Can Rob Johnson, Fifth Generation Seattleite, Sell Seattle on a Highrise Future?

The mild-mannered councilmember will be at the center of the anti-density storm as he shepherds the U-District upzone through Council.

Rob Johnson, the urban-planner councilmember representing Northeast Seattle, is a fifth generation Seattleite.

“On my mom’s side, her great grandmother moved here in the last 1800s. My great grandmother was born on Capitol Hill, my grandmother was born on Capitol Hill, my mother was born on Capitol Hill, I was born on Capitol Hill, my kids were born on Capitol Hill.”

The context in which Johnson offers this brief genealogy lesson is the proposed upzone in the University District, and the two subjects are not as disparate as they may seem at first. At their clumsiest, discussions about the upzone can break the debate into two camps: “Urbanists” and “preservationists.” Urbanists get associated with the hordes of new Seattleites who are eager to turn Seattle into the upzoned, light-rail-enabled techtopia it’s already becoming; the preservationists present themselves as longtime denizens concerned with saving what’s left of old Seattle.

Johnson, who as chair of the Planning and Land Use Committee will be responsible for shepherding the U District upzone legislation through the council, hopes his lineage shows that you can hold a deep connection with the history of Seattle and still conclude that City Hall’s plan for denser development is the right path to go down.

“We are committed to this city, my family and I. … I have friends and family on both sides of the issue,” he says. “But when I talk to my little cousins who grew up here and can’t afford to live in Ballard, that means those opportunities are going to those with [more] resources.”

The plan Johnson is sponsoring in council—which grew out of Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda—represents the city’s heavily scrutinized new gambit to help long-time residents preserve their place in Seattle through a combination of market forces and affordable housing requirements. The plan allows developers to build bigger apartment buildings, which mean more apartments will go on the market. The upzone would also trigger, for the first time, new rules on so-called Mandatory Affordable Housing, a law that requires some units in new apartment buildings to essentially be rent controlled. City analyses have suggested as many as 5,000 new apartments could be building in the neighborhood in the coming decades with the upzone, and as many as 900 rent-controlled apartments could be included.

Johnson argues the U District is an obvious location for denser development; with a light-rail station scheduled to open in the heart of the neighborhood, it’s the kind of transit-oriented building that urban planners consider an ideal.

Johnson also says he plans to introduce amendments to the upzone legislation at a hearing today that will aim to better preserve the character of The Ave (aka University Way NE). The amendments include stricter rules on how wide a storefront can be along the street, in hopes of preserving the area’s madcap clusters of diverse businesses.

All that said, the coming weeks promise choppy waters for Johnson as he tries to navigate the upzone through the council.

In the lead-up to the council vote—which is expected sometime in February—the U District upzone has been criticized for being both a recipe for destroying affordable housing and overreaching in its attempt to create cheap apartments.

The latter critique comes from developers (surprise!), but also the environmental thinktank Sightline. In a piece published last week, Sightline Senior Researcher Dan Bertolet laid out his detailed case for why, as written, the U District upzone could impede growth rather than support it. Bertolet argues that the amount of affordable housing the city wants to require in new apartment buildings could make development economically unfeasible, thus “jeopardizing the program’s goal of 6,000 new affordable homes.” Bertolet doesn’t call for the city to give up on the idea of mandatory affordable housing—as some developers want to see happen—but simply argues the right balance needs to be met.

To this critique, Johnson notes that the affordable housing law has in it a provision to “check in” on the program in 2018 to see how well it is doing. “All of this is predicated on creating 6,000 units,” he says. If it appears it is falling short of that goal, the council can adjust, Johnson says.

Whatever the case, the nuances of a complicated affordable housing formula probably won’t make or break the upzone legislation. What’s proven to be a more salient critique of the plan is the idea it will destroy affordable housing because it will allow a bunch of developers to buy crummy apartment buildings, tear them down, and erect tall towers full of $2,000 a month units. This is the central argument of groups like the Seattle Displacement Coalition, run by John Fox.

Fox, by counting mailboxes and electrical boxes on residential units in the U District, determined that 1,500 households could be put at risk by the new zoning rules. Writers at pro-density sites like the Urbanist have fiercely disputed Fox’s findings, and say one man’s shoe-leather survey doesn’t hold up against the deeply analytical work by city planners. But there’s no denying that Fox and his cohort have followers. Unions, affordable housing advocates and local residents have joined his cause to block to upzone. It’s hard to know how much influence they will have on the council, but it would be wrong to consider passage a sure thing. “The council will do whatever the neighborhoods tell them to do,” one pro-development source groused recently.

That’s where Johnson comes in. The mild-mannered councilmember took office just over a year ago and has been on the sidelines to many of the fiercest fights the council’s had since he’s joined. But now he’ll be at the center of the storm, and will be the upzone’s biggest advocate as it approaches a vote.

And he is confident, he says, that it’s the right thing for Seattle—the city where his roots run five generations deep.

“We’re seeing skyrocketing rents. We can put our head in the sand, or we can take advantage of a program like this,” he says. “We’ve tried it John’s way for the last 20 years. I’d like to try something different.”

The mayor’s office hopes that the U District upzone is just the first of many to be approved by the City Council in the coming months and years. As such, it will be a trial balloon to see whether the Council, like Johnson, are really ready for a change.