WHEN CECILE ANDREWS walks past the mural illustrating the streetscape that developers promise will characterize Phinney Ridge—pedestrians strolling a sunny, tree-strewn sidewalk—she can’t help but worry about the fate of her neighborhood. “Will we want to stop in and say hello,” she asks, “or will it irritate and sadden us?”
It’s a concern shared by residents in neighborhoods all over Seattle. As the city’s population has swelled and its housing market boomed, small, family-oriented neighborhoods like Phinney are being transformed by mixed-use, large-scale developments in order for the city to meet its mandate to channel density into urban areas. “The results with many of these buildings are dreary, sterile-looking places that have nothing to do with true street life,” Andrews says. Fini, the condo building featured in the mural and recently built on Greenwood Avenue, is billed as “the perfect place to enjoy the best of Seattle,” and many admit that the building could be a plus to the neighborhood. But to Andrews and her neighbors, Fini means something else. “Most people sneer, pronouncing it ‘fini,’ because that’s French for ‘finished.’”
In nearby Wedgwood, where another building by Fini developer Murray Franklyn was slated to go up on 35th Avenue, Greg Raece and his neighbors formed the Wedgwood Action Group to fight the development. “Fini scared us into organizing to fight for a building we could stand,” says Raece. “Sadly it’s up to neighborhoods to fight for what they want.”
And fight they do. Similar battles are being waged citywide—longtime residents are loath to let a block-size, multistory building destroy their skyline and ruin their charming Main Street, USA.
“We hear a lot of concern about what is happening with neighborhood character,” says Diane Sugimura, director of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD). “Change is hard to accept.” In her office in downtown’s municipal building—her view filled with construction cranes—Sugimura runs a finger over a neighborhood map of Seattle under the “Comprehensive Plan.” The plan was updated in December 2007 to cope with the region’s steroidal growth—and to respond to the state’s mandated goals to curb suburban sprawl. She points out areas slated for dense development, including downtown, Capitol Hill, First Hill, Lake City, Ballard, Fremont, Greenlake, and Phinney Ridge. Where towering condos would have been unthinkable once, massive construction is under way.
“The results with many of these buildings are dreary, sterile-looking places.” —Cecile Andrews, Phinney Ridge resident
Sugimura and her colleagues are quick to tell success stories of how developments are revitalizing neighborhoods. The Olympic Sculpture Park was transformed from an abandoned industrial wasteland to a place where, Sugimura says, “we’ve improved the pedestrian experience.” In Ballard, argues fellow DPD staffer Alan Justad, new developments are “enlivening the commercial district while providing new housing and replacing nondescript one-story commercial buildings or car lots.” He points to an affordable housing development on Capitol Hill at Broadway and Pine, above Walgreens, which replaced a gas station. “It should help turn around a commercial district that has been struggling, with new residents, services, and eyes on the street.”
Speaking of Capitol Hill: Resident Dennis Saxman recently filed an appeal on a building going up on Pine Street, where some of the neighborhood’s favorite bars (the Cha Cha, Kincora, and Manray) shuttered to make room for a multistory development. “What’s going in just doesn’t fit in,” snaps Saxman, who objects to what he deems the typical ugly condo template, “with its palette of mustard, drab green, and earth brown” and “cheap, nondurable materials” like fiber-cement siding and corrugated metal.
Saxman’s not the only one complaining about condo aesthetics. On his blog Greg Raece posted a photo he took of Fini’s backside. It is much different than the artist-rendered front side—the pedestrian utopia featured in Fini ads. In Raece’s photo the structure crowds the skyline and dwarfs nearby homes. “Here’s what your backyard view could look like,” he wrote, addressing Wedgwood residents expecting a similarly outsize building to be erected nearby.
“Seattle is one of the least dense cities anywhere.” —Bryon Ziegler, Williams Marketing
Bryon Ziegler, a Williams Marketing agent who represents developer Murray Franklyn, defends the Fini project, arguing that it replaced an old garage and will bring in new retail, including a coffee shop, bakery, and library/wine bar. “Seattle is one of the least dense cities anywhere,” he notes. “So it’s important for us to be creating better urban environments and a public realm.”
Raece’s blog rallied Wedgwood residents. They were weeks away from confronting the developer at an appeals hearing. Then Murray Franklyn conceded. The neighbors agreed to stand down in exchange for promises from the developer, including preservation of locally owned retail, and no new suntanning salons, check-cashing counters, or pawnshops. They also negotiated a facade with elements “that reflect the history of Wedgwood” and no “cheesy, backlit plastic signage,” as Raece calls it.
Other neighborhoods have used their leverage to gain amenities from developers. Pinehurst residents helped create the first green Safeway; the grocery chain gets more commercial space and residents get the promise of a community gathering place with eco-friendly features such as a storm-water-filtering, minimum-concrete parking lot and energy-saving refrigeration.
Michael McGinn, director of Seattle Great City Initiative, a nonprofit aimed at growth issues, says the debate is cast as a false dichotomy between density and character. “The problem is not density but poor design,” says McGinn, who believes that the city is only beginning to develop good, compact, and pedestrian-oriented models.
But those models aren’t being developed fast enough, urges Linda Pruitt, another Wedgwood resident. “Seattle prides itself on its neighborhoods,” she says, “but we’re systematically undoing their neighborhood character.”
Wedgwood’s Greg Raece is pleased by recent successes communities like his have had in fighting condo development, but he fears that these wins don’t solve larger, endemic problems. “Right now,” he warns, “the issues of scale, height, bulk, and design are being fought on a case-by-case basis rather than with the help of the city or planners.