By Erica C. Barnett
The city council’s land use committee voted Friday to fast-track a change to the land use code that will allow a new 50,000-square-foot practice facility for the Seattle Storm WNBA team on industrial land owned by Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder in Interbay. Mayor Jenny Durkan, who is friends with (and received a campaign contribution from) Gilder, requested the change, which will allow the Storm to build a sports complex five times larger than what’s currently allowed.
“Seattle has a long tradition of investing in its professional sports franchises,” Gilder said during public comment at a committee meeting earlier this week, pointing to stadiums and practice facilities the city has helped build for the Seahawks, Mariners, Sounders, and the new NHL team, the Kraken. “Now the city has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to equity, to step forward and expand that tradition of support to its sole professional women’s sports franchise, the Seattle Storm.”
On Friday, committee chair Dan Strauss said, “It’s important that we show the same support for our most winningest team, the Seattle Storm who have more championships than any of [Seattle’s men’s] teams … combined.”
Critics have argued that the exemption, which would bar any similar facilities in a one-mile radius once the Storm practice site is built, constitutes an illegal “spot zone” to benefit one property owner; defenders of the move, including Strauss, have said that because the bill is a code amendment, not a zoning change, it can’t be considered spot zoning. “Because [a sports practice facility] is a use that is already allowed in these zones, it cannot be inconsistent with the surrounding uses,” Strauss said.
Durkan’s office offered another reason they believe the proposal is “not a spot rezone”: Technically, it impacts 45 parcels, any one of whose owners could theoretically propose a sports complex before the Storm does. “Any owner of eligible property could make use of the provision,” a spokeswoman, Chelsea Kellogg, said. This is a legal fiction—in addition to Gilder, Storm star Sue Bird gave public comment in favor of the change, and Juarez suggested a “no” vote would be a blow against professional women’s sports teams and feminism at large—but it may not matter: Unless someone sues to stop the project, the mayor and council’s legal theory won’t have to stand up in court.
At the same time, and contradicting their claims that the sports facility will be virtually unnoticeable to the public, proponents of the practice facility argue that it would benefit the surrounding community by providing recreational space and creating a nexus with the Interbay Athletic Complex, which is located a few blocks away across busy West Dravus Street.
Beyond questions of legality, the exemption is completely at odds with the city’s policy of “preserving industrial lands for industrial use,” which was one of Durkan’s top campaign promises to labor unions who supported her. Just last month, a Durkan-appointed task force, which included Gilder, adopted a new industrial lands policy that includes new restrictions on housing and other non-industrial uses in industrial areas. That work group also proposed an amendment to the city’s give plan that would make it virtually impossible to rezone industrial land in the future. Durkan’s office has also proposed legislation that would set new limits on the size of retail stores and storage facilities in industrial areas.
Supporters say allowing a large new sports facility in an industrial area doesn’t conflict with the goal of “keeping industrial lands industrial,” because the legislation is narrowly tailored and wouldn’t produce the kind of car traffic and street life a retail building or housing would. Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents the area, said, “The planning department made a determination, which I agree with, that it’s somewhat compatible with the uses in the area”—a sliver of Interbay near the BNSF railroad tracks that is not currently in heavy industrial use. “It’s not like we’re taking this land and permanently getting rid of any industrial application for it” by changing the underlying zoning, he said.
Kellogg, from Durkan’s office, noted that “indoor sports and recreation structures are similar in physical characteristics to industrial structures”—an observation that speaks more to what a building looks like from the outside (big, impenetrable, not for pedestrians) than what happens on the inside. “It does not impede progress towards the Mayor’s proposed strategy to strengthen and grow industrial and maritime sectors,” Kellogg said.
At the same time, and contradicting their claims that the sports facility will be virtually unnoticeable to the public, proponents of the practice facility argue that it would benefit the surrounding community by providing recreational space and creating a nexus with the Interbay Athletic Complex, which is located a few blocks away across five-lane West Dravus Street.
According to a staff report supporting the proposal, the location of the new practice facility “would allow for functional clusters of recreational activities that could support a variety of camps, competitions, and training opportunities”—an idea that, if it actually happened, would certainly result in a lot more regular people tromping through the industrial part of Interbay to access all those new recreational opportunities.
Skeptics of the plan, including some members of the city’s Planning Commission, say the mayor and council are offering a sweetheart deal to the Storm that they wouldn’t offer to any other business that asked for a similar exemption from land-use rules. In public comment Wednesday, Laura Bernstein, whose organization, Share the Cities, supports density in neighborhoods, contrasted the “years of review, endless scrutiny, and design review” required of small housing developments to the “fast pass” the Storm received for their practice facility.
“As the land use committee looks to how we make our industrial-maritime strategy and our residential zoning changes over the next comprehensive plan update, just think about how this process is in contrast to the housing that we need in a housing crisis, and how slow that is, and how quickly, without a lot of public knowledge or even the Planning Commission understanding what was going on, this has moved forward,” she said.
“If it were any other corporation, it wouldn’t happen,” said architect Matt Hutchins, a member of the Planning Commission speaking on his own behalf. “But because it’s the Storm, and because of their history and their success, and because Durkan is mayor and is such a huge fan of the Storm, I think it’s just been happening on this parallel track” to the larger, contradictory adoption of policies clamping down on incompatible uses in industrial lands.
“The improvements would take a piece of property that’s used to store a lot of crap, clean it up, and make it a contributor to the tax rolls and the character of the city.”—Jeff Thompson, Freehold Group
Ordinarily, the Planning Commission would weigh in on this kind of major policy decision as part of a larger discussion about its impacts, planning commission staff told PubliCola. But because this process typically takes several meetings, there wasn’t enough time on the fast-tracked schedule.
Lewis said he wasn’t concerned by the lack of input from the commission. “The proposal that is in front of me now is one where I don’t really have any significant process questions,” he said. “For example, I would have said, ‘Let’s send it back to the commission’ if there weren’t safeguards, if there weren’t guardrails, if there wasn’t a 500 foot [shoreline] buffer and [required] access to a park”—the nearby Interbay Athletic Complex. “I don’t have concerns that it wasn’t vetted by planning professionals.”
Hutchins, who called the process that resulted in the legislation “stealthy,” said, “There’s a certain amount of cognitive diss that’s required to be parallel tracking the industrial lands policy, which has higher protections for the industrial-maritime commercial district, and then also eroding that by carving out a few parcels where you can do something that isn’t part of the core [purpose] of that district.”
Developer Jeff Thompson, principal owner at the Freehold Group, which owns and has developed a number of residential and commercial properties in the area, has argued that the city should loosen restrictions in industrial areas to allow more uses, including housing. He’s participated in several different industrial lands work groups over the past two decades, including Durkan’s, and believes they’re designed to produce a predetermined result.
“What came out [of the most recent work group] was crafted to come out that way—it’s not what people said” during the meetings that led up to the recommendations, Thomson said. “It’s what a very, very few people said, and it came out the same as always—that there shouldn’t be any housing in industrial lands, period, and that’s crap. We need housing and we need affordable housing.”
Thompson said he welcomes the Storm facility because it will be a marked improvement on what’s there now. “This is a bigger conversation and has nothing to do with whether Ginny [Gilder] has circumvented the rules or whether it’s fair or not—of course it’s not, but I have huge respect for her finding a way to get something done,” Thompson said. “The improvements would take a piece of property that’s used to store a lot of crap, clean it up, and make it a contributor to the tax rolls and the character of the city.”
Hutchins points out that the proposed Storm practice facility will be adjacent to a planned new light rail station at Interbay, which raises questions about whether the whole area should be opened to new uses. According to a Sound Transit spokeswoman, most of the potential alignments for a planned light-rail extension to Ballard would pass through land inside the overall area the city has identified as “eligible” for a sports facility, but because “the property requirements haven’t been finalized yet,” the agency doesn’t know if it would need any or all of the property where the Storm plans to build its practice facility.