It’s The End Of The World As We Know It

[ Rendering of proposed mixed-use project at 6010 Phinney Ave, courtesy Kilburn Architects ]

If you’re like me, you might look at the rendering above and think, well, it’s not a masterpiece, but it’s the kind of medium-scale mixed-use building that’s perfectly appropriate along an arterial in one of Seattle’s urban villages.  But apparently there are a whole lot of folks up in Phinney Ridge that aren’t like me.  Check out this account of the project’s Design Review Board 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 density NIMBY objection was raised.

Designed by Kilburn Architects, the 19-unit, 4-story project will come before the DRB again on September 14.   Sited on a parcel about 100 feet square, this is not an outrageously large building.  Just across the street on Phinney the green eyebrow-laden Fini condos is bigger, and also has a gaping garage entry that leaves an unfriendly hole in the streetscape on Phinney (image here, scroll down).

Part of the angst over four-story buildings along this length of Phinney is due to the fact that the 40-foot zones back right up against single-family zones half a block off Phinney on either side.  It’s the skinniest urban village in Seattle, and there’s no space to transition the zoning.  Apparently the City decided that the public benefits of creating an urban village outweigh the negative impact on a relatively small number of single-family home owners.  The right decision, in my view.

The proposed building will include 2700 sf of street-level commercial split into two spaces, each of which are less than the 1500 sf trigger for off-street parking requirements.  The 23 stalls of below-grade parking provide a residential parking ratio of 1.2, just above the City’s minimum requirement of 1.15 for multifamily buildings with between 11 and 30 units.  It’s a reasonable amount of parking, yet it’s inevitable that the loudest complaint about the project will be concerning the impact it might have on surrounding street parking.

The project will displace several small independent businesses in the existing one story building, another sore point with some of the neighbors, and indeed, one of the most vexing problems associated with redevelopment.  Small independent businesses are the soul of a good neighborhood, but I have yet to hear of a workable policy mechanism to prevent this kind of displacement.  Thriving cities must evolve, and perhaps this is simply an unavoidable bad that comes with the good.  And probably sooner than we think, buildings like Fini will be providing the low-rent retail spaces of future.

24 Responses to “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It”

  1. Joe G

    Yeah, I’m with you Dan. I would say that looks pretty good to me, especially compared with the other structure. Are they afraid that this building may block their views of the other building? Gosh, ewwwwwww. I would much rather have this one in my backyard.

  2. Cascadian

    The concern about displaced neighborhood businesses is a legitimate one, and I’m a bit uncomfortable with the idea that in the long run similar businesses will come back.

    I’d like to see some effort made to keep some of these businesses in the new buildings, whether through tax breaks or trade-offs with building height, or even subsidies (paid for by neighborhood-level parking fees?) Along with affordable-rate (middle and low-income) housing, keeping some existing businesses is key to getting the public to buy in to good development.

    Another option would be to find a way to direct development to poorly-developed lots rather than functional neighborhood retail lots. There’s got to be a way. I don’t appreciate NIMBYism but maybe there’s a middle ground here.

  3. JoshMahar

    I’ve been getting more involved with development here on Capitol Hill and I keep running into a similar problem. When I talk to people they are all for urban development and creating a denser, less car oriented neighborhood, but then whenever a new building is actually proposed there is a huge outcry over its ugliness and unfitness to the neighborhood.

    But Aldo Rossi explained this in Architecture of the City. No matter how perfect you construct a new building, it is still new. It does not have a graffiti covered bathroom, with a distinct smell of honey; it has never been leaned against to escape the rain on a stormy fall night; your mom’s best friend’s ex-boyfriend never might have lived there back in the 80’s.

    What I’m getting at is that it has no history. And until that history develops, which inevitably takes time, it will undoubtedly feel a little detached from the rest of the community.

    It is even worse when you are replacing something with a lot of history. Even if it is an old warehouse that has been abandon for years, that urban form is a vital part of the overall fabric. People use it to define and differentiate their neighborhood from all of the other urban and suburban neighborhoods in the world. And since, in my opinion, we are at our cores place-based people, each and every urban form helps us define ourselves.

    Now this is not to say that new development is bad. It is just to understand why it is constantly opposed, even when all of the facts about enhanced community, environmental sustainability, and even safety are on the side of the new building. People feel like a piece of their own individualism is being replaced or lost and they have no choice in the matter.

    Here are a few things that I think can help though:

    1) More openness with the developer. From my experience, even meeting the developer, knowing their story and their vision, will help me understand that the new development is an organic part of my neighborhood. Liz Dunn’s projects are almost never opposed, not because they look substantially different, but because she viewed as a vital piece of the community herself.

    2) Well scaled development. Another thing Liz Dunn does well is maintain small footprints with her buildings, as well as keeping some older ones. This is much easier to swallow then an entire block being razed and utterly transformed all at once.

    3) Well paced development. We need to refraining from intense periods of redevelopment (such as on Capitol Hill and in Ballard) that dramatically change the neighborhood in the blink of an eye (a decade or so). What we should shoot for is much more limited development, but more consistent. The neighborhood should always be changing, but ever so slightly, so that no cultural links are broken. This also helps keep a neighborhood from stagnating (not a problem here yet but a big issue in Europe over the years).

    4) Keeping local businesses. I know this is hard for newer buildings but I give credit to both the Pearl and Brix for courting entirely local businesses, run by people with an actual stake in their community. If a neighborhood institution’s home is being razed, all efforts should be taken to make sure that it is simply the building that is leaving, not the business. Business ownership of their spaces would also help mitigate the lack of control. Is there any model for condo-style retail space?

  4. Sabina Pade

    Although much of Seattle, like much of America, wants access to a city, most of Seattle, like most of America, doesn’t want to actually live in one.

    Talking NIMBY skirts discussion of the real issue, which is the desire to have dominion over a large physical and social space. Whether this desire can within a useful time frame and on a usefully large scale be sublimated to the goal of building a compassionate and inclusive society remains to be demonstrated. In the United States, this would require that most citizens re-define how they understand themselves and their nation. As the title of the article aptly suggests, to many Americans it would amount to The End Of The World As We Know It.

    Kudos to HAC for addressing this. Alas pitting reason against fear (in this instance, fear of proximity to one’s neighbour, i.e., of not having full dominion over one’s environment) is a mostly fruitless undertaking; talking climate change and sustainable urbanism won’t cure an allergy to things urban. But for those who appreciate proximity and shared endeavour, and are willing to look soberly into the future, HAC and its like are a very welcome tonic.

  5. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Sounds like pretty much a replay of the defeated Murray Franklyn Wedgwood project. Some friends of ours used to live a couple blocks from that site and would have loved that mixed-use development instead of the fenced-off building that’s there now. Especially sad because that location was fairly ideal: small walkable “main st” with restaurants, banks, grocery and drug stores, parks nearby, decent transit service to downtown and UW (lots of doctors in that area).

  6. Ross

    I signed a petition against the development, and I’m hardly a NIMBY(I don’t live in the area) and I support increased density (in general). The big issue with me and this project is the displacement of the small businesses, not the design of the building. It seems a shame that with all of the empty lots and parking lots that they have to tear down a decent block with some character. I agree, though, it is a decent looking building and much better than the ugly one across the street. Unfortunately, that is part of the problem. When this is complete, that block will be rather bland and boring. If the new building has nothing but chain stores, I think we all lose. All that being said, I have mixed feelings about the building, and I won’t spend any time fighting it. It’s too bad they didn’t build something like this instead of the Fini building.

    I hope that can comment on this issue in general, as this is one of the reasons that folks become knee jerk density foes. A few ugly buildings go up and it is no big deal. Once an entire block looks like that, then it becomes very boring (even if the last few big buildings are much prettier than the first few). A really nice neighborhood has a variety of architectural styles from a variety of eras.

  7. Steve

    The saddest part of the hysterical HorsesAss writeup, IMHO, is that the neighbors apparently *want* the garage access to be from Phinney.

  8. Steve

    @3: I agree with you about what helps neighbors accept development. Sadly, though, Phinney is actually one of the best models of well-paced development in the city — if I remember correctly, there’s been about 1 smallish building going up along the 35 blocks from 50th to 85th for about the last 5 years (first Infinity(?), then Ridgemont, then Roycroft, then Fini). And the Phinney neighbors are still going ballistic about a 19-unit new development.

  9. Molly

    Interesting that the rendering depicts the pizza place to the south but not the single family home to the east. Instead they’ve drawn in what looks like green space. I grew up on 61st and have gotten used to the other huge condos across the street but it’s hard to get over the issues of scale (and the fact that all these buildings are basically the same and basically ugly).

  10. dang

    The displacement of small businesses is definitely an issue, especially when the retail spaces in the new buildings are priced so high per sf and the spaces themselves are typically so large. It’s no wonder that so many big chains inhabit the new buildings, because no one else can afford the spaces. I’d like to see the city push for providing smaller spaces, as well as offer some incentives for spaces that incubate local businesses.

    On the issue of redeveloping underdeveloped lots with buildings versus vacant (or parking) lots, I’m sympathetic to the concerns expressed by Cascadian and Ross. But that said, I wouldn’t go so far as to sign a petition to hold up a development. Even if development is held up, because there are already plans for the parcels in question, the businesses there are on borrowed time and will likely look to move elsewhere anyway, which in turn leaves the community with the loss of the businesses, a stalled project, and a void in the neighborhood, e.g the 500 block of E Pine.

  11. Chad

    Anyone who opposes this building basically dislikes cities. Every “city” I’ve visited is built-up with continuous 4 to 7 story buildings (Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Bangkok, Boston), some pretty, some plain, but all a part of the urban fabric. That is just what cities are. Wood-frame houses with yards do not a city make. If Phinney Ridge residents dislike urban buildings, then they should lobby the city to remove their urban village zoning.

    So the true question is “does Seattle want to be a city?”

  12. dang

    @11 The underlying sentiment of your post may be similar to mine, but the oversimplification of the matter is hard to stomach. Cities are more than just 4-7 story buildings, and simply building 4-7 story buildings end upon end won’t make a city. Cities are actually more about how those buildings meet the street; how buildings and streets intermingle and provide space for life, and in turn how those streets connect the neighborhood with the city at large. Not all buildings are equal. Making the case that buildings equal density equals good is the only thing that is dense.

  13. chrispy

    @11 also: A sea of 5 to 7 story buildings as far as the eye can see a city does not make. Instead, an ideal city consists of distinct neighborhoods which mix charming and historical single family homes, open space, carefully situated higher density buildings, and small, pedestrian-oriented commercial areas ideally filled with mostly local businesses. Sorry dang, I think you covered some of this already.

    There is a reason people choose to live in Phinney versus, say, Belltown or Ballard: they prefer smaller scale, single family home neighborhoods. A friend of mine just purchased a home a few blocks from Phinney for that very reason. Would it then be selfish and NIMBY of her to fight the construction of a four-story wall behind her and her neighbors? The consensus on HAC is that density is fantastic – seemingly at any cost, without concern for the current residents of the neighborhood, and with eye-rolling contempt for their reservations. So yes, in this instance, the residents of the neighborhood should fight their urban village designation. But simply throwing out the term NIMBY at anyone or anything going against your own wishes seems disingenuous at best, spitefully unsympathetic at worst.

    While I agree with the concept of density, I get frustrated at the anger and hostility directed towards single family home neighborhoods and residents on this site. Direct your anger at the sprawling McMansions spreading like kudzu across the eastside and north and south sound regions. Stop seeing Seattle’s rather densely situated, walkable, and quiet neighborhoods as devil spawn (sorry, using hyperbole). Take a look at to see that density in Seattle is not always good.

  14. spencer

    I’d call this spade a less than inspired design(ed spade). I’d moan about it too.

    Is this the site with the rad grocery store on it? If so, I can really see why people are upset about moving that place. Or, is it that dive bar call The Court Room or something like that. If so, I still see why.

    Joshmar, thanks for the constructive suggestions on how to be a better developer. I think a lot of them miss out on meeting neighbors to learn about each others point of view. So much is lost because of a few disgruntled individuals who talk louder than the rest.

  15. Seattle Resident

    @11: If we were just talking about height, then I’m with you. (When people say Seattle is really ‘built out already’, I laugh.) However, real cities have a range of independent businesses you can’t find in the ‘burbs. If I wanted to live near tanning salons and Subways (bless their hearts, but they can be found anywhere), I’d live less expensively somewhere else.

    If these large developments aren’t developed in a way that can attract independent businesses, then they aren’t adding to the city. They’re just vertical suburbs.

  16. Steve

    Given that everyone seems to like existing retail and only chains seem to move into new mixed-use retail, is it time to talk about downzoning retail districts and upzoning nearby residential, such that new density comes in the form of apartment buildings rather than mixed-use?

    This doesn’t seem like a good idea to me, but it does seem like a logical outgrowth of the density-per-se-isn’t-bad-but-displacing-existing-retail-is-bad view.

  17. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    It is possible to put local businesses in new developments. The retail spaces in Dwell and Roosevelt Square, Whole Foods excepted of course, were intentionally small for exactly that reason. There are some chain stores (including a Subway!) but it’s mostly locals.

  18. dan cortland

    spencer: the developers often earn the disrespectful reception they receive.

  19. Tony the Economist


    Vancouver does exactly that. If you look at the West End (the hyper-dense, highrise neighborhood west of downtown that they are famous for), it has three main retail streets, but vitually no mixed use buildings. 90% of the retail are classic urban one-story retail like Broadway on Capitol Hill or the buildings being torn down here. Then, imediately behind these one-story retail businesses, the highrises start.

    It actually creates a V-shaped street scape, letting in much more air and light to the main commercial strip than the 4-7 story street walls that seattle’s NC zones all but mandate. The result is a nearly complete preservation of small local businesses all thriving due to the huge population all within walking distance in the highest density neighborhood on the west coast of north america outside of San Francisco.

    Another advantage is that the residents get to live on a quite residential street rather than a busy, noisy arterial. Of course the same concept can be applied at lower densities as well. It may not be what we want to do, but it has been done and it has worked very well by almost everyone’s assessment.

  20. Grant

    I used to live about 5-7 blocks from here and always found my neighbors intensely irritating on issues such as this. Hello, its a “19-unit, 4-story project”, not a 19 story 4 unit project – get your damn priorities straight. This is especially galling considering that these same whiners were the ones that requested that this urban village be linear, rather that more concentrated around Greenwood. 4 story buildings are hardly worth wasting ink on, as anyone living close to 20 story buildings can tell you. Get over it granola yuppies.

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