Capitol Hill neighborhood first to feel the growing pains of Seattle’s new zoning laws

Seattle’s recent major overhaul of its zoning laws is bringing change to the neighborhood surrounding 11th and Republican. In a packed meeting of the Capitol Hill Design Board last Wednesday night, the board sent a plan to create a new apartment building abutting the future FedRep park at 11th and Republican through to the next stage of the design approval process despite near unanimous opposition from community members who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting.


“Of course we need density,” said one resident who held up a diagram he created showing what a four-story building would like rising above the future park. “Broadway has met that requirement.”

Despite the audience’s applause, the design board didn’t have much to say about the new “Lowrise 3” designation assigned to the area in the update to Seattle’s multifamily code spearheaded by City Council member Sally Clark and approved by full Council this past winter. “The board can’t really change size allowed by zoning,” said new board chair Evan Bourquard. “We can’t just make this a single family development.”

Deliberating after the public comment period, the board decided to pass the project to the next phase of the design process and advised the developers to go ahead with their application for a Master Use Permit, according to Department of Planing and Development planner Shelley Bolser.

In addition to being smack in the middle of a wide area of the Hill qualifying for the “L3” zoning, the future light rail line will run directly below the development planned by Nicholson Kovalchick Architects and be only a few blocks from the Broadway station filling the blocks from John past Denny. The apartment building is likely a sign of things to come with the increased potential for growth in the area boosted by increased transit options and other economic incentives offered by living in more walkable environments close to services and employment. 

A view of Capitol Hill’s land use zones. See the City’s full map here (pdf) (Image: Nicholson Kovalchick)

That didn’t mean most of the assembled neighbors were ready to welcome the project. CHS will summarize: Most said they felt the building was too damn big for the neighborhood. But there were also granular issues related to sunlight at the park and the character of 11th Ave. Here is a selection of comments from the public portion of the meeting:

  • “Just because we can doesn’t mean we should,” one woman said. “The park and the community need to be valued. The massiveness [of Broadway] is just overwhelming.”
  • ” I love the concept of saving the house but [the project is] contradictory to design guidelines for the neighborhood.”
  • “East/west streets are how you get to the arterials. The number streets are where people live.”
  • “… a 4-story building would put the park in shade full-time.”
  • “If this allowed, will the next one be allowed?”
  • “You’re protecting this neighborhood, making sure whatever gets built is appropriate for the neighborhood.”

Not everybody who spoke made comments against the project. One supporter was the author of the Seattle Land Use Code Blog who wrote about his experience attending the meeting:

People are starting to get the idea, as someone pointed out, the “density is coming.” But I asked folks at the meeting “where will it go? If not here, where?” I pointed out that the Pantages project on E Denny and Harvard works (I am writing this on my phone so I can’t link now). I told people “you’re going to love this project when it’s done!”

The chair chastised me as he did others to “address comments to the chair.” But this is “frontlash” plain and simple. People prefer the known to the unknown. And there was audible eye rolling when the developer said the smaller the building the less money there would be to preserve the house–an example of our knee jerk suspiscion that everyone is lying to us in public process. The developer is right, the more pressure to reduce the size of the project the less money there is to do what the neighborhood wants done with the house.

Despite its inability to address the greater issues around scale and appropriateness in relation to existing housing in the area, the Board did make suggestions related to making the development mesh better with the single family homes on 11th Ave and doing more to reduce the height of the structure to better relate to the nearby park. The Board asked Nicholson Kovalchick to continue working on their preferred design with these community-inspired modifications:

  • Moving the proposed building from near the north property line
  • Dropping the west building one story (perhaps by removing the proposed parking)
  • Carving back the upper floor of the west building to allow more light and air to the Park

 

Some who oppose the development have shared their message in chalk

During the Wednesday night session, Nicholson Kovalchick said it was already considering dropping the building’s unit count significantly and building larger units that would be more likely to attract families. While it wouldn’t change the building size significantly, it’s one modification that would help the design achieve the parameters set by the design board.

More notes from the board’s deliberation provided to us by Bolser:

*         The Board is open to possible departures to make the space between the new and existing building on site narrower, and open to reducing the south and east setbacks to make more room at the north and west property lines.

o   The space at the interior of the site should be carefully detailed to tie the overall design of the two buildings and create an amenity for residents.

*         The Board would not be amenable to departures to reduce the setback at the north and west sides.

*         The overall site design should reference the pattern of development along 11th Ave E (one way to achieve this is to place the existing ‘house’ close to the east property line and not add new buildings on either side of it).

*         Maximize light and air to the Park.

*         The design should be done to carefully reference historic elements such as building mass, building proportion, scale, articulation, materials, decks, sunshades, etc.  It’s possible to do this well with a modern design, but the Board noted that the preliminary sketches don’t appear to do that yet.

*         The landscaping should relate to the proposed Park design.  The applicant should demonstrate how the landscaping and hardscape will relate to the design of the new retaining wall at the west property line and the Park beyond.

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13 thoughts on “Capitol Hill neighborhood first to feel the growing pains of Seattle’s new zoning laws

  1. Really? I will remember that the next time I’m taking 12th, 15th or 23rd to get to the 90, that I’m supposed to be on Denny or John. Wait!?!? Those won’t get me to the 90. Love people who stand up in front of a room of people and say stupid stuff.

  2. Initially I was glad to hear that the plan was to preserve the old white house, but I had a close look at it today and have changed my mind. It really is in terrible condition…there are tall weeds growing out of the gutters, obvious structural damage to the roof, roofline, window frames, and probably other areas that you can’t see. It’s badly in need of a new roof, new siding, and a complete paint job… but these would only give cosmetic improvement and not structural. My guess is that it would take a small fortune to adequately rehab this house. And, given its state of disrepair, is it really feasible to move it into the corner of the lot?

    I greatly prefer older homes, but sometimes they have lived out their realistic lifetime. Just for discussion sake, a question: If the old house was demolished, would it then be possible to build a new apartment building of only two stories instead of the planned four stories, and make this size profitable for the developer? Wouldn’t a well-designed 2 story building fit in much better with the surrounding neighborhood?

  3. Sommerset condos all over again. The Council doesn’t care what the community wants, they care about their donations from the developer.

    BTW, I doubt anyone connected to this blog knows anything about the Sommerset condos fight. But we’ve been down this road before. In the early 80s.

  4. You’ve got to be kidding me. This 11th & Rep. building is the tiniest little apartment building… It’s blocks, BLOCKS away from the downtown of the largest city in the Pacific Northwest.

    Maybe you should have talked the landowners of the old BMW property between Pike/Pine to buy out the development rights of 11th & Rep., and talked the council into letting taller buildings go into the Pike Pine.

  5. If only Seattle were a true big city. I have been to New York, London, and now Chicago and the thing that Seattle is lacking is true density. A real city functions only when there is density. London and Chicago have achieved this density very well. There is a mix of old and new and everything flows nicely. We need to look to them and move forward!

  6. One of the worst comments in a while…where to begin….ok, the Seattle/London-NY-Chi comparison is terrible, for many reasons.

    London has 5-10x or more population that Seattle and was settled, um, about 1000 yrs ago. Landuse patterns, building technologies, types etc were put in place so long ago that denisty happened due to historical economic and logistical facotrs, much more so than was mandated by codes. Building heights are much lower in most areas than where the developers and council want to take ours.

    Chicago has density is some areas, but not in many, many of its neighborhoods and suburbs. Its density in a few areas doesnot preclude massive sprawl in other areas – quite the opposite. Massive taxes, bueracracy, crime and other issues releated to the city and its denisty have driven the population out of the city to gobble up tremendous amounts of farmland and woods and small towns outside it in the last 40 yrs. I’m not sure how many people would really say that Chicago’s denisty ‘works well’. Maybe if live in Lincoln Park and ride the El downtown. Other than that, its a crowded, dirty, rough place that is hard for families to live in. And if it’s so great, why are you living here?

    I think we can find much better cities to model ourselves after – PDX, Sydney are two that come to mind. Poluplations match with similar values and life-style oriented populations than NYC, Chi or Lon.

  7. … and my one stipulation is that the house be integrated in the new design. The property I now live on once only had one household on it–there are now six. I think we can increase the density of that corner lot and not lose the integrity of the neighborhood.

  8. I completely agree. Thanks for saying this. I’ve lived all over the world too and a 4 story building in an urban area a few blocks from mass transit is (1) not scary and (2) good urban planning.

  9. This is a positive thing for the city. NIMBYism should be expected with any change in Seattle, but I’m glad the City made this zoning change and I support this project. Seattle is maturing as an urban environment and it’s painful for some, but hey, that’s life in the big city.