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.

14 Responses to “No Density In My Backyard”

  1. David Sucher

    That’s sick i.e. I mean the thoughtless NIMBY attitude.
    Johnston does some very fine work — their Stonewater Townhouses by Greenlake are (from the outside) totally yummy.
    And for god’s sake, 30′ is not big.

    I wish there was someway to help good development like this one– of course you are doing so on this blog and I will link.

  2. David Sucher

    Oops. I meant The Boulders at Green Lake; I don’t know Stonewater.

  3. Rob A

    It is amazing to me how many progressives there are in Seattle that do their best to stop progress – especially projects like this that are environmentally desirable and a vast improvement to what currently occupies the location…

  4. Steve

    This looks like a great project; definitely the kind of thing to support if there’s an obvious way to do it.

    It brings up a question in my mind, though: How can this project pencil with only 3 stories where the 23rd & Union project mentioned a few posts back apparently needs 6? Are Madrona rents much higher?

    (To be clear, I personally support 6 stories at 23rd & Union and generally, as much density as a community will tolerate. I’m just surprised to know that anyone’s thinking of building a mixed-use project that’s only 3 stories…)

  5. danb

    Steve, I think the key is that there is no underground parking in the Madrona building. The nine stalls fit in the back on ground level. I suspect a building like this is only doable with a low number of large area units so that the parking requirement is also low.

  6. Mike Leavitt

    the parking lot will not stay as-is. but the actual circumstances are more complicated than first impressions of the plans. With specific ideas to alter and support the development plans, the 50 letters and 25+ attendees at 3 public meetings have not protested NIMBY-style. The developer of Bowling Green, commonly referenced as Madrona’s biggest building, has also spoken against these lot plans at every meeting.

    If there was a real plan for affordable units and reduced car traffic, all the do-gooder and “mossback” Madrona liberals would give the plan a group treehug. this site’s architects, property owner, and other Madrona developers will all say that the bottom line is “it doesn’t pencil out”. If M.Tobias had paid less than $1,000,000, the building envelope wouldn’t need to be maximized to flip the property. Until Johnston’s intelligent architects buy the property themselves, filling the footprint of a high priced empty lot will not urban-ize Madrona. Since property rights are involved here more than urban density, it’s not as simple as “it’ll be bigger than what was there before.”

    Roy McMakin’s development (1422 34th Ave) walked the razor-thin line between multi-functional high density and a non-maxed building envelope. Unlike his neighbor to the North, McMakin minimally impacted his neighbors’ property rights. With a few minor adjustments to its current site plan, the Madrona parking lot can also be developed well.

  7. The Hipster Zombies

    Let’s put up a big box to block out all the light, like we did in Fremont. We’ll follow the artists around to all the funky neihborhoods, put up our big boxes, move in, and drive all the life out of the place. Onward to Georgetown!

  8. SeattleScape » Blog Archive » A teacher and his funky development dreams

    [...] Other local bloggers weighs in on the plans here and here. [...]

  9. Almost What We Don’t Build Anymore | hugeasscity

    [...] As this example demonstrates, the City’s parking requirement all but makes it inevitable that on small lots, developers will build low numbers of expensive units rather than higher numbers of affordable units. The proposed development at 1126 34th Ave in Madrona is another example. If expensive urban land is used to store cars, someone has to pay. [...]

  10. Andrea

    I work (but don’t live) in this neighborhood, and I’m all for it.

  11. It’s The End Of The World As We Know It | hugeasscity

    [...] meeting last February.  It’s as if the building was to house an anthrax lab.  This blog has prattled on about density NIMBYs too much already, so suffice it to say that pretty much every classic [...]

  12. Yes Virginia, Density Causes Sprawl—Lorax Edition | hugeasscity

    [...] deja vu all over again,” a sentiment that seems all too fitting for another density post on this blog, but hey, it’s been a [...]

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