Morning Crank: Endless Appeals Are a Common Tactic

1. Depending on your perspective, a meeting tomorrow night to discuss efforts to prevent displacement and gentrification in light of a proposed upzone in the Chinatown/International District is either: a) A “special meeting” of the city council’s planning and land use committee, with a “focus on Chinatown/International District” (the city’s version) or b) a “town hall” to “Save the Chinatown – ID—Stop Displacement Now” (the Interim Community Development Association’s version). “WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED! Come and make your voice heard to City Council!” Interim’s announcement urges—and if that use of a Civil Rights-era slogan didn’t put a fine enough point on what the activists think is at stake in the upzone, these flyers, which appeared around the neighborhood in the past week, certainly did:

And here’s the source material:

The second poster is a notice posted during World War II, when the US rounded up tens of thousands of Japanese Americans and sent them to internment camps. The (very slightly) coded message is that if the city upzones the Chinatown/ID, the gentrification and displacement that result will have a similar impact on its residents as the forced removal of Japanese Americans in the 1940s.

2. The Chinatown/ID meeting will actually be the second contentious meeting in one day for the land use committee. Tuesday morning, they’ll take up a proposal related to the design review process—ostensibly a process to consider the design of proposed new buildings; in reality an opportunity for anti-density activists to stall projects they don’t like—that could make it easier for development opponents to file appeals. (In August, the council will consider more sweeping changes to design review that could streamline the process for developers.)

The proposed change would remove one step in the process that opponents of new projects must go through before filing a formal appeal to stop a proposed development. The step, called a land-use interpretation, costs $3,150 and is required before a project can go before the city’s hearing examiner, the judicial official who ultimately decides whether contested projects can move forward. According to a council staff analysis, removing the interpretation step could “facilitate judicial appeals of land use decisions for projects that may be considered locally undesirable by near-neighbors, such as low-income housing projects, work-release centers, and homeless shelters.” According to the Livable Phinney website, the group “with other activists in West Seattle and Council member Lisa Herbold” to eliminate the interpretation requirement.

Endless appeals are a common tactic used by neighborhood groups to prevent new housing near single-family areas. For example, a group of Phinney Ridge homeowners has successfully stalled a four-story, 57-unit studio apartment building on a commercial stretch of Greenwood Avenue for more than a year by filing appeal after appeal; although previous complaints have involved everything from the lack of air conditioning and washer/dryer units in the apartments to the size of the units, they’re now arguing that Metro’s Route 5, which runs along Greenwood, is inadequate to serve the 57 new residents. Ultimately, like many such battles, this argument comes down to parking—the opponents believe the new residents will all own cars, which will make it harder for existing Phinney Ridge homeowners to park their cars on the street.

3. Just weeks after issuing a statement denouncing “the politics of personal destruction” after a man who had accused Mayor Ed Murray of sexual abuse in the 1980s withdrew his lawsuit, mayoral candidate Jessyn Farrell reversed course, saying last night that the mayor should resign instead of serving out his term. Farrell said newly disclosed information in a separate sexual abuse case “severely undermines our confidence in his ability to carry out the duties of his office,” according to Seattle Times reporter Daniel Beekman. On Sunday, the Times reported that an investigator with Oregon’s Child Protective Services concluded that Murray had sexually abused his foster son in the early 1980s. Murray denied the allegations, noting that the case was withdrawn and no charges were ever filed.

Farrell’s dramatic reversal (dramatic in part because there was no reason she had to weigh in at all) makes more sense in light of events that transpired after she defended Murray the first time. Back then, Farrell was still seeking the mayor’s endorsement, and believed she had a real shot at getting it. Since then, Murray has endorsed Jenny Durkan, saying the former federal prosecutor “has the best chance of winning.” While Farrell may be relieved that she lost Murray’s endorsement to Durkan, the snub had to sting—and it’s hardly a stretch to see Farrell’s denunciation as payback.

4. If you still aren’t sure which mayoral candidate you prefer, there are at least two more chances to see the candidates debate before you fill out your ballot. The first, a live debate sponsored by CityClub, KING 5, GeekWire, and KUOW, is sold out, but a viewing party from 6:30 to 9pm at the nearby Flatstick Pub will also offer a post-debate opportunity to meet the candidates. And on Tuesday, LGBTQ Allyship will sponsor its own debate, featuring candidates for mayor and council positions 8 and 9, focusing on LGBTQ issues. That forum will be held at the Southside Commons in Columbia City from 6 to 9 pm.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please considerbecoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Under Neighborhood Pressure, Apartment Building Heads for Fourth Design Review

IMG_3111

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.

IMG_3109

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:

gw

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.

Council Could Delay Design Review Changes a Year or More

rec4

In what looks like a concession to single-family neighborhood activists, but which committee chair Rob Johnson insists is merely a concession to reality, the city council could put off controversial changes to the process for approving new development until after several key land-use proposals go through, including the expansion of urban-village boundaries under the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, the adoption of the comprehensive plan update known as Seattle 2035, and the approval of a new future land use map for the entire city. (According to the current schedule, draft legislation to make the changes was supposed to come out next month).

That could mean waiting a year and a half or more before making changes proposed by city staffers to help resolve years of complaints: By developers, who call the design review process burdensome and unnecessarily complicated, and by neighbors, who say the process doesn’t  allow them enough time and opportunity to comment on new development.

On Wednesday, the council’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning committee (which Johnson chairs) discussed five potential changes to design review, recommended by the city after a stakeholder process that started last year. The first recommendation would require (or possibly just encourage) earlier community outreach from developers; the second would create a new form of design review, called a hybrid design review, which would include two phases of review done by the local design review board and city staff, respectively. It would also change the size of projects that would be subject to design review, with the general result that fewer small projects would have to go through the full design review. The third recommendation would expand the city’s definition of outreach, adding online tools (including online comments), video streaming of meetings, and more two-way dialogue at board meetings, for example. The fourth would restructure the geographic reach of the design review boards, expanding the downtown area into a larger central district, for example, so that the city’s densest neighborhoods are all under the same umbrella, and changing the size of other districts to distribute design review workload more evenly. The idea, city planner Geoff Wentlandt said, to “reduce the number of meeting cancellations by providing a quorum, and to provide more checks and balances by having more members on each board.”

rec5

Finally, the fifth and most contentious recommendation would expand on the second by changing the thresholds for design review, so that projects under 10,000 square feet wouldn’t go through design review at all, and only the largest projects (those over 20,000 square feet) would have to go through full design review. This recommendation was by far the most controversial, because it would  result in fewer projects going through design review (and thus fewer opportunities to comment in person on smaller-scale new projects).

A number of homeowners from Wallingford, part of Johnson’s District 4, showed up to oppose the threshold changes. One of them, Max Nicolai, told the committee that the changes would “all but eliminate” what he called “citizen control” over development, and that by adopting them, the council would be ignoring all the public comments at previous meetings favoring more design review, not less. “It’s like you just checked the box and said, now we’re done; we don’t have to listen to them at all,” Nicolai said, adding, “this is the worst possible time to relinquish citizen control and input over development.” Other commenters spoke of buildings going in mere feet from their windows, or of hypothetical row houses (“lot line to lot line development”) that would be vulnerable to quick-spreading fires. (As an editorial aside, the implication of this would be that  row houses are inherently dangerous, which would certainly be news to the many East Coast cities where row houses are the dominant form of single-family dwelling).

Ultimately, whether this was his intention or not, committee chairman Johnson went along with his Wallingford constituents, suggesting that the council delay any changes to the design review process until after the city has finished up all its work on HALA, Seattle 2035, and new future land use map. “I’d like to kind of pump the brakes on design review for a little while,” he said.

“For me, as a linear thinker, the sequence is to start with the broad-scale comprehensive plan and then move to detailed land use changes by neighborhood and then move into design review and design characteristics.” That would mean pushing the schedule to make design-review changes out as far as 2018, a prospect that didn’t sit well with some other council members, who suggested considering some of the other changes now. District 6 (Ballard/Fremont) council member Mike O’Brien, who represents another rapidly growing part of the city, argued that “we’re going to continue to hear from folks concerned about the bulk and scale of projects in communities throughout this whole process,” not just at the end. O’Brien, it’s worth noting, is the only non-freshman council member on the PLUZ committee.

After the meeting, Johnson (who says he had not spoken to his colleagues before proposing the delay) told me he’d be open to adding more comment and feedback opportunities now, but still believed, despite some pushback from his colleagues, that putting off the threshold changes was the way to go.

“My inclination is. until we understand the threshold issues that we’re talking about, we’re putting the cart before horse to change the thresholds, to change community engagement, to act on almost any of the issues that are in [the recommendations,” Johnson said. “If we were to make changes this year and zoning changes came next year [that made those changes obsolete], that could lead to the need to make further design review changes” in the future, he said. “All of these things are so hypothetical because we haven’t even really had a conversation about where the growth is going to go.” Johnson said he isn’t sure when the committee will consider the recommendations again, and said council staff have told him there’s no real risk to waiting on the changes, except for the fact that some of the design review boards are drowning in backlogs, a situation that likely won’t improve until the  council restructures the system.