It started off as these things usually do, with a lot of pointing and gesturing at a roll up screen at projected images of various images and sketches. There was talk of “massing” and “features” and “treatments” and other designy language. But what was otherwise a relatively mundane design review meeting might have planted the seeds of a neighborhood revolution. OK, maybe I am a little bit too excited, but when considered in context, the review of a proposed mixed use project on Beacon Hill bodes very well for those of us who want to see more density around transit.
First, a quick report of what happened. The Southeast Design Review Committee was meeting to consider a mixed-use project on the corner of 17th and McClellan, a corner lot which sits, vacant on the same block as the Beacon Hill light rail station. The proponents presented their project and said they are asking for a review of the project at both 40 feet and 65 feet. There is a proposal on the table now to upzone the corner to 65 feet but it is currently zoned for 40. The project would vary from 30 to 45 units depending on height.
I’m not a big fan of design review, so I’ll spare you my snarky recapitulation of the questions board members had of the proponents. Let’s just say they were the kinds of questions design review board members ask. What has given me some real hope about the shape things might take in Beacon Hill was the public comments after the presentation and questions. More after the jump.
Now, make no mistake, one could sense some Concern Trolling going on. There were some straight up statements by some that “we really wanted a park there, so I hope it only gets built at 40 feet.” There were also a fair number of comments suggesting “big setbacks” above the second story of the project to better fit with adjacent single-family homes. One neighbor said asked whether “parking is 1 spot per resident.” The answer is no, since this is a transit area, the proposal includes only 14 -17 spaces. “And the rest will park where?” the neighbor asked. The planner from the City said they “won’t have cars, but I won’t try to convince you of that.“
I waited for the guffaws and eye rolling. It didn’t happen. Instead I heard this.
I think this great. This project will be a huge asset for the neighborhood. 65 feet is a good height. I disagree with heavy setbacks and I’m not worried about increased traffic. If there is more traffic, then cars are moving slower, which makes it better for pedestrians.
Holy density, Batman! Things sure have changed in Beacon Hill. Neighbors offered even more positive comments and suggestions, including a call for more commercial and retail space on the ground floor of the project. About three dozen neighbors attended the meeting, a number that was, according to the chair of the committee, “the greatest turn out for a project in my 3 years on the committee.”
What’s changed since 1998 when the Seattle Weekly wrote a feature story about Beacon Hill called “Yellers and Screamers?” What’s making this project slide along so easily in a neighborhood that just over a decade ago needed a federal mediator just to get through a community council meeting?
First, I think there are lots of new people who’ve lived in density and want it for Beacon Hill. My personal story features a move from Beacon to Capitol Hill, but I suspect many have made the opposite trip. Many new Beacon Hill residents are used to living in dense urban neighborhoods in Seattle or elsewhere and want the same for their new home.
Second, there is no evil property owner. One of the things that truly poisoned the Roosevelt discussion was the galling idea that a bad actor would profit at the expense of the neighborhood by getting an upzone. While that seems silly in the vast scheme of things, it is a powerful, visceral, and understandable reaction to somebody getting something they don’t seem to deserve. That’s absent on Beacon Hill and from this project.
Third, El Centro De La Raza is no longer allied with a long-standing cadre of NIMBYs in the neighborhood who have fought new development over Beacon Hill and who formed the spark plug of the conflict in the 1990s. That group preferred parks to buildings, and always argued that, somehow, new development represented racism and exploitation. El Centro is now looking at their own development project and they have a much more progressive view about development these days, with El Centro’s Estella Ortega an active participant in Leadership for Great Neighborhoods.
I could be wrong about all that, but from what I heard I am really encouraged by my old neighborhood and even more convinced they could lead the region in density around transit. In fact, tonight, they already did.