Council considers approving maximum development for Lynnwood’s City Center to make way for taller buildings

Aerial view of the Lynnwood City Center district. Under this model, City Center Manager Karl Almgren (top right) said buildings in the future urban core are not as tall as initially planned. (Images courtesy of Housel Lavigne)

City leaders are being asked to consider increasing development limits in Lynnwood’s City Center district after a recent study revealed current plans do not achieve the city’s vision of becoming an urban core of mid-level high-rise buildings.

Last week, Lynnwood city staff recommended that the Lynnwood City Council revisit the existing development scenario for City Center — the epicenter of designated regional growth in Lynnwood — after a study revealed the previously approved construction allotment will not lead to the city’s vision of becoming a downtown hub.

During the council’s Feb. 1 business meeting, staff recommended that the council increase development in the area from 9.1 million square feet to 12.3 million square feet. The recommendation comes after staff said the city has run out of allotted space for housing and nearly reached its peak for retail space.

“We end up having this artificial cap that we’ve created ourselves,” said Development and Business Service Director David Kleitsch. “This isn’t about what the development is…this is really how much the development is and the indications are that the cap is very restrictive to future development in City Center.”

Plans for the City Center district include a downtown hub with retail, multifamily and commercial high rises. Height expectations ranged between 15 and 30 stories. However, a recent massing study showed that too much low-rise development is inhibiting the potential for future mid- to high-rise buildings. Lynnwood has prioritized those taller buildings as a way of creating the urban core the city is aiming for.

The city hired Housel Lavigne to conduct the massing study, which used a modeling process to show the site’s physical limits concerning regulation. According to the study, the area showed primarily low-rise buildings with some six- and seven-story buildings. Most of the taller structures would be located in the future Northline Village development and not within the future development capacity.

Almgren (top right) details a 3D rendering of Lynnwood City Center district, displaying low- to mid-level buildings and surface parking, with the tallest buildings in Northline Village (brown, far left).

According to the study, “For every number of (high-rise) floors on a particular lot, it (the height) goes down somewhere else,” Kleitsch said.

The current density plan allows for 9.1 million square feet, with 3.6 million square feet of residential space with 3,000 dwelling units, 4 million square feet of office space, and 1.5 million square feet of retail space. Now, staff are recommending allocating additional housing capacity and extra square footage for institutional, religious assembly and lodging. The new recommendation would maintain the proposed 4 million square feet of office space and proposed 1.5 million square feet of retail.

Lynnwood has been attracting developers as the city prepares for economic and population growth brought on by the arrival of Sound Transit’s Lynnwood Link light rail expansion in 2024. Several developments are currently under construction, with more planned that have yet to break ground. Current projects anticipate 54,000 residents living in Lynnwood by 2035; the city’s population is now just over 38,000 .

In 2012, the city adopted a planned action ordinance, which staff said was critical to attracting investors to the City Center. From that came an environmental impact study (EIS) for the City Center, which included a comprehensive review of significant, unavoidable, adverse environmental impacts caused by city policies or actions. However, by the time the EIS was approved, the area already had 3 million square feet of development. As of now, just under 3 million square feet remains available for the future.

Looking east from the Promenade near the 44th Avenue West and 198th Street Southwest intersection. The current development scenario identifies capacity for three-story construction along a street that is supposed to be the central core of City Center. (Images courtesy Housel Lavigne)

“If the city continues with the existing EIS and allowable square footage, the City Center would stay very short, less dense, with a lot of surface parking and not capture the vision articulated in 2004 and 2005,” Kleitsch said.

Since the planned action ordinance for housing projects is now obsolete, City Center Manager Karl Almgren said the council needs to decide whether to update it or require all new proposed housing projects to be reviewed under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). According to Almgren, going through SEPA is much less appealing to potential developers.

“The planned action ordinance is a significant attractive element for developers as it provides higher predictability and certainty for project delivery,” Almgren said. “This is a cornerstone of conversations with investors and developers for City Center.”

During the discussion, Councilmember Shannon Sessions said she was concerned because the mock-ups showed new roads going through existing properties, like Fred Meyer. However, Almgren explained that the designs are for the future and that property owners still have their property rights under the city’s current zoning codes. He added that much of the area illustrated showed future driveways and fire lanes that will be required as well as the future pedestrian promenade area.

Some councilmembers were in support of the city recommendation, like Councilmember Ian Cotton who said the council needs to create a cycle that continues momentum to bring development into the City Center.

“I appreciate this kind of gut check on what we say we want versus what is actually allowed,” he said.

Looking west on 196th from the 3800 Block toward Northline Village (distant brown building). Under this model, the primary corridor of the city becomes lined with low-rise structures. (Images courtesy Housel Lavigne)

In other business, city spokesperson Julie Moore provided an update on President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which would offer $1.9 trillion in stimulus highlighting three areas – a national vaccine plan, delivering immediate financial relief and offering support to struggling communities. The proposal would also provide economic relief to public transit systems. As of now, Moore said those funds are expected to be available mid-March.

Ahead of the annual Association of Washington City (AWC) City Action Days, when councilmembers can meet with elected officials, Moore also reviewed a list of federal legislative priorities that city staff are monitoring, as some could have unintended consequences. Recently, city leaders asked lobbyists to deliver a letter to U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen (2nd District) outlining how the pandemic has impacted Lynnwood’s finances.

“We’re hoping our representatives will pay close attention to that when they’re considering the (federal funding) package,” Moore said. 

At the state level, Moore said there are a handful of proposed police reform bills that could have “drastic ramifications” to the city.

“Overall, our police department is open to police reform, however, the way the bills are currently worded we are not in support of them,” she said.

The council has also expressed interest in reviewing proposed housing bills during their meeting with state legislators. Council President George Hurst said the city should begin thinking of creative ways to offer more housing in Lynnwood, like a proposal sponsored by Sen. Jesse Salomon (32nd District) for school districts to build housing for teachers. 

“We here in Lynnwood…really need to look at some alternatives as far as how to deal with housing,” he said. 

In response, Councilmember Sessions said the bill sounded unrealistic and the council should focus the limited time they will have meeting with legislators to discuss actionable proposals aimed at improving Lynnwood. Additionally, she said did not understand why the school district would build housing for teachers when so many students and their families remain unhoused.

“Why in the world would we have school districts funding or making housing for teachers? It’s lost on me when we have students and families that need housing,” she said. “If we’re going to be looking at these bills…I hope that we’re really focusing on not what’s just curious or interesting but really is realistic and what really helps Lynnwood.”

Though Sessions agreed some of the police reform bills contained worthwhile recommendations, she called the proposals to dismantle law enforcement driven by the national narrative.

“It’s concerning to me that we would put a blanket over (police) just because it’s what’s being talked about right now,” she said. “Of course, there’s a lot of work to do there, but I think it needs to be done consistently, persistently and carefully and then again not to take away our power locally to maintain control.”

Cotton agreed that the city should work to maintain control over local law enforcement, adding that it would be worth spending any additional cost to do so.

“When I think about police control being local, it means that if something happens with our police department or how our police department is operating, we have local control over it,” he said. “It’s worth spending extra money to maintain local control, at least in my mind.”

Hurst pointed to the future Community Justice Center as an example, which includes a partnership with the Community Health Center of Snohomish County aimed at providing a continuation of care to repeat offenders at the misdemeanor level.

“It’s such a partnership,” he said. “it’s really somewhat of a restructuring of the way policing will be in Lynnwood and we’re doing it without the state having to tell us.”

This year’s AWC City Action Days will be held online Feb. 10-11.

–By Cody Sexton

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