6:42 PM: We’re live at American Legion Post 160’s headquarters in The Triangle as the community conversation with Councilmember Mike O’Brien gets under way.
On behalf of the hosting Southwest District Council, Cindi Barker (below left) has just announced that Saturday, June 28th, the Department of Planning and Development will come out for a conversation of its own – time (morning) and location TBA.
Councilmember O’Brien starts off by saying he’d like it to be a productive conversation for both sides. He says, “I never asked to be land use chair … I’m learning a lot. It’s a field that goes from the experience we all completely understand, living our lives, down to all sorts of laws I’m still trying to appreciate.” We’ll be updating as this goes. About 50 people are here and there’s room for more.
First question is from West Seattle developer John Nuler, who asked about the recent action to regulate smaller lots, in light of the city’s encouragement of backyard cottages and other accessory dwelling units. He says the original recommendation was 2,000 square feet, rather than the 2,500-sf lot size, and wonders why the change, which he says resulted in some lots being rendered unbuildable. O’Brien says he doesn’t have all the details on that, but his legislative assistant is keeping track of the questions, so that answers can be procured later.
Second question is from someone who says he considers zoning changes have resulted in “the rape of West Seattle” and wonders how many people can be crammed in here. “I’m not buying this urban-village rationale. … How far is it going to go in West Seattle?”
O’Brien: “I don’t have an answer to ‘how far it’s going to go’.”
Next question: “Is there a citywide movement for reforming land use?”
O’Brien: “There are all sorts of specific aspects of land-use code that specific individuals (&) neighborhoods have concerns about …” He lists the small-lot issue, the low-rise-code issue as examples. “DPD is addressing these issues as they come up, and there are a lot of them.” But, he said, they’re not going to “throw the (zoning) out and start from scratch.” He goes on to mention the Comprehensive Plan and its “major overhaul” that’s under way (aka Seattle 2035). “I think the hope of the city is to take a look at it and really rethink how growth happens, where it happens, how we manage that growth in the city …” more big picture than small details, he said.
At that point, Barker, who is moderating, mentions the next public meeting on Seattle 2035 – Seattle Center, June 24th, regarding its “key directions.” (We’ll have a link for that shortly.)
6:51 PM: Jim Guenther talks about what happens when the city rules change and projects suddenly are allowed such as buildings without offstreet parking, and how it affects “quality of life” for residents who were already there.
“There’s a balance we’re trying to strike between the common good and individual rights,” O’Brien begins. He says that things have evolved as “lots that weren’t interesting to developers became interesting,” in the case of the small lots, for example. “Something like 45 percent of the lots that are zoned single family 5000 are smaller than 5000 square feet.”
“Where do we get heard (when our quality of life is affected)?” Guenther pressed. O’Brien says, “I don’t have a good answer for that,” but mentions that even though, for example, one house was on a lot, the owner might have always known it was really two lots that might qualify for two lots someday. O’Brien tries to say that the city didn’t really change the rules.
**CLICK AHEAD TO CONTINUE READING AS-IT-HAPPENED COVERAGE**
Mat McBride, chair of the Delridge Neighborhoods District Council, observes that “right now it feels wild-westy as development goes … if you live next to a large-size lot, you feel worried because you don’t know what might happen.” He mentions “more intentional growth areas” such as High Point and Yesler Terrace, where people are clearer on what is going to and/or might happen. “Is it possible to take this opportunity to create ‘high population growth’ districts.”
O’Brien replies, “Yes,” but notes that the two areas mentioned were both owned by Seattle Housing Authority, so they are unique. He gets back to the Comprehensive Plan: “Do we want the growth spread around in urban villages, or in the urban centers, or do we want it around high-capacity transit nodes … those are the types of questions we’re asking.”
Next question, from Sandy Adams, is about microhousing, and how it was aligned with transit plans, but then Metro came up with cuts – how can the concept change when something like that happens?
O’Brien agrees that there needs to be a way to revisit the policy based on transit levels, when those levels change. They haven’t worked out such a way yet, though.
Next question: How can West Seattle growth dovetail with the fact there is no hospital, for example? No answer, but it’s noted.
A man in the back then says there should be environmental impact statements on how policy changes are going to affect the neighborhood. “I would like (them) part of the norm when there is a big decision to make.”
Next, René Commons from the Junction Neighborhood Organization asks about how to make city policy sensitive to preserving neighborhood character. A smattering of applause follows. “A lot of out-of-scale development” is happening now, she said, wondering how DPD can be more sensitive on a “neighborhood level” rather than on a citywide level. She then points out that the Junction is already at more than double its 2024 growth target – in 2014. And before O’Brien replies, she mentions an interest in impact fees.
“(They) are definitely something we’re looking at,” O’Brien replies, saying “the legal staff” is looking at “some options” that he hopes “can bring some solutions to some of the problems we have.” Next, regarding a growth cap, he said there isn’t one anywhere in Seattle right now, so “how we address that issue around growth and targets …” is something they are working on. “It’s a challenge we’re facing because (back in the recession time) we wanted job growth to happen, and now we have this amazing job growth happening, and it’s overwhelming … we just heard that Seattle was the fastest-growing city in the country last year,” and fastest-growing in rental costs, too. “I don’t have a great answer for that, but we’re struggling (with it).”
Next, Abdy Farid, also of JuNO, brings up the absence or low per-unit ratio of offstreet parking in some developments. “Places like Capitol Hill and the U-District have higher ‘walk scores'” making that easier to cope with, so he is suggesting a parking study to come up with a more-appropriate ratio for this neighborhood. “I’ve heard that before,” said O’Brien.
After him, an attendee suggests that neighborhoods should be brought more into the DPD planning process, “and I don’t see why, particularly when you’re doing some kind of development that is out of character, out of scale, anything that doesn’t fit, why you can’t have a simple design review that pulls the neighborhoods together rather than simply put up a notice somewhere and see if there’s pushback.”
In reply, O’Brien mentions the new decision to convene a working group regarding microhousing.
Next commenter declared, “DPD is dysfunctional.” He wants to see a “paradigm change” because the discussion of “vibrance” doesn’t resonate “when you have to wait for three buses to get to work. … If we want to have developments close to transit hubs, is anyone coaxing Microsoft and Amazon to (have buildings) in West Seattle?” The density and transit doesn’t make sense if “everybody here is going somewhere else,” he added. Government should have local offices, too, he said. And he suggested rezoning – especially along Avalon, where the solid midrise zoning, he suggested, doesn’t make sense. “Let’s let other neighborhoods deal with the ‘vibrance’ and ‘density’.” He said he wants a livable city; applause followed.
The next attendee to speak brought up microhousing and “very small (apartments)” and the floor-area ratio that’s used to allow many units. He mentioned a 40-unit building going in “across from my single-family home” but says DPD doesn’t seem to be using “judgment” in allowing it. He wonders what will happen to these small-unit buildings when rents get to a point where people can have something bigger somewhere else. “I’m very suspect of the process …”
O’Brien replies by mentioning the microhousing-definition/regulation proposal, and that he hadn’t heard many people supporting it, so that’s why he has convened a working group: “What I’m hearing is that DPD didn’t get it right, so we’re going to go back and work through that.”
Next speaker says there seems to be animosity building between the city and neighborhoods. “Our neighborhood, in order just to be heard, had to raise a substantial amount of money to file an appeal …just to say ‘we’re serious’.” She says they wanted to reach a compromise but went through “several reviews” that were “incredibly contentious” and the process seemed “broken … (it doesn’t) serve us.”
“It really hurt me to see that Seattle doesn’t care,” she said, with emotion. “… we’re not being heard. At all.” Applause followed.
Next, Diane Vincent, who has long been involved in community advocacy in the development process, brings up some of the projects. She then asks why there can’t be a moratorium on microhousing, as was asked at a community forum in another neighborhood. “They’re still finding the loopholes and they’re still building like crazy.” She mentions that a developer advocate is happy about the stakeholders’ group being convened “while they keep building.”
O’Brien said, “I’m here because I work for all of you … I have my opinions and beliefs, but at the end of the day, I’m going to execute on what the bulk of the people believe in. I’m hearing (a lot about this).” He goes on to say that the units are all that’s affordable for some people just getting started; Vincent counters with the relatively high rents she sees in online ads. O’Brien says he’s not much for moratoriums but he definitely is hearing what’s being said.
Next speaker talks about the microhousing calculations – 8 sleeping rooms counted as one unit – and asks that parking be revisited, since West Seattle isn’t going to get light rail for at least a decade.
Next, Michael Taylor-Judd from the North Delridge Neighborhood Council and West Seattle Transportation Coalition says he agrees with some of what he’s heard but that he also is annoyed by community meetings where people who are “in their 50s, 60s, 70s and (have owned their homes for a long time)” are arguing to preserve their current lifestyle. And he says that people arguing for parking because they drive and assume everyone drives are not reflective of “the data.” He says he’s a homeowner and wants to live in West Seattle for a long time but “also want other people to come in and be able to live here.” He mentions visiting San Francisco recently and fearing that this city will end up like that, with no one able to live there as they add tens of thousands of jobs and only a few thousand new housing units – it leads, he warns, to sprawl. “So we have to figure out the balance to maintain growth and neighborhood character, diversity AND good-looking buildings … I hear too much ‘I don’t want anything to change, I want it to stay the way it was when I moved here’.”
The next concern relates to walkability, and wishing for a review to see where the lights are and how safety can be evaluated.
O’Brien then gets back to the voicing of concerns with DPD. “They’re good people and they are trying their best … I want to be sure that if they come out, they are engaging the community in a way that is productive to you, not just to say they came out.” He said he will help shape what the meeting looks like.
Someone else speaks up, jumping off Taylor-Judd’s point, saying he agrees that we want to welcome more people, but “we need transit” to make that possible. (Applause.) He says he wants to see more density but “we need to find more ways to bring that transit in.”
O’Brien notes that he is also on the Sound Transit board and is listening “with both hats.”
An attendee in the back of the room expresses incredulity at Junction-area growth hitting twice the expected 2024 target, ten years short of that, while transportation doesn’t seem to have changed at all.
Next, development on the west side of The Junction is brought up – the 40-unit 4439 41st SW in particular – and the fact it will have no parking, which the attendee declares “pretty lame.”
Another person says, “Do we really need growth at the expense of people who have already contributed to the community?” And she brings up, without mentioning it by name, the MFTE tax exemption that many multifamily-project developers seek and receive, alleging that developers “are getting away without paying for (anything).” She also brings up the lack of a hospital.
Next, Dr. Terrell Harrington, who runs an urgent-care clinic across the street from the meeting venue, says that what’s being planned here “is not a (real) urban village” – if it was, it would have room for everyone. “I know change is coming, I know density is coming but how can we mitigate that for the largest number of people. … I’m disappointed that with the large number of people we’re seeing, people working for large companies … why can’t some of the growth be dispersed so that some of those people can work here in the community rather than bringing so much growth in and having them (drive/bus) in and out.”
(This theme has been heard several times – making West Seattle more than a bedroom-and-restaurant/bar community.)
“We’re in a modern era, these people can work remotely by computer,” Dr. Harrington says. “We’re not thinking outside the box … we’re just building tall strip malls.”
The next person to speak says she came to Seattle five years ago, lived first in Belltown, and the first thing that happened when she came here was that she “needed a car” – but downtown, buildings didn’t have enough parking, rents were raised, and she could barely afford rent plus parking for one car, even with a tech-company salary. Living in West Seattle, she said, “I still have a 40-plus-minute commute, and it’s only 7 miles.” WHen buses are cut in September, she said, she’s going to have to drive more. No, she says, it’s not just the people who have been here 50 years who are complaining – it’s the people who have been here for four years.
Next, Pete Spalding from Pigeon Point mentioned that Delridge had successful projects in the past because the community was listened to, but that’s not what’s happening now – projects are being driven from downtown. “I think we’re losing it because the folks from SDOT and DPD … they’re single-minded, they’re not listening to us here in the neighborhood.” He mentions that someone from the city has come to the Delridge District Council to “ask for input” but isn’t even taking notes, so unless “he has a photographic memory,” he is not listening.
O’Brien says again, he has heard the concerns about DPD not working with the neighborhood and they will be addressed.
Next, Vlad Oustimovitch – co-chair of the SW District Council – notes that he’s been involved with a lot of land-use issues. “In the last few years, I feel like a doctor in hospital that’s being run badly and patients are really sick because of bad policies … There is a way to accommodate growth in the city (and to honor everyone) .. The first thing to do is to reintegrate the neighborhoods back into the planning process.” He mentions the way the urban-village planning worked ~15 years ago, with the city supporting the neighborhoods: “I was really impressed with how they were being handled … Since that time, there’s been a lot of degeneration of those neighborhood plans, unfortunately, and the neighborhood plan evaporated.”
Now, the last 15 minutes or so are supposed to be for ideas.
Tod Rodman says maybe the Department of Neighborhoods should be the interface with the community rather than the Department of Planning and Development. He suggests the City Council re-engineer the process to make that happen.
Next speaker wonders about rent control. O’Brien says, “That specific tool, I believe, is not available – but the concern people are trying to (voice) … is a legitimate concern; we need to find other tools.”
Joe Szilagyi from the Westwood-Roxhill-Arbor Heights Community Council and WS Transportation Coalition points out that growth targets are not binding, so why not dis-incentivize building in areas that are over their targets and then direct it toward areas that would love to have more of it – and “take the politics out of it, automate the process” so that an area that’s over target gets less.
Microhousing comes up again: “We’re not against it … but count them accurately.”
Affordability is mentioned by Dick Miller from the Genesee-Schmitz Neighborhood Council and Benchview neighborhood, who says it doesn’t seem much can be done with that, but that developers seem to have incentive to maximize whatever profit they can. “Why not consider some kind of code that says, if you have to replace a house with something similar in scale, don’t tear down a little bungalow and put up a million-dollar home, which is what we see in our neighborhood, three million-dollar houses (replacing less-expensive ones).”
Better notification of changes, and less-elongated processes, would help with neighborhood involvement, Jim Guenther then suggested.
Then: A mention of city councilmembers coming to visit a neighborhood and repeatedly mentioning “world-class cities,” as perhaps a code word for density. “We have two world-class cities now, New York and Los Angeles, and we aren’t anything like that,” he said, saying that the city can’t handle the kind of density and intensive transportation that would be required. He suggests Seattle should aspire to be a livable middle-size city.
René Commons says that West Seattle needs a transit center/station that IS “world class,” where people can come and “park their smart cars and recharge and …”
Can an urban village have a board (as historic districts do, for example) to oversee how things go? O’Brien says that’s an interesting idea.
Mat McBride then makes a pitch for district councils – this is substituting for the Southwest District Council meeting, and the Delridge District Council is joining in – “I can’t stress how important it is to have a vibrant voice in your neighborhood council,” he says, urging people to get involved, whether at the district council level or “I urge you strongly, get involved in your neighborhood council … we’re asking for a total of two hours a month.” If you don’t know where your neighborhood council is, or who they are, ask the city Department of Neighborhoods.
O’Brien’s wrapup remarks, now – he says he appreciated the tone and quality of the conversation, the best he said he’s experienced in his travels around the city at meetings like this. He says he is Seattle born and raised, owns a single-family home in Fremont (that’s in a multifamily zone), “I care immensely about my neighborhood, about my city … I want to make sure that Seattle is … vibrant, and that (his children) feel Seattle is a home for them when they grow up … and that people from around the country and around the world who find their way to Seattle, when they end up here, that there’s a spot for them to make this their home (too) … That means there’s challenges” – affordable housing, plentiful jobs, and respect “these communities that we feel very strongly about, and many of us built these communities, and as they change – that’s hard.”
He said that he hopes people will join in work groups, and that the city can keep “reinventing itself … to do a better job … It’s a good thing that you care, a great thing that you care enough to be engaged.” He also says he hopes that processes will become more efficient.
And with a round of applause, the meeting ends at 8:05. We rolled video, though it’ll be more worthwhile for audio since it was fixed on the front of the room most of the time; we’ll add that when it’s uploaded later, and we’ll be adding photos too.