What will Ballard look like in 20 years?

Developer's loopholes shaping Ballard today

If you're not happy with the kinds of the tall, dense developments that have been popping up in some mostly single-family-home areas of Ballard, now is the time to speak up.

Unbeknownst to most residents and homeowners in the city, the Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) made some significant changes to its lowrise zoning rules in 2010. For some parts of Ballard, this now means that four townhouse structures can be built on a single, 5,000-square-foot lot in locations where this type of development was not previously allowed.

City Council President Sally Clark is now calling on the DPD to review and "clean up" its zoning-code changes to make sure new buildings fit into neighborhoods.

On Tues., Jan. 14, DPD representatives are holding a public meeting to discuss the impact of zoning changes on neighborhoods. The meeting -- to be held at Lowell Elementary School (1058 E. Mercer St.) on Capitol Hill from 6:30 to 8 p.m. -- will focus in particular on zoning changes in Capitol Hill that have allowed five-story buildings to be built where they previously were not allowed. But the lowrise zoning changes throughout the city are up for discussion, so Ballard residents might want to make their voices heard as well.

“I never envisioned or intended that developers would be able to achieve five stories in LR3 zones. I think five stories is too big a change in height and scale for the LR3 zone,” Clark wrote in a letter to DPD Director Diane Sugimura.

“In the past, when a new chapter of the Land Use Code was adopted, we have always needed 'clean-up' amendments to address problems that were not apparent in the abstract. In this case, the recession delayed construction under the new code provisions, but I believe we now have enough experience and examples to make needed corrections,” wrote Clark.

The DPD has been asked to submit proposed new lowrise zoning legislation to the City Council within the first quarter of 2014.

As part of this process, DPD is accepting written comments on the 2010 low rise zoning changes through Tues., Jan. 28. Comments can be sent to geoffrey.wentlandt@seattle.gov.

In Ballard, these zoning changes are having a very noticeable impact on the central residential area, between 15th Ave NW and 28th Ave NW, and NW 60th Street and NW 65th Street. An area mostly composed of single-family homes and modest duplexes, it used to be zoned LDT (standing for Lowrise, Duplex/Triplex). But in 2010, that zoning category was eliminated and LDT areas were changed to LR1 zoning, which allows for taller and denser development (despite the fact that "LR" stands for lowrise).

Ballard resident Matt Dadswell spoke with the Ballard News Tribune about the effects that the 2010 code change is having on this part of the neighborhood, and then provided a brief overview via email:

“A key part of this zoning change in the former LDT zone was to increase the allowable density from 1 unit/2,000 square feet to 1 unit/1,600 feet.  This opened the area for townhouse developments because developers could now place 3 units on a standard 5,000-square-foot single-family lot. And thanks to a loophole that allows developers to subdivide a property before building, they can now actually build four townhomes on a single lot.

"Residents of the neighborhood were not formally notified of the change, and many are probably still completely unaware of it. The first clue for some folks was probably when they started to receive mailings from developers seeking to buy their homes, and then small single-story houses started being demolished and replaced by huge townhouse developments.  In addition to rezoning our part of the neighborhood, the code change also increased the allowable size of developments, primarily by increasing the allowable height and reducing setbacks.”

Dadswell observed, “This code change has resulted in some very unfortunate developments in our neighborhood.” He provided two examples of new developments under construction on NW 60th St, between 17th Ave and 22nd Ave, that would not have been possible under the prior code and are, in his opinion and that of his neighbors, completely out of scale with the existing houses on the street. “And,” he notes, “there are many others already appearing in the former LDT zone, as well as others currently under review.”

Dadswell and his neighbors were not given the opportunity to provide meaningful comment on the development project on their block, at 1741 NW 60th St, where four freestanding, 30-foot-plus-tall townhomes are being built. The neighbors received DPD notices inviting comment on the initial division of the lot, and then on two subsequent subdivisions of the lot (after the structures were largely complete), but they were never invited to comment about the buildings themselves.

Home before construction on NW 60th Street, between 17th Avenue and 22nd Avenue. Photo by Matt Dadswell

In a letter to the DPD, Dadswell and his neighbors pointed out their frustrations with a process that has asked for public comment on several occasions, but does not allow for meaningful public input at any point.

“This comes up from time to time,” said Senior City Planner Geoff Wentlandt. "If a project has a design review there is a notice, but if there is no design review with the DPD there would not be a notice. In some cases the city looks at the plans and decides to issue a permit. The code is complex and sometimes it is a complex task to implement.”

Town homes being constructed on NW 60th Street, between 17th Avenue and 22nd Avenue. Photo by Matt Dadswell

In addition to increasing the allowable density for a single family lot from three to four units, the initial division of the site into two parts allowed the project to circumvent the design review process that is supposed to occur when a townhouse development of three or more units is proposed. The project is now considered to be two developments of two units each, so no design review is required.

According to Wentlandt, “Examining intimate details of a property are overseen by a DPD planner that looks at the plans and visits the site and make sure the structure fits well in its location and in the context of the neighborhood.”

Dadswell and his neighbors are not convinced, writing in their letter to the DPD, “We’re assuming an architect was involved at some point, but it seems highly unlikely that these townhouses were specifically designed for 1741 NW 60th Street, rather it is a “cookie cutter” design that developers are plunking down with no regard to the context or the existing neighborhood.”

This first became obvious when the neighbors noticed that the structures did not have any large windows facing to the west, where they could provide Olympic views. Instead, in one of the units, large windows face the structure immediately next door to the east, just 10 feet away. They also noticed that the exact same design had been used on another development three blocks away, on NW 63rd St. near 15th Ave. NW.

Dadswell and some of his immediate neighbors are interested in reaching out to others in Ballard who are concerned about the impacts of the zoning code change and the sudden rash of townhouse construction.

“My goal at this point,” says Dadswell, “is to help folks in the neighborhood understand what is going on here and encourage them to contact the city as part of this code review. Let the city know how this change is specifically affecting Ballard and their part of the neighborhood.”

“The neighborhood needs to get organized before it’s too late,” continues Dadswell.

To that end, he’d like other concerned residents to drop him a line at lowriseballard@yahoo.com or connect in person with him and other residents at the next meeting of the Central Ballard Residents Association, on Feb. 13 (details at http://www.centralballard.org/).

If you want to read more on this issue in the future follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ballardnewstrib

We encourage our readers to comment. No registration is required. We ask that you keep your comments free of profanity and keep them civil. They are moderated and objectionable comments will be removed.