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.
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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. Continue reading “Council Fast-Tracks Interbay Storm Practice Facility, Contradicting Brand-New Industrial Lands Policy”