No Density In My Backyard

The rendering above shows the mixed-use building proposed for 1126 34th Ave in the Madrona neighborhood. As reported here and here, there has been significant opposition to the project from the neighbors. I kept an open mind, but the more I learned about this case, the clearer it became that it is a quintessential example of a particular flavor of NIMBYism that is unfortunate yet inevitable in a growing city like Seattle.

Apparently the overarching complaint is that the building is too big — “enormous compared to its neighbors” according to the Madrona News. True, it is taller than the one and two story buildings on that side of the block. But almost directly across the street is the Bowling Green apartments, which is three stories and probably about three times the overall size of the proposed development.

The project complies with the site’s NC1-30 zoning, and, as detailed here (big pdf), the developer responded in numerous ways to the concerns of the Design Review Board and the neighbors, including a lowered building height and extra setbacks on the alley side. If people have problem with the bulk of the building it is the zoning code they should be attacking.

One interesting objection that was raised goes more or less like this: “we’re all in favor of increasing density, but even though this building is big, it’s not contributing much to densification because it has so few, large area, high-end units.” A valid point, but consider what would have happened if the proposed project was affordable rental housing and triple the number of units. Is there any doubt that there would have been an even bigger shitstorm over parking, traffic, “undesirable” renters, and lower quality building details?

The term NIMBY (not in my backyard) was originally coined to label people who had at least somewhat justified objections to uses such as incinerators or prisons. Amazingly, what we have here is NIMBYism against an appropriately scaled, nicely designed and finished, relatively high-end building that will be positive addition to the Madrona neighborhood business district. The building will replace a surface parking lot, which is pretty much the least sustainable land use possible in a city.

The neighborhood is also fortunate, in my opinion, that the building is being designed by Johnston Architects. My favorite small-scale multifamily development in all of Seattle is Johnston’s Fremont Lofts.

What it comes down to is there are people who would oppose this project no matter what the particulars, simply because it is change toward a more urban Seattle — the gist of the “slow growther” position. And people have every right to feel that way. But they do not, I believe, have a right to impede Seattle’s progress toward a more sustainable city by crying NIMBY over good projects like 1126 34th Ave just because they’ll be bigger than what was there before.