Townhouses, again: An approval, and a viewpoint


The semiweekly city Land Use Information Bulletin has just arrived, and the site shown above — 4103 SW Edmunds, proposed for teardown-to-five-townhomes (as first reported here in February) kitty-corner from the south side of Jefferson Square — is the only West Seattle project on it; the city has ruled that its land-use permit application doesn’t require environmental review even though it’s technically in an “Environmentally Critical Area” because of the steep slope. Its construction and demolition permits are still pending. Nothing unusual given that it’s in the densifying area around The Junction, but it comes at a time when the city is about to start reviewing “multifamily zoning” (as reported here). Related to that issue, a West Seattle resident just cc’d us on her letter to a councilmember expressing opposition to the changes – we’ve had some glowing reviews of them already, so we’re sharing this counterpoint – read on:

The new townhouse regulations proposal is an outrage!
( These new regulations do not ensure that multifamily houses are attractive, or sensible, or fit in the neighborhoods. Instead it allows for larger, in essence “more,” townhouses and less parking guised by a very sheer veil of “green” building policies.

One way townhouses impact our neighborhoods is through quadrupling (or more) the number of vehicles associated with a typical single family lot. Reducing the required parking does not inspire townhouses owners to use public transportation; rather it just means they crowd already crowded residential streets with more vehicles. In turn, this impacts the neighborhood in a negative way. So by reducing the required number of parking spaces, your proposal perpetuates and amplifies this negative impact.

Another, extremely significant way townhouses impact our neighborhoods is by increasing the amount of use and demand on our sewer and storm-water infrastructure. In neighborhoods where there are drainage issues and flooding in heavy rains, the increased sewage use means there is even less storm-water drainage. Higher rooflines and additional square footage create the potential for even more demand on infrastructure than what is presently allowed. It is a ridiculous situation where the city has allowed for increased density without ensuring that, or making improvements to, the sewage and storm-water drainage infrastructures are sufficient to handle the combined increased density and rainstorms.

Also, because in many cases the infrastructure would have to be improved, it makes it cost prohibitive for developers to add basic amenities like sidewalks, curbs, gutters, paved alleys, etc. If it weren’t necessary to improve our sewer and storm-water drainage, the cost for simple improvements like these could easily be outweighed by the increased marketability of the townhouses. Instead the impact is more particulate air pollution from unpaved alleys, more wear and tear on our roads, more traffic, and less walk-able communities for increased populations. And the city’s current and proposed policies do absolutely nothing to address this negative impact.

Further, speaking of quadrupling (or more), the tax base for the properties that convert from a single family house to multiple townhouses, also dramatically increases. So, while communities are paying significantly more taxes, the city services provided to these communities are not increasing. Rather they keep being cut. Sewer and storm-water systems are not being improved. Utilities are not being put underground. Streets and sidewalks are not being improved or even adequately maintained. Streets are literally crumbling apart. Staircases are overgrown. Parking strips that are not adjacent to privately owned properties are overgrown. And, in the ten years that I have owned my current property, I can’t remember ever seeing, on the street adjacent to my property, road maintenance such as sealcoats and overlays , or even a street sweeper! Compared to some cities that get their streets swept on a bi-weekly basis, this is appalling.

Perhaps instead of spending your time, and our tax dollars thinking up bogus regulations for townhouses, you could channel it into providing basic services and making improvements to our communities.

Michal McElhany

A stack of info on the new zoning proposals is available from links at the right side of this city page. So far as we can find out, no hearings are scheduled yet, but we will keep you updated throughout the process.

16 Replies to "Townhouses, again: An approval, and a viewpoint"

  • wsblover July 17, 2008 (2:00 pm)

    Totally agree Michal and I could list more development cons. I’ve given up. Doesn’t seem to matter who complains or how many complain. The city has it’s mind made up. I, like many probably, will stick around until I stand it anymore. Maybe I will make money on my house. Maybe. But I don’t really care. WS – I don’t like what you have become and where you are going (Belltown West/Ballard South). I saw a sticker on Queen Anne one day that said, “Mixed use sucks! I want my city back!”

  • Michal McElhany July 17, 2008 (2:25 pm)

    Please note, I am not opposed to townhouse development in general, but am dismayed at the proposed new regulations by the city.

    Regarding 4301 SW Edmunds: If it’s a Knoll Development project, it will be a refreshing alternative to the cheap, ugly, not-even-close-to-craftsman style townhomes. (I used to live in a historic though transitional district of Pasadena, the birthplace of craftsman homes, so I am very biased here.) Anyway, Knoll Development has have a new project underway at the Alaska Junction, but I’m not sure of the address.

    They are doing really great projects combining live-work units.

  • WSB July 17, 2008 (2:27 pm)

    The Knoll project is on the north end of The Junction – shortly after construction first started on one of the buildings last summer, an as-yet-unsolved arson destroyed it – they started over and the buildings there are almost done. East side of California, near Dakota.

  • Michal McElhany July 17, 2008 (2:49 pm)

    They have two projects near the Alaska Junction and one near the Morgan Junction. The one on California, which burned, I believe is this one.

  • Michael July 17, 2008 (2:56 pm)

    Not really a “counterpoint” against townhouses – it’s really a “counterpoint” against more people. In a city.
    Michal, there used to be this guy named Emmett Watson…

  • Michal McElhany July 17, 2008 (3:39 pm)

    Regarding the ECA zoning, if it is an artificially created steep slope, I don’t think it is subject to the same regulations as a naturally steep slope. For example, many residential lots have 40% or greater slope because the land was cut into to create streets. Prior to those kinds of streets being built, there wasn’t a critically steep slope there. So those kinds of steep slopes are artificially created. Although I don’t know the specifics of this lot, given its location it appears to me that the natural geographical contours have been altered by street grading.

    Regardless, I am in favor of preserving our undeveloped ridges and green spaces.

  • mellaw6565 July 17, 2008 (3:40 pm)

    Look at the picture – right in the middle of SF homes. How sad!

    I appreciate your letter, Michal. I have sent letters as well. The development being allowed right now by the City has no rhyme or reason – just greed for more taxes and bigger campaign contributions from developers.

    Where is our leadership?

  • CandrewB July 17, 2008 (6:34 pm)

    Not really right in the middle of single family homes. That block has a mix of SFH’s and duplex/apartments. This is across the street from the back end of the Safeway. From Knoll’s website, I would say their designs are head and shoulders above Cobb’s. They are also better than what it is replacing. I cannot say the same about Cobb’s masterpieces.

  • Ron July 17, 2008 (10:30 pm)

    Try to imagine how some of us old people feel about Seattle/West Seattle. I have lived here 67 years, attended the old Lafayette that the 49 Earthquake destroyed, James Madison and West Seattle High. It was definitely a kinder gentler place. No one expects things to remain the same, but you do expect some improvement. Since the early 70’s this City has progressively gotten worse. They used to have a low tax rate, yet they kept up the the infra structure, maybe they could do it because they weren’t wasting money on silly unnecessary things, like “sharrows” and they had business people for Mayor and Council positions instead of ignorant politicians who don’t have a clue about what’s really important. Keep hammering them, but don’t be surprised if they aren’t listening. If you want their attention, tell them your name is Paul Allen. The only thing these people fear is being voted out of office.

  • CandrewB July 18, 2008 (6:05 am)

    Just for some perspective, the tax rate here is high compared to Boise, Helena, etc… Compared to Chicago, NY, SF, we have it made.

  • Charles July 18, 2008 (2:13 pm)

    I’m tired of the townhouse thing. And I’m afraid they’ll tear down the abandoned house behind mine (admittedly and eyesore) to put up three-storey monstrosities (a worse eyesore than a SF dwelling, abandoned or not) that will look right down into my back yard. Our city government needs to do more to disallow disproportionate development.

  • Neighbor July 18, 2008 (6:16 pm)

    As a townhouse dweller, I’m sorry to hear people say they are “tired of the townhouse thing” and also pro open spaces. I want open space, too, which is one reason why I support density.

    I traded my fabulous little old 1914 Craftsman bungalow with a big yard (sigh) for what feels to me a far more responsible choice. I now live closely with several other families who made choices similar to mine. We live on a main traffic corridor, which is precisely where I thnk dense development belongs. We ride the bus together to work. We run into each other at the co-op and on neighborhood walks.

    I haven’t entirely given up my car yet… (once there are fewer SUVs and minivans on the road, I just might feel safe enough to bike more).

    Instead of a great big garden, I grow vegetables in containers in my little yard. They taste just as good and require a less water. My townhouse is incredibly energy efficient. I know where the materials came from to build it, and I feel pretty good about most of them.

    Change is hard for any person and any community. I get that. But there are 6.5 billion of us at last count, and I don’t exacctly see my West Seattle neighbors slowing down or reversing that population trend… It’s odd to me we think we can add more people to the landscape, and expect some other community to absorb the impact while we remain in an idyllic little bubble. That kind of conservatism smacks of elitism to me.

    I hope we continue to have constructive dialogue and argue for progressive development policies while toning down NIMBY-type complaining that serves no constructive purpose.

  • Ron July 18, 2008 (8:36 pm)

    Howdy Neighbor. So people who chose a single family area to live in 73 years ago and would like to keep the zoning we had then are elitists? One of the reasons West Seattle is being assaulted by higher density is because of elitists politicians who decided without a vote from the people to invoke the Growth Management Act on us which has reduced the amount of available land for housing. You can debate the merits or the drawbacks to this plan all you want, but us old geezers can’t even come close to being the elitist the “Social Reformers” are with their infinite knowledge that doesn’t require them to consult with us “inferior” taxpayers who pay their salaries.

    Enjoy your townhouse if that’s what you like. I’ll fight like heck if they ever try to build them in our SF neighborhood. By the way, do you know anybody than can get an average size car in those dinky garages or even manuever through the narrow driveway. I can see why you are thinking of getting a bike, because that or a motorcycle are about all the room most of these units provide.

  • CandrewB July 19, 2008 (8:50 am)

    You’re angry that the neighborhood is not like it was when you lived here 73 years ago?

  • Michal McElhany July 19, 2008 (9:52 am)

    The time to fight zoning changes is before they happen. It’s futile argue over a townhouse that’s being built on a lot that is currently zoned for it. One way to stay informed about the zoning is to use one of our city’s great online resources- the Department of Planning and Developments GIS maps.
    It’s also important to fight idiotic proposed townhouse regulations before they get approved. That’s why I’m making such a big stink. Because another thing the proposed townhouse regulations do, by reducing the required number of parking spaces, is they hinder local businesses.
    My community is presently trying to foster business development. By having local businesses, it gives community residents a place to work, without driving. However, because there are less the 3,500 people in this neighborhood, these businesses also rely on people coming in from other neighborhoods.
    Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of place for them to park. By reducing the number of required parking spaces for townhouses, it means there will be even less parking for the local businesses. So the proposed new regulations also hurt local businesses and economy.

    The proposed new regulations are supposed to go to council later this summer 2008 to be implemented early 2009. Please, write letters to City Council person Sally Clark and Mayor Greg Nickels objecting these proposals and attend the council meeting this summer.

  • Ron July 20, 2008 (10:05 pm)

    To CandrewB;
    You must have read my comments awful fast. I’m not “angry” about townhouses while I do think the people building them should put some style into them, most of them are ugly. The thing that irritates me is politicians that think they know more than the people that support them and ram a bunch of garbage down our throats. They are just plain arrogant, but you are going to have to put up with them more years than I, so good luck. Someone has said, “you deserve the kind of government you put up with.” I just hope Seattle voters wise up soon.

Sorry, comment time is over.