Photo from March 2019, when the Hi-Lands Shopping center first stood vacant. A developer wants to move forward with demolition but states it can’t due to a city moratorium. File photo/Haley Ausbun

Photo from March 2019, when the Hi-Lands Shopping center first stood vacant. A developer wants to move forward with demolition but states it can’t due to a city moratorium. File photo/Haley Ausbun

Hi-Lands Shopping Center purchased, but project, demolition on hold

The city placed an emergency moratorium on land use applications in Sunset neighborhood until October 2020. The new developer for Solera has appealed the decision and spoke out against it.

An emergency moratorium is adding another pause to the redevelopment of the Hi-Lands Shopping Center, putting a new developer at odds with the city.

Longtime businesses at the Hi-Lands Shopping Center were evicted at the end of 2018 following a proposal for the Solera Project— a mix of retail and housing meant to revamp the Sunset neighborhood. But the property hadn’t been sold, and when a developer dropped the project in early 2019, it left a dilapidated center.

After talks with the city, a new developer, Bellevue company DevCo Inc., came in for the project, and around mid-April the Shopping Center property was finally purchased from the former owners. The project is similar to the original Solera proposal, with mixed retail along Sunset Boulevard, but includes an increase in apartments and few townhomes. DevCo’s proposed plan also includes more affordable housing than the original proposal, with half-affordable housing, half-market rate housing.

But on April 6, the Renton City Council adopted an emergency moratorium pausing applications for large residential projects in the Sunset area and also stopping fee waivers related to those projects, such as the redevelopment of Hi-Lands Shopping Center known as Solera project, until Oct. 6 2020.

David Ratliff, vice president at DevCo Inc., spoke against the moratorium at the June 1 Renton City Council Meeting. He said the company, which has been working to develop a new plan for the Solera project, wasn’t informed beforehand.

The moratorium was a “complete surprise,” he said, adding that the city has been talking to DevCo about being a suitable candidate to undertake the project since it was first dropped last year.

Ratliff told Renton Reporter that if DevCo were moving forward as planned, they would have already begun demolishing the Shopping Center buildings that have been sitting empty since January 2019.

DevCo has filed an appeal, challenging the legality on passing a moratorium during the pandemic.

City of Renton Long Range Planning Manager Angie Mathias stated in an email that the moratorium does not impact the ability for the Solera project to continue as it’s entitled, and that the moratorium involves many parts of the Sunset area where a large residential project could take place.

The moratorium is meant to offer the city time to enact policy changes, which were slowed during the COVID-19 pandemic, that will directly effect large residential projects like Solera and ensure the Sunset neighborhood has a mix of market-rate housing in the affordable housing projects.

The city wants more time to review the amount of affordable housing being proposed. The moratorium ordinance states that they need to balance the distribution of housing so they can support “a wide variety of incomes.”

Additionally, Renton city staff want to place a cap on the number of affordable housing units which are eligible for waived city fees. With the staff-proposed change, fees could be waived on up to 100 affordable units, and then 5 for every 10 units after that.

Ratliff criticized the city for changing the land use regulations during the planning process. He said the city has “rushed” the process through the planning commission and city council. He said the city has been heavy-handed and lacked transparency throughout.

About a week after Ratliff gave public comment to city council, he told Renton Reporter that he believes both parties are heading towards the negotiating table.

“We want to build a project that generates pride and excitement in the Sunset area,” Ratliff said. “It’s long overdue.”

With the hardships from the pandemic, there’s never been more demand for housing, Ratliff said, and DevCo looks forward to fulfilling that need, in partnership with the city.

DevCo would also welcome a return of retailers that were kicked out from the Hi-Lands Shopping Center in the new retail space when the project is completed, Ratliff said. He hopes that retailers from the shopping center will reach out to talk about leasing.

“We look forward to being a long term owner, operator and neighbor,” Ratliff said.

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