Residential to Residential Throughout the Entire Site.
1) Consequences of a Comprehensive Plan Change/Amendment- Many have provided comments suggesting that City Council should approve the current Harbor Square Redevelopment Plan as a Comprehensive Plan Amendment “in order to keep the process moving;” implying that the details and concerns that some may have can be worked out later once a design plan is submitted. This is misleading and represents a misunderstanding of the overarching role that the comprehensive plan designates with regards to development.
Let’s be clear. The comprehensive plan is “The Law of the Land.” In terms of development, it is the “Edmonds Constitution.” As pointed out by our city attorney during the last public hearing, our development code MUST be consistent with the comprehensive plan. That is, the comprehensive plan supersedes the development code. And the comprehensive plan sets the parameters on what development should occur, what development could occur, what development might occur (i.e. unintended consequences), and whether a design plan may be denied by council without risk of legal challenges (despite a public review process).
Under the proposed plan, the council could not deny a design plan that allowed 55 foot buildings virtually everywhere throughout the Harbor Square site as long as some subjective, non-specific conditions were met with regards to environmental concerns, open space, energy efficiency, etc. And let’s keep in mind that addressing environmental needs, open space, energy efficiency, etc. all represents added costs for any developer. Notwithstanding the Port’s connection and commitment to our community, what if the Port was to sell the property? Can we be absolutely sure that the new owner would be so benevolent or trustworthy? Or perhaps, the new owner might want to minimize their development costs as much as possible including those aspects that represent community amenities. This is why it’s so important that the redevelopment plan/comprehensive plan amendment strikes a “balance between certainty and flexibility.”
2) “Balance Between Certainty and Flexibility”- From the standpoint of the Edmonds citizenry, there is always concern to significant comprehensive and economic development plan changes in terms of impacts on community values/traditions that many hold dear. So it’s important to lay out a high degree of “certainty” especially where building height/bulk, environmental impacts, and public open space are concerned. And this “certainty” should include specificity addressing locations where height/bulk bonuses may be allowed, suitable transitions from adjacent zone are assured, as well as conditions (environmental, public open space, etc.) that must be met such that height/bulk bonuses are granted. Otherwise, the Edmonds citizenry (as history has shown and was evident during the public hearings to date) will likely be suspicious of consequences to the areas targeted for change as well as surrounding areas. From the standpoint of potential developers, this same “certainty” is necessary in order to draft compliant design plans without expending significant time and costs. I presume, too, that council members are also concerned with not only what “should” or “could” happen as a result of changes to the comprehensive or economic development plans, but what “might” occur (in terms of unintended consequences).
Since the City of Edmonds (per council direction) is pursuing several sub-area plans at this time (and for the first time) including Harbor Square, Westgate and 5 Corners, it’s also important that a consistent approach amongst each be adopted. As such, please let me call your attention to the draft Westgate redevelopment plan put together by The University of Washington, Green Futures Lab: http://agenda.ci.edmonds.wa.us/docs/2012/PLB/20120912_707/5109_Edmonds_WG_FINAL_August2012_sm.pdf.
Regardless of how one may feel regarding the merits of this draft plan, please consider Section 6.5 (pages 52 & 53) with regards to my discussion of “balance between certainty and flexibility.” To me, this is an excellent example of the clarity and specifics that need to be laid out in these redevelopment plans. Figure 6.5-1 clearly specifies the height limits, where the tallest buildings are allowed, as well as areas not eligible for new construction. Section 6.5.2 provides a Height Bonus Score sheet that specifically indicates the building requirements (in terms of credits applied) to meet prerequisites as well as the criteria to meet height bonus conditions.
The requirements are broken down into categories including: 1) Housing Unit Size, Green Building Program, Green Factor, Amenity Space, and Alternative Transportation (that are referenced back to sections within the redevelopment plan where they are discussed in more detail). The redevelopment plan sets forth a “base” building height limit and height bonuses are only allowed if a specific number of criteria are met. Developers are free to pursue projects within the base conditions, but are provided “incentives” to address community needs/interests in return for height bonus allowances. In this way, I believe the approach taken with the draft Westgate redevelopment plan makes a substantial effort to address “certainty” within the plan while still allowing the flexibility a developer requires. Personally (regardless of the merits of the Westgate proposal overall), I feel this format serves as a model approach for these sub-area plans.
Nothing similar appears in the proposed Harbor Square Redevelopment Master Plan. There is no map outlining specifically where the tallest buildings will be located, where no construction will be allowed, and that a suitable transition is established from adjacent zones. There is no “score sheet” (or comparable approach) to ensure environmental concerns — particularly associated with our Wildlife Sanctuary (aka The Marsh), building/housing attributes, public amenity space, transportation/parking, or flood control requirements are met. Any “guarantees” left merely to non-quantitative verbiage subject to interpretation does not carry much weight. That is, how much is enough to be consistent with the comprehensive plan?
As such, I feel the Harbor Square Redevelopment Master Plan fails the balance between certainty and flexibility test in its current form. While I understand and recognize that the origins of the several sub-area redevelopment plans being considered are different, the goals are similar. As such, a consistent approach that addresses the certainty-flexibility balance should be followed.
3) Change from No Residential to Residential Throughout the Entire Site – In addition to the lack of certainty regarding the Harbor Square Redevelopment Plan, I’m concerned about the 180° flip regarding residential housing relative to light industrial/commercial. I understand the interest in allowing residential housing on this property that currently is not allowed. However, prior to “going all in,” it seems more reasonable to require some general commercial (CG; non-residential) remain within the property; either by specific location or square footage requirement, at least until the proposed goals of mixed-use development were realized. Maintaining CG designated areas could promote recreation-type facilities as well as light industrial/manufacturing -that are consistent with nearby residential- to be incorporated into design plans; and incentives could be provided for these (per above).
For instance, we currently have two “brew pubs” in Harbor Square that are doing well and serve as community gathering places. But their long-term existence (and business values) may not be secure under the currently proposed Harbor Square Master Plan that does not require that some non-residential commercial areas be retained; because their longer-term lease arrangements may be less assured.
Microbreweries offer substantial opportunities for communities. Not only do they allow for re-using vacant space, they also create local jobs; attract new companies or expand existing ones; and increase the tax base (http://www.brewbound.com/news/craft-beers-impact-on-local-economy-discussed). Microbreweries, craft distilleries, and winery operations are considered manufacturing businesses by the Washington Economic Development Finance Authority (WEDFA) because they “change physical material into something different and more valuable.” As such, these manufacturing businesses are eligible for a specialized program that helps companies issue tax-free Qualified Small Issue Bonds to raise capital for operations. Cities like Snohomish have put forward incentives to help attract these businesses by offering to “sponsor” a company’s private bond issue through WEDFA. The goal is to help the company organize its application materials and provide needed data for the bond issue offering statements; sponsorship does not require the City to assume or guarantee any debt or otherwise undertake any financial obligation.
I bring this up here because Harbor Square seems an ideal location for these types of businesses that serve the at-large community (community gathering, tastings and local tourism) and make use of property “undesirably” located near the railroad tracks, as well as expand the tax base for the city. And as an Edmonds Citizens Economic Development Commission commissioner, I have been advocating business develop incentives such as these (as well as others).
Finally, it has been stated that the Strategic Plan surveys suggested over 70 percent of the Edmonds citizenry support redevelopment/renewal of the Harbor Square property. While this may be true, it does not mean that over 70 percent support incorporation of THIS plan into the Comprehensive Plan. I would be considered one (of many) who agree we should continue considering opportunities for Harbor Square redevelopment, but think we can do much better.
My recommendation is for council to send this back to the Port (and Planning Board) to address the “balance between certainty and flexibility” as well as the extent of residential allowed (relative to the current CG designation). And that the approach taken for the draft Westgate development plan should be applied to Harbor Square and other Edmonds sub-area plans.
P.S. I thank you for taking the time to read my rather lengthy opinion.