Five Stories of Concern at 13th Ave NE

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There’s a plan for a mixed-use building with 108 apartments at 13th Ave and 3rd St NE. Five stories on a commercial corridor might not sound remarkable, but the issue brought a sizable crowd to a neighborhood association meeting on Monday night.

The meeting started off with a question about affordable housing. Rents in the new building are projected to range from $1100 to $2000 (from studios to two-bedrooms). Developer Curt Gunsbury and his team repeatedly explained this is not a subsidized building: “nobody’s tax money is going to building this building.” They made the case that new construction is really only affordable to low-income renters when supported with a subsidy from taxpayers.

Other residents at the meeting combined their affordable housing concerns with a desire to see the cost of parking bundled with rents (shifting the cost of building parking to people who don’t own cars). Some wanted a shorter three-story building (developer’s response: not financially viable). One person asked if the developer would donate 5% of profits to the arts (they will not).

Ward 3 Council Member Steve Fletcher was there (he seems to be everywhere I go lately). Fletcher said that he had no problem with the level of density, but voiced concerns about a lack of affordable housing: “This developer could choose to do that, and we really want to see them do it.”

Fletcher said it was frustrating that they were asking for a 59.9% increase in density, just below the 60% that would trigger inclusionary zoning’s affordability mandate. “It’s walking right up to the edge.”

It’s not unusual for developers to go to the limit of what’s allowed under the recently enacted interim inclusionary zoning ordinance. A permanent policy that will require affordable units in all development will eventually be adopted by the City Council.

Fletcher was asked for an example of where “building mass-loads of density” helps to preserve affordability. He responded that rents go up dramatically in places that make it impossible to build more housing. A lot of people are moving here and they need places to live. “We do need more housing.”

Another question from a resident: “What is the city’s definition of sustainable growth? How much density do we need?” Fletcher responded: that assumes it would be bad if we overbuilt. One of the benefits of overbuilding is that we could give tenants some leverage again.

Fletcher made the case that 13th Avenue is special. “It’s important that anything that gets built on 13th Avenue is contributing to that… This is a really special thing. We should have really high expectations.”

Developer Curt Gunsbury got into a long explanation of how housing finance works. If it’s not profitable enough — i.e. as attractive as the stock market — they can’t build it. Investors won’t put the money in. Newly built apartments won’t be affordable without subsidy.

Fletcher responded that the city actually makes a subsidy available for projects with 20% of the units at affordable rents.

Gunsbury insisted the city’s inclusionary zoning policy won’t work financially. He rattled off stats showing a steep decline in housing production after Portland and San Francisco enacted inclusionary zoning. “We don’t think the current policy works…. We can build in Golden Valley and Richfield.”

Some in the crowd reacted positively to that. One person said with mock excitement, “Go! Go!”

Gunsbury said “the biggest benefit of our project is the commercial space.” The spaces are 1000 square feet and can be configured as one, two, or three units — making them more suited to local retailers than national chains.

Towards the end of the meeting there was this: “You’re completely destroying a historic street… If you’re gonna use this neighborhood and our culture and our people… And bring a bunch of people who have lived here for 12 months, what are we left with?”