Neighbors Fear Seattle U’s Bright Future Could Plundge Capitol Hill Into Darkness

In 1890, Fr. Leopold Van Gorp, S.J., purchased nine lots of land that would become Seattle University from Arthur Denny, a Seattle founder, for $18,382 on mostly undeveloped land on the corner of Broadway and Madison. Fast forward 122 years and land on First Hill is not quite as easy to come by.

Though the university has grown from that infantile form, the time has come, the university says, for more growth. These plans are outlined in the Major Institution Master Plan (MIMP) finalized this year.

The plan, detailed in a September issue of The Spectator, sets ambitious goals for university expansion, including more classroom space, higher buildings and the possibility for a new building at 1313 E. Columbia, which would likely house a convention center or other large building.

However, the proposed expansion taps into the tension between a university looking to inflate and the larger community and neighbors, two of which have filed an appeal with the city to reconsider four specific areas of the MIMP.
“It’s about the ability of the institution to grow and the surrounding neighborhood to thrive,” said Bill Zosel, a community member and member of the Citizens Advisory Committee that helped give feedback and draft the Master Plan throughout the four-year process of its completion.

Joy Jacobson, the Director of Design & Construction in the Facilities Department, says the plan, which went up for a preliminary City Council vote with the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Subcommittee Wednesday, presents only “potential placeholders” that denote areas where Seattle U may potentially look to expand in the future.
“They’re boundary lines, and until Seattle U owns the property there will be no changes, but that property can still fall within the boundary lines,” said Jacobson. “It’s primarily a land use document.”
She emphasizes that should the document be approved, it provides the institution and surrounding community with a guide for the coming years, establishing a rough outline of what the university could shape up to be, but with the flexibility to adjust plans should they change, a likely possibility in a document planning changes that could potentially take shape two decades from now.

While nothing is set in stone in terms of what might be built on areas described in the MIMP, Zosel and co-filer Ellen Sollod take issue with a few details of the document.

First, while the university wants to extend zoning boundaries for taller buildings to cover the Photographic Center Northwest and the parking lot behind it at 12th Ave. and Marion St., Zosel and Sollod say that area should be preserved for non-institutional use. While Seattle U does not currently own the property, should they acquire it at any point in the future, the current provisions would allow them to build on the site. According to Zosel, there is no detail in the plan for what exactly the building might become should the university acquire it. He contends the university already has possible space within the current boundaries, and should not need to expand onto that particular site.

Another site the two take issue with is the 1313 E. Columbia building, what could be the future site of a much larger structure. They say that the proposed height of the building would affect the houses directly across the street on 14th Ave. If a larger structure is built, there are additional concerns for what that would mean for traffic and the amount of people frequenting a residential area.

The appellants also argue that there is a clause of the city’s Major Institution Master Plan Land Use Code that encourages large institutions to contain growth within already established boundaries, if possible, and to keep expansion outside those boundaries to a minimum. They request that the city reconsider the proposed expansion from 12th Ave. to 14th Ave. and keep height requirements at a minimum, while the university consider revising the plan to focus on areas they already own.

Along with these concerns, Zosel is concerned with the “possible displacement of non-student housing,” but notes that everything else in the plan is “acceptable.”
Included in the Citizens Advisory Committee’s Final Report are numerous letter to the city from citizens and neighbors within the proposed area along 12th Ave. and 14th Ave., primarily voicing a concern over the proposed height of buildings in relation to the hillside. Some residents expressed concern that the proposed height increases will affect the amount of sunlight they receive and act as a wall between the university and surrounding community.

According to Jacobson, adjustments were made to the proposed building heights along 14th Ave., and the higher building heights were moved farther back from the street.
Zosel and Sollod are filing their request independently of the Citizens Advisory Committee, which endorsed the MIMP, though their dissenting opinions were part of the Minority Report in the larger Final Report.
After the Final Report was filed with the City Council in April, Zosel and Sollod filed a Notice of Appeal with the City Council in June, asking them to reconsider certain aspects of the plan. As stated in the appeal, both Zosel and Sollod are residents in the area, who would “be affected by the degradation of the environment and vitality of the neighborhood and the potential vitality of the neighborhood resulting from the decisions in this case.”
The case is now in the hands of the City Council.

Though Jacobson would like to see a final City Council ruling by the end of the year, there is no date set yet for when that might occur. At that hearing, the council can either adopt the entire plan, or make recommendations ased on the appeal.
“The development of the future campus in an ongoing process,” Zosel said. “All of us will work with the university in ways that are best for the university and neighborhood.”

Jacobson says that this type of document helps everyone understand what will happen in the future, and that the voice of the community has been heard through the process and will continue to be heard as the university moves forward.
“It’s set up to be a balanced approach that gives us flexibility for the future,” Jacobson said. “We have to trust the process will work itself out so we know what we’re working with.”

Olivia may be reached at ojohnson@su-spectator.com

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