Photo by Jerry Gay
On 22nd Ave NW, the foundation of a new townhome sits next to a townhome nearing completion.

In Ballard, a wave of townhouses densifying the neighborhood

In Ballard, it’s become hip to hate on high-rise apartments and condominiums. After all, they took the place of the neighborhood bowling Alley, Archie McPhee’s, Jacobsen’s Marine, Denny’s and a bevy of old churches. They’re bringing in a wave of strangers, increasing traffic and taking up parking. High buildings cast shadows and block views.

But there’s another type of development residents may have noticed springing up around Ballard. Townhouses and narrow single family houses built on subdivided lots. The idea is to fill up the extra space in Seattle with more houses, essentially squishing in homes where there was only property before. It’s density in a milder, more subtle form.

“Ballard is seeing a lot of development for two primary reasons: It has a good amount of multifamily zoned land and it is a very desirable place to live due to proximity to jobs and amenities,” said Mark Knoll, CEO of Blueprint Capitol, a development firm that has been leading the charge on developing townhomes in the Ballard area and Seattle as a whole.

Currently, Blueprint is involved in 82 projects in the Northwest area of Seattle, which on their website (http://blueprintcap.com) includes Queen Anne, Magnolia, Wallingford and Green Lake. But most of the projects are centered in Ballard. They are either completed and on the market, pending a sale or still under construction.

A point often made by Mike Kahrs, president of the Central Ballard Residents Association, is that growth in Ballard is exploding far beyond city planners’ previous expectations. Whenever he brings in speakers from the city to talk at CBRA meetings, one of his first questions is always, “What are you going to do about this?” Or, how is the new growth going to be handled in a responsible way? Particularly, Kahrs has been concerned about parking, or lack thereof.

Roger Valdez, who advocates for Blueprint and is director of Smart Growth Seattle, has been one of the more vocal proponents of density in Seattle.

“Those are definitely real worries that people have when change comes to the neighborhood … I think more people means more challenges with parking and other things like that,” Valdez said. “We can’t deny that more people has an effect. But again, you look at it, you build one house block, how much impact can that really have?”

Valdez did concede that as the neighborhood grew, there would be some loss.

“There’s no doubt that when that kind of change comes, you lose something,” he said, citing the paving over of beloved institutions. “But our belief is that what you get more than offsets that loss. That’s the way cities are, there’s change. And we should preserve what we can, hang onto stuff from the past, but build stuff for the future.”

In a more poetic fashion, Valdez said, “I always say our neighborhoods don’t belong to us, they belong to the past the present and the future.

Valdez believes that the single-family and townhome housing that he has been promoting has a relatively low impact compared to the high-rise apartments. In 2012, he said, 190 single family homes were built in all of Seattle.

“When you think about it that is really a relatively modest amount of homes,” he said.

However, in Ballard, reactions have been mixed. When the old Swanton House in Sunset Hill was physically moved to the edge of its property line to make room for two more houses, neighbors were unsettled. The house, which sits on a three-lot property, was built in 1903 and is full of history and historic charm. The property, too, was one of the few spacious ones left in the area.

Additionally, at various meetings around town, the modernistic townhomes being built around the neighborhood are starting to attract as much attention as the high-rises. Residents have cited parking, traffic and the neighborhood’s ability to support all of the newcomers as reasons for concern.

One big argument Valdez gives for all of the extra housing is that, as a part of supply and demand, the more there is, the more affordable it becomes.

“We need to expand the choices people have when they move to Seattle,” Valdez said. “And the more choices we have, the more supply we have. And the more affordable things become, too.”

Valdez said he believes Seattleites should have a broad spectrum of choice, including “apodments,” condos, apartments, townhomes, single family homes and more. “We need it all, all the sorts of different ideas,” he said.

But ultimately, when Valdez talks about density, he isn’t talking about just some townhomes and high-rises. He’s talking about people.

“Density is people. What we’re talking about when we’re talking about density is welcoming more human beings into our community,” he said. “And those people are customers, students at our schools, employees, friends, family members. It’s not about buildings, it’s about the people, and so my view has always been density is the people.”

He added, “(Density) also makes life more interesting and it also makes life more complicated. But I think that’s a good thing.”

What do you think? Send a letter to the editor to zachb@robinsonnews.com

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