SEATTLE — It’s not every day that a basketball star calls into a Seattle City Council land-use committee meeting.
That’s what happened Wednesday, when Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm testified about a change proposed by Mayor Jenny Durkan that could allow the WNBA team to build an indoor recreation facility like a practice center in the Interbay neighborhood.
A Storm co-owner is associated with companies that own a vacant property across the street from the team’s headquarters in Interbay. But a land-use law for the Ballard-Interbay industrial area, where the property is located, limits indoor recreation centers to 10,000 square feet.
The change under review by the council, covered by the website Seattle City Council Insight earlier this week, would increase that limit to 50,000 square feet for sites that meet certain criteria, including the site apparently eyed by the Storm. The property’s zoning would remain industrial.
The land-use committee will vote Friday, said Councilmember Dan Strauss, who is chairperson of the committee. He and several other council members said Wednesday they plan to support the change.
Land-use and zoning changes in Seattle’s industrial areas can be controversial, partly because industrial businesses and labor unions generally want to protect such areas from encroachment by other development. In June, a maritime-industrial advisory group that Durkan convened recommended that Seattle strengthen protections against nonindustrial development in industrial areas.
But Durkan and the Storm say the Interbay change makes sense to support a team that wins titles, empowers women and embodies the city’s values of diversity and inclusion, representatives told council members Wednesday.
The Storm has won four WNBA crowns, offers basketball clinics for youth and supports social-justice movements, said co-owner Ginny Gilder, who did not return interview requests Thursday.
“Seattle has a long tradition” of supporting men’s teams, she added during the land-use committee’s public comment period, mentioning the venues where the Mariners, Seahawks and Kraken play. “Now the city has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to equity.”
Bird, a 12-time All-Star guard, said the Storm needs top-class facilities to attract and retain great players.
“My teammates and I, we’ve always given our best, both on and off the court, to rep the city right,” she said. “Now we’re hoping the city will do its part.”
While the Seattle Planning Commission has not had time to adopt a stance on the Interbay change, it wrote a letter in July supporting the idea that industrial zoning protections should be strengthened, executive director Vanessa Murdock said.
The light-rail line that Sound Transit plans to build between Ballard and downtown Seattle will run through Interbay, complicating the picture there.
The Interbay change is unlikely to encounter hard opposition, considering the popularity of the Storm, said John Persak, who represented the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on Durkan’s advisory group.
Still, there could be a risk in making an exception for the Storm, because the move could open the city to similar requests for special treatment by other developers with industrial sites, said Persak, who recently left the union.
The Port of Seattle, which has piers in Interbay, isn’t opposing the proposed change. The Port has expressed concern to City Hall, however, about “the potential cumulative impact of multiple one-off rezones that erode our core industrial areas,” spokesperson Peter McGraw said.
Industrial zones support trade, regional growth and living-wage jobs, he said, praising the recommendations by Durkan’s advisory panel.
Adrienne Thompson, a policy adviser for the mayor, said the Interbay change is compatible with the city’s aim to protect industrial lands. An indoor recreation center would create less traffic than apartments and stores would and would look much like industrial buildings, she said.
“It’s no secret that Mayor Durkan has been a strong champion of sports in Seattle,” spokesperson Chelsea Kellogg added Thursday. “All of our teams,” including the Storm, “deserve a home in Seattle for decades to come.”
Interbay already has diverse businesses, including stores and restaurants, Councilmember Andrew Lewis pointed out. Seattle should never surrender sites like shipyards, “but that’s not what we’re talking about here,” he said.
Because the property in question is being used as a storage yard, “we’re not displacing any current industrial use,” Lewis said. “No maritime jobs are going to be lost from the Seattle Storm putting a practice facility in this site.”
There are multiple ways that land-use changes can be made, including a “contract rezone” process in which a property owner applies to alter the zoning of a site for a particular project and must agree to special requirements from the city.
Technically, the Interbay change is not a rezone and could apply to multiple properties, the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development said.
Seattle City Council Insight suggested the Interbay change could be problematic because the proposal is tailored to help the Storm. “Spot rezones” can be illegal when they allow inconsistent development to help an individual rather than the public at large.
“I strongly urge you to reject this spot rezone disguised as a code amendment,” Phinney Ridge resident Irene Wall said during Wednesday’s comment period.
Lewis and Councilmember Debora Juarez rejected that argument. Dennis McLerran, a longtime Seattle attorney and land-use director for two mayors, also expressed doubt.
“Interbay has a pretty broad mix of uses already,” McLerran said in an interview.
The practice center that the Kraken just built in Northgate has made that area better, and the city now needs to support the Storm, Juarez said.