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The Waterfront Urban Village is a Fantasy Solution

by on 06/27/2011

Edmonds citizens who have an interest in the future of our city are aware of the debate about heights. Sound bites boil the dispute down to keeping the small-town feel versus building an urban village at the waterfront — an urban village that would include a City Council exemption from current height limits. The rationale for this exemption stems from an expectation that the urban village would be our economic savior.

Much of the finger pointing and blame, by the proponents of the urban village, is directed at those who oppose increased heights at the waterfront. Whether a waterfront urban village, or similar mega-projects, would be our economic savior could be debated, endlessly. All I’ll say here is that, so far, mega projects — take Old Milltown, please — have been mega failures.

The reason I’m not going to debate whether an urban village on the property currently owned by the ESC Associates (Antique Mall) may not be our economic savior is that it’s never going to happen.

Why the Sunset Landing contract rezone is a fantasy solution

The ESC Associates application for a contract rezone is not a project proposal. This means that the design presented is only a proposal, as the ESC Associates do not plan to build themselves. If the requested rezone were approved by City Council, mixed-use buildings up to six stories high (two levels of parking, four levels retail and residential) would be allowed, and the assessed value of the property could go up significantly.

A more important (and little-known) fact is that the ESC Associates property is located on an earthquake liquefaction zone. This was discovered in a search of the contract-rezone chart by a citizen of Edmonds. I obtained a copy of the document, “Elements of the Environment – Sunset Landing Analysis/Initial Scoping Document,” from that citizen. I could not find the document in the application materials posted on the city’s website. In this document it states:

“Site is within a mapped seismic hazard area as a high liquefaction hazard.
Restricted uses listed in ECDC 23.80.040.B”

The following is excerpted from the Edmonds Community Development Code (ECDC) 23.80.040.B:

B. Seismic Hazard Areas. The following activities are allowed within seismic hazard areas:
1. Construction of new buildings with less than 2,500 square feet of floor area or roof area, whichever is greater, and which are not residential structures or used as places of employment or public assembly;
2. Additions to existing single-story residences that are 250 square feet or less; and
3. Installation of fences. [Ord. 3527 § 2, 2004].

So, according to our own city code, the contract rezone application for 513,348 square feet of parking, retail, and residential could not be allowed. Yet, the original application was filed in July of 2009, and the application process continues to this day. My question is, why is Development Services spending time on an application that our code could not allow?

For the sake of argument, suppose that this contract rezone is approved by Development Services, by the Planning Board and by City Council. Do we really think that a developer is going to purchase this property at any price? From what I’ve been told, you can float two stories on a seismic liquefaction zone and make it earthquake safe. In order to build additional stories, the developer would have to go down to the bearing ground and set the buildings on pilings. This is an extremely expensive proposition. What developer in their right mind would take this on with an expectation that it would pencil out?

In short, the idea of an urban village on that property is a fantasy solution, and it’s being discussed and debated to the exclusion of real solutions.

That this property is “within a seismic hazard area as a high liquefaction hazard” is a prime example of lack of transparency in our city government. It should be common knowledge. This critical piece of information should be used to inform our government officials’ decision making about the future of this property. Instead, the information is tucked within the many pages of the application for the contract rezone, and the fantasy that we could have had a thriving urban village, if only…you fill in the rest…is used in the finger-pointing political blame game. For the sake of our future economic health, let’s move on.

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