Thanks to the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection’s (SDCI) public service of sending out local project design review notifications via post, I was recently made aware of a new, substantial West Seattle residential project nearby my home that checks many of the STB readership must-have boxes: Less than one-quarter of a mile from a RapidRide stop, within an urban village boundary, and in a newly-upzoned area thanks to HALA (SF 5000 to LR3-M2). The project will sound familiar to readers of this publication: demolish three single-family houses on three lots to create 36 new residences across three buildings of varying size (but none less than three stories). The project proposes only 15 parking spots, all surface and accessed from an improved alleyway, and storage for 36 bicycles. It’s not perfect, and I’ll discuss why in a moment, but it is absolutely a net positive over the current uses and represents a pragmatic realization of exactly what HALA set out to do.
When I dug into the glossy design document provided by the developer, I found that community feedback largely supported the increased density, asked for a wide variety of unit types (including elusive 3-bedroom units), and called on the developer to create safe paths for pedestrians and cyclists near and through the site. Predictably, there was also the token shout-out to parking availability concerns, which the developer has attempted to address and which I do not personally believe are problematic living mere blocks from the project site.
Most interesting to me though is the fact that the design document included not only the go-forward plan, but also two other design concepts both larger than the preferred alternative: five stories with 59 units plus 18 parking spaces, and three-to-five stories with 57 units and 31 parking spaces (both feature parking shared between surface and below-ground). So, the developer’s preferred choice represents design concept minima in both residential capacity and parking — which also places a reduced upper-bound on revenue-generating potential of the site as well.
This is a difficult balance to strike, and to me, an interesting meditation on urbanism: if I could make a decision by fiat, which concept would I select? (Not the same thing as “if could build anything here, what would it be?”) None of the proposed solutions perfectly represent the dual facts that humanity faces a global climatological emergency and that Seattle suffers an immediate and dramatic gap in housing density and availability close to frequent transit. The developer chose the proposal with the least amount of parking in raw, but not parking-per-residential-unit terms. The proposal also doesn’t include any of the community-requested 3-bedroom residential units, which I consider to be essential additions to a densifying community. The design packet includes Floor-Area Ratio (FAR) percentages, and the chosen proposal is again, the lowest of the three at 77%. But, would the larger proposals (99.5% and 96.8% respectively) meet with enough community opposition that we’d end up with the smaller site plan in the end anyway, and everyone has just wasted their time? To me this is a classic illustration of the politics of compromise (and realpolitik) and choosing one’s battles wisely — and just how hard those things can be.
This situation shows that density battles have to be won in the wonky trenches of design reviews, something I believe this readership is well-positioned to influence. SDCI obviously reviews the comments it receives from the community during the comment phases of these reviews, and they seem to capture additional ideas not directly gathered by the developer during their own feedback-gathering process. So, I can’t stress this enough: when you see a Design Review sign nearby or get a notification in the mail (or see something nearby on SDCI’s handy GIS map), do the work to find the application design packet and send in comments — quickly. The comment period for most Administrative Design Review actions seems to be just two weeks.
Again, this project is a win in all respects over the status quo — but maybe it could be better, and that paying attention to the Design Review process and sending in comments is a path to winning density battles on the ground where good projects become great ones.