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”
“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.