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Seattle Council Elections, District 4: Development Has Come To Her Backyard

Mary Ann Fordyce didn't think there was anything she could do about the proposed development that will cast a shadow over the garden in her backyard.

After her neighbor died, a developer paid $755,000 for the modest house and a 5,000-square-foot lot on the other side of Fordyce's fence and drew up plans to replace with five townhomes.

Then another neighbor, Catherine Smith, came to her door — she lived just across from the lot in question on North 46th St. in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood — with an idea on how to fight the proposal.

"Originally, I was like, 'I give up,'" Fordyce remembered thinking at first. "'I’m sorry, that’s not going to do any good.'"

Though development advocates say change will lift the whole city over time, that feeling — resignation to the inevitability of a project in their neighborhood — has become common among long-time residents upset by the changes an urbanization boom has brought to Seattle neighborhoods like Wallingford.

The story of the neighbors around North 46th St. is different. They knew they couldn't cancel the project entirely. Instead, they appealed to the city to scale back the project — and prevailed. Even if the victory they scored is limited, it's also likely quite rare.

"I was actually kind of surprised," said architect Greg Hill, a long-time watchdog of Seattle development policies.

"We did do so some good," Fordyce said — though she regrets her efforts won't be enough to save the garden she's tended at the house she bought more than three decades ago.

Back in May, Smith, Fordyce and the neighbors had a two-week window to comment on the proposal through the city's streamlined design review process, which all new developments creating three or more townhomes must undergo.

The architect's proposal included requests for five "adjustments," which — if the city grants them — allow for the construction of buildings that don't strictly align with city land use codes if the developer can make the case that their proposal would fit in better with the neighborhood.

The five adjustments on the North 46th St. project would have essentially allowed for the townhomes to be built much closer to the front and side property lines.

Credit Architect's renderings/Seattle Department of Planning & Development
BEFORE: The original proposal included requests for five adjustments that would've let the building be built closer to the front and side property lines, and allowed for second- and third-floor decks to project into the front setback.

The neighbors honed in on these adjustments. They gathered petition signatures and drew up a very unemotional, technical, point-by-point critique of the adjustments.

On June 1, officials in the city's Department of Planning and Development took their side, denying all five adjustments.

Statistically speaking, this is rare.

KPLU reviewed nearly 100 streamlined design review reports dating back two years. In 38 of those projects, designers requested 72 adjustments. City officials supported at least two-thirds of those adjustments. Many were contingent upon the use of certain materials or submittal of more information.

(That number might be high. A department spokesman said city officials are often able to give developers an early sense of whether their adjustments have a chance, which may mean some of the more extraordinary requests never make it to the streamlined design review process.)

But in the past two years, only one project has had five adjustments denied: the one on North 46th Street.

Credit Architect's renderings/Seattle Department of Planning & Development
AFTER: Following the city's rejection of the architect's proposed adjustments, new plans call for one structure instead of two and a greater setback that aligns the front of the building with a neighbor's front porch. The second proposal also removed a second floor deck in the rear of the property that would've looked straight into Mary Ann Fordyce's yard.

Ideally, the streamlined design review is a collaborative way for all interested parties to get an early look at housing designs and suggest changes to make projects more suitable for the neighborhood. But critics have said the process is far from collaborative, and is instead a means for reluctant neighbors to slow down developments they don't like, according to Roger Valdez.

Credit Google Maps

“I remember one project, it was about whether the Juliet balconies would have glazing on the glass. It was these really tiny things,” said Valdez, who heads the non-profit Smart Growth Seattle and advocates for developer interests at city hall.

Valdez says it’s up to the new city council to manage expectations in neighborhoods like Wallingford — that change is coming.

“Some neighbors don’t want anything to happen at all, and they’re prepared to use all means necessary to sort of stymie the fundamental process of new people moving in. And as long as that’s the case, and as long as the city accommodates that kind of pressure, I don’t think this is going to work,” he said.

Valdez says the city just needs more housing, and giving developers freedom to create it ensures Seattle doesn’t become unaffordable for low-income people — because it’s not the rich who get priced out.

But Hill said Seattle doesn't need to change its zoning codes in order accommodate the city's growth. If anything, he feels it's important for city officials to hold the line. He believes the inverse of Valdez: that "hyper-growth" is bad for the poor, since the types of housing that's most lucrative for developers is out of low- and middle-income earners' price range.

"The discourse has become so polarized, that people are telling other people they need to leave the city because they might not like the changes that are coming. We can accommodate change, it's the hyper-change that's the problem," Hill said.

"I don't think it's going to be the answer to adjust codes to increase density in the name of affordable housing," said Catherine Smith, who has lived in Wallingford for 15 years. "It's saying 'density at all costs is going to improve affordable housing' and then you put up units that are not affordable."

Even after successfully swatting down the adjustments, Fordyce says she’ll eventually move. After the townhomes go up in her backyard, she plans to put in as many shade trees as she can, then sell her house.

But while she's given up on her neighborhood, Fordyce also pushes back against being labeled a "NIMBY" — the usually-pejorative acronym for someone who looks at a proposed development and says "Not In My Backyard."

Fordyce herself says it isn’t density that bothers her. As much as anything, she's troubled by the boxy, modern aesthetics of the project on North 46th St., which she feels sticks out like a sore thumb in a neighborhood of craftsman and bungalow homes.

She points to another cluster of townhomes at the end of her block, one with wooden siding and gabled roofs.

“Do I like the look of it? Not really," Fordyce said. "But it looks good enough ... It looks old-world.”

Fordyce also says she worries about where low-income people will live, but she also said the townhomes in her backyard won’t sell for cheap.

"I embrace change," she said, "with reason, in reason."

Additional District 4 facts:

-- Nearly one-third of district residents are between the ages of 25 and 35 years old;

-- It is one of the whitest districts in the city at 73 percent;

-- The district is mostly residential;

-- More that half of the district residents have are single and have never been married.

Sources: U.S. Census American Community Survey 2013 and City of Seattle.

Registered candidates for the 2015 District 4 Primary:

Jean Godden,

Rob Johnson,

Michael J. Maddux,

Abel Pacheco,

Tony Provine,

Other links: Meet the Districts;

The Seattle Times: district map and information.

About this series:

KPLU is exploring an issue central to each of the seven new districts in the upcoming city council primary election. Last Monday, we explored South Park in District 1 and residents' concerns about crime. On the following Tuesday, we were in District 2 at the Othello light rail station, where residents wait for as-of-yet undelivered new commerce. Then on Wednesday, we went into District 3 and  the Central District where locals fears gentrification is changing the neighborhood for the worse. The next day, Thursday, we went to District 4 where we talked with group of neighbors who were able to limit a developer’s proposalto build five townhomes on a lot currently containing a classic single-family home. On Friday, we discovered why walking is a little riskier in in far-north District 5 than in other parts of town. Yesterday, we heard from District 6 where Ballard residents are concerned about the breakneck pace of development.We wrapped up primary election district coverage with District 7, where an apartment building on Queen Anne's Roy Streethas traditionally has been home to service-industry employees. But now residents there are wondering how much longer can they afford to live in the neighborhood.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.