By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
As a member of the citywide Neighborhood Plan Advisory Council, Sharonn Meeks facilitated several groups during the series of plan-status meetings that ended in Delridge last night.
The turnout along the way had been spotty. For First Hill’s discussion, for example, Meeks says she facilitated a table of one.
Last night, however, a different story. By the time late arrivals had found their seats in the air-conditioned Youngstown Arts Center auditorium — a last-minute substitution for the non-air-conditioned Delridge Community Center across the street — more than 100 people had arrived. Asked after the event how that compared to the others she’d facilitated, Meeks enthused, “This is huge!”
Meeks, president of the Fairmount Community Association – representing the area south of The Triangle – led the biggest table of all (actually four put together on the stage), focusing on The Junction, which also was supervised by Kay Knapton from the Seattle Planning Commission, co-sponsor of the Neighborhood Plan Status Check series. Knapton was no out-of-neighborhood visitor; when the plans were developed a decade ago, she was executive director of the West Seattle Junction Association.
Participants at The Junction’s tables included not only others who had participated in the process 10 years ago, but new leaders in area advocacy, including the Junction Association’s current executive director, Susan Melrose, and Erica Karlovits, president of the Junction Neighborhood Organization, which represents area residents, as did other organizations (such as Friends of The Junction) before it.
I sat with The Junction’s group to cover its entire conversation, while WSB co-publisher Patrick Sand roved the other West Seattle groups to get a few toplines from their talks. But before the group breakouts, there was an orientation of sorts – including a Power Point with prerecorded narrative – same one you will see when you take the online survey, which Irene Wall from NPAC told the group is available for anyone to take, whether they did or did not attend last night’s meeting – she noted Ballard had turned in the most so far, about 150; find the survey here. Wall also echoed Meeks’ assessment of the turnout: “Great crowd,” while noting it had other citywide observers, including Parks Superintendent Tim Gallagher.
The orientation presentation noted the Neighborhood Plans, developed in the late ’90s (find them all on the right sidebar of this page), had proposed more than 2,300 projects, 87 percent of which are “done or under way.” Then it laid out the four questions each group was asked to address, starting with how the neighborhood had changed in the past decade.
As the Junction group began, key points of the Neighborhood Plan vision and goals were summarized – that The Junction would be a “safe and desirable neighborhood … vibrant center of shopping, dining, cultural opportunities,” with “bicycle-friendly streets” and a “transit center.” Strategies outlined to achieve that called for strengthening its “mixed-use commercial core,” improving traffic flow, maintaining “architectural character,” retaining and recruiting businesses, improving the Fauntleroy Way gateway to The Junction to present a “positive image.” (It also was noted that the map of the area covered by the plan stretched across The Triangle eastward to Avalon Way.)
Taking the baton from Knapton, who proceeded to take notes and monitor the conversations so that she would be able to write and present a report to the Planning Commission (as would each group’s rep from the commission), Meeks led the group through the four questions.
QUESTION ONE: Most of the neighborhood plans were adopted about 10 years ago and are in their mid-life. How has your neighborhood changed in the last decade since the plan was adopted, (or since you’ve been there)?
“One of the biggest changes I’ve seen,” began Joan Jeffery, “is the introduction of high-rise multi-family denser communities in the West Seattle Junction area.”
“We forget that at the time (of the original plans), The Junction was a sad-looking place, with vacant stores, in need of sprucing up,” recalled Vivian Williams, who said she had been involved with the original planning process. And as the result of work done then, “stores started leasing up and there was a lot more multi-family development, which actually helped spur some of the growth we’ve had in retail … (and) made it a very desirable place to be.”
The term “desirable” was echoed by others. Businesses and housing didn’t represent all the development — parks have accompanied the growth, added Karlovits, from Ercolini Park – completed last year – to Dakota Place Park, just finished, to Junction Plaza Park, for which she’s involved in construction fundraising that’s almost met its goal.
Different types of vacancies are notable now, observed Dave Montoure, who runs West 5 and is on the boards of the Junction Association and the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce: “The vacancy of large retail spots on Fauntleroy – the Huling Brothers lots.”
“Large” is a troubling concept for some. Rene Commons, who has outlined architectural concerns at recent Southwest Design Review Board meetings as well as in other forums, bemoaned “undesirable big-box architecture in our neighborhood … I love our business core, its character, the independent retailers.”
“It’s become more desirable, but more expensive,” added Sue Scharff. “Prices have gone up – and so have rents.”
Melrose (of the Junction Association) recalled moving to the area a dozen years ago and feeling as if she had to go to other parts of the city “to find things to do” – but not now, “West Seattle has a great mix, so we can stay here.”
Businesses’ efforts in improving the area were lauded by many who had been here since before the Neighborhood Plan’s development. And then there was the voice of a woman identifying herself as a new resident who said she “chose West Seattle” after experiencing the area while housesitting for friends. “I have some concerns about the new construction going on, I’ve been to some of the Design Review meetings, I’m a little concerned about what’s coming … (But) I think we have a responsibility to diversify businesses and services, can’t get too tied into where we are at now and where we were. Progress needs to be made … yet we need to have a little sensitivity, given the people who moved here for diversity and community, to keep that feeling. It’s a balancing act.”
QUESTION TWO: What changes or aspects of your neighborhood are you most pleased about? Most dissatisfied about?
“One of the things I really like,” said Terry Williams, “is that the area is growing, developing, and people are involved .. with the design, and how it’s going to look. … What I don’t like: The transportation situation. There’s a lot of infrastructure the city hasn’t kept up with (in order to support a) vibrant, growing business district.”
Midge Batt, involved with the process a decade ago as well, expressed displeasure with the concept that the city sees West Seattle as a group of neighborhoods. “When someone asks me where I’m from, I say West Seattle. The city from the start has tried to pigeonhole us – you’re from Morgan, or Westwood, whatever – I have always refused to be part of that. … Every time the city tries to break us into neighborhoods, I know something bad is going on.”
Segregated neighborhood plans aren’t desirable either, agreed Rene Commons: “We need a unified vision plan … something tied together … a cohesive plan, or a way to perpetuate long-term vision.”
Karlovits, of the Junction Neighborhood Organization, expressed concern about the buffer zones between new development and existing neighborhoods, and concern that the Junction design guidelines developed in the earlier process “have no teeth any more.” Parking also worries her, specifically a perception that “the policies (of) SDOT are not necessarily meeting the need of the neighborhoods … We need open communication about what’s needed.”
Others echoed the parking concerns, making it clear that while the city has announced it won’t bring paid street parking into The Junction, its continuing parking study still has other issues to address.
The Fauntleroy Way “gateway” area topped the list of concerns for Jeffery: “The initial impression coming into West Seattle for a first-timer is quite negative,” particularly because of the factor Montoure had mentioned earlier – the vacant ex-Huling lots.
A positive observation next, from Emi Baldowin, who lives in West Seattle and works for Harbor Properties, developer of the Junction’s newest mixed-use building, Mural Apartments (WSB sponsor): “… The neighbors here care a lot more than some of the neighborhoods. People are willing to do ore and speak up more. (That helped) our project … to integrate. We’re pleased to have a dialogue with a community feeling open enough to call.” Her top concerns: Crime, safety, transportation.
The integration of Baldowin’s project was lauded by Nancy Driver from the Fairmount Community Association, particularly the fact its ground-floor businesses are relatively small and local (Fresh Bistro restaurant run by a team from West Seattle-based Herban Feast, Wallflower Custom Framing [WSB sponsor] run by a local entrepreneur, Season’s Salon – which moved from a business up the street).
Driver said she’s “really happy” with many of the other individual businesses in The Junction, and “glad we’re getting some more green spaces, hoping at some point we will get one down in the gateway area.” Her top point of dissatisfaction: Development plans in the heart of The Junction, particularly the Conner Homes project that she worries will be a “behemoth” bound to “overwhelm” the area: “I’ve gone to many Design Review meetings concerning (that development) and I haven’t felt like there’s been much responsiveness to what the community is asking. … I moved here because of the small-town feel, and I don’t want to see West Seattle turn into another boilerplate community.”
Perhaps a master plan could keep that from happening? The lack of such a plan was a concern listed by Terry Williams, looking back to the Neighborhood Plan process a decade earlier. “I thought maybe a partnership between the city and property owners and residents and groups (would emerge) … I was hoping we would come up with a master plan for the business district, how do you get from Jefferson Square to the west side of Calfornia, those types of things. .. I would like to see an overall master plan for The Junction … that’s a guide to future development.”
Harkening back again to the development of the original plan, Midge Batt said it was intended to the binding, but seemed now to be something more of a shelf ornament, alleging “the city never intended to adopt anything that it didn’t like … what it wanted was density.” She carried that concern into the start of the next discussion question: “When it comes to housing, the city is still working to get what it wants.”
QUESTION THREE: How well are your Neighborhood Plan vision and key strategies being achieved? Are they still the priority?
Not well, according to Karlovits, who reiterated concerns about infrastructure not supporting “what’s coming into The Junction,” and suggesting that disproportionate pressure has resulted on, for example, the Design Review Board, to try to enforce what’s not being enforced elsewhere. She mentioned the need for city support for community proposals such as the “view corridor” plan that’s been making the rounds, and the need for more transportation facilities, while questioning whether Metro’s RapidRide plan will really do much to improve the area’s transportation picture.
Immediately after that, RR “makes no sense for West Seattle,” said Nancy Driver. “Once you hit the bridge bottleneck, you’re not going to get downtown any quicker.” Simply adding more buses would do more to help, she suggested. Not everyone agreed – “I don’t think buses work for West Seattle,” Terry Williams declared, elaborating that not only are they “in the way” of some Junction businesses, but also that the city has not “done anything to help us get to the bus.”
Karlovits noted that the now-dead Seattle Monorail idea was still in the cards when the Neighborhood Plans were developed.
More than one participant suggested a Park-and-Ride structure would make sense in The Junction. Batt said that idea had come up before but had been opposed by city leaders. “We need employee parking, too,” Karlovits said, while suggesting there’s still room to maximize existing parking — “Safeway still has a lot that sits empty most of the time.”
The discussion veered into a discussion of housing, existing and future, including some concern about the city’s new proposal to allow “backyard cottages” in more areas and an observation that the “cottages” are as large as many of the common “war box” small homes that have lined West Seattle streets for more than half a century.
Lining California SW with buildings like those that have risen just south of The Junction isn’t the solution either, one attendee insisted, given that the style of development can turn the street into “a continuous dark alley … I love Bellevue, but I don’t want West Seattle to turn into Bellevue.”
Wider sidewalks would help tremendously, observed Terry Williams.
Emi Baldowin, meanwhile, observed another change in the past 10 years affecting the question of whether the plan is still functional: “Ten years ago we weren’t focused on green, sustainable development. Sustainability has come a long way. What is West Seattle doing to address that – are we a green community, what else can we do?”
QUESTION FOUR: The city is completing neighborhood plan status reports focusing on demographics, development patterns, housing affordability, public amenities and transportation networks. What should there be more focus on (or less focus on) as the neighborhood status reports are completed in the coming months? Are there any important gaps in the draft status report?
Though the question was long, some answers were short, like the one Sue Scharff offered: “Affordable housing.” (Midge Batt agreed.)
The city shouldn’t be using 2000 census data for these updates, given that new information will be out in a few years, Karlovits said, adding that she isn’t comfortable with the concept that the city will be writing the report on the plan update and “showing it to us.”
The city should deal with business groups like the West Seattle Chamber and the Junction Association, offered Terry Williams. He also wants to see utility improvements as well as transportation upgrades.
Commons brought back the Park and Ride suggestion, saying “The city needs to buy some Huling land, make it a really cool Park and Ride with Starbucks or something, give people who are coming from all over the peninsula a place to park their cars …” not just while they’re at work, but also so they could dine and shop in The Junction when they come back.
Parking was addressed in the original plan, said Batt, again pointing back to the years she and others spent developing it, but “since then, the city has significantly reduced parking recommendations (for development) … there were supposed to be more teeth (in the plan).”
Susan Melrose of the Junction Association brought back concerns about the “gateway” area: “I think the entrance needs so much help … A year and a half or so ago, the city, community, developers got together and talked about it … there was so much energy and momentum, talk about a boulevard with trees, had a great plan … We needed the city to carry the ball and help us move that forward, and it just went nowhere. What a missed opportunity.” (The rendering above is from our coverage of a September 2008 presentation made to the City Council about the proposal.)
The Junction also needs its own community center, said Joan Jeffery, pointing out that most other areas of West Seattle have one of their own: “All that vacant land in the Gateway area is the perfect spot to do that. … It makes it harder for us to get together.” She also emphasized that the focus for the future should be on “realism … not cookie-cutter (ideas) from other neighborhoods. Look at the demographics and make the plans fit how we live, and the place where we live” – including taking into account West Seattle’s distinct topography.
The original plan, retorted Batt, “couldn’t get any more real,” with countless days and nights of work, including professional assistance.
Again from Karlovits, a hope that the city will be a partner going forward: “I want an outline of what happens next. This is like the 20th meeting in five years. But what is the next step going to be? I want to know where the resources are allocated, what will the mayor and council allocate? I feel like we start over from scratch every six months.”
Longtime Junction entrepreneur Leon Capelouto, whose Capco Plaza/Altamira Apartments development will open soon, spoke for the first time: “What we are missing is a comprehensive plan, starting with where Alaska Street comes in through West Seattle, dealing with beautification, pedestrians … To do that, we need to get knowledgeable people, architects and engineers, involved, with matching funds, raising money … We need a comprehensive design to promote all these good ideas. It’s not going to happen just because we put it on paper … it takes money.”
“Abandoned houses on the periphery of our neighborhood” must be addressed, Melrose said. “We’ve had more crime, shady activity, around The Junction in the past year or so.”
Another participant offered concerns about business vacancies too, after several years of building more space, but also opined that the vacancies will offer some “great opportunities … You need to say, though, what are the businesses you want to see?”
Terry Williams recalled a discussion like that happening in the past, and the finding that “West Seattle wanted not only the mom-and-pop stores and little boutiques, but they also wanted Williams and Sonoma.”
SNAPSHOTS FROM THE OTHER WEST SEATTLE GROUPS
Again, these are NOT all-inclusive lists – just what was being discussed when we dropped in on the respective tables:
*Is it losing diversity, with continued development?
*Needs a grocery store
*What happens if White Center is annexed?
*Concern about the loss of Cooper Elementary
*Lack of consistency in the old plan
*Multifamily development springing up where single-family homes stood
*Not as “child-free” a neighborhood as the city’s figures suggest
*Feeling it’s next in line for major development once The Junction is built out
*Westwood Village may be the economic center, but other pockets of commerce are important too
*Grocery store needed for areas beyond Westwood
*Access to Westwood Village through the school district property at Southwest Athletic Complex remains difficult
*Concerns about historic resources, traffic and crime – as you can see on the easel in our photo:
Each and every table had an energetic group of participants, and that was one thing we heard over and over – delight that so many people from all over West Seattle (including, as we saw at The Junction’s table, some who came just to listen and observe) showed up to show concern about the future.
WHAT’S NEXT: Two weeks to fill out the online survey – even if you attended last night – start here; August 11th is the deadline. Kay Knapton urged people to ask their friends and neighbors to take the survey too. The feedback will be used for what will eventually be unveiled as “State of the Neighborhood” reports, with drafts available before meetings in October to take comments and more information regarding “neighborhoods’ status.” Those reports could lead to decisionmaking by the mayor and city councilmembers, regarding whether more work is needed on neighborhood plans, and whether “important initiatives” should be launched based on the need shown in the plans and updates. Find out more about the process here.