Photo by Allyce Andrew
Citizens voicing their concerns at the Jan. 14 DPD meeting.

Ballardites weigh in after Jan. 14 DPD meeting

Housing and zoning changes discussed

Since the Jan. 14 Department of Planning and Development’s zoning code revisions meeting at Lowell Elementary, Ballardites are still weighing in on what the meeting accomplished and what it didn’t.

The DPD representatives held a public meeting to discuss the impact zoning and code changes made in 2010 are having on neighborhoods.

The meeting was held at Lowell Elementary School. Sally Clark, Seattle City Council President, called the meeting to address buildings surpassing height restrictions in Low-rise 3 (LR3) zones in Seattle's Designated Growth Areas and other low-rise housing issues. Seattle Speaks Up had sent Clark a petition calling to address a litany of concerns, especially the issue of developers finding loopholes in the code that has enabled them to sidestep regulations.

Many Ballardites made it to the meeting.

“It was a good showing,” said Ethan Van Eck, who is the Central Ballard Residents Association (CBRA) Secretary of the board and chair of the Land Use committee (Speaking on his behalf, not CBRA’s).

Van Eck was at the meeting and said there were a lot of angry people making their opinions known.

“The crowd would buzz every time someone talked about a building that was supposed to be LR3 and was built larger than to code.”

When asked if the DPD completely addressed the issues raised by Seattle Speaks Up, Van Eck said, “They tried.”

The height issue discussed at the meeting happens from the way height is measured in the code. Measuring building heights from the ground can be "tricky" when measured on hillsides. Developers have taken advantage of that gray area and have routinely gained an extra story or two. “Butterfly” rooftops are another gray area developers take advantage of to gain height.

“There was confusion that never got totally clarified between the micro housing stuff and the height issue because some of the micro housing examples were offenders of the height problem. So a lot of people in the crowd were riled up about micro-housing and the DPD were trying to focus on the low-rise issue directly.“

Van Eck said that a good thing was that the DPD laid out a time line to consider the input from the community ending January 30. After that there is a drafting period before they go to the City Council in March with any regulation changes.

What’s more is there is already a separate review process for the micro dwelling zoning that is already being drafted and almost ready to go to council. However, this legislation is currently undergoing an appeal before the City's Hearing Examiner, and cannot proceed until the outcome of the appeal is finalized. Citizens are encouraged to comment during the process.

CBRA is planning their own petition for further changes during this period and
details can be found at www.livableballard.org.

Eck said that he wished they had focused more on the leverage that citizens have in overseeing what gets built and where.

The leverage citizens have is public announcing and posting (physical signs and letters), DPD Design Review and a SEPA review (State Environmental Protection Review).

However, there are numerous building exceptions that often allow bypassing of design review and SEPA review. Some exemptions can be based on location and type of housing. For instance, in micro-housing, by counting the dwelling units by shared kitchen, not by individually leased/locked sleeping spaces, developers can say that the dwelling unit count is below the number that would require a design or SEPA review.

There are also more problems with announcements.

Van Eek explained that most of the time the physical announcements are posted way after the project has been approved. And its been reported that sometimes the announcements mailed to neighboring residents are sent after the project application has been approved, and therefore neighbors have no time to appeal.

“People hate having things sprung on them. Our lives are out of control enough. Developers have the most skin in the game and they talk the same language as the DPD and there isn’t a lot of accommodation for the neighborhoods on what’s going on. The announcement and reviews are the only time a neighborhood can respond, and so I think we need to have a lower threshold for when we get to have a say and DPD needs to be consistent and clear in implementation of the code.”

Another issue shared by Van Eck is the “NIMBY’’ stamp that is put on people that want a change in city planning and design. NIMBY’ (Not In My Back Yard is generally equated with “anti-development” supporters and is framed as being against low-income housing. But the matter is more complicated than that.

Tess Wolf-Stelzer, Ballardite, attended the meeting, and was a forum speaker that commented on many of the issues.

"The whole NIMBY thing is so frustrating. It's just a lazy label that shuts down any nuanced and constructive conversation about land use. Of course I don't want a giant apartment complex looming over my house. I also don't want a sewage treatment plant in my back yard. It doesn't mean I'm against sewage treatment plants or giant apartments. There are places that make sense to put them and places that don't.”

Wolf-Stelzer argued that speaking out against development has nothing to do with not being sympathetic to those in need of affordable housing, and more to do with a misconstrued error in logic that vilifies anyone who thinks there needs to be more transparency in the DPD and a deeper community say in the structures that change the face and functionality of where they live. “It seems like design reviews are skirted by clever interpretations of the code and it seems like the DPD has sided with the developers, which is a much less cautious attitude than you would expect from a city agency."

Moreover, Wolf-Stelzer is concerned with developers being aware of the loopholes that allow them to sidestep design or SEPA reviews, such as lot splits, proposed structures with lower FAR (floor area ratio) and up-zoning in overlay districts.

Up-zoning is of particular concern in Seattle's Designated Growth Areas (Urban Villages, Urban Centers, and Station Overlay Areas). For example, in Urban Villages, parking is no longer required for developments within a quarter mile of frequent transit service. Another way in which these areas have been up-zoned is though the elimination of the Density Limits, which previously governed how many dwelling units could be constructed on a given parcel of land.

Of further concern is the fact that the Seattle Planning Commission has recommended the potential up-zoning of any neighborhood within a 10-minute walk of frequent transit service, including neighborhoods currently zoned single-family. This could mean big changes for Ballard.

Because of the loopholes and high rate of development, Wolf-Stelzer says the face of Ballard is almost unrecognizable. She has lived in Ballard and other parts of the city for over 20 years and recently purchased a home in Ballard two years ago.

“In the course of two years I have seen this place drastically transform and what’s frustrating is it seems like its led by the developers and not the community especially with the break-neck-speed at which these developments are popping up.”

The "break-neck-speed" Wolf-Stelzer speaks of is seen in the DPD progress report from January 14, 2014, which measured the number of high-density units completed and in progress by counting the number of permits issued. DPD has a target for 1,000 units permitted from 2005 to 2024. The report showed that Ballard had 1100 permitted so far. Furthermore, the report shows that the Ballard Urban Center/Village development had 206 percent progress toward the target being met and 317 percent of target growth permitted.

According to Tom Hauger, Manger of Comprehensive and Regional Planning for the DPD, that goal was just a minimum and not a cap for total growth. Hauger explained that the DPD is unsure whether that rate of development is going to continue in Ballard because locations where developers apply for permission to build is governed by the private market. However, Hauger did agree that there is a dramatic flux of development in Ballard.

Row housing was another problematic issue expressed by Ballard citizens.

Laurette Simmons lives in a home zoned as multi-family in Ballard. Simmons is concerned because there is a row house application in the works for the lot next to her home. She felt that the DPD representatives at the meeting were dismissive about her concerns for row housing in LR1 zones, where no setbacks from property lines are required when neighboring multifamily homes.

“Our house has parts of it that are three feet from the lot line and other parts that are more since the rule used to be that the building must average five feet from the line. So in some places we would be able to paint their wall from our house. This is just crazy, and I don't think it was the intended result,” said Simmons.

Still there are voices from the other side of the equation. Ryan G. Miller, forum speaker at the meeting and resident of Capital Hill for almost two years, recently moved here from Northern California.

At the meeting he said he was drawn to Seattle for its "spirit of inclusiveness."

"If inclusiveness is our competitive advantage, we should be welcoming growth, not pushing people away.... Keep my face in your mind. We're the people that want to move here.”

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