The Edmonds City Council voted 4-3 Tuesday night to approve an interim extension of designated street fronts in certain areas of downtown Edmonds’ BD2 zone, ensuring that the action is in place prior to the expiration of a city moratorium on building permit applications there.
The decision — supported by Councilmembers Vivian Olson, Diane Buckshnis, Kristiana Johnson and Neil Tibbott — is related to a 24-unit apartment building proposed for the 600 block of Main Street, located in the BD2 zone. Citing concerns about that development proposal, the council at its Feb. 15 meeting approved a moratorium on building permits in the BD2 zone. The moratorium, which applied to projects not subject to the city’s designated street front standards, was intended to give staff time to create interim standards to address gaps in the code that apply to those sites.
Under city code, new buildings in the BD2 zone located along a designated street front must have a street-level floor with commercial uses at a minimum 12-foot height. New buildings located outside of the designated street front, on the other hand, are not required to have commercial uses on the first floor and may be multifamily residential-only buildings.
Last month, the council approved staff-recommended interim design standards and also extended the moratorium until June 2. The idea was to give staff time to research a topic raised in earlier council discussions: Whether it is appropriate to expand the limits of the city’s designated business zone map to require at least some commercial use of new structures within that area.
The answer to that question came in the form of a report, completed by consultant Otak, that recommended that the city not extend the designated street fronts. Expanding on the consultant’s findings, Edmonds Development Services Director Susan McLaughlin noted that “the risk associated with the long absorption time (supply vs. demand) for retail spaces coupled with drastic reduction in rental residential units would make mixed-use projects not feasible for the average boutique developer.”
Otak performed a market demand analysis that looked at three questions: 1) whether designated street front restrictions downtown would inhibit market demand for residential development, 2) the existing market demand for mixed commercial/residential and 3) the market demand for solely commercial buildings.
While the statistics on commercial office space in downtown Edmonds indicate a stable market, the vacancy rate for downtown’s 425 multifamily housing rental units is 1%, indicating a short supply and high demand.
During a question-and-answer session with councilmembers, McLaughlin pointed out that the downtown area’s current zoning already can accommodate a mix of uses — retail, commercial and residential. “If we extended street frontage, it would limit what developers can do there and we may not see, in fact, any development in the near term. And in terms of limiting the residential potential to build residential units downtown, staff does think that’s problematic given the fact we do have a very, very low supply,” she said.
Councilmember Tibbott, who originally raised the idea of extending the street front zoning beyond its current limits, reiterated his belief that the extension was the right thing to do. “One of my concerns is that as our downtown continues to grow and (becomes) more and more robust, we’re going to run out of that type of space for our downtown areas,” Tibbott said.
Councilmember Laura Johnson, who opposed the ordinance, asked why councilmembers aren’t more focused on addressing the existing housing shortage instead of worrying about the loss of retail.
“We have a housing shortage. We should be prioritizing multifamily — not fighting against it,” she said. She also noted that Otak’s report suggested that the city consider raising building heights by 2 to 5 feet to better accommodate mixed-use development. “If it’s a priority of this council to increase commercial…then let’s talk about increasing heights,” Johnson said.
Explaining that concept further, McLaughlin noted that the 12-foot, ground-floor height suitable for commercial office space makes it hard to add two stories of residential above. Some Edmonds developments — including the mixed-use apartments at 2nd and Main — have addressed this by building a below-grade commercial space. Increasing downtown Edmonds’ current 30-foot height limit –even by 2 feet — would enable the developer to get “three solid floors, which would then pencil out for the mixed-use development option,” she said.
While “applying that (increased height limit) to the City of Edmonds is challenging,” McLaughlin said, “…if council is willing to support that, yes, I think that’s a solid recommedation to get what we want — mixed-use development in the BD2 zone to support the retail core.”
In proposing the ordinance to extend the designated street front, Council President Olson noted that because it was an interim measure, it would give the Edmonds Planning Board time to discuss the ramifications and also give the public a chance to weigh in. (That was especially critical for some councilmembers since the Otak report came to the council Monday night, with not much time to review it.) Olson’s motion also included a recommendation from staff to amend language in the permitted use table for the BD zone to eliminate ambiguity.
Laura Johnson proposed an amendment to remove the designated street front extension from the ordinance, leaving only the language amendments, but that amendment failed by a 3-4 margin (Will Chen, Susan Paine and L. Johnson voting for it and Buckshnis, K. Johnson, Olson and Tibbott against). In voting on Olson’s original motion, Chen joined Laura Johnson and Susan Paine in opposing the ordinance, stating he needed more time to consider it before voting.
A public hearing on the ordinance is set for the July 19 council meeting.
In other action Tuesday night, the council held a public hearing regarding how the city so far has allocated its $11.9 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars for COVID-19 recovery. The agenda item didn’t generate much in the way of public testimony, but councilmembers agreed they wanted to talk further at a later date about moving funds from one area to another. The money is currently allocated for city expenditures ($750,000), household support ($4.15 million), business support ($1.1 million), nonprofit support ($500,000), job retraining ($600,000) and green infrastructure ($4.8 million).
The council also unanimously agreed to place on the next meeting’s consent agenda amendments to the city’s stormwater code based on state Department of Ecology requirements, and also unanimously approved the city’s 2023-2028 Six-Year Transportation Improvement Program. A discussion of Edmonds waterfront issues that need to be addressed as part of the city’s 2024 Comprehensive Plan update were delayed to a future meeting due to the lateness of the hour.
The council won’t meet next week as it’s the fifth Tuesday of the month.
— By Teresa Wippel