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Originally published Monday, April 22, 2013 at 8:42 PM

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Council OKs compromise on builder fees in South Lake Union

The Seattle City Council unanimously approved new affordable-housing fees for development in South Lake Union over objections of property owners. But council members said the fees are probably too low and leave the city far short of its goals.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Seattle City Council unanimously approved new affordable-housing fees for development in South Lake Union, but council members said the fees would still leave the city far short of its goals in the fast-growing neighborhood.

After objections by property owners, and months of bruising debate, the council voted 9-0 Monday for a compromise that blended proposals by members Mike O’Brien, Tim Burgess and Sally Clark.

Reaction was muted, as no one representing developers addressed the council at its meeting.

A spokeswoman for Vulcan, the neighborhood’s largest property owner, said after the meeting that the company was disappointed. But Vulcan isn’t yet prepared to say whether the fees would stymie its projects, said spokeswoman Lori Mason Curran.

“We’ve had a thorough and exhaustive process, and I think people said what needed to be said,” Councilmember Richard Conlin said about the lack of opposition Monday.

The fees will apply when the council passes new zoning next month for South Lake Union, allowing much taller buildings.

Under the city’s incentive-zoning program, buildings can go to certain heights above current limits if there’s payment for public benefits, such as affordable housing.

The plan includes a key figure from O’Brien’s proposal — a fee of $21.68 for every gross square foot of space residential developers use above existing height limits.

In recent months, business leaders strongly objected to the council’s desire to raise fees above the $15.15 per square foot Mayor Mike McGinn had proposed for new residential towers. But several did not return calls Monday seeking reaction to the council vote.

All the while, Councilmember Nick Licata argued that fees needed to be dramatically higher if Seattle wanted to keep pace with other cities and its own goals. Licata proposed a fee of $96 per square foot.

Under the council’s plan, builders would set aside about 5 percent of new residential towers for affordable housing, or pay an equivalent amount the city would invest in projects in other neighborhoods.

Boston, Sacramento and San Francisco require 15 percent set-asides, Licata noted, while New York and Boulder, Colo., required 20 percent.

Noting Seattle would still lag behind other cities, Lily Wilson-Codega of Teamsters Local 117 called the council action a “wonderful step in the right direction.”

But the council needs to “follow up with many steps,” said Sheldon Cooper of Homestead Community Land Trust.

In South Lake Union, the council is trying to set some rents so they would be affordable to workers who earn up to 80 percent of the local median income. For a single person, that’s an annual income of $45,000 and rents of $1,127 for a studio apartment and $1,208 for a one-bedroom.

The idea is to allow some restaurant, administrative and other service-industry workers to live in the neighborhood.

In theory, that would keep them from long commutes that add to traffic and pollution.

“We can build all the green buildings and bike lanes we want, but if low- and moderate-income people need to commute hours a day in an old car, we aren’t going to decrease our carbon footprint,” said Emily Alvarado of the nonprofit Housing Development Consortium while testifying to the council last week.

The mayor and council both plan to further study the issue and come up with revised fees for other parts of the city, including downtown.

As several council members noted, their new plan is expected to produce roughly 700 new affordable apartments in the next 18 years. That would leave South Lake Union about 2,500 apartments short of the city’s goal.

“It’s not the end,” President Sally Clark said of the new fees. “These are not the figures that will get us to where we want.”

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

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