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Friday, January 25, 2008

City Design Reviewer Wants Someone to Sue the City

posted by on January 25 at 16:55 PM

David Foster reviews development proposals for southwest Seattle’s design-review board. An architect himself, he loathes that developers are using a loophole to build ugly, cookie-cutter townhouses without public notice or review—and he believes the city is allowing them to skirt the review process in violation of state law.

Large developments in Seattle are supposed to be reviewed under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), which triggers a design review by the city. This ensures the finished devlopment fits with the neighborhood and doesn’t kill fish. However, some developers have found a way around that process called “piecemealing”: By applying for separate building permits for smaller adjacent properties, developers can build major projects but only submit to the scrutiny of a simple construction, like building a house. Jonah wrote about it in July. But the practice is continuing, and Foster is pissed. He studied what was happening around his office on California Ave SW and sent a letter to West Seattle Blog. Here’s an excerpt.

That project [3400 block of California] is for 16 new townhouses, which is well above the threshold for SEPA Review and Design Review, but it was issued a construction permit without going through either review.

How? The applicants employed an illegal trick called micropermitting (aka segmented permitting). The threshold for SEPA (and Design Review) in this zone (L3-RC) is 9 units or more. The developer maneuvered underneath the threshold by pulling plans for 4 fourplexes off the shelf, and applying for multiple permits. The result - unless this project is challenged - will be another crappy, cookie cutter project that did not receive proper reviews.

This situation got me curious about other projects that might be employing the same illegal strategy, so I took a little field trip through West Seattle. In an hour’s time I found 5 projects that were built in the last year, and 3 more that are under construction.

You can download Foster’s findings on the properties he reviewed (in Excel) over here.


This Wallingford townhouse devlopment isn’t piecemealed, but it shows the impact these developments have on a neighborhood.

Another crusader against unreviewed townhouses, Vlad Oustimovitch, sent a letter to the Director Department of Planning and Development last February outlining the state policy that prohibits piecemealing:

SEPA clearly states in section 2.3 that you are required to “Define the total proposal, including any independent parts” and further clarified “It is important to remember that actions are related if they are dependent on each other, so that one will not happen without the other….”

“I’d like to see a lawsuit brought against the city to see if it’s illegal,” says Foster, “because I’m convinced that it is.”

“I’m not a lawyer, but, yes, it is legal,” says Cliff Portman, a principal land use planner with the city’s Department of Planning and Development. He says that, because the city receives separate proposals, the developers can effectively argue the developments are independent. “They could take some of proposals off table, then we’d have no choice but to process the one. Then six months later the next one comes in.”

“When it’s done, it’s over the environmental-review threshold,” says Portman. “I know it sounds illogical but I guess that’s a loophole.”

Portman says that precedent for issuing permits under these conditions in the past requires them to continue permitting piecemeal townhouses.

“Somewhere between the language of SEPA legislation and the actual permits that are issued there are a series of very small tiny little decisions,” explains Oustimovitch. “They’ve managed to circumvent the original intent of the law.”

Portman recognizes the problem but says it’s out of DPD’s hands; only the mayor or council can change the rules. “What we want most is design review. Maybe we not ought worry about SEPA, but ‘how do we get design review applied [to all townhouses]?’” says Portman.

RSS icon Comments


Yes! Bring it on! I bet there are 1,000 people who would sure - if not 10,000 people. This is one of the biggest issues that comes up at all neighborhood meetings. The City staff feels the same way - they want tools to change this.

Posted by Seattle Neighbor | January 25, 2008 5:03 PM


Same exact thing happened in Vancouver BC years ago - ever heard of a "Vancouver Special"?

It's all about the zoning. Just wake up and realize we need 40-100 story inexpensive residential rental apartment buildings with surrounding greenspace near all the transit hubs and stop pretending we're a city of lower-middle-class single-family-home-owning citizens.

It just makes Seattle look gullible and foolish, IMHO.

Posted by Will in Seattle | January 25, 2008 5:03 PM

Eat shit and die, Will. Seriously, I'm sorry James A. Williams didn't find you instead of poor Shannon Harps.

The reason people break laws like this is because there are huge rewards and no penalties. What's the worst that could happen? A $1,000 fine?

They should confiscate one of these projects. That might get their attention.

Posted by Fnarf | January 25, 2008 5:37 PM

Pack um in tight in the city, leave the country side low tax, forest and farmland.

The city is so hungry for cash that destroying anything and everything to bring in the cash blinds them to the damage done to the only 4 remaining uncovered urban streams in Seattle. Oh the love of money...

Posted by Sargon Bighorn | January 25, 2008 5:46 PM

Um, the land use rules in this area are 25 years old and need to be updated. DPD, Council and the Mayor's office get angry citizen letters constantly in regard to the townhouse issue. Let's get together and do something about this. The City will act if we can all come together on this.


Posted by Seattle Neighbor | January 25, 2008 5:59 PM

ol dave's a bit of a pogue and kind of a dick to employees/interns... but it's good to see him step up to the plate, or at least serve up a softball for someone.

Posted by holz | January 25, 2008 6:18 PM

By the way, the picture you're using is dishonest, since it isn't piecemealing and thus isn't illegal.

And, to be honest, it's not that bad. Houses that look like this sell for millions in San Francisco or Boston. The row house or terrace is one of the greatest housing styles ever developed. This is EXACTLY what we need a lot more of in Seattle, uninspired or not.

Posted by Fnarf | January 25, 2008 6:31 PM

The photo is totally honest, Fnarf. Right under it is a caption that says it isn't piecemealing. I wanted to illustrate the absurdity of allowing developments of this size to slip past design review. And that's the best townhouse photo I had--the photographer takes a bow.

Posted by Dominic Holden | January 25, 2008 6:40 PM


Photo is totally confusing, too. Is this an example of nonpiecemealing such that this went through design review -- if so it looks so crappy what's the point of design review???

Anyway, we need townhouses that have stairs and stoops to the street or some kind of connection to the street.

Parking should be optional, not required. The whole ugly design is being forced by having required parking in the unit. Developers are doing TH's because then they don't have to do the underground parking garages of condos. Without required parking, they might put up 14 apts. instead of 4 TH's on a smaller lot.

They do the TH's because they instead of underground parking they can do ground level parking -- the typical ground level garage entered from the common alley of the bloc of TH's.

As a result the first floor of the Town Home is a garage, connected in the back to the common driveway, and not connected to the street in the front.

Thus, ugliness and that vacant, ass to the street look.

The lovely rowhouses of brownstone in NY or brick in DC and Boston would look ugly, too, if they had to have a parking garage on the first floor.
(OMG, citing stuff from somehwere else! Doesn't he realize it's different here!! Attack at will!!)

We also need to have the TH be able to have a little apt. on the bottom floor or on the top floor (without parking being required). A nice 6 story TH (semi bsmt. and 1-5) with a semi basement apt. (half a flight down from the street, ground level in back), with a owner's unit on 1-3 (and stoop going to the street; it's nice to be elevated above the street, but connected, like that), and walk up apts. on 4 and 5 (nice for grandma, renters, your 22 y.o. who needs space to smoke dope, etc.) fills up the zoning envelope in a nicer way. And can look great. See that Spike Lee movie about that family in Brooklyn with the great brownstone.

But mandating that parking kills the whole thing. It makes the floor that connect to the street functional and ugly and just a garage.

Posted by unPC | January 25, 2008 7:13 PM

The TH developers I've asked say they doesn't do condos for insurance reasons and that TH's provide more profit than flats would.

I'm not sure grandma would enjoy the climb to a 4th or 5th story walkup, and anyway you can't build that high without providing an elevator.

Posted by greg | January 25, 2008 9:21 PM

It IS dishonest, Dominic, even with the disclaimer, because it doesn't illustrate the story.

And in fact the impact that the pictured development has on the street and the neighborhood is positive, not negative; so it doesn't illustrate the POINT of the story. I'd personally be happy to see 20 blocks of those particular townhouses in any Seattle neighborhood you care to mention.

Posted by Fnarf | January 25, 2008 9:40 PM

Holz - if you are who I think you are, I owe you an apology. Sad that you had to take such a cheap shot. Call me and we'll talk.

Posted by David Foster | January 26, 2008 5:50 AM

The solution in a perfect world would be simple--for the ddl to simply refuse permits for anyone to build more than nine on a block. That circumvents their circumventing and although it's still horrible it fits that law. Are paintings or computer drawings required to be submitted at the "yellow sign" meetings?

Posted by cheyenne | January 26, 2008 7:29 AM

Returning to Dominic's original post, I think Foster's reading of the law is correct and a lawsuit would be successful.

Oh, and Will, we got your point. You can now start working on a second idea.

Posted by J.R. | January 26, 2008 10:40 AM

The other issue with parking requirements on the THs, is that they allow garages and driveways too small for any vehicle larger than a Mini. Even compact sedans(Civics or Corollas) end up parked on the streets.

Posted by anna | January 26, 2008 11:38 AM

J.R. - do you speak as an attorney?

Posted by David Foster | January 26, 2008 1:30 PM

@17: Sorry, David, I just play one on television.

Posted by J.R. | January 26, 2008 3:42 PM

Sorry to have told you the truth, Fnarf, but it really is all about the zoning - or lack thereof.

The market cares nothing about what you want, just what is most profitable under the current legal framework (including what they can get away with).

Sorry if you don't like it, but so long as Seattle keeps increasing population and trying to "preserve single-family homes" it will get Worse not Better.

Posted by Will in Seattle | January 26, 2008 4:48 PM

Will? I don't think it's your reference to zoning that is driving poor Fnarf to with unkindly thoughts on your person.

It's your repeated references to those goddamn towers! I thought he had knocked some sense into you with his last outburst, as you seemed to manage to not make reference to them for few weeks. But, alas, it looks like he'll have to keep the 2x4 handy.

No one here (that I can tell) is arguing against zoning changes and the need for denser building. It's your one-track obsession with towers...towers that even if they were feasible would absolutely suck in terms of urban design.

Posted by gnossos | January 26, 2008 10:03 PM

*wish* unkindly thoughts...

Posted by gnossos | January 26, 2008 10:04 PM

I work for City Light, and I have to explain and interpret zoning quite frequently for customers. I truly wish they could both simplify it and update it, because it's a real pain in the ass.

Combine it with the antiquated technology we have for storing info (excel spreadsheets and file cabinets full of paper) and it really becomes a drag.

Posted by catalina vel-duray | January 27, 2008 8:18 AM

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