Olympia City Council OKs most of ‘missing middle’ plan, but asks for changes ahead of final vote

Drivers pass a yard sign against the “missing middle” zoning-related changes on Boulevard Road Southeast in Olympia.
Drivers pass a yard sign against the “missing middle” zoning-related changes on Boulevard Road Southeast in Olympia. aspegman@theolympian.com

The Olympia City Council gave initial approval to most of a plan to promote infill housing at its meeting Tuesday. But it asked for more information on parking as well as changes to a proposal to build around bus lines before it votes on the plan.

For more than a year, city staff and officials have considered the “missing middle” plan, a series of zoning-related changes that would allow for more housing types to be built in the city’s low-density residential neighborhoods.

The city’s planning commission recommended the plan earlier this summer after months of deliberations.

For more than two hours Tuesday, City Council members read through every change and decided whether to give it the green light or ask for more information or changes.

One of the biggest changes they asked for was to a proposal to allow for larger developments near existing bus lines.

The proposal would have allowed courtyard apartments, triplexes and fourplexes in the lowest density zoning districts within 300 feet of a transit line or commercial district. But council members said bus lines should be developed around housing, not the other way around.

They noted some bus lines also run infrequently and may not warrant the special status. Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones suggested changing it to within 600 feet — or about two blocks — of neighborhood centers and certain neighborhood arterial roads.

The changes allow more “missing middle” housing throughout Olympia, things like duplexes, triplexes, tiny homes and mother-in-law apartments.

Members also asked for more information on the availability of on-street parking. The plan requires courtyard apartments, duplexes, townhouses, triplexes and fourplexes to provide more off-street parking where on-street parking in “not available.”

The council’s land use committee will take up some of these questions at its meeting Sept. 20, after which the full council will vote on the “missing middle” plan.

On accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, which are already allowed, the council signed off on removing a requirement that the property owner live on site, saying it was hard to enforce and prevented owners from moving out and renting both units.

“This is not a developer giveaway, this is people within our community moving on up and seeing opportunities to make revenue off their (property),” Jones said.

The council also approved a parking requirement for one off-street spot per ADU unless the home already has two off-street spots. Currently ADUs must have their own off-street parking spots.

The crowd at Tuesday’s meeting spilled out of the council chambers and included people on both signs of the debate.

Proponents commended the city for taking steps to add housing units, saying it would relieve pressure on the housing market, while critics suggested the changes are unneeded and will hurt neighborhoods. One woman described the scenario of a triplex being built next to a single-family home that blocks out the sunlight and towers over the house. (Triplexes and other developments would have to meet lot size requirements.)

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Others criticized the city for not including the public in the process. John Tobin, who was part of a group that challenged the plan before the city’s hearing examiner, said city staff involved groups of builders and density advocates early on.

“Organizations do not own homes. They don’t pay taxes or vote. Their members may, depending on where they live, but the neighbors, taxpayers and voters who live in Olympia do,” he said. “And rather than being the last to know about plans to significantly change the density, character and value of our neighborhoods, we should be the first.”

Council member Jessica Bateman noted the city held dozens of public meetings over the past 18 months on the “missing middle” topic. But at least one other council member seemed to agree with the criticism.

Clark Gilman said hundreds of people expressed fear about the plan, and that instead of addressing those fears, the city defended itself and labeled opponents as activists and troublemakers.

“Together as a community we could shape our response to challenges like this that come before us, and that’s not what happened,” he said. “I was hoping to be proud and excited as we got to the end, and instead it feels pretty crummy.”

Abby Spegman: 360-704-6869