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By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
There is seldom solace to be found in “I told you so.”
That admonition could be ascribed to some of the longtime residents behind 3210 California SW, the site proposed for a block-long, five-story mixed-use project that they say is exactly what they feared might happen because of the upzoning they fought six years ago.
This Thursday (February 6th), the proposal goes back to Design Review, for its second major meeting in eight days. The first was this past Wednesday, a neighbor-requested meeting that included moments reminiscent of a neighbor-requested meeting six years earlier about the upzoning proposal.
As quoted in our coverage of the 2007 meeting, one of the then-property owners asked opponents, “Is 10 feet really that big a deal? With 30 feet (of zoned-at-the-time height), you’re talking three stories. With 40, this would be four stories.”
In response to that, skepticism remained. There was a suggestion of waiting until there was an actual proposal for the site, and pursuing a contract rezone instead that would be tied to the specific project. But the general upzoning moved forward, with a few years dormancy, without a specific project, and was finalized in 2010; then, exactly one year ago, a five-story development proposal appeared.
“At the time [in 2007], we weren’t thinking it would be five stories,” acknowledged Jerry Suder, a supervisor in the city Department of Planning and Development, at last Wednesday’s meeting, over which he presided along with Michael Dorcy, senior planner who has worked on 3210 California for years, including the end of the upzoning process. Suder said a few changes in city rules in the past few years opened the door for that extra story – particularly this one in 2012.
Before the city reps got into the “how did we get here?”, Dorcy described the project as at “midstream.” It goes back to the Southwest Design Review Board this Thursday, and that’s where the developer will describe “the moves made most recently in response to the board’s guidance,” as Dorcy put it. (See the design packet prepared for the upcoming meeting here.) “Their job is to look at the project and say, ‘does it really meet the guidance and guidelines as stated?’.”
He also described the project as being under State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review and showed a stack of documents including public comments related to that. Despite the official deadline for comments being past, “we’re open to comments related to environmental impacts until the decision is published.” In other words, Dorcy said, “This project isn’t a done deal yet.”
Suder took the microphone back and explained the site zoning had changed height over the years –
1923 – 40 feet
1957 – 35 feet
1986 – 40 feet
1991 – 30 feet
2010 – 40 feet
Neighbors’ concerns, he acknowledged, involve “exceptions that get extra height” and “height measurement techniques” that have led to a 5-story building being proposed for a 40-foot-zoned site. He also explained how zoning does address conditions in an “edge” area like this – while “neighborhood commercial” zoning usually requires no rear setback, if there’s a single-family zone behind as there is now, it does have a provision for that.
“For the SEPA impact of height, bulk, and scale,” he said, the Design Review process is supposed to deal with that, so the SEPA process is supposed to cleave to the DR process on that.
Next, Geoffrey Wendlandt, also from DPD, explained the city Comprehensive Plan’s role. “We’re hearing a lot from folks that growth is very explosive right now … but the growth we’re seeing in Seattle right now is on par with what the Comprehensive Plan anticipated.”
According to Wendlandt, the city’s Comprehensive Plan called for 47,000 new households in 20 years, “and we added 47,800 new households,” though job growth lagged. He mentioned that the site is in the Admiral Urban Village, which he said was running behind its expected growth amount before this, he said, about 58 percent, though this project will then have it “exceeding the amount of growth anticipated for Admiral.”
Currently, the vision for the next 20 years – Seattle 2035 – is in the works, he said, so “if you want to be part of that effort, and how the urban village strategy is working or not working, I urge you to get involved.” He mentioned upcoming discussions downtown.
Suder then explained the rezone that was finalized in 2010. He said “at the time we weren’t thinking it would be five stories.” But, he said, stories don’t directly relate to the height of the building – “we’ve had projects where they added or dropped a story and the building envelope (height) didn’t change. … Don’t equate stories with absolute height.” However, he said, the “height measurement technique” was changed a few years ago “and that seems to affect this site in a notable way.”
He handed the mike to Lucas Deherrera, who does zoning review on mixed-use projects. 2012 was when things changed. “The rezone before this didn’t contemplate this would take place,” referring to Director’s Rule 4-2012. “What you start with is, you draw a box around the entire structure – all exterior walls, the street” and “they use an option to the rule that allows them to section the building off” – in this case the box is drawn around two places – “take the midpoints of these sections and that dictates the height of the building, your allowable height limit, if you will.” The average grade is somewhere in the 1st floor on California. “There’s really not a lot of interpretation, but the versions I’ve seen… are consistent with the Director’s Rule. That being said, nothing’s been approved with zoning.” He went on to explain the 13-foot first floor and an additional 4 feet given to the building – and his job is to say that won’t be permitted IF it’s going to block views worse than a 40-foot building would. He tried to explain it and “there is a correction out right now – DPD is still looking…. BUt the director’s rule, go read it.”
Suder took back the mike and said a departure from the 13-foot height can be granted if it better meets the neighborhood guidelines. In response to a question, he said he felt the height/bulk/scale could be discussed at Design Review – though we’ve heard the board say they can’t do much about height.
So, one resident asked, how can I prove that my view would be blocked more than by a 40-foot building?
The process we have to use says it wouldn’t be, said Suder.
Sounds like the developer can make a point but we can’t, said someone else. “They have the playbook and we’re on the sidelines watching.”
Residents say this is going to affect 40 homes.
“Nothing is final,” the DPD contingent repeated.
“A group of us fought the rezone, contending how the view would be affected in a great way,” said one man, wondering if those documents still exist. “That documentation may be here tonight,” said Suder.
One man said “is it possible at the time of the upzoning there was a misunderstanding about how big this building would turn out to be? .. would not realize how flipping enormous this building would turn out to be? I think we’re missing some of the common sense about how this unfolded and how not everybody knew what was happening?” He said he knew he would lose some of his mountain view, “but I didn’t know I would be in the dark all the damn day.”
The review, said Deherrera, is “not a ‘2 plus 2 equals 4’ scenario .. SEPA is not a math equation, and is a tool to be used.”
Another man asked, could they have a 10-story building if it was a 50-foot grade? Herrera said he didn’t want to “get into hypotheticals.”
“‘Is this thing too big for the neighborhood and how should it change to fit the neighborhood?’ is a good topic for Design Review,” said Suder – and then Dorcy said “that issue has been addressed … we don’t want to hold out false hopes … Private views are not protected. Only public views are protected. So the board has expressed explicitly its reluctance to tell the developer to lop a floor off this building. … I don’t want (people) to think this is all wide open again.”
“Don’t you guys see how horribly out of scale this is for the neighborhood?” asked one man.
Another: “The building is going a story taller than it’s supposed to be.”
Dorcy stepped in. “The rezone has been done. It’s a done deal.”
“But they didn’t realize how tall it was going to turn out to be.”
“Who didn’t realize?” Dorcy asked.
“The City Council.”
A woman: “Who’s our advocate? Who’s the person who’s looking out for us? … This is like a John Grisham novel, all we can do is show up for these meetings, I spend more time at the Senior Center than many seniors do.”
Suder said, “I think we hope we put rules in place with protections, but … that’s rarely something we can do with a project that’s in front of us. We normally don’t have the ability to change the underlying rules.” He then goes on to explain that a decision can be challenged before the Hearing Examiner. “I think one key thing I just heard, 40 feet is in the zone, can that relate to something people can think of, not … 40 means a bunch of other things … that’s a key issue I will ask Geoff (Wendlandt) to carry back with him as we work for more things to the future.”
Finally at 7:23 pm, contextual discussion ended and comments on the project began. Paul said that “an extra four feet does affect my view … As many people have mentioned, this doesn’t fit the neighborhood. I’ve read the Admiral guidelines, the master plan. 200 units are supposed to be added to Admiral Urban Village by 2024. This would be 75 percent of them. We are also the third smallest urban village in Seattle …” He read from the guidelines regarding the Admiral Urban Village. He also quoted the property owners (previous) who sought the rezone saying they just wanted to build a four-story building. He went on to say he doesn’t understand how the entire first floor can not be counted. “They’re asking for four extra feet so they can have higher ceilings, and then they are asking for lower ceilings (on one side of the building).” He also expressed pedestrian-safety concerns, especially considering the “thousands of students walking by each day” with four schools nearby (West Seattle HS, Madison, Lafayette Elementary among them).
The second person to speak said he has been in the public-comment business for 15 years and used to be on the other side of the microphone. He urged everyone to write down their comments. He noted that projects get checked off as “no significant impact” and forwarded along. He said the project should get to the EIS (environmental impact statement) stage because “private views WILL be looked at.” He said he lives a mile away but this upsets him – “it could happen to anybody anywhere in the city … so I’m here to express concerns that the homeowners on 42nd will be affected by the loss of light, change in air circulation…loss of view, additional loss of privacy.” He said the zoning should protect homeowners on 42nd, instead of letting them be impacted. Attendees applauded. “The number of responses should have let the city know there are obvious impacts from this project, and it should not proceed as planned.”
The next person to speak said “The most critical issue is that the developent is totally out of character with the neighborhood,”and pointed out the fact there’s no alley. She reiterated an earlier commenter’s declaration that this would be the biggest building in the area and would “stick out,” visible for a distance all around. She also reiterated that the Design Review Board had said at a previous review that they couldn’t do anything much about the height “because it was too big of a deal.” (Here’s our coverage of that November review, during which a board member said, “It’s an extreme case in which we ask a developer not to build a story or two.”) She suggested future code might look at a building’s length as well as height.
At that point Suder apologized for not acknowledging the petition that led to this meeting. The neighbors brought up the fact they didn’t even get official word of the meeting (as noted in this WSB story) until they asked about it.
The next man to speak referred again to the rezoning, saying it wasn’t clear enough at the time what was being proposed and potentially allowed.
Another resident wanted to talk about traffic effects. “To be a residential urban village, you’re supposed to be served by a transit route (with peak 15-minutes, off-peak 30 minutes service) … The Admiral neighborhood has been losing a lot of Metro service, with routes being eliminated and reduced … Right now as it stands, the neighborhood doesn’t actually meet that transit criteria, but development is .. adding more density that was projected,” and could adversely affect traffic
Suder said he doubted there would be a “level of service problem” with this project regarding nearby intersections and that planners monitor that “so long as the intersection doesn’t work any more.”
The resident continued, it’s the combination of all these (separate, self-contained) reviews that has created the possibility for a five-story building that is 450 feet long, “anyone in the neighborhood will look at that result and their reaction is ‘it’s out of scale’ – I’m hoping that at some point someone has the power to continue ALL those factors together, the combination of the zoning standards, the departure requests …the comprehensive plan … all those things put together.”
Deb Barker, a former SWDRB member, stood up and first asked about the building on the corner just north of the project – it’s 40 feet high, she was told. She also asked about whether the DRB had the authority to order this project to be a floor smaller, citing mixed signals about whether they have that authority. She said the news of this taking much of Admiral’s housing capacity “blew (her) away” and wondered if anybody ever pointed that out.
“The growth estimates are estimates, not limits …” said Wentlandt. “That’s the type of thing we’d take into consideration uduring the next round of planning.” Barker also called for more shadow studies, and she wondered if the Design Review Board would receive notes from this meeting, since it historically has not received copies of notes from other bodies’ meetings on the same projects. She urged Suder and maybe even (DPD director) Diane (Sugimura) to be at next Thursday’s board meeting: “I’ve seen very few projects go to five meetings, but this could be one of them.” She also urged neighbors to get out their cameras and “show the city what you see … if you haven’t shown them,tey can’t know about it.”
A man then spoke just before 8 pm. It feels as if they can participate – but are they being heard? “It feels empty,” he said. “I get that rules are there … but let’s aspire to make great decisions. Policies are great but they are not the reasons we all make decisions every day. … I want this to be a chance for all of us to win right now, and it feels like (with) that fifth floor, they are going to make a lot of money on that and we are going to lose.”
A man who said he bought his house after the upzone: “I don’t think people understood the slope of the property and what the builder was going to manage to squeeze in there …there was never really a process … We are going from a big old building behind us to an ENORMOUS building, it’s a length, it’s a steepness, and the developers are off and running … I’m an urban dude and I want businesses and I want there to be density … Our neighborhood plan was for a sensitive transition, this is not at all sensitive .. I don’t know how much power the neighborhood plan has but there’s no way anyone can call this a sensitive transition.”
Suder again acknowledged the rule change had a major effect, even though rule changes are “very small process(es) … a little bit of outreach” … so he said he’ll be bringing back to management, “Here’s what happened to this site, is this what we wanted?”
He also said he planned to brief DPD management “and they’re going to hear about some of the key issues here.”
WHAT’S NEXT AND HOW TO COMMENT: Comments are still being accepted by DPD – e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org – and if you have something to say about the newest proposed design, come to the SW Design Review Board meeting this Thursday night (February 6th), 8 pm (second of two sessions for the SWDRB that night), upstairs at the Senior Center of West Seattle; enter on the south side of SW Oregon, just east of California SW.