Comment about the Zoning Bill

From: Members of Protect Volunteer Park
To: City Council Parks, Seattle Center, Libraries & Waterfront Committee
Date: December 4, 2017

Dear City Council Parks, Seattle Center, Libraries & Waterfront Committee,

We are writing to strongly oppose Council Bill 119146 which was introduced on November 27 by Councilmember Juarez, to create a zoning exception for the Asian Art Museum building.

(We are also reviewing the related CB 119150 adopting the development and lease agreement, and will send a separate comment on that bill soon.)

This proposed ordinance falls far short of the council’s usual standards of transparency and protection of the public interest. We ask that this bill not be passed, and that the Asian Art Museum renovation project be returned to its original scope of safety-critical seismic and ADA renovations that do not increase the structure’s zoning nonconformance.

CB 119146 adds a special exception for Asian Art Museum to two sections of Seattle’s land use code. Neither of these code sections currently contain any other exceptions. If CB 119146 is adopted, it would be a sweeping refusal by City government to follow the land use rules which the City rightfully imposes upon other community members. This refusal would not be in service of any urgent public need; rather, it would be to satisfy the business objectives of an already highly subsidized private corporation.

In addition to failing to fairly apply the law, CB 119146 has four particularly harmful features:

1. The Building is Made Taller

The bill reads:
“23.42.106 D.3.d: No expansion may exceed the elevation of the highest point of the building as it existed on January 1, 2017.”

The word “elevation”, as used here, is misleading as it gives the impression that the building’s height is not being increased. But in fact, the proposed east addition would exceed the height of the existing building, becoming the building’s tallest face. Since the designed east addition extends down a slope, it can become the tallest part of the building without exceeding the “elevation of the highest point”.

In Seattle’s land use code, building height is measured from “average grade”. Evaluating the proposed expansion under this standard would show that the building’s height is being increased.

An incorrect statement about the height appears in the “SDCI Director’s Report – July 2017” attached to the bill. On p. 2 it states, “The east museum expansion matches the height of the existing building”. This is incorrect since the East Addition plans show an exterior wall over 49.5 feet tall from ground level. It matches the highest elevation, but not the height as measured in Seattle’s land use code. An Olmsted greensward is not the right place to relax these standards.

The SDCI Director’s Report states (p. 1): “The existing museum building also exceeds the maximum height of 30 feet allowed in single-family zones by approximately ten feet.” It is, in other words, an approximately 40 foot tall building. How can a 49.5 foot tall exterior wall be added if the height is not being increased? This tall box-shaped tower would project directly into the east greensward, dominating a downward slope and spoiling the trademark naturalistic design of the Olmsted brothers.

2. Parking Requirements

The bill reads:

“23.42.106 D.3.e. … As a Type I decision, the Director may reduce parking and loading requirements to an amount not less than the amount needed to provide adequate parking and loading facilities, as demonstrated to the satisfaction of the Director by a parking and loading study prepared by a licensed professional engineer and submitted to the Director by the applicant.”

The Asian Art Museum building has no dedicated visitor parking. The most convenient parking for museum visitors is in Volunteer Park, shared with visitors to the park grounds, conservatory, and amphitheater.

The applicant’s parking study, already submitted, claims that SAM’s goal of increasing visitors by 54% “could be accommodated by available parking supplies within the Park”. We see obvious major issues with the methodology and conclusions of this study. The study team counted parked cars on two dates in November 2016. This parking demand was taken to represent typical peak demand from park users, without taking into account seasonal variation, weather, or even daylight (one of the two study periods having been entirely after sunset).

Protect Volunteer Park conducted our own amateur parking study on 7 weekends in summer 2017, taking the opportunity to measure parking demand from Volunteer Park users during an extended closure of the museum. We found typical parking occupancy over 80%, clearly indicating that Volunteer Park does not, in fact, have enough parking to expand the museum program. Parking overflow into the neighborhood will result.

We have previously communicated these concerns to the Department of Parks and Recreation and also to City Council but not received any substantive response. A link to our parking analysis is repeated below for your reference.

The land use code is doing what it is intended to do: maintain parking for residential users within a residential zone. We are disappointed in the Council’s attempt to exempt this project without any stated rationale, despite our efforts to engage decision makers on this issue.

3. Overhanging Structure Added to Nonconforming Building

The heart of CB 119146 is its proposal to allow expansion of an already nonconforming building, which zoning code does not permit.

The designed expansion is particularly harmful in its inclusion of an indoor “park lobby” which overhangs Volunteer Park to the east of the existing building. The overhang avoids ground disturbance within the drip line of an exceptional beech tree, but also blocks all rainfall over an area of Volunteer Park within that same tree’s critical root zone.

4. Landmarks Exemption

Another section of CB 119146 reads:

“23.42.118 C: The Seattle Asian Art Museum building located in Volunteer Park may be expanded as provided in subsection 23.42.106.D.3.”

This exempts the project from a requirement that “Landmarks Board determines that there is no feasible alternative that meets the development standards of the zone while preserving the integrity of the landmark structure”.

The entire history of this proposed museum expansion has been characterized by a steadfast refusal of both City government and SAM to consider any alternatives, except just long enough to reject them. This is a clear violation of DPR’s Public Involvement Policy, and we believe also a violation of Initiative 42, the Protect Our Parks ordinance. Is the landmarks ordinance now to be modified to avoid having to consider alternatives?

City leadership is simply failing to act in the public interest here. SAM pays nothing to use this building, indeed SAM’s use is directly subsidized by City payments that reimburse SAM for utilities and custodial costs. SAM’s donation of the building in the 1930’s is irrelevant. It is City property and the City has been maintaining it for 80 years, without the benefit of any revenue resulting from its use by a private corporation.

If the City wishes to show that there is no alternative to this expansion, it must show that SAM needs the expansion AND that there is no alternative to SAM’s continued use of the building. Volunteer Park is a treasure, beloved by locals as well as national and international visitors. It deserves the full protection of City landmarks ordinances.

SAM moved downtown where its current building receives an ongoing City subsidy in the form of a bond guarantee. If someone builds a new house and moves into it, can they also expect perpetual free use of the rental home they lived in before? SAM has 8 floors of intended expansion space downtown that it declines to use, preferring to receive revenue from commercial tenants in its publicly subsidized museum building. This proposal amounts to a raid on the public treasury and on parklands by a politically favored institution. Please decline to approve this land use exception, and explain to SAM’s trustees that there ultimately must be limits to the City government’s willingness to give away public resources. You will find heartfelt support among the more than 1000 community members who have signed one of Protect Volunteer Park’s petitions opposing the museum expansion.

Best regards,

The members of Protect Volunteer Park:
Susan Allemann
Virginia Allemann
Greg Bader
William T. Bakamis
John Colwell
M. Eliza Davidson
Susie Hammond
Jonathan Mark
Joyce Moty
Charles Ragen
Sheilan
Ronald E. Taylor
Randolph Urmston

References:

Our analysis of parking considerations: http://protectvolunteerpark.org/parking-impact-of-museum-expansion/