Boom How a Crusade to Save the Pike-Pine Neighborhood Is Turning an Active Block Into a Gravel Lot—For at Least a Year
posted by April 1 at 14:15 PMon
What seems worse than losing a strip of independent businesses in one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods and replacing it with a blasé apartment building? Losing a strip of independent businesses in one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods and replacing it with nothing.
Last week my friend Kim directed me to a thread on Flickr where a rumor was flying that developers had withdrawn plans for the much-discussed building on E Pine Street between Belmont and Summit Avenues. Instead of a six-story, mixed-use building, gossipers say the property owners would replace the erstwhile Cha Cha and Bus Stop block with a parking lot.
That rumor, it turns out, isn’t quite true. But it’s not quite false, either. Here’s what’s happening.
After several meetings (the first in late 2006) among Capitol Hill’s design-review board, the developer, architects, and neighbors, the Department of Planning and Development issued a master use permit last fall to build the 108-unit apartment building with retail on the ground floor. It was to look like this.
Weber & Thomson Architects. (This picture sucks because it’s a phone-camera photo of the hardcopy design proposal. The city doesn’t have digital renderings.)
Enter Dennis Saxman, a 58-year-old who lives a few blocks away. He balked at the permitted design, saying it conflicts with neighborhood design guidelines intended to preserve the warehouse architectural themes of the Pike-Pine corridor. He appealed the permit to the city’s hearing examiner, Anne Watanabe, in mid-November, but she upheld the permit on January 16, stating, “The record does not show that the proposal’s design would be inconsistent with the design review guidelines.” So Saxman, who went to law school in California, pressed on.
On February 5, he filed a petition with the King County Superior Court, naming the City of Seattle and developer Pine & Belmont, LLC, and requesting that “the Court reverse the land use decision.” A hearing of the case is now scheduled for July 7.
What will happen to this block in the meantime?
“At the moment, it’s just going to be graveled over and left as a vacant lot,” says Wade Metz, development manager of Murray Franklyn. He met with Saxman last Wednesday in an attempt to reach an out-of-court agreement, unsuccessfully.
“It could be a year or more,” says Metz.
“The city was screaming at me to get the buildings torn down; there were vagrants in it,” Metz says. “All the tenants had left. I had no choice.”
In fact, one year is a soonest-case scenario—if Saxman loses. “It will get built,” says Metz, “it’s just a matter of when.”
If the court finds the design violates city law and Saxman wins—while an unlikely scenario because it would require overturning the Seattle hearing examiner’s decision—the proposal could literally get sent back to the drawing boards. “They would have to go back, and update their design … and most likely we would take it back to the [design review] board,” says Vince Lyons, head of the design review program for the city’s Department of Planning and Development. Chugging through the design review process could take a year or more, meaning the gravel lot would sit untouched for two or three years before construction crews break ground.
But such a ruling would be a victory for Saxman and those fed up with Seattle’s cookie-cutter development: The design review board for Capitol Hill (and perhaps other neighborhoods) could be required to make developers strictly adhere to a classical interpretation of the neighborhood design guidelines.
Nightlife and cornices after the jump.
The delay is worthwhile to Saxman because the fight isn’t only about this one block, but rather the integrity of the Pike-Pine neighborhood. He’s seen a trend of new buildings, including the two Press buildings (across the street on Belmont Ave) and the Braeburn (on 14th Ave), that he says “should not have been approved.” He thinks such designs are illegal because the design guidelines, which Saxman believes they conflict with, were passed as law in 2000 by the city council (.pdf).
According to the guidelines: “Projects requiring design review must comply with the neighborhood design guidelines in this handbook as well as the Citywide Design Guidelines.”
Named among the priorities for new construction is “commercial street life, both day and night” and use of “exterior materials and design elements such as masonry (especially brick) … and decorative details such as cornices, emblems and embossed building names.” The guidelines also describe the “vernacular” context of other buildings, such as “display windows, detailed cornice and frieze work, and trim detailing.”
Weber & Thomson Architects. (Again, sorry the picture sucks. The city doesn’t have digital renderings.)
Among other problems named in Saxman’s petition to the court, the proposal doesn’t meet the guidelines because it provides the apartments no sound buffer, which would be required for residents to tolerate noise from the sorts of bars that previously made the strip active at night. He also says the detailing is inadequate. “It’s not really a cornice,” he says. “I call it an overhang. You don’t have that detail—that’s why it doesn’t look like a cornice to me.” He also says the upper floors of the building don’t riff on the neighborhood’s themes of horizontal brick-work between windows.
Indeed, the building is quite ordinary, and any adherence to the design guidelines is loose, at best. It certainly doesn’t capture the auto-row and warehouse architecture of the neighborhood. (And I respect Saxman’s gumption to stand up to the city in the name of better design.) But this building may not conflict with the guidelines, either.
The city’s Lyons defends DPD’s decision to approve the building: “You could have guidelines that say to create human activity; you could have 60 different ways of satisfying that. This board decided that the project did meet guidelines. It’s just judgmental. It’s not a prescriptive land-use code.” He also points out that DPD must acknowledge when four of the five the design board members approve of a project, as was the case for this proposal.
Some of Saxman’s gripe, it seems, stems from esthetics and frustration with the city.
“I think it’s an atrocious building,” Saxman tells me. “It’s not a question of what the design review boards like…. They don’t have unfettered discretion to approve modern buildings.”
“Vince Lyons should be fired as head of design review, in my opinion,” Saxman says.
The harm of allowing more designs like this one? If the buildings deviate from the light industrial vernacular, says Saxman, “the social characteristics… and the neighborhood vanishes.”
So while Saxman, developers, and City duke it out downtown, we’re left with a vacant lot on Capitol Hill. It might step up design standards in the neighborhood in the long haul, however unlikely, but in the interim we’re left with a vacant gravel expanse. The space might be better used if it actually were a parking lot.