Seattle voters are getting ready to choose who will represent their district. Seven district seats will be decided, as well at two at large positions. KPLU’s election series, Back On The Block, revisits issues affecting each district and introduces us to the candidates.
Mary Ann Fordyce does not oppose new housing developments in her neighborhood — but that doesn't mean she likes the way they look.
In the lot directly behind her Wallingford home of more than 30 years, a developer has proposed erecting what Fordyce calls "a monster”: a group of five, 3-story townhomes with the same boxy, modern aesthetic that's become a hallmark of many new projects in Seattle.
Fordyce wishes the plans for the new project looked more like the townhomes at the end of her street, which look more like the single-family craftsman and bungalow houses commonly found in Wallingford.
"They're more in the scale and the look of the neighborhood," Fordyce said during an interview with KPLU last July, pointing out the townhomes' gabled roofs and wood siding. "Those are okay with me.”
Conversations like this one with Fordyce are coloring the race for an open seat on the city council in Seattle's District 4. In fact, both candidates for that seat say addressing concerns about the aesthetics of new developments designed to increase density will be key to efforts to shake up Seattle's housing policies.
Many longtime residents of single-family neighborhoods worry new developments are disrupting the city's look and feel. But many developers worry restrictions on new projects would hurt their bottom lines.
Faced with projections that Seattle will add 100,000 people to its population by 2035, the city's Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee sought to strike a compromise. They proposed what Mayor Ed Murray has termed a "grand bargain": grant developers some flexibility in the permitting process in exchange for promising to build more affordable housing.
But as District 4 candidates Rob Johnson and Michael Maddux canvass the district, which spans neighborhoods north of Lake Union and the Montlake Cut from Wallingford to View Ridge, they say many potential voters are asking: “Can we talk about how multi-family development looks in a single-family neighborhood?”
’That’s Not Going To Work Here’
Johnson, a 37-year-old urban planner and transit advocate, says he was knocking on doors in the Windermere neighborhood when someone brought up a proposal (from which Mayor Murray has backed away) to allow more duplexes, triplexes and cottages on single-family lots.
“‘That's not going to work here,’" Johnson said this Windermere resident told him. "I pulled out my cell phone and showed him a picture of a project in Windermere. And they said, ‘Well, that actually looks really consistent with the development we have in the neighborhood.’"
Both Johnson and Maddux say they support the broad outlines of the HALA committee's "grand bargain," but say few residents know what's in it.
"All they heard was 'lot line-to-lot line construction — do whatever you want.' That's not what the proposal was," said Maddux, a 34-year-old paralegal who is also active in the local Democratic Party.
Johnson and Maddux both say city officials need to start asking neighborhoods about how greater housing density should look and feel.
"Those are all things that are, frankly, easy to do," Maddux said, "if we as a city are willing to have a conversation with residents in our city, recognizing that people are coming into our city, and we can’t stop all growth because that’s going to make it even worse.”
’Giving Everybody The Sandbox’
Neither candidate is talking in an abstract way about starting a conversation. Johnson, for instance, suggests the city ought to give local neighborhood groups the budgets to convene effective, grassroots development planning processes. In total, he supposes it would cost the city between $5 million and $10 million — but he says that the spending would pay dividends.
Johnson calls it "giving everybody the sandbox.”
"We’re going to say, ‘You’re going to take this number of units, but we’re not going to tell you where; we’re not going to tell you what it looks like; we’re leaving that up to you,'" Johnson said. "'And we’re going to ask you to tell us what you want. Do you want more parks? Do you want more schools?’"
Maddux and Johnson both cited a city planning process in the 1990s that involved a lot of community meetings. They say neighbors came away from that process happier with the results.
"It's organic. It's from the neighbors," Maddux said, "as opposed to, 'Here's four options; vote online on the one you think is best.’"
Housing development policy is not the biggest point of contrast between Maddux and Johnson — both vying to replace longtime Seattle City Councilmember Jean Godden. The biggest contrast between the two is probably style: Johnson is more of a policy wonk, whereas Maddux is more of an activist.