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By Robert Carlsen

With preliminary draft plan recommendations anticipated to be completed by the end of the year and with hopes of a city council approval coming by mid-2016, backers of the ambitious University District redevelopment plan adjacent to the University of Washington are anxious to get the first project underway—a small- to mid-range building (or maybe even a tower) atop the currently under construction Sound Transit light-rail station on Brooklyn Ave. NE between NE 45th and NE 43rd streets in Seattle, which is scheduled to open in 2021.

After nearly four years of negotiations between the city, university officials and residents of the District, next in line on the to-do list are final zoning and up-zoning plans and details on development fees, according to Dave LaClergue, area planning manager for the city of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD). New zoning will provide a mix of residential, commercial, retail, services, office, R&D and schools. The new plan will prohibit high-impact uses including solid waste management, heliports, jails, park + ride and heavy manufacturing.

High-density office development above the transit station provides an opportunity to create a ‘front door’ to the university and brand the area as an innovation district

The city published the district’s final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Jan. 8 this year, which studies the impacts of the proposed zoning, height and density changes.

The University, or “U”, District currently has a population of 15,000 and encompasses 406 acres between Northeast Ravenna Blvd. to the north, 15th Ave. to the east, Portage Bay to the south and Interstate 5 to the west, and includes the “Ave” business district (the University Way corridor).

The DPD’s concept for the U District is distinctly transit oriented. The region’s light rail expansion is currently heading north from the airport and downtown Seattle and will include a new University of Washington/Husky Stadium station, scheduled to open in the first quarter of next year, according to Bruce Gray, Sound Transit’s public information officer. These two new stops near UW, including the U District station, are part of Sound Transit’s northern extension to Northgate, which was approved in 1996. Budget and technical issues, including expensive tunneling, have slowed the extension project.

The 3.15-mile extension from downtown to UW/Husky Stadium, called the University Link, is expected to cost nearly $2 billion, with monies coming from sales tax, a motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) and federal grants, according to Sound Transit.

One of the primary drivers of the U District strategic redevelopment plan is a report by the Urban Land Institute Northwest, called the ULI Technical Assistance Panel Recommendations, that was released in June. The report, which was compiled with the input of local firms, including Barrientos LLC, Urban Renaissance Group, Lake Union Partners, Vulcan Inc., Downtown Works and NBBJ Architects, among others, acknowledged that UW already has a strong demand for office space, but currently is being priced out, and that many of the university departments, including business, computer science and engineering, could relocate certain functions to, for example, the new building atop the light-rail station on Brooklyn Ave.

“High-density office development above the transit station provides an opportunity to create a ‘front door’ to the university and brand the area as an innovation district,” ULI said. “UW can follow the successful lead of other major universities such as University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University that have created innovation districts that attract corporate partners, serve as powerful recruitment tools and reinforce the forward-thinking nature of higher education.”

Although the ULI report recommended a tower or high-rise above the U District station, the city’s zoning requirements currently limit heights either between 125 to 160 feet or 240 to 340 feet, representing a height of no more than seven stories, though that might change with final rezoning plans. Elsewhere, ULI said it recommends that UW should focus on creating a strong 43rd St. corridor that is a “pedestrian-friendly portal to the U District and campus.”

ULI reported that “well-designed, flexible office space with retail that supports the objectives of an innovation district is key to the success of this strategy, with continuity as a key unifier.”

Another group, the U District Partnership, which is made up of university officials and local businesses and is a 501 (c)3 nonprofit public benefit corporation, said that investments in the U District’s economic development should attract businesses and major employers that support business mix goals with a specific focus on innovative companies, entrepreneurs and start-ups; promote a healthy business and retail mix on University Ave. that encourages more diverse business uses; provide access to ongoing technical assistance, financing, peer learning and growth opportunities for U District businesses; and ensure that business organizations in the district successfully support all the needs of business and business district and steward growth, development and attraction opportunities.

Rendering courtesy of Stephanie Bower