Ambitious plan to rezone Tacoma residential areas faces slew of City Council amendments

Changes to the city’s land-use rules in the ambitious Home in Tacoma package haven’t made it to the finish line of its first phase, and 15 potential amendments are being floated to further alter the proposals.

At Tuesday’s City Council study session, six council members and Deputy Mayor Keith Blocker presented amendments to the plan, which would overhaul residential land use to replace single-family and multifamily low-density zoning with low-scale and mid-scale zoning.

At the study session, five text amendments and 10 map amendments were presented. The amendments entail more changes to current proposed mid-scale designations, further clarifying language and, in one case, proposed view analyses in more parts of the city.

The presentation was shared again during Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

Council member Kristina Walker asked during the study session the question that seemingly was the elephant in the room after the amendments presentation:

“Is there a point at which we’ve gone too far and that this doesn’t really make sense as a policy because we’ve applied different characteristics or different standards for each corridor, each district?” she asked.

There was no clear answer, other than Mayor Victoria Woodards advising repeatedly for council members to find ways to combine and streamline the amendments.

“Inevitably, we could end up with 13 amendments on the floor at a council meeting, which is what I’m seriously trying to avoid,” she said.

The council agreed to tackle the amendments at a special meeting next week, date to be determined, ahead of the final ordinance reading.

SHRINKING MID-SCALE

The proposed low-scale zoning would contribute to the city’s long-sought “missing middle” housing to include detached houses, duplexes, triplexes, cottage housing and, in some cases, fourplexes and small multifamily buildings, according to the plan.

Mid-scale would include not only structures included in low-scale development but also small multifamily units. Those would generally be near shopping, transit and other services and used as a way to add transition between low-scale and mixed-use.

The mid-scale zoning portion of the plan, while significant, is not as dramatic as had been initially outlined in early Home in Tacoma plans, with a lower percentage adding to the city’s existing 10 percent multifamily low density, as explained by Brian Boudet, planning division manager for the city during council’s Nov. 9 Committee of the Whole session.

The Infrastructure, Planning & Sustainability Committee’s recommendations to Home in Tacoma included reducing the amount of mid-scale residential proposed from 38 percent to 17.5 percent of the city’s residential land use, with low-scale still representing the vast majority of residential zoning.

The city now is at 90 percent single family and 10 percent multifamily low density. Those two designations would become low-scale and mid-scale under the proposed plan.

Now with multiple amendments, including substantive map changes, further analysis would be needed to show what the percentages would look like.

The mid-scale definitions through the process became the most debated portion of Home in Tacoma for many residents, with worries of large apartment buildings going next door to single-family homes. The plan limits height for most of the buildings in this category to three stories.

Four-story buildings would be limited to sites adjacent to designated corridors, not in transition areas.

COMMITTEE RECOMMENDATIONS

The Home in Tacoma ordinance had its first reading Nov. 16.

With the addition of the amendments and now a special council meeting to be scheduled next week to hash out the final details, second reading of the ordinance has been moved to Dec. 7.

The council received 116 written comments and heard from residents in nearly two hours of public comment at the Nov. 16 meeting, which also included feedback over the Tideflats regulations.

Tuesday’s feedback followed a public hearing about Home in Tacoma that was held in July, and neighborhood meetings also held earlier this year.

Home in Tacoma policy recommendations were first honed earlier this year by the city’s Planning Commission at request of the council.

After July’s hearing and other feedback, the proposals were then sent to the Infrastructure, Planning & Sustainability Committee for further modifications, leading to the current ordinance and additions.

Beyond reducing the percentage of mid-scale in the plan, other IPS recommendations included:

  • Strengthen policy direction for development standards to include relative size standards, so that new development is not out of scale with existing development in the immediate area.
  • Heighten design controls for larger projects and those in transition areas.
  • Strengthen policy commitment to providing infrastructure with infill.
  • Direct staff to develop infrastructure funding options for infill (tied to ongoing Impact Fees study).
  • Establish site-specific flexibility through a Conditional Use Permit.
  • Establish an optional affordable housing bonus for religious institutions and nonprofits.
  • Allow nonconforming non-residential buildings in residential area flexibility to add residential units and/or neighborhood-serving commercial uses.

Boudet explained at the Nov. 9 meeting the theories behind the city’s push for mid-scale, showing in a diagram using data from the city’s housing action plan that the mid-scale options could be among the most effective for households earning between $55,000-$70,000.

“The market in and of itself, even with modifications like this, is very unlikely to get down to low or very low and extremely low-income housing,” he said at the meeting. “And you’ll see that confirmed here on the bottom where it indicates that public subsidy is really the primary mechanism in which you get to that level of affordability.

“But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that the mid-scale doesn’t make a difference,” he added. “The study pretty clearly shows that small multifamily within our market is one of the most affordable market-based housing types that we can do. So that’s why the mid-scale is really an important component of this proposal.”

Critics of the plan remain unconvinced. Among the public comments submitted, many asked for either more review of the current proposals or delay and/or scrap the expansion in the mid-scale portion altogether.

“The tax breaks you are offering the developers are not going to bring us the low income ‘affordable’ housing that is needed,” wrote Jill Brothers. “The token ‘affordable’ units the developers will be required to provide is a joke. This nonsense of not requiring adequate parking is laughable. You are dreaming if you think people are going to ride the bus from their apartment and not own cars. We already have poor availability of street parking in most of Tacoma.”

“Very few of the new apartment buildings that have started leasing in recent months are affordable, and many of them are micro units, too small to safely house a family,” wrote Judy Manza. “Why is this being rushed through, with no consideration of the impact on our city’s unique neighborhoods and character, the lack of needed infrastructure, and the environmental consequences?”

Others thought the city had taken too long and was overdue to put Home in Tacoma into action. “To adopt the Home in Tacoma project now is imperative to a welcoming future for more than an elite percentage,” wrote Dana Peregrine.

“To adopt the Home in Tacoma project now is imperative to a welcoming future for more than an elite percentage,” wrote Dana Peregrine. “To adopt the Home in Tacoma project package now is a moral imperative.”

AMENDMENTS

The council members’ amendments as presented Nov. 23:

  • Deputy Mayor Keith Blocker, one map change: Expand mid-scale along high capacity transit corridors from a half-block to one block.

Boudet noted that the Planning Commission had recommended two blocks around high-capacity corridors, with IPS recommending a half block. Blocker described his amendment as a compromise.

“I just think it’s important for us to not miss the opportunity to create more housing, particularly in these areas with high transit capacity.”

  • Council member John Hines, two map changes: Switch mid-scale corridor from North Union (21st to 26th Street) to North 21st Street and Proctor. Change mid-scale west of South Jackson Avenue to low-scale.
  • Council member Conor McCarthy, three map changes: Change mid-scale along North 26th Street between Proctor and Westgate centers to low-scale. Remove mid-scale center transitions and remove mid-scale transitions around neighborhood commercial nodes.

“We did look at commercial nodes,” McCarthy explained at the study session. “... in many cases these are just gas stations ... and then there’s a bunch of houses around it... But just waving a wand and saying, ‘OK, around every neighborhood gas station, we’re gonna pump out, you know, a block around it and allow for four story buildings.’ I’m just not there yet.”

  • Council member Robert Thoms, one comp plan text change and one map change: Reduce maximum density in low-scale residential to 15 dwelling units per acre. Existing single-family target density is 6 to 12 dwellings per acre. IPS recommended 10-25. Change mid-scale along North I Street corridor within the North Slope Historic District to low-scale.
  • Council member Catherine Ushka: two map changes, three comp plan/ordinance text changes: Switch mid-scale from South Yakima corridor to Thompson corridor (south of Lincoln mixed use center). Change mid-scale to low-scale along east boundary of Lower Pacific Mixed Use Center. Clarify that single-family detached housing is not non-conforming in both low-scale and mid-scale. Add a view study in Phase 2 to examine areas not that have not previously received view analysis and/or protections in Eastside and South End. As part of Phase 2, clarify that map adjustments may be appropriate after the additional analysis.
  • Council member Kristina Walker: one comp plan text change: Add language mirroring terms in mid-scale proposal to clarify that also in low-scale areas, historic district infill must be consistent with scale and defining features of existing neighborhood.
  • Council member Chris Beale: one map change: Expansion of mid-scale along the South 84th Street corridor, from Interstate 5 to McKinley Avenue including in and around the Fern Hill Business District.

WHAT’S NEXT

Home in Tacoma is split into two phases, with the first ordinance covering the “vision and policy” of the project. In the second phase, city staff and council will tackle actual zoning changes along with design and development standards, with that work reaching its conclusion sometime next year or the following.

Boudet estimated about 18 months before any actual on-the-ground changes would be able to start following passage.

“There’s no new development that gets allowed immediately when this policy phase gets adopted. As we’ve talked about, this is the first of a two-step process.

“There will be at least 18 months of continuing conversation to try to figure out the details of what zoning makes sense,” he told council on Tuesday.

The second reading of Phase 1 Home in Tacoma will be at the Dec. 7 council meeting, one week after a public hearing is scheduled on the expansion of residential target areas for growth as related to the council’s recently endorsed changes to the city’s use of the 8- and 12-year multifamily property tax exemptions.

Home in Tacoma is tied to the changes endorsed by the council regarding MFTEs, notably in the use of the 12- or 20-year MFTE in the areas zoned mid-scale.

Government, Performance and Finance Committee’s proposals both expanded and limited use of MFTEs. Council recently approved the proposed changes, with first and second reading of the MFTE ordinances next month following the Nov. 30 hearing.

For more information, maps and updates on the Home in Tacoma process, go to cityoftacoma.org/homeintacoma.

This story was originally published by The News Tribune.