Design Review: Modest proposal for Beacon Hill

On Tuesday evening Southeast Design Review board will have my old neighborhood, Beacon Hill, on its agenda. A project has been proposed for the corner of the vacant station block on the corner of 17th and McClellan. It’s a pretty small project, about 30 units of housing. But all of this brings back memories.

During the last half of the 1990’s I was pretty heavily involved in neighborhood planning on Beacon Hill and in South Park. I wrote a longer piece on the arrival of light rail on Beacon Hill when I was at Sightline.

In February of 1995, I moved to an apartment on Beacon Hill and got involved in neighborhood planning. A group of dedicated people pushed hard for a station on Beacon Hill even though Sound Transit, at the time, said a station there would be too deep and too expensive. The group persisted and finally got a station worked into the plan. Shortly after that group collapsed from exhaustion, a new group arose on Beacon Hill opposing the station claiming that it would destroy the character of the neighborhood.

During those years (and later) I did what I could to support efforts to consider more development capacity around what would become the station. There was a neighborhood matching proposal to support an envelope study, and later, when I was at Public Health, we funded a charette with developers to consider what could be built around the station.

In every case, the verdict came back the same: 40 feet won’t cut it. The existing zoning around the station just won’t support more development, the kind of development that is needed for Transit Oriented Development. Years went by without any serious movement on upzones for Beacon Hill that would create density. The vacant property around the station has become emblematic of the failed process in Seattle that tends to favor doing nothing over making big changes.

There is now a proposal on the table to increase capacity around the transit station. But that proposal seems too narrow and preservationist, putting a heavy emphasis on blunting the effect of tall buildings. On Seattle Transit blog I responded to criticism that I was being unfair about how I characterize neighborhood opposition or support of density:

While there is language that appears to embrace growth, there are a lot language that would lend itself to attenuating big boosts in density. From the document you linked to:

“Higher density development surrounds the light rail station and is responsive to the neighborhood context at a variety of scales, from single family houses to multistory buildings”

and

“A Town Center urban form that transitions from denser development at the Town Center core to less dense and single-family residential neighborhoods in a manner that is responsive to the context and character of the North Beacon Hill neighborhood.”

Where exactly is this transition zone supposed to be, when the project I am talking about is 40 feet and across the street is SF 5000. Most of the blocks that are going up to 65 are similarly surrounded by Single Family. The increases here are not that signficant and they aren’t particularly broad. This is really threading the needle, especially because it’s going to be hard to “transition” from 40 feet to SF or from 65 to 40 to SF in the space of a block.

Here’s a link to my full comment. The commenter I was responding to sounds an awful lot like speakers in Roosevelt who talked about how much density they were willing to “take,” as if it were poison. I get that there are height increases proposed and that there might even have been consensus about those increases. But picking some parcels here and there and boosting the zoning by 20 feet and then requiring transition zones is not a loving embrace of density.

I don’t think this one project that the Committee will review is enough. In some ways I’d almost rather see nothing happen on the site than to have it underdeveloped. The station box is in place, and there isn’t much room on the site, but it would be better if the whole site could be developed all at once. I worry that this small piece locks down the station site further, making bigger projects less feasible.

So I am conflicted. On the one hand 30 units seems better than what’s there now, nothing. On the other, I’d rather have us pass big changes to state law, to the zoning code and even to the city’s charter so we could get lots of density at Beacon Hill and other station areas. What we’re doing now is not working, and parking 30 units on the edge of the station block seems problematic when I consider the bigger picture.

So I’m going to the meeting to see what happens. I’ll report back later somewhere. But I hope by the end of the evening I’ll feel less conflicted about the project. Beacon Hill is a great neighborhood with lots of opportunity to show the rest of the city and region how to make TOD work. But it has also been the epitome of public process gone awry and the paucity of real leadership at the City to take advantage of the chance to make Beacon Hill the best it could be. Maybe some of the people that move into these 30 units can help change that.

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3 Responses to Design Review: Modest proposal for Beacon Hill

  1. Wendi Dunlap says:

    “The commenter I was responding to sounds an awful lot like speakers in Roosevelt who talked about how much density they were willing to ‘take,’ as if it were poison.”

    I think you are misrepresenting what I said pretty seriously, Roger. I am offended that you are lumping me in with anti-density supporters.

    For what it’s worth, I personally support much more density at the site than the community process has given us so far. I too would like to see more than 65′ on the station block. But I believe that you are being unfair in depicting the neighborhood as rejecting density. Have you actually been at the community meetings in the last few years? Read the comments? I have. And what I saw was a community that is very much supportive of more density and development in the urban village, but one that also fears being “stepped on” in the process — for very good historical reasons. So there has been a lot of caution. But in general, people support more density. We don’t all agree on the amount, but the 65′ density that is extremely likely to be approved very soon now hasn’t been very controversial.

    Of course, there are always some who are more on the NIMBY side of things. And others who just love open space so much they propose things like the “central park project” that some folks proposed last year, without really considering the effect of turning the station block into a park without adding any nearby density. But I think this is normal in any neighborhood. I am certain that there is no neighborhood in Seattle where you’d get unanimous support for increasing density — not even Capitol Hill.

    I find it insulting when you or some of the other folks around Seattle Transit Blog (not all of them, to be sure) accuse Beacon Hill of something that really doesn’t seem to be the case. As a former Beacon Hill resident yourself, it seems very strange that you depict the situation that way. Maybe you should come visit the hill for a while and talk to a few more people to see how things have changed since the 90s.

  2. Wendi Dunlap says:

    I should say that this is frustrating because we are essentially on the same side. I just don’t like seeing Beacon Hill neighbors represented as NIMBYs unless they are actually being NIMBYs.

  3. . says:

    Hello Wendi,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment. Be careful when you say you’re on the “same side.” People like me were roundly criticized in the Roosevelt process as consensus busters when we pushed for more density there. But I do apologize to you if you feel as though you were unfairly lumped together with others.

    And you are right, Beacon Hill has changed. A post will go up later this morning on STB that expands on this conversation. On balance, however, the last 16 years have been characterized by a view that Beacon Hill was some how second class or that it was being unfairly treated. Oddly, that view led to the idea that new development was yet another example of this unfairness. The opposite is the case: it’s the lack of development that was unfair.

    It is also true that as one commenter pointed out my posts and comments sound a bit condescending. But my intention is different than it was when I was a neighborhood planner. Then my goal was consensus, and I would have been willing to purchase that consensus for 20 feet here or 20 feet there or an L3 over there. However, as an at large advocate for density I see my role as challenging the conceptual framework that sees density as being, as you put it, “stepped on.” Density is good all by itself. Density is a benefit.

    I’ve been warned before not to characterize a whole neighborhood as having one view or another because there are always exceptions. That’s true. But one has to settle on a currency to use when talking about these things. If you support more density in Beacon Hill then, yes, we’re on the “same side.” I’m happy someone there agrees with me. Let me know how I can help support making more density happen. I’m sure we wouldn’t agree on everything. That’s fine too. One thing we can agree on is that Beacon Hill’s outlook is better than it was.

    But can Beacon Hill do more than just reach tentative agreement on 25 feet and become a regional leader, showing other key neighborhoods how to help manage growth by embracing whole heartedly more people in the heart of their neighborhood. I think it can.

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