Vlad Oustimovitch, Gatewood neighborhood resident and architect, brought his knowledge and depth of experience to the first meeting of the 'Residents of the Junction', a group formed in opposition to micro housing development.
'Residents of the Junction' forms to oppose micro housing construction
In a lightly attended meeting at Holy Rosary School on Mar. 28 a new group calling themselves "Residents of the Junction" met for the first time to try and pool information, energy, and resources primarily in opposition to the micro housing development proposed for 4439 41st Ave. The project would contain 46 units but only provide parking spaces for 5 cars. The project has been drawing the ire of the neighbors since it was first announced and posted on the Seattle Department of Planning and Development website.
Jim Schwartz who lives across the street from the project led the meeting which was really more of a discussion amongst neighbors to try and determine what can be done to slow down or change it. "When I saw the sign go up I was shocked," he said. "To think that I'm going to have 40 to 80 new neighbors across the street from where I live, is threatening to me. It's inconsistent with the fabric of our neighborhood and it poses all sorts of threats to the churches, schools, and the quiet enjoyment of our neighborhood as we've known it."
Traffic, parking, and safety were at the top of the list of concerns, though Abdy Farid brought up the fact that 76% of the site would be excavated, "which is basically the whole site," he said, and that since the alley connects to an aterial it would require a public turn around and that he was waiting for an SDOT and DPD response on these questions.
One neighbor pointed out the reason developers are building micro housing at the rate they are (King County was just described as number 4 nationally in terms of growth) is that in the 90's city municipal code was changed. It was determined at that time that the rules for construction would be adjusted to follow the Urban Village concept. That means higher density housing, in Seattle's various neighborhoods. Later code changes meant that developers could take advantage of much lower tax rates and other loopholes to turn a profit.
Schwartz said, "I think at the end of the day we're going to have to find ourselves engaged with professionals. We need to raise some money. We're to need to really mount an organized, sophisticated, professional opposition."
But the meeting began to take shape when Vlad Oustimovitch, West Seattle architect offered both his experience and point of view.
He said he has been to meetings all over the city, such as Capitol Hill where," it's standing room only for a meeting like this." Conceding that he is a "pacifist" but that now he is "riled up" he suggested that as he has watched the City Council approve these developments "there is going to be hell to pay and the hell is here," and that while it's a "difficult road" he offered his suggestions.
He noted that the controversial 'no parking' apartments project by Mark Knoll near the Morgan Street Junction are similar and said, "This project is just one of many dozens of projects that have people like you sitting in a room right now really upset. There are a series of actions that have occurred over the last few years that have produced the circumstances that are leading to projects like these. The economic argument is even more profound than you know... This project, and most of the projects of this type are exempt from property tax. So they are substantially subsidized up to 12 years. So you have the population that's moving in and, that's not a bad thing. But the bad thing is they are not going to be contributing to the tax base for which things like parks, schools and all those other things that actually make a community functional and sustainable...The Seatttle Municipal Code is the code that regulates all of this."
Developers are also not charged any kind of "impact fees" by the city "because it's against state law" and this is despite "practically every city around us has impact fees."
Oustimovitch said he was in on the end of the process of working on the Urban Village concept for the city but that, "That process never envisioned this type of development and it was a long multi-year process that involved the community.
When the community decided to support the urban village concept things like this were not part of it."
Touching on the issue of parking he said, "Where you have public transportation, and the city is finding this out in Southeast Seattle where there is light rail, you actually need more parking because people drive to take the light rail so they park even more. This concept and this issue of practicality...that's the fundamental problem here. The city has been ideological in its pursuit of some objectives that are kind of larger social issues without formulating to any kind of coherent sustainable plan." He said that "Parking to me is like a public resource. Even if it's in front of your house it belongs to everybody. So when you create a situation where a developer has room for two or three cars on the street to come and build 20 to 40 units and it takes up all of the public resource, that's a very serious issue."
He said he is chairing the Southwest District Council and that they are forming a land use committee "That hopefully is going to create some cohesion in the peninsula," and that he hopes to coordinate with other parts of the city.
Even given public ire over these developments he acknowledged that any kind opposition to them would be difficult. "You're going to have to press hard and press hard right away."
He noted that there are a, "series of things you can do that would just extend the process in order for you to be able to get organized," saying that the group could ask for a public hearing (the 15 day standard comment period has already been extended once).
Julia Doerr who works at Hope Lutheran Church, just adjacent to the planned project said, "I think what's unique about this particular project is that it does back up against a school...I think we can gather funding in some way and hire a land use attorney and figure out effective strategies to try and go at it." She suggested that there may be loopholes in the code that could be exploited to stop or alter the project. She noted that 41st Street S.W. has crest there and that "there is no visibility going either direction and it's on an LR 2 street with single family on the other side where some of the other micro housing units are being built on arterial roads."
That still might be hard however since as Oustimovitch explained, a few years ago, the code was changed that allowed projects like this to sidestep any kind of design review. "They only made it for townhouses and they exempted other buildings...So it's basically anything goes.
He suggested that SEPA, the State Environmental Policy Act "is probably your strongest bet because no matter what the city has passed, they are below state law."
Oustimovitch said the last tactic might be to look more carefully at the voluminous land use code noting that "there a lot of laws that have been passed and some of them do contradict each other."
He said, that the head of DPD, Diane Sugimura "has the ability to write Director's Rules that basically define, if there's conflicting things," appealable by the developer, " that actually help mitigate some of the issues. But she's unwilling to do that. Her mission is to chalk up the statistics on how many units she's getting built. That's her goal in life." He went on to say that "that law that has basically allowed this to be exempt from any kind of design review, she's responsible for that and actually my feeling is, we need to go for the head of the snake. I'm sorry to say this. She's a nice person. I know her. I know her personally but she is not doing her job as the Director. She hasn't even advised the City Council correctly... Her responsibility as director is to provide guidance to the City Council when they pass laws."
Schwartz wrote following the meeting, "A hard copy petition will be created and circulated for signature. An online version of the same petition will be created shortly and made accessible for broader engagement."
You can contact the group to ask questions, lend your support or make suggestions via email at firstname.lastname@example.org