Lawyers and money: neighborhood activists in Capitol Hill are deploying a classic arsenal in their fight against local microhousing. At issue is how to count the number of units in a microhousing building and, as a consequence, whether a proposed project at 741 Harvard Ave E. is subject to design review. In the wake of a summer ruling that effectively stopped the project — and others like it — the Harvard developers are fighting back with an appeal that could put the development back in motion.
To keep that from happening, the Harvard Ave Neighbors group has lawyered-up to prevent the project from skipping the review process.
Organizer Larry Nicholas says at question is whether wealthy developers with “an unending amount of money to throw at a project” are subject to the same laws as everyone else.
Tiny apartments are still apartments, he maintains, and the impact of dozens of new residents on the neighborhood’s infrastructure — trash and parking, for instance — won’t be mitigated by semantic fancy-footwork around the definition of a dwelling unit.
“There’s legitimate concerns about the impact of adding this much density,” Nicholas says, pointing to already-extant problems in the neighborhood’s sewer system.
In August, Harvard Ave Neighbors successfully argued in King County Superior Court that, contrary to a prior decision by the Department of Planning and Development, the number of “dwelling units” in a microhousing building should be determined by individually-rented bed-‘n-bath rooms, not by the number of communal kitchens. Consequently, the developer who hopes to erect microhousing a block north of Joe Bar will have to complete a design review to assess the building’s impact on the surrounding neighborhood. That review will cost the accurately-named developer, 741 Harvard Ave. E., LLC and Footprint Investments, a pretty penny ($250 per hour to the city) and give neighbors a platform from which to voice any and all objections.
Unless, of course, the developer wins on appeal.
Nicholas says that Harvard Ave. Neighbors raised and spent about $55 thousand for prior court costs, mostly out of their own pockets, and have so far raised about a sixth of the $30,000 they think they’ll need to win this new round of litigation. The window for submitting appeal briefs is from November 26 until January 26, after which the court will set a date to hear oral arguments.
In the August ruling in the Neighbors’ favor, Judge Laura Middaugh found (PDF) that since the Seattle Municipal Code defines a “dwelling unit” as “living accommodations independent from any other household,” micro-units are individual “dwelling units” even though the building would also include eight communal kitchens. (She also noted that the developer had used different unit counts for tax classification and permit classification.) Her ruling means that 741 Harvard Ave. E., if built according to the plans that DPD approved, would be legally comprised of 49 units rather than eight.
Guess how many units a new residential building can have without triggering a design review… eight. So at stake in the appeal, which could take up to a year to resolve, is whether the four-story, $1.5 million project at 741 Harvard Ave. E. would be subject to a potentially costly and turbulent design review. As for precedent, the case might take a back seat to the finally fully baked microhousing regulations taking effect in Seattle that leave room for the most-densely packed type of microhousing only in parts of Capitol Hill and the Central District.
Nicholas also has several NIMBY-flavored arguments against the development, bemoaning the erosion of old neighborhoods and decrying the expansion of housing for yuppie singles. (In fairness, DPD’s original approval did construe the project as a “multifamily structure.”) “There’s all this incentive for ‘Housing, housing,’ [but] what about the people that live here?” Nicholas asks. “What about the people that have invested and are paying the taxes and are invested in the community?…We’ve put half our worth into our homes, and these developers are putting up these monstrosities.” With Seattle’s population exploding, there’s mounting pressure to increase housing, fast. But, Nicholas says, “Do you need to put them all on Capitol Hill?”
“If critics want to call us NIMBYs, that’s fine,” he said. “But we gathered, and our voice was heard.”
It appears the developer is ready to hedge its bets. According to a DPD spokesperson, Footprint has recently submitted new plans which, their court appeal notwithstanding, would go through design review. A representative for the company did not reply to requests for comment.
In the meantime, the Harvard Neighbors are looking for more people to get involved in their legal fight. You can contact the group at Harvardneighbors@outlook.com.