Image via Division Ave blog.

Last week, after residents in his new council district protested a new live-work development in Ballard, city council member Mike O’Brien took the unusual step of slipping a new design review mandate into an otherwise standard-issue omnibus cleanup bill. The change O’Brien made would require design review–a process that can add more than a year to a project timeline–when the combined development proposals on two adjacent lots exceed the maximum for a single lot according to the city’s design review standards. In low-rise zones, which is where the change is targeted, that means that two adjacent lots under development can’t exceed eight units total. That design-review trigger applies even if two adjacent lots are being developed by different builders; more than eight, and you’re looking at an automatic, time-consuming design review.

The amendment, which O’Brien acknowledges was unorthodox, was intended to address developments like the controversial townhouses going in at 71st and Division in Ballard, where six live/work units will replace a single-family home that sat astride two historic lots; in that case, the developer took advantage of an old lot line that hadn’t been used in decades to build three units per lot.

But the change will have sweeping implications for development potential on smaller lots across the city. O’Brien says the new requirement is “intended to address instances where a developer in a low-rise or neighborhood commercial zone will break a project up into a couple of different projects to avoid going through design review.” O’Brien acknowledges that the city already has plans to overhaul the design review process next year, but says that in the meantime, “we’re going to continue to set rules that are going to allow more and more people to live in Seattle, but there’s got to be an expectation that when we set those rules, they are going to be followed.”

Bruce Harrell, who proposed an unsuccessful amendment stripping the design review changes from the omnibus bill, said at last week’s meeting that although “Council Member O’Brien and the [Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability] committee had some good intentions in mind to protect neighbors from developers circumventing the system and using what could be called loopholes and that kind of thing … I just think it’s a little dangerous to do a one-off in the omnibus legislation,” especially when the HALA committee already plans to take up design review next year.

“It should be obvious what he’s trying to do,” Harrell says. “He’s trying to expand the protections to the neighborhood against clever developers” who want to exploit loopholes in the code. “It was an omnibus bill, which is typically for fixing typographical errors and cross references that are incorrect. It’s a cleanup bill, not a heavy-duty policy bill, and I know HALA’s going to be looking very closely at the design review process.”

Developers (and not just Dan Duffus, the small-lot developer who’s been targeted by the city in the past and who is involved in the financing of the Ballard project) are alarmed at the O’Brien changes. In late July, David Neiman, an architect with Neiman Taber Architecture and a member of the HALA committee, wrote a letter to council members about the omnibus bill amendment, which, he said, would discourage development by introducing an extra 12 months or more to the review and permitting process:

The for-sale housing market is quite volatile. Prices can move up or down fairly quickly in a short period of time. Skilled prognosticators feel they can predict market trends a few months out, but not much further. As the timelines become longer, the element of risk becomes unacceptable to the point where investors will not back the project. Townhouses are a for-sale product that can be sold at a profit but does not rent for enough to pay for the cost of construction. If a builder gets to the end of a project and discovers that the housing market has shifted under their feet and they cannot sell for enough to pay back the bank, they do not have the option of hanging on for a better market. The way to manage this risk is to keep project timelines as short as possible. This is not a trivial issue for spec developers. This is the whole shebang.

In another, more urgent letter in early August, Neiman wrote that O’Brien had not responded to his efforts to contact the council member, and said the amendment was “simply magnifying our existing problems by creating more sclerotic, non-productive process. … The entire purpose of the HALA was to end the process of ad-hoc housing policy, take a step back, and try to work forward on details using an overall framework. Please pull this element out of the omnibus legislation and deal with the issues of design review, SEPA, and appropriate entitlement process in a comprehensive way when you review the HALA recommendations next year.”

O’Brien, who is trying to win favor among a northwest Seattle electorate made up largely of single-family homeowners unhappy with the changes that have come to their neighborhoods, has taken votes to restrict density near single-family zones before. In 2014, O’Brien defended legislation restricting single-family development on small historic lots on the grounds of “protecting neighborhood character,” telling me, “The most egregious examples of what’s being built—I wouldn’t want those in my neighborhood.”

Today, O’Brien, who lives in a single-family house in Fremont, doesn’t sound too troubled by naysayers like Neiman who predict the new requirements will only prompt developers to become more clever to avoid design review. “With this new design review process, my goal is that we could come up with a process that creates a path that is attractive to developers, and community and folks can say this is not a bad path to take,” O’Brien says.

89 Replies to “O’Brien Amendment Sidesteps HALA to Add Months to Small Projects”

  1. “Developers (and not just Dan Duffus, the small-lot developer who’s been targeted by the city in the past and who is involved in the financing of the Ballard project) are alarmed at the O’Brien changes.”

    Great! The city should be doing more to alarm developers who exploit loopholes and the spirit of the law.

  2. This is what you get when you go to district elections for the City Council — you empower the NIMBY’s.

    The proponents of district elections were very clear and up-front about that, and that is what we got. Now one of the most progressive members of the council is fully on the side of locking Seattle in amber. Gawd help us.

    1. I don’t think you can blame district elections on this. I blame representatives who overreact to input from citizens. To be clear, that is their job. Every representative should listen to their constituency. In the case of adding ORCA support to the monorail, for example, I don’t think the issue was even being considered by the city council before people started writing letters. The end result will be something that works better for those who ride transit, with no loss (except perhaps to the company that runs it).

      But if there is a contentious issue, then representatives must consider that there are a lot of people who support the current situation (or the recommendations, as in the case of HALA) but don’t write in about it. These people either assume that things will go as planned (so why bother writing) or they have other things to worry about. Nixon called these folks the “silent majority”. For all his faults (and they were many) Nixon sure coined a great phrase for a legitimate group of people. In the case of Seattle, the district elections have shown that the silent majority is not trying to preserve the city in amber (another great phrase). The silent majority in the city wants to see more density, or at least they are open to the idea. O’Brien is making a mistake in assuming that projects like these are opposed by a majority, and he is certainly making a mistake in believing that slipping this into an omnibus bill is a great idea. Harrell is right. This should wait, and whatever changes we make to the law should be part of the review of HALA.

      1. But is O’Brien really making a mistake for his own political career? If anything, he is furthering his vote total over his single-issue opponent, by cutting into that single issue.

        And is it the fault of O’Brien that the system would reward politicians for this sort of triangulation? Nobody, AFAIK, has been pushing to replace our Louisiana-style only-two-go-forward primary elections with a ranked voting system that could eliminate the waste of primary elections, or, more moderately, allow at least three candidates in the general election (with the side effect of heavily discouraging the mudslinging we are starting to see much more of, now that the primary is over). It is one thing to have NIMBY candidates get beat convincingly mano y mano, after the front-runner adopts some of the NIMBYism. It would be better to have the NIMBY candidates come in a more distant third or fourth (as in the case of Tony Provine), in a more open race, and in the round that counts. Of course, even with ranked voting, the odds of having a more urbanist candidate run against O’Brien were slim. But, the threat of it happening in the future, thanks to a more open electoral system, could have given him more trepidation about the triangulation he just did.

      2. This is spot on. We live in an SFZ on 2,500 SF infill, next door to bungalows on 3,000 SF lots, with a duplex on the corner, a few blocks from 1929 row houses (http://www.theurbanist.org/2015/08/28/fridaygram-wallingford-rowhouses/ ).

        But over the last year we’ve been flabbergasted to see small lot zoning changes that would now prevent our house from being built, and to learn that the whole area’s now zoned SF 5,000 (a downzone I believe from the ’50s).

        I’ve been here 20 years, but this zoning (and the histrionic opposition to say, duplexes) is so unexpected and unfathomable – I just hope more people like us start taking action as we learn how dire the situation (vis a vis affordability, environment, diversity) really is.

      3. @Brent. Good point.

        But this is a contentious issue, but it isn’t a contentious race. At this point, O’Brien could do just about anything and win easily. He really doesn’t need to slide one direction or the other — the race is over. If anything, this opens the (unlikely) possibility of a protest vote. If you are a hard core zoning conservative, then I don’t think O’Brien has won you over. But either way, he will probably sail to victory. So either he believes this really is good policy, believes this is the way to represent or thinks that a huge victory will catapult him to some other job.

        I don’t think it makes any difference if you win by 40 or win by 80. If a guy gets 90% of the vote, my first thought is that the other guy is a loon. But if you support O’Brien because he isn’t a loon (and generally is a pretty good guy) I’m not sure if this gets you much. If the long term goal is to run for mayor, then winning by a bigger margin isn’t going to matter. Meanwhile, someone could easily see which ways the wind is blowing and suggest a more liberal zoning policy as a way to grab some city wide votes. I really don’t get it — maybe O’Brien just isn’t that smart.

    2. The push for districts was clearly led by single-family NIMBYs who wanted more say in the city’s policies. They felt the at-large council was being driven by downtown/developer/corporate interests. The demographer they hired to draw the district boundaries was a retired UW geography professor I took a class from, Richard Morrill, who has anti-urban views and drew the districts to maximize single-family influence and split the urban areas to keep them a minority, except in Center City where it was impossible to avoid a majority-urban district. So the stage was set for a council that would freeze zoning and roll back unrealized lowrise areas (where multifamily is allowed but hasn’t been built). But something funny happened on the way to the primary elections, and several single-family districts chose more pro-density/pro-transit candidates than expected, and district 3 (Capitol Hill/CD) was unexpectedly reactionary (given Sawant’s unclear positions and her opponents’ more anti-density positions). That indicates that views in single-family areas are changing and getting more pro-density/pro-transit, especially in north Seattle. That’s what I expected in the long term (people in 2035 and 2045 will probably be more pro-density than they are now), so it may be happening gradually. O’Brien’s reactionaryness may contradict this, but I don’t think it does so completely. It just shows that O’Brien is not one to trust for smart growth.

      1. I agree, the districts were drawn up to give zoning conservatives more power. But I think that is not the way it is working out. This is often what happens when the voting population is a lot more open minded on an issue than some people assume.

      2. Yeah, all this shows is to find a candidate to run against O’Brien next time.

        Here’s the thing which bugs me. In, say, England, with “planning permission” (not zoning), pretty much *every* project goes through design review, and as a result design review has become quick — nobody would tolerate anything less.

        Here, with “zoning” bad projects are allowed to sail through, but good projects require endless red tape. This is not a good system. Zoning should be tossed. If you really want more review, set up a system where you review *absolutely everything*, and you’ll find that the review board will start agreeing to stuff much faster.

  3. Appalling. I’d have some understanding if Westneat had put up something more like Grant numbers in the primary, but O’Brien’s a lock and he knows it. I can only conclude that he thinks throwing up roadblocks to housing during an acute housing shortage is a good idea on the merits.

    He’s probably going to continue to pretend he supports HALA, but I don’t see why we should take that seriously.

    1. Danny Westneat is an opinion columnist for the Times, who happens to have it in for HALA. Catherine Weatbrook is the candidate who is running on a single-issue NIMBY platform against O’Brien, and got 22% in the primary election, which is the best showing for a candidate running on NIMBYism anywhere in the city. Her venomous attacks on HALA are absolutely unhinged.

  4. Maybe the developers shouldn’t circumventing the spirit of the legislation? They did in my neighborhood, to avoid putting in ground floor retail, removing the only corner store for half a mile, and making the neighborhood far less walkable.

    While I think encouraging development is a good thing, developers wouldn’t get spanked if they played by the rules.

      1. Yes, councilmembers should avoid putting substantive amendments in non-substantive ordinances. Get Westneat on this sneakiness, stat!

    1. Not to pick nits, but I don’t think our rules allow the city to specify that ground-floor retail include a grocery store. Even if they did, nobody can be forced to actually lease that space and open up a grocery store. Furthermore, there is still no guarantee that the store would actually resemble a PCC or QFC, or whatever.

      That said, the odds of having a grocery store to your liking in your neighborhood go up as more of the space in your neighborhood gets zoned commercial or mixed-use. It may be the dearth of allowed commercial space in your neighborhood working against the neighborhood’s walkability score.

      1. It sounds like he’s talking about a store like the small old grocery stores on Summit. The developer is replacing it with 100% housing, no retail. If the two-lot project had been submitted as a whole, it would have required some kind of retail.

        No, retail does not automatically imply a large supermarket. It just means something that pedestrians go into when it’s open.

      2. Uh, yeah. That’s right. I’m happy to see the 16 townhomes, just wish they hadn’t sliced it up into 4 LLCs to avoid the retail requirement and not repalce the convenience store they razed with, well, something. Could have been a pot store, I realize, you hyper-libertarian you. Thatscup to the market.

        I’m a capitalist, but without regulation, it can harm what we hope can make a moreclivable city more than help.

      3. It doesn’t help that some are actually complaining about a proliferation of first-floor-commercial buildings, and trying to reduce the number of locations zoned for such. If the neighborhood put up a proverbial brick wall against the type of development you hoped to see, should it be a surprise that the developer found a path of least resistance to get something built, and proceeded to follow that path?

        Methinks some people are just mad that anything got built there at all there, with more floors than what it replaced, and more renters living in it. I suspect you were fighting a lonely battle for walkability.

  5. Could be worse. In Chicago aldermen can apparently block building permits because they don’t like the project.

    However, I can’t get too worked up about this.

    I’m guessing this project includes 6 off-street parking spaces? If so, it is not particularly transit-friendly.

    Then there is the questionable “live-work” concept. I doubt many people who would use the “work” space (artists, tradespeople, etc.) for their work could ever afford to buy one. Much more likely to get a dual-Amazon couple who use the work area for bike storage or “crafting.” So that’s basically another “garage” or wasted space.

    Most importantly, these debates are a distraction. Even 1000 of these projects would barely add 15,000 new residents (only the richest of the rich, too – how do regular people save a ~$125,000 down payment while also paying rent?). Transformative, they are not.

    1. For umpteenth time, but it never seems so sink in:

      The rich are coming. The less housing we build for them, the more they’ll outbid the rest of us for older housing stock. The logic at work here is a crucial part of how a reactionary position (build less housing during a supply/demand crisis) is transformed into a position that superficially appears progressive. We shouldn’t give this strategy any oxygen at all.

      1. Or they will build spread mansionettes on the foothills or other remaining arable land in the region, and drive into town every day.

        I prefer to allow the rich to live stacked on top of each other in a building that minimizes their geographic footprint and carbon footprint.

      2. Current zoning in this city (which contribute to the high cost of housing) actually favor the rich. All of the restrictions on density favor the rich. All of the parking requirements favor the rich. If they added a hot tub requirement, it would favor the rich.

        More housing favors the poor and the middle class. It isn’t that hard to figure out, but let me cite an example. In my neighborhood, if you have the money you can tear down an old house and put up a huge (monster) house. But you can’t convert the old house to an apartment, nor can you build an apartment.

        With few exceptions (such as bans on combining lots for a single house) regulations favor the rich. Easing regulations (by following the HALA recommendations) would benefit the poor and middle class.

      3. We don’t really disagree. Good for the developer for navigating the convoluted codes. Some development is better than no development, but this is a drop in the bucket.

        I 100% agree that more development will help stabilize prices, eventually, but rents and prices are never going to decrease meaningfully without a severe economic shock. There is a huge focus on rent increases, but now the absolute rent levels are so high relative to wages that even a small increase is a lot of dollars.

        Moreover, the time-frame to reach stabilization is extremely long. Middle-income people are bleeding out rent increases every year and literally can’t afford to wait it out. Moving to Kent, Tacoma, and Snohomish County and suffering the long commutes is, for many, the best financial option. And, of course, many new Seattle residents also have to commute to the suburbs. More commuting both ways.

      4. The restrictive zoning comes from an era when housing was cheap, so working-class families could still afford a house on one income. In the 1980s you could get a bungalow in Seattle for $60,000 or rent a 2 BR in an urban village for $450. The “zoned for the rich” was really an unintended consequence of not adjusting the policy as the population increased in the 90s and 00s, which led to a housing scarcity and a run-up in prices. And in 2011 Seattle started getting an influx of high-paid jobs which made it worse for those without those jobs. Many NIMBYs still believe, or act like they believe, that everybody can still afford a single-family house in Seattle so there’s no need to loosen zoning, or if there is it can all be accommodated in the existing multifamily zones. That’s absolutely not true anymore, but they can get away with keeping their heads in the sand because they already own a house.

      5. NIMBYS good
        This blog is full of idiots with socialist thoughts. Very few want high density apartments in their neighborhood. The continuous rants for no parking, no roads for cars, give all access to Metro and future Sound Transit at all costs, tax home owners to fund transit and high density apts in all neighborhoods to justify new expensive transit is 100% ridiculous! This stuff makes this blog a joke!

      6. One of the truly weird things about the politics of urban housing is that the people who don’t believe in private property rights call those of us who do ‘socialists’ without a hint of irony.

      7. Where will you live if you don’t already have a house? You say you don’t want to live near high-density apartments, but there are few houses for sale in Seattle and those are expensive, and they will get fewer and more expensive as the population increases without increasing density. So are you happy moving to Maple Valley, Bonney Lake, Everett, or Tacoma? Should people in general be forced to do that?

      8. The rich are not interested in living far from town. They want townhouses now.

        The *obscenely* rich, of course, have *both* a town house *and* a country house.

    2. I think live-work is just a marketing term for the size and shape of the units. I don’t think Seattle has any kind of tax break for them, unlike the 1990s live-work lofts in San Francisco SOMA which were intended for artists but instead became home to the then-emerging tech startups. There is that artists’ building next to Mt Baker Station, but I think it was built by a nonprofit.

    1. As you should. He’s been solidly in the NIMBY camp for at least a year, and has had a very large influence on decreasing development in Seattle. Here’s a list of changes under his leadership:

      The death of aPodments.
      Outlawing small lot homes.
      Significantly lowered the upzone in SLU.
      Strongly increased development fees.
      He’s the main proponent of linkage fees.
      He’s added more design review on smaller buildings.

      I think he was in office when they banned corner stores, but I’m not positive of that one. O’Brien being the head of the Planning and Land Use committee might be a real factor in Seattle being less affordable these days.

    1. Measure twice, then another time via a backed up committee that takes a year, then find out the buyer doesn’t want the cut piece of wood anymore.

  6. O’Brien’s amendment clearly sidesteps the spirit of an ordinance meant to correct typos and references. The council president should rule it out of order, or the Mayor should veto it, and tell the council to send him a clean clean-up bill.

    1. I’m not a huge fan of process objections. If O’Brien were slipping in a huge upzone I’d love it.

      The real problem is that this is terrible policy. Full stop.

      1. I think a process objection in this case is warranted. This is not a small change to something everyone is likely to support. This is controversial, to say the least. Furthermore, this is a change to something that will be discussed in great detail by the council and the city at large in less than a year. It is bad either way. Harrell is right — we shouldn’t change something like this in a bill like this when we will discuss it fully very soon.

      2. It is totally fair to point out the irony that NIMBYs are not following the process in their war to get developers to “follow the process”, which is clearly a proxy tactic in their war to close down all processes to allow anything to get developed, or at least anything holding more renters to get developed.

        Trenches were dug and staffed. The developers hopped on a plane and few over the trenches. Those staffing the trenches are mad that the developers didn’t play by their rules and walk into the gattling guns.

      3. When terrible policy is being implemented by violations of process, it’s worth killing it using process objections.

        This is a case where the smaller crime (the process violation) is being used to cover up the bigger crime (the terrible policy).

  7. This is the way zoning has always worked in this town, and it is has lead to ugly buildings and ugly outcomes for those who have to pay rent or ever dream of owning their own place. First someone builds something, then someone objects and the city passes a law to deal with that objection. Then someone builds using that system, but again, someone objects and the process repeats. First there wasn’t enough parking, so they added parking. Then they hated the parking (ugly). So they make people build in back and add a fence (?). Build enough of those and everything looks the same, which is another way of saying it looks ugly. It is really hard to legislate beauty in the case of construction, and the city has failed over and over in its attempts. They should stick with certain principles (such as ground floor retail or pedestrian passage ways) and just let them build. Some of the buildings will be ugly, some won’t. The same is true for most of the city. Whether you like a single family neighborhood or old apartments, can you really say that the regulations of the last forty years have made the new construction really pretty? I can’t.

    One of my favorite places to admire architecture is the UW campus. There are some real gems there. But there are some buildings I consider ugly. With few exceptions, I think the brutalist style ugly. I see no exceptions at the UW. But the thing is, the “neighborhood” doesn’t suffer as a result of a few ugly buildings. Quite the contrary. The campus is much nicer because their is so much variety. I’ve learned to admire these ugly buildings, just because they mix things up.

    In my opinion nothing has made the city uglier than the parking requirement. Get rid of that and let developers generally build what they want and you will see a lot more interesting buildings.

    1. The parking requirement forced townhouses into a single design, which many people think is ugly or overused, and residents complain that the turns are too sharp to get into the parking spaces comfortably. Some people have refused to buy townhouses because the driveways are so cumbersome. Adding to this is the setback requirements and maximum FARs, which preclude any other building design. So the requirements are forcing the “ugly” buildings. That’s not the developers’ fault or an intrinsic characteristic of townhouses, it’s the fault of townhouse-unfriendly zoning.

      1. Maximum FAR is a policy with absoutely no rational basis whatsoever. I wonder if it could be struck down as illegal because of the lack of a rational basis for it.

    2. http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/hard-to-love-a-brute/

      Interesting take on the “ugliness” of brutalism. So much of what we consider “characterful” was hated when it was built. It is only after years of new hatreds that we have come to love the things our parents and grandparents hated. And our grandchildren may look at some of the examples of recent development as an important part of the character of their neighborhoods.

      1. Some of the articles about the brutatlist style remind me of car shows that feature AMC Pacers (and the like). They weren’t admired back in the day, but because no else makes them like that anymore, and because they are old and rare, they are admired. To be honest, I always like Pacers; but some of the cars I’ve seen at car shows make me laugh (Ford Tempo, Fesitva?). Eventually anything gets interesting as it gets old and rare — I’m looking forward to the day it happens to me.

      2. `I can understand why some people loved modernism when it was new. They and their ancestors had grown up with everything being traditional design, like University Way and Tudor pubs and row houses with chimneys. Electricity and plumbing and flush toilets had to be retrofitted into them, and in some cases it was cumbersome. They had small windows (large-plate glass wasn’t feasible I guess). Coal burning made the cities sooty and unhealthy. WWI was a nightmare, and WWII was worse. (Modernism started before WWI, while Brutalism and the International Style (same thing?) started before WWII and peaked in he 1950s-60s, so it evolved simultaneously with WWII.) They wanted to get away from all that to a brave new future. Modern architecture was a repudiation of the past and a brand-new start, so I can understand how that seemed exciting and desirable when it was new and they didn’t know where it would lead.

        Two major things are wrong with Brutalism/International Style. One, they abolished the principles of aesthetics and beauty: Golden Ratio proportions, detail, curves, decorations. They replaced it with plain geometric straight lines. That’s very left brain, while beauty and aesthetics is right brain. It’s ultra-rationalism totalitarianism, inhuman, putting everybody in an organized box, with no room for feelings and emotion because they’re obsolete.

        The other problem is that Brutalism co-evolved with the rise of cars and automobile-scaled cities. Most Brutalist buildings are automobile-scaled, not very walkable. Goodgie also arose around this time, and they both inform the contemporary ugly big-box store: built it cheap to maximize profit for the shareholders; give it a design life of only 20 years because by that time fashions will have changed and you’ll want a new building, and the developer will have paid back the investors and the building is depreciated so they might as well tear it down; and put up large simple signs that can be seen from highways, because who cares about the pedestrian view when there are hardly any pedestrians anymore anyway.

        I’ve heard that Tel Aviv has the largest collection of International Style buildings in the world, “the White City”, so I’m curious what it’s like to live in that environment. Do people feel comfortable in it or does it increase their stress?

      3. Most buildings, historically, have been built cheap without much thought to aesthetics. Modernism has little to do with it. The best old buildings survive to today and are adapted to include modern amenities; the worst are torn down. The same is true of modernist buildings.

        The problem of “automotive scale” isn’t just size, it’s speed, distance, and attention. An automotive-scale building (or sign) has to be “legible” to a driver moving at high speed down a road, perhaps a quarter-mile away, whose attention is divided.

        Neither brutalism nor the international style did away with aesthetics; often detail would be omitted to emphasize proportions and the overall composition. When this is done at “automotive scale” the result is desolation up close. I also would call out “helicopter scale”, where buildings or public spaces are designed like blown-up sculptures, to look great from airplanes, but make no sense at ground level.

        But the modernist approach to beauty and aesthetics, being restrained and focused with decorations to draw attention to overall proportions, is not one that ought to be thrown out. Neither are the possibilities of modern materials and techniques.

      4. Some of modernisim is fine.

        Most of Brutalism is terrible. And I think it’s because Brutalism is very very square. There are documented psych studies which show that *all* people like curves.

        Googie, which is curvy, is much better than Brutalism.

  8. So, are folks upset about the process for this… or do you think the loophole is acceptable? Because it happens quite a bit out in the neighborhoods. It’s used by developers to avoid spending on infrastructure — like sidewalks, which I thought everyone would support for bicycle and pedestrian use. I believe it also has environmental standards implications as well.

    1. Can you cite some examples of where a developer used this “loophole” to avoid building a sidewalk, and otherwise would have had to?

      Same question with bike infrastructure. When have developers ever been responsible for building bike infrastructure?

      1. I think it’s only LR1, where certain requirements kick in at 7 or 8 units. So a developer building 8-12 units will split the project into two “separate” projects on adjacent lots. RE: bicycles, I was referring to bikes being allowed to use sidewalks also, but someone with better knowledge might know if bicycle parking kicks in at certain unit levels as well.

      2. Arguably when it comes to sidewalks, there should be no loophole: *every* new building, including a simple single-family home on a single-family lot, should be required to build a sidewalk. Period.

        It’s basically a ranch-home loophole.

        I would support totally abolishing the ranch-home loophole and requiring design review for EVERY project, including for single-family fully-detached one-lot projects. If that were implemented, you can bet design review would get expedited.

        But noooo, Mr. O’Brien is only proposing design review for dense projects. One-lot-at-a-time ranch homes can still be built endlessly with no design review…

  9. Erica: the site may be just south of NW 71st Street.
    the project is one-half block from Route 28 and seems great.

    1. It’s actually NW 70th St. There is no NW 71st St in that area, the next cross street is NW 73rd St.

      I live near there and I believe any objections to this project are entirely overblown. The site has been zoned commercial since the 1940s, if not longer. Anyone who bought a house on the block since then has no reason to expect that this lot would have a single-family home on it forever.

      1. Eric, Division Ave NW and NW 70th St is residential. Ironically when you turn onto 70th from 8th you see a large “Residential” street sign. This is right across the street from this live-work six-plex.

        Of course people on this block are surprised by this development. It is 3.5 times the height as the brick building on 70th/8th which is commercial. It will block multiple neighbors’ views. It has no set-backs from the sidewalks. It does not have enough room for garbage bins.

        It is already exasperating a dangerous traffic sight-line problem for walkers, bikers, and drivers. 25+ young children live within 1-2 blocks of this development and there are 4in nails scattered across the block and rats due to the food and construction garbage they neglect for weeks on end.

        The developer has manipulated loop holes in sophisticated, unapologetic ways with DPD’s blessing. I’m shocked to see O’Brien called a NIMBY-lover because he has been zero help to neighbors (most of whom seem to support higher-density development) who experience real problems related to this development.

        The single family home that used to sit on this lot housed two single females who were long-term renters who struggled to find affordable housing. Let’s be real about who these town homes are “affordable” for.

        We moved here from downtown where development is a constant activity. We previously lived in very urban Japan. We love high-density living. But developers who routinely give neighbors the middle finger we don’t love so much.

      2. Eric, Division Ave NW and NW 70th St is residential.

        I’m not sure what exactly you’re trying to claim here. If you mean the general character of the neighborhood, the lot is literally next door to multiple businesses. If you’re referring to the zoning, it’s LR 1, not single family.

      3. And as for this It will block multiple neighbors’ views., you can’t use this as a reason to object to a development and then turn around and say you support hypothetical dense housing development. If lost views were a reason to effectively oppose a development, cities would pretty much ever build up. The belief that because someone has a view today they should be entitled to retain that view forever is a recipe for killing growth.

      4. Should anyone who lives near this project or anywhere else in Seattle expect the city to enforce the existing law? That is, expect the city to provide public notice, design review and a traffic study for a project like this that well exceeds thresholds triggering it?

        Maybe when a cyclist gets crushed in the 8th Ave bike lane due to this project increasing traffic safety problems will you acknowledge the bigger picture. People here aren’t opposing “the development.” They expect the city to follow its own laws. It’s not. That’s the main concern. The article misinforms and oversimplifies.

        Eric, since you are a neighbor, why don’t you help your community and ask the city to proactively make the bike lane, crosswalks and traffic lanes in that area safer? Many of us here repeatedly have and continue to ask for that help. Until there are *more* accidents, the city won’t do anything.

        In addition to posting here, perhaps you could help your community and ask the city to do something about traffic safety at 8th Ave and 70th St? It’s your neighborhood, too, yes? It’s surprising this blog community turns a blind eye to traffic safety problems exacerbated by projects like this one. Even when it’s in your backyard.

    2. Neighbors are surprised it blocks their view. I’m not saying this is good enough reason to oppose development. But people get to feel a certain way about this if they like. Especially when the developer used marginal tactics to argue it doesn’t block any views.

      Also, I suppose it’s your perspective whether this whole parcel was zoned for commercial given the moves the developer made to make it possible to build this 6-plex.

      You can support development and still be appalled at developers behavior.

      1. +1. Indeed, the ideological arguments about density aren’t often the real issue in the neighborhoods, for many. The actual process (and failure to enforce basic standards) drive folks crazy. Construction disruption is bad enough, but we can live with that for some period of time. Not bothering to enforce job site rules and standards is infuriating.

      2. Single-family home developers do all the same abusive things. Yet they are allowed to completely evade design review, permanently. That’s a loophole, isn’t it?

        If everyone had to go through design review, and I mean EVERYONE, it would end up being efficient and expedited.

        But if it’s only multi-family developers who have to go through it, then you’ll find an excess of single-family housing…

  10. The FACT is O’brien is willfully and intentionally forcing up the cost of housing for the financial benefit of his privileged and elitist SFH owner constituents. Go screw yourself O’brien, and screw your stuck up snob constituents, too.

    1. Your assumption that this process change forces up the cost of these townhome may be true, but these likely will be $700,000 townhomes, marketed to techies. This project has nothing to do with affordability, which applies to an individual earning less than $46,100, or 80% of Area Median Income, according to the HALA, or $37,680 (60%), according to the Community Housing Caucus. The two previous low-income tenants are being displaced and these two affordable units should be replaced 1-for-1. Without this policy, we are losing affordable housing unless the development is on a parking lot.

      1. Now we have the T-word, to malign a certain employment sector when maligning developers in general doesn’t make people’s blood boil sufficiently (as evidenced by the resounding defeat of every candidate who went after developers in the primary). Do you have anything against techies besides their desire to live close to their jobs?

        And so, you blame the developers for marketing to techies when you force up the costs so that that’s who they have to market to. Great plan!

        I have no problem with the one-for-one replacement, and am glad to see you don’t go along with the nonsensical “on site” version of that. We really should be building enough multi-unit housing to enable this sort of replacement, not trying to make it impossible to do.

        I do hate to see these two people having to move become political footballs in a war on development.

    2. The FACT is that O’Brien and the PLUS committee revised the amendment so it does nothing to force adjacent projects go through design review although when it originally was drafted it did. Erica’s headline is wrong and misleading. All it does is fire up the N-word crowd to continue its unfounded name calling and polarize the Seattle community.

      Based on the amendment’s revisions, all developers have to do is submit their project applications on different dates and the design review requirement is null. Erica either didn’t do her research and cover this important fact or conveniently left it out to support her biased reporting.

      How does this amendment increase housing costs? Developers like the ones to which this article refers will sell their units at market rates anyway. They’re not motivated to provide affordable housing and aren’t doing it. They’re interested in making as much money as possible. That’s fine, but not when screwing the community and and not caring one iota about how their projects negatively affect the neighborhood when it comes to things like traffic safety.

      1. Brent, please come spend some quality time at the intersection and you’ll get some data. Seriously, do it for a chunk of time at different times during the day–especially when cars are parked close to the crosswalks decreasing visibility–and over a few days’ time.

        If the city would conduct a traffic impact study like it should be doing for a project of this size, there would be more data and perhaps less putting people like you against residents feeling the impacts. Until then, spend some time to get to know the context before dissing those of us who do.

      2. Brent, no one who lives here is opposing the development. And never has. We oppose the lank of public notice, design review and SEPA fir this Suzanne project that exceeds thresholds in place to trigger those steps. your assertion is based on erroneous information perpetuated by Erica’s misinformed writing.

      3. Btw, the community has repeatedly contacted SDOT well before and also after the developer bought the property and and requested help with traffic safety problems caused by congestion, low visibility due to parked cars too close to corners/crosswalks, etc. The city won’t do anything until there are more accidents. For evidence of past accidents, talk with the neighbor who was hit and unable to work for months, neighbors witnessing other accidents and many near misses, Take 5 staff who hear tire screeches all the time. Lots of qualitative evidence but no traffic impact report for you. Wish there was. Irresponsible if the city to skirt SEPA and that report intended to keep all of us safe.

        Stay safe bikers and #28 riders!

      4. Those thresholds are the whole problem. If everyone had to go through SEPA and so on, then you’d have a fair system.

        Instead, people trying to build multi-family housing have to go through SEPA and all kinds of hurdles. But people putting up one ranch house, after another, after another, after another, don’t have to go through *any* hurdles.

        And that’s how you get suburban sprawl.

  11. So does anybody know what the amendment actually was or have a link to it? I’m a little skeptical that separate developers on adjacent lots will be required to go through some sort of combined design review process and honestly have found in the past that Erica does not usually entirely understand what she is reporting.

    Also, why is it relevant that O’Brien lives in a SFH? The guy has a family and kids. An apodment or basement efficiency probably isn’t going to work that well. Perhaps marginally more relevant, his SFH in an LR3 zone and is one of the few left there.

  12. Fyi. OBrien has one of the nicest houses on his mixed res. street – and is cushuoned from ANY ‘multi’ development on his flanks. . He or his fam have purchased the sf houses beside and behind, and his own lovely house faces full South light in the street ROW, and separate garage/studio and private large back garden . . . one can call it L-3, but there are no threats of that scale. Lucky guy!!

    1. This is one thing I hate about politics: People unable to win on policy debates go after the politicians’ private lives.

  13. The reporter didn’t do her homework. Instead, she’s providing misinformation and over simplification of the issue.

    The amendment is hollow, meaningless. It was revised since presented so design review only applies if the the adjacent project applications are submitted on the same date. O’Brien and city council do support continuing to make it easy for developers to skirt the law by piecenealing projects rhat legally trigger design review. It’s all for show to appear they support community interests. They don’t. Plus, did you pay attention to the DPD director’s ruling that supports the piecenealing strategy.

    Council and the DPD aren’t doing anything to change some developers’ egregious exploitation of code although they like to make it look like they are. Dig deeper into the details and you’ll better understand.

    Most of you are overreacting and using a badly researched post to perpetuate the derogatory N label.

    1. So, when developers are building multiple smaller developments instead of a larger one, they are being exploitative.

      I appreciate your new-found embracing of larger-scale development.

      1. Brent, you’re not getting it.

        It’s exploitive because developers who piecemeal projects solely to avoid public notice, design review and SEPA are skirting existing laws in place to address real issues like traffic safety. The project pictured in the article is a case in point. It is a big project even if it’s divided into “two” smaller ones. I’m not for or against certain sizes of developments. I’m for public notice, design review and SEPA when it applies.

        It’s BS that the city treats this as two projects to stay under thresholds triggering public notice, design review and SEPA. One owner, one financier (Blueprint/Dan Duffus), one crew, one set of construction vehicles, one delivery of supplies used for all the units each time there’s a delivery.

        It was originally submitted as one 8,000 SF six-unit building, which exceeds the 4,000 SF and 3+ unit threshold triggering design review for the NC1-30 property in which it sits. The DPD didn’t enforce public notice, design review and SEPA for those plans and didn’t when 12 inches were added in the middle of the six units. The 12-inch divide doesn’t decrease the impact of the 8,000 SF development in an already at-times congested, unsafe neighborhood intersection that’s not on residential block not designed to carry the increased load in traffic and low visibility caused by the six new residences and their customers (live/work requires commercial space on the ground floor). It’s already a mess with construction worker vehicles; harbinger of what’s to come.

        Dismiss these concerns as you will. It’s happening across Seattle, not just here. Again, residents’ want the city to follow its own laws. In reality, 12 inches and an invalid historical lot line do not make this two projects. Even if they did, the impact is one of an 8,000 SF building.

        Why does the city have laws for public notice, design review and SEPA? And why are they holding some developers’ hands in skirting them? That’s the issue with the piecemealed projects.

      2. People who individually, and uncoordinatedly, build lots of small projects — one ranch house after another along a state highway, eventually replacing a rural road with a suburb with driveways every 100 feet — create the *exact same* traffic problems as a single developer building a large project. But they don’t have to go through any of these hoops. Why not?

        If these hoops and hurdles were applicable to EVERYONE, including every single proposal to build anything on any empty lot, then they would be reasonable. Instead, they specifically target dense development while allowing dangerous, traffic-inducing sprawl development.

        That tends to make urbanists very, very suspicious of these hoops and hurdles.

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