UPDATED FRIDAY MORNING: Last night’s West Seattle HS meeting on the California Ave upzoning proposal drew a big crowd (SRO in the library, almost 100 people). Very spicy meeting, with the landowners behind the proposal — real-estate/property-management partners Roger Cayce and Mike Gain — there not to make a presentation (that was done by their representative Josh Stepherson, and it was no different from what we heard at an informal meeting two weeks ago), but to participate in the discussion, where they heard lots of angry opposition, before and after explaining why they want the zoning changed. Here’s our complete report:
Permeating the atmosphere were fear and distrust — fear that the character of the neighborhoods behind both sides of this California Ave block will be destroyed by big development, distrust of the applicants’ motives, absent a specific project plan to review — all that is on the table now is the basic proposal to rezone California between Hanford and Hinds, both sides of the street (and a short distance further south on the west side) from the current NC1-30, to NC2-40 (the last number represents maximum allowable height).
Mark Wainwright, president of the Admiral Neighborhood Association, inferred the fear and distrust might have been a much lesser factor if Cayce and Gain had approached the group before applying for the rezoning. “This was not a mandatory meeting. We asked for it. But it’s a meeting we should have had a long time ago. You could have come to us and said, ‘Hey guys, we have an idea’.”
Instead, first public word of the rezoning proposal came when the city published word on its website and sent it out in the semiweekly Land Use Information Bulletin on November 8th; that’s when we saw it and posted a short item (followed by other coverage including the informal presentation made at the ANA meeting the following week). But the LUIB is not something every resident should have to watch like a hawk for any hint of big changes coming to their neighborhood out of the blue.
Just HOW big a change this rezoning would represent, was also a significant part of last night’s debate. Another of the property owners, construction company proprietor Gary Cobb, asked, “Is 10 feet really that big a deal? With 30 feet (of height), you’re talking three stories. With 40, this would be four stories.” One resident interrupted him to note it’s not just a matter of height, but also of “bulk” — the zoning change from NC1-30 to NC2-40 would also mean significantly larger businesses could appear on the ground floor of any buildings in the area, 10,000-sf for the current zoning, 25,000-sf for NC2.
As has been the case in their comments and those of their supporters here on WSB (scroll down here), Cayce and Gain tried to portray the change as more of a restoration. Mike Gain (a longtime West Seattle resident; this report earlier and inaccurately suggested otherwise) said, “When I purchased this land in 1987, the zoning was NC1-40. I think it’s only fair to have the zoning put back. I don’t think it’s going to be devastating to the community if it’s someone who wants to build something nice.”
Repeatedly, audience members asked for details on what that “something nice” would be. One woman burst out in frustration, “I feel like you [Cayce & Gain] are in a bubble. I hope you are hearing your community. What do you want to build there? Let’s open the dialogue!” Aside from mentioning 2 floors of underground parking — maybe about 120 stalls — and apartments/condos somewhere in the mix, the landowners couldn’t say exactly what they want to build — they say they have to get the zoning changed first, then they would work with an architect to develop a plan. (And both insisted that neither has ever talked to Trader Joe’s, for which some audience members seemed to suspect this project might be a Trojan horse — first time in a long time we had heard any potential WS TJ’s discussed in a somewhat negative light.)
They were more detailed about what they say they don’t want to do. Cayce: “We don’t want to build townhomes. We COULD — we would make more money if we built townhomes … We’re not asking to build a big building that’s not allowed. We could build a big building NOW that’s three stories, with one floor of parking. We don’t want to, because it’s going to be an ugly building. (The buildings on the block now are) functionally obsolete. There WILL be growth. Do you want an ugly 30-foot building, or something nice?”
Growth could occur in the other Admiral areas already zoned NC2-40, contended Mark Wainwright. “(The areas already with that zoning) total at least 400,000 square feet — enough for 700, 800 housing units if built out. There’s enough room to accommodate growth NOW.” He said the ANA’s other reasons for not supporting the rezoning request include the fact it “runs contrary to the current neighborhood plan.”
For the many residents who spoke, and who frequently, loudly applauded each other, “neighborhood” was a word that came up time and again. One frequently voiced concern involved the already formidable traffic trouble on California and adjacent side streets, including the parallel-running 42nd and 44th W, on which many attendees live. One man noted other areas of California further south have this type of development and have been plagued with car collisions as drivers try to emerge from their buildings’ entrances.
Others disagreed vehemently with the property owners’ contention that change is inevitable, and big buildings are part of that. One lamented the “canyon” that parts of California Ave have become, with taller buildings blocking the light. (An allusion here on WSB months ago was the “Death Star Trench” from the memorable end sequence of the original “Star Wars” movie.) Another said, “I’m not against change, but this would destroy a beautiful neighborhood,” and drew laughter by angrily saying that if he has to sell his home because of any ensuing development, no agency associated with the property owners would have any part of the transaction.
Several people described themselves as area renters afraid they would be priced out by the pressures that would come with new, big buildings, or that they would lose quality of life to other factors. A woman talked about her respiratory health problems and concerns about increased car emissions replacing the seabreezes that “blow up from Alki” toward her apartment now. A man asked how long it might be till he gets an eviction notice (city planner Malli Anderson earnestly told him that the process of rezoning and reviewing projects could take more than a year, so he shouldn’t worry too soon).
While Cayce and Gain talked a lot about the “functional obsolescence” of the current buildings on the block, one woman said, “I think a lot of us are fine with the buildings on California (now), because THAT’S OUR NEIGHBORHOOD.”
Close to the end of the heated hour of public comments, a man who said he had worked on the original Admiral Neighborhood Plan said, “Seems to us a lot of red flags are waving here — they don’t know what they want to build, meaning we don’t know. I’m requesting this be treated as a ‘contract rezone’ which would require the City Council to approve it with self-imposed restrictions on how the land could be used. What do I have to do to make that request?”
Planner Anderson said, “You just did” and said she would take that back to City Hall. (This morning, WSB reader Forest (thank you!) sent us the section of the city code that describes “contract rezones”: SMC 23.34.004: A. Property Use and Development Agreement. The Council may approve a map amendment subject to an agreement by the legal or beneficial owner of the property to be rezoned to self-imposed restrictions upon the use and development of the property in order to ameliorate adverse impacts which could occur from unrestricted use and development permitted in the zone. All restrictions shall be directly related to the impacts which may be expected to result from the amendment. The agreements shall be approved as to form by the City Attorney, and shall not be construed as a relinquishment by the City of its discretionary powers.
As for what’s next — Anderson is taking comments by phone, e-mail and postal mail. She explained at the start of the hearing that she will eventually make a recommendation to a hearing examiner, who then would hold a hearing; after that, the hearing examiner would make a recommendation to the City Council, which would also hold a hearing before a final vote, which is required for a zoning change like this.
Here’s how to send your comments to Anderson:
700 5th Avenue, Suite 2000
Seattle, WA 98124
One comment she will be receiving is from a younger member of the audience, a 10-year-old girl, and it was forwarded to WSB this morning by that girl’s dad — this handwritten, illustrated letter:
Sorry, comment time is over.
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