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Originally published December 13, 2012 at 7:57 PM | Page modified December 14, 2012 at 6:21 AM

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South Lake Union neighborhood advocates oppose taller, fatter buildings

In a presentation to the Seattle City Council, neighborhood representatives said Mayor Mike McGinn's proposal for taller buildings in South Lake Union goes too far and should be scaled back.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Graphic: A boom with a view?

Click to see enlarged graphic.

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Neighborhood critics of the mayor's proposal for much taller buildings in South Lake Union told the Seattle City Council on Thursday they're not merely trying to protect their own views, and they're willing to compromise, allowing 160-foot towers near the lake.

In a presentation praised by council members for its thoroughness and civility, members of the South Lake Union Community Coalition stressed, though, that Mayor Mike McGinn's proposal goes too far and should be scaled back.

The mayor would allow up to 33 new towers of at least 16 stories in the fast-growing area, with some possibly rising to 40 stories.

"We aren't just NIMBYs. We've always said there are growth opportunities" in the neighborhood, said John Pehrson, a coalition leader. "That doesn't mean we have to go on steroids."

In an unconventional move, Pehrson and fellow coalition leader Chris Gemill were invited to make a presentation to the council's land-use committee chaired by Councilman Richard Conlin.

A retired engineer and longtime Belltown activist before he moved to South Lake Union, Pehrson joked it was the first time he got to sit at the "adult table" with council members.

As he displayed charts and illustrations, Pehrson said the council should be guided by good planning and not an appetite for new tax revenues that would come with a building boom.

Pehrson, a resident of the 12-story Mirabella senior community, and other critics have been depicted as NIMBYs who don't want their private views blocked by new development. Again Thursday, several advocates of the mayor's proposal testified that those opposing the plan care mainly about their private views.

"I'd like to get personal," Pehrson told council members. Some Mirabella residents have complained to council members about views. But he said he lives on Mirabella's third floor and views aren't an issue for him; Gemill lives in the "panhandle" area north of the neighborhood's building boom, and views aren't an issue for him; and the coalition's other co-chair Christine Lea lives in a low-rise building on the neighborhood's eastern edge. Views are not her priority either.

Their concerns, according to Pehrson, are housing diversity, transportation and urban form. The council meeting Thursday focused on urban form, so Pehrson stuck mostly to that topic.

Noting that existing zoning, which limits heights in most of the area to 85 feet, has been a success, Pehrson agreed with the rationale for somewhat taller buildings.

But the coalition took issue with proposed heights in three areas: Denny Way, Fairview Avenue North and the so-called Mercer blocks near the lake.

Under the mayor's proposal, residential towers up to 400 feet — roughly 40 stories — would be allowed along Denny Way. That strip includes undeveloped blocks owned by Vulcan and The Seattle Times Co. A spokeswoman for The Times, Jill Mackie, said the company supports the mayor's proposal.

Pehrson argued that 400 feet is out of character for the neighborhood and would dwarf nearby buildings. He called for a 240-foot limit along the north side of Denny Way.

On nearby Fairview Avenue North, the mayor would allow 24-story buildings across an alley from existing 75-foot buildings for low-income residents and cancer patients. Pehrson called that bad planning. He likened it to a 10-story office building across an alley from a single-family house and said new towers would cast shadows on the green rooftop of the Alcyone apartment building.

As for three blocks near the lake where Vulcan, Paul Allen's real-estate firm, wants to build 240-foot towers, Pehrson has several complaints. Instead of having buildings step down, in height, to the lake, three 24-story towers would "step up," he said.

The towers would be surrounded by 65-foot buildings and out of scale, he said. They would also damage the neighborhood's connection to the lake, he said, and cause "downwind turbulence" for floatplanes taking off and landing on Lake Union.

The coalition's first preference would be to leave existing 40-foot height limits in place for the Mercer blocks. But, as a compromise, Pehrson said, the coalition is willing to allow 160-foot towers, if they were skinnier, and had less-bulky bases than proposed.

The coalition includes the Mirabella, Cascade Neighborhood Council and another group, the Lake Union Opportunity Alliance. Their goals are supported by the Floating Homes Association, representing people living on Lake Union.

While calling Pehrson's work "remarkable," city Planning Director Marshall Foster took issue with several of his points.

Foster disagreed about Denny Way, saying the 400-foot limit would mirror what's allowed just to the south in the Denny Triangle area.

Regarding Fairview Avenue North, Foster noted that South Lake Union, designated an urban center and growth magnet, is under planning rules different from single-family zones, making Pehrson's analogy flawed.

And, on the Mercer blocks, Foster said, 24-story towers would be allowed only if Vulcan contributed to "substantial public benefits," such as affordable housing. There would be only one tower per block, he said, and towers would be relatively skinny, occupying less than a quarter-block.

Despite Foster's critique, council members were quick to laud Pehrson. "We have some openings for planners," Conlin joked. Bruce Harrell called the presentation "very helpful." Sally Bagshaw said she appreciated Pehrson's "reasonable tone."

The council has not set a firm timeline for voting on the mayor's proposal. It plans to review a variety of issues early next year, from housing affordability to floatplane flight paths.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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