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Townhome Invasion

Neighborhoods Gobbled Up by Developer Loophole

Jennifer Richard

Vlad Oustimovitch awoke to the rumbling sounds of construction equipment coming from down the block from his West Seattle home. The church and child-care center, which sat on a large lot on California Avenue Southwest, were being demolished to make way for 13 new townhomes. No one in Oustimovitch's Morgan Junction neighborhood had seen a land-use notice, or had even heard the property was up for sale. "It's the town-house Wild West," Oustimovitch says. "[Developers] are being allowed to do virtually whatever they want. By the time they began construction, it was too late." Soleil LLC, the company that purchased the site, had snuck the development in under the neighborhood's radar.

What's happening in Morgan Junction is also happening in other parts of the city. Townhomes are popping up all over Seattle as development booms, and some developers are using a process called "piecemealing" to expedite new construction. In piecemealing, a developer can purchase several small adjacent lots, file separate permits for each lot, and skirt the pesky public-comment period and environmental reviews that accompany major construction projects. Those large, white signs—which blare "notice of proposed land use action"—didn't go up in Morgan Junction. Now 13 townhomes are going up, and according to Seattle's Department of Planning and Development (DPD), it's perfectly legal. While new, affordable housing and increased urban density aren't bad things, some neighborhoods are complaining about a glut of what they refer to as "cookie-cutter" developments that avoid community review.

Fremont, Ballard, Maple Leaf, and Rainier Valley have all seen an influx of new townhome construction. Over the last five years, DPD has annually issued an average of 960 permits for new townhomes. In 2006, DPD issued 1,681 permits and expects the upward trend to continue. Toby Thaler—the Fremont Neighborhood Council's land-use chairman—says he's happy to have more housing in the neighborhood, as long as it fits in with Fremont's traditionally kooky aesthetic. "It's not the density that's a problem for us," Thaler says. "We'd like development to be compatible with existing neighborhoods. There are a lot of [developers] out there who will put in any old crap. When they come in to develop... [they don't] allow for meaningful input from the neighbors."

While DPD's current regulations have kept some residents out of the new-construction loop, DPD spokesman Alan Justad says DPD stands by its decision to let separate parcels be developed as separate projects. Although DPD isn't doing anything to stop piecemealing, Justad says they're trying to find ways to keep neighborhood identities intact. "We're hearing that some [developments] look great, but there are others that... don't fit in as well as they could. We've started to brainstorm about which [designs] work and why."

In Morgan Junction, several of the townhomes are nearing completion. The glossy-yet-standard, three-story, sand-colored townhomes stick out in the neighborhood of Craftsman-style homes. So, last March, Oustimovitch filed an appeal with DPD and the developer decided to contact him directly. Soleil made a few concessions to the neighborhood such as lowering the height of a few of the townhomes and working with Oustimovitch on a landscaping plan for the development. Oustimovitch is an architect and a developer himself and did some of the very first townhomes in South Seattle's Holly Park—you have to wonder what else Soleil would have conceded if it had been forced to deal with all of Morgan Junction, rather than sitting down with one angry neighbor. Soleil did not return The Stranger's calls.

While Oustimovitch is dismayed by the lack of transparency in the development process, he's trying to look forward and be pragmatic. "The [townhomes] don't conform to the neighborhood they're in, but we can't go back in time," he says. "I'm concerned about all of the quality of town-house development across the city. I'm an architect and a planner. They went through design review; they're not cookie cutter."

Despite the heavy debate over townhome aesthetics, DPD says it doesn't have plans to regulate the practice of piecemealing. "We need the housing," Justad says. "Clearly, there's a market for people owning their own piece of property from the ground to the roof." recommended

jonah@thestranger.com
 

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