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Energized, galvanized — + a little NIMBY — how 3 groups hope to shape Hill development wave

Untitled, originally uploaded by krulich.

For opponents of Mayor Mike McGinn’s efforts to accelerate the wave of development reshaping Capitol Hill — and get it flowing across the rest of Seattle — this summer’s “regulatory reform” package has been the gift that keeps on giving.

“There’s quite a bit of energy,” John Fox, operator of 18th Ave E’s Foxglove Guest House and a participant in the newly formed Capitol Hill Coalition tells us.

The coalition is one of at least three groups CHS has spoken with in recent weeks organizing around strengthening the community’s position and doing more to shape the waves of development. Meanwhile, Seattle’s anti-City Hall sentiment has grown to strengths great enough that another John Fox — *that* John Fox — has unleashed a plan to fight for district-based city council elections. On Capitol Hill, at least, it’s more than just another NIMBY freak-out.

The Coalition
Here is a list of the coalition group’s recent efforts to build its base and organize for new challenges provided to CHS by steering committee member Kathryn Malý:

Here is a list of activities that several coalition members have been involved with since the regulatory reform work.
  • We formed a steering committee of 10 to try and clarify our mission and decide how we may want to grow our group. This steering committee has been meeting twice a month. The  steering committee works on a consensus basis, realizing that neighbors feel passionately about different projects and that we don’t always agree. We strive to connect people with information via the website and email updates, but we only take a stand on an issue when we have built consensus. An example of this was our May 2012 fight against the commercialization of our multi-family, residential zone.
  • We have continued to build our website
  • We have been studying a variety of different projects planned for the neighborhood, with the goal of advocating for density that incorporates good design, historic preservation, parking, sunlight access for all, “age in place” options, tree preservation, and ample green space (provided by setbacks, courtyards, roof garden, etc).
  • We have been educating ourselves about the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict Proposal and the Capitol Hill Neighborhood Plan, 1997 with the goal of better understanding how different groups are envisioning sustainable growth on the hill.
  • We are networking with other groups on the hill… the Capitol Hill Community Council, the Champion group working on light rail… as well as community groups in other neighborhoods that are facing similar growth, building height and zoning challenges in their urban villages.
  • Fox said the group is rapidly maturing, moderating and making plans to be a real force in the neighborhood. His current focus, by the way, is the landmark nomination process for the 18th Ave house planned to be demolished to make way for this four-story apartment building. Fox wrote about the house in this CHS community post over the summer. We’ll have more on the nomination process soon as the project comes before the board next week.

    For a group that first made clumsy steps aligning with a neighbor’s beef against a 12th Ave cohousing development, the latest Capitol Hill Coalition agenda is downright reasonable.

    Reasonable Density?
    Quite a few in CHS comments didn’t find the work of another NIMBY 2.0-style Capitol Hill group to be all that reasonable when we introduced them on this post where Reasonable Density Seattle helped us map microapartment projects across the Hill. The group includes the individuals behind the infamous “ATTENTION DEVELOPERS” warning signs posted near homes for sale near 15th Ave E.

    “I don’t want the whole domino effect where the entire block is built that way,” a member of the group told CHS during a recent meeting at a 15th Ave E coffee shop.

    The people with Reasonable Density, at this point, would rather not be identified publicly because of the brutal criticism they say can come along with being aligned along NIMBY lines. Not all the RDS people we met are homeowners. They say about 25 members showed up at a recent Capitol Hill Community Council meeting to show support. Their common bond is, mostly, a desire to preserve the feel of the quieter streets atop Capitol Hill. Oh yeah — they also said they’re dedicated CHS readers.

    “Everyone is sharing the burden but not everybody is sharing the benefits,” one member said of the aPodment developers continuing to exploit a zoning loophole that allows their projects to be built without public environmental and design review.

    Here is the group’s written response to our question — what are you trying to accomplish?

    We are not opposed to apodments® or other forms of micro-housing. We believe that the height increase that allows 40+ feet apartment buildings in LR3 zones that were previously limited to 30 feet should be rolled back. We also believe that plans for all multi-unit buildings should be subject to the same regulations as already exist in our laws and that any loopholes in counting methodologies should be eliminated. Once buildings are constructed they will affect a neighborhood for a long time, so we are asking the City to impose a moratorium on all such projects until the zoning language can be clarified and the overall impact of such housing can be assessed more fully. 

    The group’s near-term goal is a moratorium on microhousing-style projects like the one brought to stop the proliferation of “tall skinny” houses in the city earlier this summer. Representatives for the group say they’ve made progress connecting with City Council members including council president Sally Clark.

    “We’re going to continue working with the ones that show interest,” one member said.

    With what you might call the radical (but reasonable) fringe being formed around the Capitol Hill Coalition and Reasonable Density Seattle efforts, the most powerful centrist in the neighborhood these days might not feel NIMBY at all. Made up of land owners, architects and developers, the Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council’s participants are not your typical anti-development community group.

    But even PPUNC is re-energized.

    “There was kind of a quiet period — in part coinciding with economic downturn. The group was not as active,” says PPUNC co-chair David Dologite of Capitol Hill Housing. “In response to some of the development proposals that are coming down the pike, people are getting reengaged.”

    He said pike, not E Pike — though PPUNC’s geographic focus keeps it mostly centered on things Pike/Pine, the group has also been influential in the Capitol Hill Station development process as some leading participants overlap with the community Champion group formed to help guide the transit oriented development of Sound Transit’s parcels.

    Boasting a membership including popular local developer Liz Dunn, PPUNC’s major focus is strengthening the Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District designed to provide developers with incentives like an extra story of height in exchange for preserving the “character” of existing buildings.

    PPUNC brought its energy to bear on this massive 10th and Union project this summer and won a commuted death sentence for at least one auto row-era Pike/Pine building.

    Right now, when Capitol Hill developers say there is community support for a project, they are talking about PPUNC.

    “There’s a fair amount of work to be done,” Dologite says of building up the renewed group. “Between the leg work on figuring out what about the overlay needs to be strengthened, the advocacy work to get broad based support legislatively, and fundraising, we’ll be very busy.”

    The group’s plan to hire a land use attorney will effectively turn some of PPUNC’s power toward lobbying at City Hall. It’s a move that could make the community group an even more powerful player on Capitol Hill while further shaping the development framework of the entire city.

    “Seattle has a generally development friendly entitlement process,” Dologite said. “PPUNC positions itself as trying to take a pragmatic approach to thsese issues. We’re pro density, pro development.”

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    9 years ago

    Not a bad article – I would respectfully suggest that we dispense with the NIMBY tags. It’s cute and catchy, but isn’t really any kind of discussion and doesn’t convey any real information. At it’s worst, it’s name calling and a discussion ender.
    The issues are complex and inter-twined. Of these various groups, I know of no-one who is anti-density, anti-building, just for it’s own sake and/or to be ornery.
    The flip of this are folks who may be pro any kind of growth/density for it’s own sake.
    There has been a kind of manufactured concensus that Cap Hill residents are willing to say yes to anything the Mayor, the Council, and developers come up with. This is not the case, and it’s deeper than a “fringe” group. It’s also rather naive to take the position that anything the above triad comes up with is in the long term benefit to Cap Hill and Seattle in regard to sustainability, affordability, and quality of life.
    Over the past 30 years that I’ve been living here, development has generally been good for the Hill. We are in a new phase now. Time to pay attention.

    9 years ago

    Reasonable density is an admirable goal for every neighborhood in Seattle. The problem with Capitol Hill’s spate of development is that reason has been thrown out the window. Destroying the charm and character of the Hill is short-sighted and foolish – once it is gone, no one will want to be there, visit there or spend money there. I can see why people want district elections – not one member of the present council and certainly not the mayor care about Capitol Hill -they’ll over-sell it and retire to their quiet neighborhoods beyond the vagaries of DPD loopholes and developer greed.

    M. Wells
    9 years ago

    I think that the challenge for any group working to create and care for a healthy neighborhood, a healthy city is to be able to articulate what the organization stands for and not just what it is against. That kind of energy only burns so bright. To really engage people an organization needs to have a mission that’s promoting a positive change for the better on some level.

    9 years ago

    I am not sure how a group plans on being powerfully heard without acknowledging who its members and leaders are. If you are against density, be out and proud of this! You cannot recruit more people to your cause without being open and honest about who you are.

    The one thing I would say is that you need to come up with a “reasonable” explanation for why 30 feet vs. 40 feet is so critical to you. That usually equals one story of extra height on a multi-family building. As you can see when you walk around the Hill, there are hundreds of examples of 4+ story buildings built from 1900 on up here. And many are in current single family neighborhoods, especially around 15th Ave E…

    Did your group participate in the new L3 zoning that was just adopted? There was a HECK of a lot of input gathered for that change through hearings and neighborhood meetings…

    9 years ago

    Fair enough, as a general principal, Mr. Wells, and well said to boot. But there are times when one has little choice but to fight a largely defensive battle. At a moment when developers of the size and influence of Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate (VRE) are eyeing Capitol Hill like a piece of ripe fruit ready to be plucked, and the Mayor and a compliant City Council seem more than ready to oblige them at every turn, people need to be very much on the defensive. At moments like this, the preservation of what one values in one’s community is a very positive vision indeed. I see no harm in saying that I’m FOR the preservation of Capitol Hill’s cherished human ecology and AGAINST its destruction by those who would stand to profit greatly from it. Two sides of the same coin, aren’t they?

    Secondly, it would seem that the groups in question have in fact done a very good job of engaging people. The brush fire that was ignited last spring continues to burn brightly enough to have caused no inconsiderable disquiet among the groups who seem to think that density is the only value worthy of consideration. Evidence enough of a job well done, it seems to me.

    9 years ago

    I would second the suggestion that the NIMBY tag be dispensed with, and for the following reasons:

    • There’s little hope for a reasonable discussion when the name-calling starts in an article’s headline and is then repeated 5 more times in the text which follows.

    •As was said very well above, reducing complex and nuanced issues to a derogatory catch-phrase does little to promote the serious discussion of serious issue among serious people. It only indicates that the person using it has not really thought through the issue at hand in any depth. One would think that anyone who considers himself a serious journalist would be above that sort of thing.

    •The expression doesn’t really seem to MEAN anything in particular. If it does, perhaps the writer of the article above might want to spell out for us exactly what that meaning might be.

    M. Wells
    9 years ago

    NIMBY traditioanly stands for Not In My Backyard. From Wikipedia : The term (or the derivative Nimbyism) is used pejoratively to describe opposition by residents to a proposal for a new development close to them, developments that are generally needed in the society. Opposing residents themselves are sometimes called Nimbies.

    9 years ago

    To accuse a group of not being “open and honest” about who they are in the comments below an article in which two of the leaders of one of the groups in question are interviewed is silly. For a person who writes behind the shield of a nom de plume like “kgdig” to make such an accusation even sillier. Sillier yet when one considers that the members of the other group in question all put signs in front of their homes, condos and apartments so that any chimp with a dial-up connection could quickly enough figure out who they were.

    As to the writer’s second point, many of the taller buildings in what are now the LR3 zones on the hill were constructed before there was any zoning at all (zoning laws only started to come to Seattle in the late 1920’s, and have been rewritten many ties since). As to the height limit in those zones, apartment buildings in the urban village/center can now be 44′ above the average grade, meaning that they can effectively be 5 stories on lots where the grade is above street level. That’s a big change, and there was in fact VERY LITTLE meaningful public outreach when that change was made.

    M. Wells
    9 years ago

    I, also, would encourage the Reasonable Density folks to reconsider their stanxe on anonymity. It becomes hard to take any group of folks trying to make civic change seriously if they won’t attach their own names to the work that they are doing. Yes, it can be a contentious conversation. But that’s the price that you pay if you want to engage in the public discourse. And, to respond to Jamdyce, no one should have to do detective work to figure those things out.

    9 years ago

    It’s a little surprising to hear Mr. Wells imply that the use of pejorative labels is acceptable in what ought to be a reasoned public discourse about serious issues of public policy. Mr. Wells has heretofore had the reputation of being unfailingly polite; I sincerely hope he’s not changed his approach in that regard.

    It’s also surprising to hear Mr. Wells, in his argument, assume that which has yet to be proved. He writes that the epithet “NIMBY” is used to describe opponents of developments “that are generally needed in society”. How exactly are we to determine what’s needed and what isn’t before carefully examining the issue on its merits? Are we to blindly assume and accept – before the fact and without argument – that EVERY development proposal and every change to the Land Use Code is a reflection of what’s “generally needed”? Shouldn’t we be having a robust, reasonable, open and civil public discussion about whether a given policy or development truly serves the broad interest of the community? Or should we simply hurl pejoratives at one another and let it all degenerate into a food fight?

    Let’s turn this argument on its head: let’s assume that there is in fact a proposal to roll back the height limit on structures in the Lowrise zones. Folks opposed to that – in many cases the very ones who’ve been so quick to employ the NIMBY label – will doubtless rise in opposition, saying that they’ll permit no such thing in their backyard. Now we get to call THEM the “NIMBY’S”. So instead of discussing the issue on its merits, we all get to sit around calling each other NIMBY’s and the whole discussion is reduced to the most meaningless sort of drivel, isn’t it? Really, folks, can’t we raise the level of the game a little bit here?

    9 years ago

    I gave the decision about what word to use a great deal of thought and spoke with the groups about it also. Some people I spoke to could have cared less — some didn’t like it. To me, it came down to understanding the issues and being honest about some of the motives. I have deep respect for the people and groups I spoke or emailed with and the positions that they took the time to explain to me. The word is loaded but is undeniably relevant — a theme running through each of the groups is local activism. I also would not have used it if what I found in talking to these groups couldn’t stand up to some of the negative connotation the word carries. This is not about their efforts to reshape the city of Seattle. It was clear to me that this was about what is happening on the streets near where they live or work. This is about their neighborhood. I think it’s a fair label. But it’s only a label.

    9 years ago

    Given the sort of invective leveled at the members of Reasonable Density in the comments to other articles on this blog, given the fact that the article above starts out with name-calling and never lets it drop, given the fact that the members of Reasonable Density who put signs on their own property then had those signs defaced, stolen or vandalized (which is a misdemeanor, by the way), should it be any surprise that they’re not interested in sticking their necks out any more than they already have? Perhaps Mr. Wells’ time might be better spent getting some of the folks on his side of the issue to dial back on the nasty rhetoric (and the vandalism) so that an open and civil discussion might in fact ensue.

    CapHill Designer
    9 years ago

    Jarndyce: You claim that it is a FACT that there was very little public outreach when the changes to the Lowrise code were made. You could not be more wrong.

    The changes to the Lowrise code that took effect in April, 2011 were the culmination of an exhaustive process that began in 2005. During the 5+ years leading to the approval of the changes, there were literally dozens of public meetings to discuss and debate potential changes. Hundreds of citizens volunteered tens of thousands of hours of their time to ensure legislation that was both thoughtful and thorough. These are people who actually understand the issues and care deeply about the future of our city.

    Your ignorant comment is an insult to not only these generous citizens, but also to the dozens of city staff that spent years crafting the legislation and to our elected officials.

    M. Wells
    9 years ago

    My rsponse was intended only to clarify the use of the word NIMBY, which the previous commenter quesationed the definition of. The definition is entirely Wikipedia’s, cut and pasted. I would agree with them that the word is used almost exclusively as a pejorative and is shorthand for a very complicated civic discourse. My intent weas not to be disrepectful, it was to provide clarity to what I pewrcceived as a question. But perhaps that question was rhetorical. That can be hard to read sometimes in blog comments.

    I promise you, there is little in the world that I value more than civility in civic discourse.

    Also, as a proud former bookseller, I must admit it was lazy of me to use Wikipedia -I should have gone to my cherished American Heritage Dictionary.

    M. Wells
    9 years ago

    I can assure you that I spend a significant amount of time – far more than anyone would hope to – in trying to make sure that all parties in this intense, sometimes heated and emotional, discussion about the future of our neighborhood and our city remain civil. I’m not sure who you see as the folks “on my side” but I can also assure you that no one I associate with personally or professionally takes part in vandalism or nasty rhetoric.


    […] fall, CHS documented a new spirit of activism on the Hill as groups emerged to shape the ongoing pressures of development in the […]