— NLB (@g7on) November 15, 2015
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
The city has accused a Junction developer of violating city code by taking down a tree on the site where he’s planning a mixed-use project.
We reported on the tree-felling last month, after a reader shared the video (above) showing the tree being cut down at 4532 42nd SW on Sunday morning, November 15th.
That was a week and a half after the tree had figured into the Southwest Design Review Board‘s second Early Design Guidance review of the project.
(From the project “packet,” a rendering of building massing if the tree were kept)
Though the project team had said botanists determined it fell just shy of being an “exceptional” tree – 29.7 inches at midpoint of his trunk, with 30 inches the city’s threshold – the board said it was in its purview to request a design preserving the tree. Here’s our coverage of that meeting, and here’s the official city report on it, made public just this week; it noted, in part, that “The Board recommended that the project could move forward to MUP application, provided the design retained the Western Red Cedar at the northeast corner and incorporated this significant vegetation into the overall design of open space and massing transitions to the north and east.”
When we contacted owner/developer Mark Braseth the day that tree was cut, his reply contended that it and two others cut on the property that morning were allowed to be removed without a permit. But the city disagrees.
After seeing the project file’s mention of a “violation,” we contacted the Department of Planning and Development to ask what it was for and what the proposed penalty is. Today, we heard back from DPD spokesperson Wendy Shark:
After removal of the tree, the Department of Planning and Development received a complaint that a tree was illegally removed. After investigating the situation, we’ve determined that there is a code violation for removing a tree 6 inches or greater in diameter on an undeveloped lot without approval from DPD. This is a violation of Seattle’s Tree Protection Ordinance. We are determining the appraised value of the tree to define the penalty amount and an appropriate restoration plan for the site. We will issue a notice of violation once we obtain that information.
Among community comments in the project file is one voicing concern about the tree removal’s effects on the integrity of the design process. It was written by Deb Barker, a retired land-use planner and former chair of the Southwest Design Review Board who often comments at review meetings. She wrote to DPD director Diane Sugimura, “It’s been almost a month since a developer cut down the mature cedar tree from his property at 4532 42nd Ave SW, and the silence from DPD is deafening … This letter is not about the removal of a healthy tree on a vacant lot. … This letter is about the perceived impact to the City of Seattle Design Review Process.”
Today, DPD’s Shark told us that has been addressed as well:
Shortly after the tree was removed, DPD staff met with the design review board chair to discuss the situation given the previous guidance from the board. At the last public early design guidance meeting, the board had requested that modifications be made to the bulk of the building along the alley to provide a better buffer for the neighboring Lowrise zone behind the proposed building. The existing tree provided a natural buffer to help accomplish this goal, so it was recommended by the board that the tree be preserved. If the tree was not to be preserved, then the design team would need to return for another public meeting showing revised designs that respond to the board comments on building bulk and creating a better buffer. With that in mind, the applicant and their design team will have to return for another early design guidance meeting.
Making modifications to a site while it’s undergoing a public design review process is not appropriate and erodes DPD’s trust, as well as the community’s trust in the applicant. The design review process provides a public forum for the board and community to offer feedback on the proposed building design, to create a product that responds to the neighborhood context while also meeting the objectives of the developer or property owner. Actions such as this reflect a disrespect for regulations and for the community where the development is proposed, which, during this time of rapid growth and citywide change, is a disservice to fellow developers as we contemplate change to this important but sometimes complicated design review process.
So the bottom line is that the project will have to return for a third round of Early Design Guidance. No date set for that yet. Design Review Boards are all-volunteer panels appointed by the city who work with the DPD, which has the final say.
The project is on a site that had been approved for a different mixed-use project more than six years ago, under different ownership; Braseth purchased it earlier this year and pursued a new plan, estimated at last month’s meeting as 6 stories, ~75 apartments, 3,813 sq.ft. of commercial space, offstreet parking for ~63 vehicles (though this is in an area where projects can be built without any parking because of the proximity of “frequent transit”).