Under Neighborhood Pressure, Apartment Building Heads for Fourth Design Review

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In a highly unusual move for such a small project, the Northwest Design Review Board voted Monday to delay a 57-unit, 44-foot-tall, four-story apartment building planned on Greenwood Ave. (on the site of what is now Ed’s Kort Haus and the Stumbling Goat Bistro, which would reopen in the new space) for a third time for additional design revisions. The board came to the split decision after pressure from a large group of Phinney Ridge property owners who argue that the building is—you guessed it—ugly and out of scale. They also argued that the building of small efficiency apartments should have parking for cars (it has none) and that people shouldn’t have to live the way the layout will “force” them to live, which is to say: in compact studios with two washer/dryer units for every 17 apartments and no air conditioning.

The “lack” of washer/dryers (extremely generous by the standards of every apartment building where I’ve ever lived in Seattle, but definitely less so than the one-per-house ratio most of those objecting are used to) and air conditioning (I’ve never lived in a place with A/C, so I’m not sure why this is a deficiency in a city that never gets hot) came up again and again on Monday. Such complaints, in substance if not in exact details, are familiar to anyone who pays attention to the hand-wringing that seems necessary for any north-end development. They are also, with the exception of charges that the building is ugly, totally irrelevant to the work of the Design Review Board. The board is charged with looking at the exterior design of the building, and absolutely everything else—massing, scale, parking, and the size of the apartments–is the business of other city departments (including the city council, which already imposed onerous new restrictions that effectively legislated micro-units, commonly known as “apodments,” out of existence.)

Tuesday’s meeting was a repeat of the gatherings that preceded the previous two delays, according to advocates for the development who have been trying to get the thing approved since last October. Architect Jay Janette of Skidmore/Janette Architects presented the proposal and showed what had changed since the last design review meeting in January. (The major changes involved improvements to facades, larger step-backs on upper floors so the building would feel smaller and cast fewer shadows, and taller ground-floor commercial spaces.) Then the crowd made comments for an hour (the board had allotted 20 minutes). The comments were universally negative, and more than half involved issues board member Dale Kutzera explicitly asked audience members not to bring up, including parking, scale, and the size of the apartments.

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One woman was concerned that the building’s two live-work spaces  would create traffic and crowd nearby sidewalks. “If you’re maybe somebody who has clients coming and going [from the] live-work units, going in and out, and if you’re on Greenwood, they’re going to be crossing the sidewalk. I’m concerned about blocking the sidewalk so frequently and so often,” she said.

Another woman said she “would like the developers and the builders to spend three weeks, 24 hours a day, in those units with no A/C and see how they like it in 80-degree weather. That’s inhumane and unacceptable. How many people go in their houses and it’s hot and they just sit in the heat?” (Another woman chimed in later: “The people whose houses back up to [the apartments] are going to have 30 fans blowing right at them all summer.”)

Others expressed dismay that the newer apartment buildings surrounding the development are now being regarded as part of the “neighborhood character,” said the apartments were “very Soviet Union-like,” and suggested that the tenants would probably want to “party” in the 700-square-foot landscaped open space on the building’s roof. Objections that were ostensibly about design mostly had to do with aesthetic preferences: “This does not have ambiance; this is not what you want to take the tour by,” one man said. “Give us a building that gives us joy to walk by. It’s like that saying, ‘I don’t know what art is but I know it when I see it.’ Well, I don’t know what good architecture is, but I know it when I see it.”

This, by the way, is what the location looks like now:

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Does this give you joy?

It’s unclear at what point the design review will decide the building is acceptable enough, aesthetically and from the standpoint of neighborhood support, to move forward. But it speaks to the broken nature of our planning processes in Seattle that a few dozen who currently live adjacent to a building that will house 60 people can drag the design review process out (without substantially changing the building or preventing its construction) for more than a year, adding to the already substantial cost of building housing and keeping new units off the market at a time when the housing market is tighter than it has ever been.

I got the sense that among those who weren’t simply opposed to any development, the only design that might have worked would be a wedding-cake-shaped building set back 15 feet from the street in every direction so that it was barely noticeable. But of course, such a building is impossible—no developer would build it without doubling rents, and no renters would pay twice the current market rate to live in it. Emotions and individual aesthetic preferences will always play a role in development decisions, but there comes a point when it’s up to the city itself to say enough is enough, and this little building in Phinney Ridge is an excellent example of a time when the city should have put its foot down but didn’t.

19 thoughts on “Under Neighborhood Pressure, Apartment Building Heads for Fourth Design Review

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  4. Actually, that little one-story building does spark joy in me. It sparks joy because it allows beautiful views of the Cascades for all the pedestrians who pass it by, not just those wealthy enough to live on top of the ridge. It also provides welcome relief for the eye among the new multi-story developments going up all around it. It’s small-scale, pedestrian-friendly architecture and exemplifies the neighborhood’s roots.

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  5. Is there any evidence this is a typical example of how design review works in other neighborhoods? Some months ago, I attended design review meetings for a project on Beacon Hill near the light rail stations. Neighbors raised a few concerns and made some suggestions for design refinements. No big deal. I’m assuming the project is moving ahead. No drama, nothing to write about or comment on. I suspect that is more typical, not Erica’s example.

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  6. When a development is set to replace the two most beloved neighborhood institutions, people are going to be pissed. SG is the neighborhood “nice” restaurant (though not fancy, and kids are welcome), the same staff has been there for years (do jobs not count for anything? ), and we’ve always appreciated the progressive values held by the owners and staff. Ed’s is the neighborhood dive bar. In this city where the $15 cocktail are now the norm, Ed’s is the place to go when you want a cheap beer and a game of pool. These are the kind of places that make you glad you live in the neighborhood, and it’s awful to see them go.

    The Phinneywood neighborhood currently has a main street that allows us neighborhood residents to walk to most anything we need. Hardware, groceries, restaurants like Stumbling Goat and bars like Ed’s, coffee shops. It’s why we chose to live here, in a much smaller space than we could have bought in, say, Shoreline. As these older buildings are demolished, those independent businesses are generally replaced by chains. So you end up with a street full of Jimmy Johns , 5 guys, (see Ballard), nail shops, Starbucks. Sad. A lot of times the spaces stay empty, sometimes for years, due to high rents. This is what people are trying to prevent.

    And Erica is wrong–Stumbling Goat is not coming back, they are closing in 2 weeks for good (what restaurant can afford to be closed for a year and a half during construction? ). I know Ed hopes to return, but it seems pretty unlikely a dive bar could withstand the closure plus the higher rent of a new space.

    The dig about north enders obstructing growth is willfully ignorant. Ballard has already exceeded it’s 2025 growth target (and there’s plenty more coming), Ballard and Fremont have taken more new low income housing in recent years than the entire south end, and Phinney has lost most of its affordable starter homes as the city has allowed them to be demolished for McMansions selling for $1 million+. We have been wildly unsuccessful at stopping growth.

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  7. My wife ate at Stumbling Goat this evening and learned that they’re closing on August 23. We are so disappointed in this development. According to what my wife heard tonight, Angie Heyer and her staff are closing their doors “1.5 years before construction.” The restaurant was given notice yesterday. The developers will be converting the space to a bar.

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  8. Design review is one of those things that sounds entirely reasonable in the abstract, but in practice it’s little more than another weapon in the arsenal of the anti-housing, pro-sprawl social movement that plagues our city.

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  9. This article is a great illustration of NYMBism in action: “affordable housing – sure, but not in may neighborhood”, Down here in the Othello neighborhood, there is a group of us who go these design review meetings specifically to support projects for affordable housing. And Greenwood needs affordable housing for more than we do.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. People living in the new apartments should be denied neighborhood zoned parking permits.
    They should also pay an annual fee the equivolent of what a car owner pays in direct mass transit taxes that they avoid (and depend on). Bake that right into the rent.

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    • Yeah…no. The street parking is available to all. If you need to use it because you don’t have a garage, what gives you the right to demand that your neighbors not do the same?

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      • Then continue requiring some on site parking.
        But to not include parking but rent to people you know will add demand on a finite resource isn’t a public good. It’s good for the developer that pockets some of that cost avoidance.

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      • Instead of that, how about you build a garage on your own property so that the number of cars your neighbors own and where they decide to keep them is no longer any of your concern?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mr. Baker,

        Why should time or residence gain people privileged access to scarce public resources? How far should this go? Should I-5 have a lane for people who moved here prior to 2000? Should we pay lower user fees for Washington State park visitor passes?

        Anti-newcomer discrimination is just as ugly, just as bigoted, and just as unjustifiable, as any other form of discrimination.

        Liked by 1 person

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