Wednesday, activists are planning to protest outside the opening of New Seasons in Ballard to bring attention, they say, to the private equity investment firm-owned grocery chain’s anti-labor, anti-union activities. In Madison Valley, another grocery chain is facing pushback but the circumstances are much different. A land development deal to build a six-story, mixed-use apartment building, anchored by a new PCC grocery store in the heart of Madison Valley is about to close but opposition from a neighborhood group, if successful, could stop construction from breaking ground any time soon.
Community group Save Madison Valley has opposed the scale of the project since Velmeir Companies agreed to purchased the property currently home to City People’s in 2016. Velmeir expects to receive final approval from the city in the next few weeks to begin work where the garden store currently resides. But a Save Madison Valley appeal could gum up the “master use permit” process.
“The area is ripe for development, but it’s been a development on steroids,” said Melissa Stoker, SMV spokesperson.
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According to Stoker who lives next door to the proposed site, among other things, the development will be too large to suit the neighborhood, and the underground garage “is doomed to be a huge traffic problem.” The area is widely known as a bottleneck traffic zone, which SMV believes would be a cluster made worse by the PCC.
Velmeir vice president Geza de Gall says he hand picked PCC grocery for the development. “This is one of the last places we saw that has an opportunity to bring a solid community based oriented provider in PCC and an opportunity to bring some residential density into the market where there is a bit of a void,” he said.
The building is designed for an underground parking lot below the market with room for more than 160 vehicles, 75 apartments in three floors above the market, and six townhouses behind the complex. Under contract with the property owners, the land purchase price will be public record once the permit process is resolved and the deal closes. For now, it’s a secret.Big money or no, the Save Madison Valley group says it will take the case to court to stop the development altogether if necessary unless the project is significantly altered to meet their requirements for a smaller project. The developer grappled with an high level of community feedback during the lengthy process and worked with architect Charles Strazzara to revise the design over the course of three design review board meetings. “I thought we went in with a design that met concerns with neighbors, but our initial design morphed significantly for the better and there have been some meaningful changes,” said Geza de Gall.
Velmeir developers have met with SMV on four occasions since 2017. “It’s their neighborhood, they have strong emotion and it’s their right,” said Geza de Gall “But you know, the project is not going to be half the size because from an economic standpoint, it would not be viable.”
The group was formed in March 2016, shortly after Stoker says she learned of the land action. Since then, the community group has reached out to PCC and met with the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections. “The Design Review Board did make some adjustments,” said Stoker “but they don’t have a lot of authority.”
More than 100 public comment letters have been sent to the city’s design review board and other agencies since then, arguing the development’s size, parking entrance and tree handling. More than 75 of them have been from members of SMV, with 13 letters written by Stoker. From the way the Land Use Action permit sign was hung in 2016, to the number of trees that will or won’t be deemed exceptional, Stoker and SMV have been passionately opposed to nearly every part of the mixed-use building. Fundamentally, “the codes have been misinterpreted by the city to allow this design,” Stoker said.Lisa Rutzick, Design Review Panning Manager for the city says, “People love City People’s and are attached to that. It’s a really easy neighbor to have. They’re getting a development that’s taking advantage of the full zoning law. There’s a lot of things mixed up in it and people don’t want change to happen, or just not as dramatic.”
After seven years of aggressive developments in Seattle, Geza de Gall says the angst that SMV is experiencing is in kind with general development fatigue seen more lately around Seattle but “SMV is a very vocal minority,” he said.
Still, the design review process has yielded several changes to the originally intended structure, including crawling vine greenery on the street facing facade, decorative garage door screening, and a reduction of the originally proposed number of parking spaces below ground to make way for the townhouses.
The escalation of the debate between SMV and the building may lead to the opposite intended effect. “If we are still in the review process a few months down the road, that gives us the opportunity to rethink and go in with an even larger project,” Geza de Gall said. The Velmeir development was greenlit prior to the 2017 HALA overlay requiring developers to allocate between 5-7% of units to affordable prices within 60% AMI and the planning around Mandatory Housing Affordability and upzoning.
Ironically, if SMV appeals the permit decision, Velmeir says it may join the still optional HALA program. If they decide to revamp the cost structure to include affordable units, the city would allow an additional 10 vertical feet to the building.
“It’s clear after a year of engagement with SMV that we weren’t going to get to a place with them of getting along,” said Geza de Gall. “But I do know the project is viewed in political circles as being consistent with land use objectives.”
“Madison Valley is where a lot of emotion occurs,” Seattle City Council member Rob Johnson says about the situation. “That’s because it’s a neighborhood that has a lot of infrastructure and a lot of support but is primarily a single-family neighborhood,” he said.
“We as a city have had intentions which say if you’ve got a lot of good stuff, we want to see that more people can live by that good stuff because it should be shared by more residents as the city continues to grow,” Johnson, who chairs the land use committee spearheading Seattle’s affordability and development changes, said.
City People’s, meanwhile, has a lease that keeps the garden store at its longtime location until June, “and then month-to-month until the new development breaks ground,” the Seattle Times reports. Its ownership continues its search for a new location. A permit has been filed to make way for demolition of the E Madison garden store but it also remains under review.