(From site plan filed with the city)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
A year and a half ago, two 4-unit townhouse buildings were on the drawing board for 4439 41st SW in The Junction, an 8,600-square-foot lot that currently holds one century-old house.
Four 6-year-old townhouses are to the north; a single-family house to the south; Hope Lutheran Church and School across the alley, to the west:
(Parcel-layout map, from city notice)
We first reported here in early March that the number of housing units proposed for the site had quintupled, to a 40-unit, 5-parking-space apartment building, after discovering the proposal during a routine browse of city records.
Turns out the change had been in the works about a month by then. The first public comment on file is from neighbor Abdy Farid – long active in Junction-area land-use issues – in mid-February. Last night, he was among those at Holy Rosary School‘s Hall, about two blocks away, for an organizational meeting of those opposed to/concerned about the plan (here’s the invitation we published Thursday).
Stressing that it needed to be a “true grass-roots effort,” another neighbor, Jim Schwartz, led Friday night’s meeting, which drew about 15 people. “When I saw the design sign go up, I was personally shocked and set back – I’ve always known there was a potential for the site to have some density development, but” … not this dense – a 3900 percent increase in density for the lot, as pointed out by a letter on file from Hope Lutheran leaders, also represented last night.
By the time an hour and a half of discussion had passed, those in attendance agreed their next step would be to gather signatures for a city-convened public meeting on the project, which is not slated for Design Review and therefore not scheduled for any public meetings otherwise. Several neighbor groups have requested and received such meetings in the past year (see list at the end of this story).
Here’s how the meeting unfolded:
Schwartz noted that the 4439 41st SW apartment proposal means 40 to 80 new neighbors for him – “inconsistent with the fabric of our neighborhood … poses all sort of threats to the churches, schools, neighborhood.” (The plan set on file with the city shows 40 apartments – not classic “microhousing” since each unit has its own kitchen; sizes are listed as 252 to 400 square feet – 8 on a basement level, 10 on the 1st floor, 13 on the 2nd floor, 9 on the 3rd floor.)
Schwartz made it clear he didn’t want to be the sole leader of the group – there was much for others to do. “If this was something that could be remedied two or three years down the road … but once it’s there it’s going to be there for years and years.”
He was hopeful that those at the meeting could get involved, and suggest their concerns.
The DPD comment period for the proposed apartment building ends next week – it already had a two-week extension. (We wrote about that extension on March 21st.) And the Hope Lutheran and Holy Rosary communities had been supportive too, he said.
He said he wasn’t looking to have meetings “with torches to go burn down the castle …” but rather a “smart way to make it apparent to politicians and (decisionmakers regarding) this particular development” regarding their concerns.
One attendee mentioned another meeting where the city mentioned units could have up to eight residents each. Discussion swirled around how many people might be able to live in the building.
Diane Vincent, who is active in local development concerns, explained the difference between microhousing, microstudios, and other types of small development.
As Farid put it, the size of the unit isn’t the issue so much as “how many people are going to live there” in the context of what’s going on around it – “as a neighborhood we work together and are familiar to make sure things go smoothly … but an additional 40 to 80 people … I’m assuming most are going to have their own cars …. we don’t have the capacity on the steret system to have these cars parked. So they might go around the block, find the parking three blocks from there, or maybe not …”
Other points of concern: Safety, noise, and lighting, Farid said. And the potential demographics of the residents is a question mark, too – this type of development would seem more appropriate near the university, or a light-rail station. “It’s totally out of place as far as size, who’s going to rent these units, and (regarding affordable housing) they’re not going to be affordable.” Small apartments aren’t going for small rents these days, he noted. The site was slated for 74 percent excavation, he also pointed out. “And because the alley connects to an arterial – SW Oregon – they need to have a turnaround.” He said neighbors have requested the city deny this project “because it’s not going to work in this area.” The number of units could mean 250 daily trips, he noted. “They’re going to have cars and they’re going to get in and out of the alley.” Farid also said the existence of churches and schools in the area are points of concern.
Another attendee had contacted City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen and said he pointed out the “urban village” zoning changes years ago. Changing zoning law would seem to be the more appropriate path to pursue: “Maybe it won’t solve this problem but it will solve problems down the line.”
Yes, but, as Schwartz pointed out, the city is supposed to listen to how the developments affect the neighborhood; history is important and yet so is “express(ing) ourselves to as many people at as many levels” as can be done. He considers several elements of the project “suspect,” while there is also a “political stand … it’s the wrong design for this location. … I think this is a good project to make a stand on,” said Schwartz, expressing hope that even Councilmember Rasmussen might take a look and realize it’s not the right development for the site.”
Examining the site for issues such as slide risk and water could help “make it easier for the city to deny this,” Farid said.
Holy Rosary’s principal George Hofbauer spoke up next, saying he knows someone who works in the city DPD and pointed out that King County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the country. “It’s going to take money … to try to stop this. I’m very concerned with this project but I’m more concerned with the next couple of years, and at some point we have to try to overturn what (city leaders) said, because it’s going the way of Europe and the east … but Americans are in love with their cars, and we haven’t built the infrastructure” (to support the growth).
Schwartz said, “I don’t know where we’re going either but I want this group to get a focus, reach out to other groups in West Seattle, in other neighborhood;, we’re going to have to mount a sophisticated, professional opposition.”
That would mean land-use attorney help, it was suggested.
“We could use a few referrals,” smiled Schwartz.
How might the business community react, given that more people mean more customers? one attendee asked.
Schwartz didn’t think stopping a 40-unit development would have much impact on the commercial district, with so much other development going on. “Once those people show up, I think our businesses are going to do quite well.”
One man noted that hundreds of new residences are in the works for just the half block around Hope Lutheran and the inability to find parking that he had experienced on 41st/42nd. What about the services, he wondered – mail, garbage, etc. “Is there any room in this whole thing for common sense?”
That’s when Vlad Oustimovitch – an architect, former Southwest Design Review Board member, board member of the Fauntleroy Community Association, and current co-chair of the Southwest District Council – spoke up.
He mentioned similar projects elsewhere – “this is one of dozens of projects that have people like you sitting in rooms upset … there are a number of actions that have produced the circumstances leading to projects like these being developed … the economic argument is more profound – (many projects) are exempt from property tax … that’s not a bad thing, but they’re not going to be contributing to the tax base (through) which things like parks and schools that make a community functional and stable can exist.” He noted that he’s “aware of the dysfunction in the city right now,” since he has a background in urban design.
Oustimovitch said he was part of the urban village process in the ’90s and that it “did never envision this type of development and it was a long multi-year process that involved the community … when the community supported the concept, this was not envisioned.”
Even where there’s adequate public transportation, Oustimovitch pointed out, as has been learned with light rail in Southeast Seattle,, you actually need more parking – so “this concept and its practicality is the fundamental problem here.” Social issues without “any kind of sustainable plan” are the challenge.
Oustimovitch is chairing the SW District Council’s new Land Use Committee, he said, pointing out that a West Seattle-wide effort would be in order, as well as collaboration with other neighborhoods around the city.
(The SWDC’s next meeting is Wednesday night – see information at story’s end.)
“There are a bunch of things that happened in the (Seattle Municipal Code) making it hard to affect a project of this kind – so you’re going to have to look hard, and press hard, and press hard right away.”
Yes, they need to “poke holes in (the building proposal),” agreed another attendee.
Oustimovitch pointed out that they should petition for a public meeting, and noted there are other “tactical things” that can be done. He said, “I’m a pacifist, not an activist, and I’d prefer not to be here right now but … I saw this all (starting) a few years ago,” at which time he said he had observed, “‘There’s going to be hell to pay,’ and (now) hell is here.”
He continued, “There are some serious sustainability issues with the development program in the city, it’s like a credit card or a sugar high … things like the parking issue is another one. To me, it’s a public resource … even if it’s in front of your house, it belongs to everybody. If you create a development with 20 to 40 units where there are 2 to 3 spaces on the street, there’s a very serious issue. … It’s a public resource like everything else we have. … What’s happening now is, this public resource which is finite, important for retail and (many other things) is all being gobbled up.”
Oustimovitch mentioned the 6917 California SW project, 30 apartments and no parking spaces – just approved by the city – being built on a site with room for two spots.
Julia Doerr from Hope Lutheran spoke up next, saying that the church and school are very concerned, especially because the project would “back up right against the school,” so they would like to find a way to raise money for a land-use attorney, looking for loopholes in the code. “I think it’s also unique in that 41st crests in the middle and there’s no visibility for traffic in either direction.” Some other buildings are being built on arterials, “but this is not an arterial,” she noted.
Schwartz asked Oustimovitch his recommendations. “First, tactical steps that can give you time and space regarding what you can do.”
Up until a few years ago, he said, any project with 8 or more units would have been subject to Design Review – then the city changed the code and now that’s not the case. The State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) is the “strongest” tool they might deploy, Oustimovitch suggested. “A lawyer would be looking at state law to see if (that) can be used to mitigate some of the things …”
SEPA can be wielded for traffic, for example. “That’s where the attorney are going to focus.” Interpretation of land-use code, including examining laws “that contradict each other,” could be helpful, he said, also noting that the Department of Planning and Development director Diane Sugimura can “write director’s rules” but “is unwilling to do that.”
She reports to the mayor, it was pointed out, so putting pressure on Mayor Ed Murray would be appropriate, along with lobbying City Councilmember Rasmussen, since, as a West Seattle resident, he might run for the newly created West Seattle-only district on the council. (He is currently declared as running for an unspecified seat.)
And, again, petitioning for a public hearing is one of the next steps, it was reiterated. “Democracy is really about getting people mobilized and showing up,” Oustimovitch observed, including showing up and speaking at City Council meetings. “I think that’s what it’s going to take for this … what it’s going to take for the city to change its course.”
Participation in the SWDC’s newly formed Land Use Committee (WSB coverage here) is important too: “It’s going to take a long time to get it going, but the point is to get something going.” Vincent seconded that motion, expressing her hopes that it would help coalesce divergent groups around the area that all have been operating independent of each other, “reinventing the wheel” every time, every project.
If this specific project does get approval, as Oustimovitch noted, there is action that can be taken beyond that, including an appeal to the city Hearing Examiner. While West Seattle has a reputation for being “polite” and “civil,” he said, it’s the noisy neighborhoods that have gotten response.
“We have to figure out how to get noisy,” agreed Schwartz.
The board president of nearby Seattle Lutheran High School, John Lisko, joined him at the front of the room at that point to further focus attendees on the issues – parking and traffic for the three schools in the area (SLHS, Hope, Holy Rosary) as well as nearby residents – and to secure volunteers to help with petition circulation, among other things. He recalled another grass-roots fight against city policy, the 2011 clamor over increased fees for athletic fields (WSB coverage here). “I think we could gather a lot of people around this, and we need organizers.”
As details were worked out, the discussion started to ebb after more than an hour and a half, but with resolve at the end: “It’s time to dig in.”
WHAT’S NEXT: As mentioned earlier, the group plans to collect petition signatures – at least 50 are required – to ask the city to host a public meeting for comments about this project. If and when they put the petition online, we’ll add the link here. Comments are still being accepted by the city’s assigned planner, Bruce Rips – e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The city page for this project is here.
CONTACT INFORMATION: The group that held Friday night’s organizational meeting has an e-mail address – email@example.com
OTHER MEETINGS OF INTEREST NEXT WEEK: Southwest District Council, which is forming a Land Use Committee, meets Wednesday at the Senior Center of West Seattle (California/Oregon), 7 pm; the Southwest Design Review Board reviews two projects Thursday, also at the Senior Center, 3210 California SW at 6:30 pm, 1307 Harbor SW at 8 pm. Both are open to the public.
OTHER WEST SEATTLE PROJECTS THAT HAVE HAD COMMUNITY-PETITIONED CITY MEETINGS IN THE PAST YEAR:
4535 44th SW (36 apartments, no parking spaces): WSB coverage of November meeting
6917 California (30 apartments, no parking spaces) – November petition drive; city notice for December meeting
3210 California (130+ apartments) – February meeting convened by city after petition drive, WSB coverage here
6536 24th SW (two lots proposed for division into 8 lots) – WSB coverage of March meeting
2414 55th SW (rowhouses in Alki area) – Announcement of petition-secured meeting last July; April petition drive covered here
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