Claim: Affordable and Family Housing Proposal Would “Cause Irreparable harm to the Entire Phinney Ridge Neighborhood”

Two Phinney Ridge homeowners—longtime Phinney Ridge Community Council activist Irene Wall and former Seattle City Council central staffer Bob Morgan—have filed an appeal in King County Superior Court seeking to stop a proposed 55-foot-tall, five-story apartment building at 70th and Greenwood. The land use petition claims that a site-specific zoning change approved by the city council earlier this month is illegal and will allow developer Chad Dale to construct a building that is out of character with the surrounding neighborhood. Wall and Morgan filed their petition after the city’s hearing examiner rejected their arguments and recommended that the council adopt the rezone.

The site of the proposed development, where a long-closed Oroweat Bakery outlet used to stand, abuts a single-family area and is flanked by lots where 40-foot-tall apartment buildings are already allowed. Under the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which would require developers to fund affordable housing in exchange for denser zoning in designated urban villages like Greenwood Ave., the entire site and the adjoining land are supposed to be upzoned to allow 55-foot buildings. That upzone, however, is also being delayed by homeowner litigation—which is why the council granted the contract rezone, allowing the project (in play since 2016) to move forward.

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Although the project isn’t subject to MHA rules, the developer plans to participate in the city’s multifamily tax exemption program, which provides a 12-year tax break to developers who agree to set aside 20 percent of units to people making less than 80 percent of the Seattle median income. Sixty percent of the units would have two or more bedrooms—a rare commodity in Seattle, where most new apartments are studios and one-bedrooms—and there would be less than one parking space per unit. That’s another likely point of contention in a neighborhood where activists have consistently and adamantly argued against developments that fail to provide  far more parking than the city requires, though not an argument Wall and Morgan make directly in their land use petition. Phinney Ridge homeowners successfully stalled a proposed four-story apartment building down the street from the building Wall and Morgan are suing to stop, arguing in appeal after appeal that the new apartments would block neighbors’ sunlight, lead to noise from rooftop parties, and make it impossible for homeowners to park their cars on the street.

 

 

In their petition, Wall and Morgan argue that there isn’t enough of a  height transition between the proposed 55-story developments and adjacent single-family houses directly behind the Greenwood Avenue property;  that the new building would “block Olympic Mountain views from the commercial lots to the east’; that a five-story building would restrict neighbors’ access to “light and air”; and that, furthermore, any building on Greenwood Avenue that’s adjacent to a single-family lot on either side of the street should be kept as small as possible—in this case, the current, pre-MHA 40 feet. “The Council’s approval of the 7009 contract rezone … allows for construction of a five story building right on the property line shared with the single family zone (except for a minimal setback on the fifth floor) when the Code requires a gradual transition between zones and specifies substantially greater setbacks,” Wall and Morgan’s petition says, creating “a structure out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood.”

The argument that mixed-use apartment buildings are inappropriate for commercial corridors located directly on bus lines, such as Greenwood Avenue, is particularly bitter, given that the city kept urban villages as shallow as possible—typically the half-block immediately adjacent to major commercial arterials—specifically at the request of single-family neighborhood groups, which did not want apartments to encroach on the city’s exclusive single-family areas. (This happened during the vaunted neighborhood planning process of the 1990s, whose result was that nearly two-thirds of the city’s buildable land are preserved exclusively for single-family housing.) Now, that decision to ban apartments from all but a sliver of the city’s residential land is being used to justify a legal challenge that would restrict developers’ ability to build apartments on that sliver.

The petition asks the King County Superior court to place a stay on the council’s legislation allowing the rezone on the grounds that, if the project were allowed to move forward (after being on hold for two years, thanks largely to Wall and Morgan’s repeated appeals), it would “cause irreparable harm to Petitioners and the entire Phinney Ridge neighborhood.”

Morning Crank: “Chaos and Turmoil”

1. Yesterday, city council Position 8 candidate Sara Nelson held a press conference to denounce her opponent (and one of the two presumptive frontrunners in the race), Jon Grant, for what she called “unreliable, unethical and incompetent leadership that caused much of the staff to quit and led the Board of Directors to force his departure.” Nelson also said Grant “[left] behind an organization in chaos and turmoil, a mess that others had to try to clean up.

Grant resigned his position as executive director of the Tenants Union during his first campaign for this same position, in 2015, after staffers complained that he “tokenized” women of color at the organization and assigned them the menial work that he didn’t want to do. The claims, which are part of an unfair labor practice complaint by a former employee that the Tenants Union settled for $2,000 last year, paint a picture of a leader who didn’t show up to meetings, moved the tenants’ rights group away from tenant organizing and toward advocating for rent control, a campaign issue, and even, according to the allegations, asked for campaign contributions during a Tenants Union staff meeting.

In the complaint, a TU staffer (who I’m not naming to respect her privacy) claims that she was demoted in retaliation for writing a letter to the board reporting “oppressive and tokenizing” practices during Grant’s tenure. Those practices included missing meetings or “having meetings when he is ready or decides to show up”; asking staff to contribute to his campaign during a staff meeting; “tokenizing POCs [people of color] and “giving POCs titles of leadership for purposes of funding.” In the letter, the woman, and two other TU staffers wrote that “working in an environment which was not prepared to nurture the leadership of People of Color, and honor our struggle, has been tokenizing and disrespectful” and described a “toxic environment bred by an executive director who lacked leadership and accountability.” 

“This was around the time he said he was going to run for city council,” a TU employee told SOCR in her declaration supporting the unfair labor practice claim. “We were … thinking this was really unfair, because we felt like we were doing a lot of the work, [as] three women of color, for a white male, an executive director absent from his work most of the time. We were holding the organization together, and it just felt really unfair he was going to be glorified and our work was not being recognized.”

The board didn’t dispute any of the staffer’s claims against Grant. (In one email, they said they had “agree[d] to have Jon resign” in part because he didn’t explain “how he expected to remain in the Executive Director position when he was running for City Council. …Basically, what he wanted was to retain his connection to city government ad county government. … and give everything else to Liz Etta,” a staffer who became executive director after Grant resigned.) What they did dispute was that the woman was demoted in retaliation for signing the letter complaining about Grant’s leadership. They said they demoted her because Grant had never asked permission to promote her in the first place, and because Grant had set up a top-heavy structure at the Tenants Union, with four director-level positions and just three non-supervisory employees. 

In response to my questions about the unfair labor practice complaint, Grant said that while “I tried in every situation to empower my staff … I want to take responsibility for that as a person with both white privilege and positional authority, it is clear I did not meet the expectations of these staff members to support them as people of color within the organization. I take that feedback seriously and always strive to do better.” He also denied asking for campaign contributions at a staff meeting.

The documents suggest strongly that Grant was asked to leave; however, they do not directly substantiate Nelson’s claim that he was “fired.”  Asked what made her so confident that Grant was fired, Nelson responded, “the resignation was not of his own volition” and noted that according to the documents, Grant had expressed the desire to stay at TU during the campaign.

2. The apparently neverending debate over a proposed 57-unit studio apartment building on an arterial street in the Greenwood Urban Village continues to never end. A group of Phinney Ridge homeowners, calling themselves Livable Phinney (of course), have spent more than a year raising every conceivable regulatory objection to the proposal, claiming at various points that it: Will make it impossible for homeowners to park in front of their houses, because the residents will all have cars; will be unfit for human habitation, because the units won’t have individual washer/dryer units or air conditioning; won’t be adequately served by transit, despite the fact that the 5 bus line arrives every 15 minutes right outside; and will ruin the character of the neighborhood by attracting unsavory people who will “party” in the proposed small rooftop garden.

On Monday, the developers proposing the building were dealt another blow, when the city’s hearing examiner ruled in favor of Livable Phinney on a challenge involving two issues: Parking and shadows. (In addition to arguing that new renters will take up all the available street parking, Livable Phinney says the proposed building, which includes a partial story or clerestory, would cast too many shadows on adjacent houses and should have to be further away from those houses.) The ruling requires the developer to do a second transit study, this time measuring specific bus arrival times (as opposed to looking at the schedule) to see if Metro is actually hitting 15-minute headways; it also requires some changes to the building itself to prevent shadows, plus a new shadow study. Those parts of the ruling send the proposed building plan back to the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, which means the developer will have to file a whole new land use plan—and that, in turn, can be appealed all over again.

Meanwhile, 57 units of desperately needed housing, in an urban village and directly on a major transit line, will not be built.

The attorney for Livable Phinney, Jeffrey Eustis, is the same lawyer who represented Marty Kaplan, the Queen Anne homeowner who successfully sued the city to prevent people from building backyard cottages or converting their basements into mother-in-law apartments. Eustis is also on the board of Futurewise, an environmental group that started out as a land-conservation group but now advocates for urbanist land-use policy—reflecting the 21st-century view that preserving rural farmland necessitates densifying cities. Futurewise actually does the outreach work for Seattle for Everyone, the coalition of environmental groups, developers, and social justice organizations advocating for the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which includes citywide upzones as well as the backyard cottages Eustis has already sued to stop. If Eustis continues to represent groups that oppose HALA, he will also continue to work against the explicit agenda of the group on whose board he serves.

Futurewise board appointments are not term-limited.

 

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming 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.

Morning Crank: The Common Canard

1. Perhaps emboldened by the Queen Anne Community Council’s successful effort to delay a proposal making it easier for homeowners to build backyard cottages, a group of Phinney Ridge homeowners plan to appeal an environmental ruling allowing a four-story apartment building on Greenwood Avenue. The attorney for these homeowners, Jeffrey Eustis, also represented the Queen Anne council and homeowner Marty Kaplan in their effort to shut down the backyard cottage rules.

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Image from livablephinney.org

I reported last year on the intense furor over the building, which would add 57 new studio apartments to a commercial stretch of Greenwood. The project has already been through a nearly unprecedented four design reviews, after neighbors objected about details like the lack of washers and dryers in each unit, the fact that the units will lack air conditioning, and the lack of onsite parking for residents. Neighbors also objected to the modern style of the building and the fact that the people who rent there would be “forced” to live in tight quarters.

In a letter addressed to “friends and neighbors” of the development, the group writes, “Our appeal will tackle a major error in the city’s environmental policy code that allows developers to impose the impacts of their no-parking projects on the surrounding homeowners and small businesses that depend on street parking for their customers.  Even the error-filled parking studies submitted for this permit prove that there is NO MORE CAPCITY [sic] for parking cars within blocks of the site.  Those of you who commute by the #5 bus also know that the bus is already OVERCROWDED.  We need to challenge these developments until there is adequate transit and parking provided to meet the new demand they create. That is fair growth.” [Bold in original]

The appeal asks the Seattle hearing examiner to reject the development on the grounds that it violates the State Environmental Policy Act by creating an adverse environmental impact on the surrounding area. Put more plainly: Among other claims, it charges that homeowners and small businesses will be inconvenienced because it will become harder for them to park their cars. This assumption rests on the common canard that everyone in a city must own at least a car or two, when in reality, people who live in tiny studios on bus lines in cities are far less likely to drive than, say, homeowners who live in large houses with driveways and capacious parking garages.

2. Learn to trust the Crank: Yesterday, I reported that Seattle Public School director Stephan Blanford was considering a run for the Position 8 city council seat being vacated by Tim Burgess next year. (Several candidates, including former Tenants Union director and erstwhile Burgess opponent Jon Grant, have already filed for the November 2017 election). Yesterday, Blanford got back to me to confirm that he is “giving serious consideration” to running. “After 3.5 years on the school board, I have many factors to weigh, but my progressive values and ability to bring people together to work on tough issues like Seattle Schools’ opportunity gaps leaves me feeling like it might be a good fit,” Blanford writes. “I’m working through my process now, and looking at all of the options before me.”

3. Two nights ago, in a unanimous vote, the Mercer Island City Council decided to sue Sound Transit and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), alleging breach of contract over a 1976 agreement that granted Island residents the ability to drive solo in the I-90 high-occupancy vehicle lanes. The lawsuit seeks to halt Sound Transit’s plans to close one of the island’s three single-occupancy access points to I-90, requiring Islanders to do what everyone else in the region does when they want to drive alone: Drive to the entrance to the freeway and sit in traffic. (The new rail station provides an excellent alternative for commuters, and people who choose to carpool or take the bus will still be able to use the HOV lanes).

Yesterday, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff responded to the lawsuit. In a statement, Rogoff said:

“Legal agreements dating back to before the I-90 floating bridge was even built dedicated the center lanes for public transit. More than eight years ago regional voters approved the funding to build the East Link light rail project on those lanes. It is highly regrettable that the City of Mercer Island is now attempting to delay the project in mid-construction. Neither the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) nor Sound Transit are empowered to reverse the Federal Highway Administration’s decisions regarding access by single-occupant Mercer Island traffic to the new HOV lanes across Lake Washington. These lanes are on schedule to open in June, enabling us to stay on schedule constructing light rail. While Sound Transit remains ready to reach solutions through negotiations, the agency will take all legal actions necessary to avoid delays or increased costs to taxpayers in fulfilling our promise to voters to complete East Link. Building fast and reliable light rail service across Lake Washington is not only a commitment to the residents of Bellevue, Redmond, Mercer Island and Seattle but to every resident of the Sound Transit District. Delays to the East Link project pose significant risks of increased costs to regional taxpayers and significant delays to opening the project in 2023.”

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming 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 it as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, 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

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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.