The former public works site at 1201 Bonneville Ave. is slated for affordable in housing in the “Midtown” district of Snohomish. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
SNOHOMISH — A T-Mobile salesperson, a high school student and eleven of their neighbors helped shape the future of “Midtown,” a new special zone for housing and commercial growth along Avenue D.
Over the past decade, developers have erected many single-family homes, but few apartments, condos or townhomes in Snohomish. The city of 10,000 people has long needed to diversify its housing options, Planning Director Glen Pickus said.
There are over 4,000 homes in the city. About 64% are single-family and 36% are multi-family, and about 45% of residents are renters. The city expects the population to rise to 12,000 people by 2035, meaning possibly over 1,000 homes — a mix of single- and multi-family — need to be built, according to the city’s planning website.
Snohomish’s housing crisis is like a microcosm of Snohomish County, Pickus said. The newly minted Midtown district, a one-mile strip spanning from Sixth Street to Highway 9, will hopefully allow the city to begin to chip away at the issue.
Ethan Martez was a Snohomish High School student while serving on the Midtown Planning District Task Force. Now heading to Western Washington University in the fall, he said he realized “by the time I hit 30, I don’t think I’d be able to afford to live in the city of Snohomish.”
Planning for growth in Snohomish has for years been a tug-of-war between a desire to maintain the city’s small town flavor and a desire to provide more affordable housing, City Council President Tom Merrill said.
In 2019, Snohomish County officials announced they would be selling a 10-acre public works property along Avenue D. The city saw a chance to set guidelines for how that property is developed and, hopefully, as an aside, to create more affordable housing, Pickus said. Ultimately, the city is trying to increase the number of homes so people can afford to live here, Pickus said.
The former mayor, John Kartak, assembled a task force to help tackle that challenge. They held seven public meetings, using public comment and polls to help guide their goals.
Pickus said the task force was modeled after a similar rezoning process in Mountlake Terrace.
“It could’ve been a really contentious issue,” he said, but the task force worked out community concerns before bringing proposals to the City Council.
Many concerns were centered on building heights and maintaining brick-and-wood design elements that keep Snohomish’s historic feel.
“To have a citizen committee made up of a lot of different viewpoints produces a better vision for the city of what that might be than just, say, putting experts on it or the City Council itself deciding what it is right,” Merrill said.
The outcome was a special zone that promotes “more intensive development” with architectural and urban design standards that continue to define the “Snohomish Character.” Building heights were limited to 45 feet in the south, from Sixth Street to Tenth Street; and 55 feet in the north, from Tenth Street to Highway 9.
City Council members formally adopted an ordinance creating Midtown in February.
Martez feels the slow expansion of affordable housing has been tied to “who’s been in charge” in local government — until recently, a conservative mayor and a more conservative council.
“Snohomish has been a very small town,” he said, “and a lot of the city wanted to keep it like that.”
Merrill said the new, more progressive council wants to support the city’s inevitable growth, without losing the small town feel.
The council began considering incentives for developers to erect affordable housing in Midtown at Tuesday’s council meeting.
City planning staff brought six proposed incentive programs, including earmarking a portion of new development for affordable housing, known as “inclusionary zoning.”
Some council members and planning staff were leery of inclusionary zoning. In Seattle, most developers have preferred to pay a fee in lieu of building affordable housing, according to reporting by The Urbanist. Those fees are collected by the city’s Office of Housing and used for city housing investments.
“This isn’t an incentive, it’s a requirement,” Pickus said. “It could be a deterrent. … A developer may walk away from Midtown, if they have to provide affordable housing.”
Based on recommendations from planning staff, the city council decided to explore eight- or 12-year property tax deferrals for affordable multi-family properties; to expedite permits on multi-family projects; and to waive or reduce city permit fees. Staff will likely come back to council with their recommendations later this year.
Pickus said he envisions Midtown blossoming into a livable space: storefronts beneath apartment homes, as well as spruced up shopping centers.
“For our city to grow and allow for new families to move in,” Martez said, “we have to allow for people of all incomes to afford a place to live.”
Isabella Breda: 425-339-3192; email@example.com. Twitter: @BredaIsabella.