Seattle's neighborhoods are trying to stop townhome and condo developments. But it's not because of NIMBYism. They're not fighting density, nor are they even opposed to the chaos and noise brought on by massive construction projects. No, Seattle's neighborhoods want to put a halt to ugly development. The Achilles's heel of development isn't what you might expect. It's not political opposition; it's aesthetic opposition. Development—because of straight-up butt-ugly design—has become its own worst enemy.
"Poor quality urban buildings are a big disincentive to embrace urban density," says Lisa Richmond, executive director of the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Richmond says ugly projects create neighborhood opposition, which makes the process harder for everyone. However, Richmond says, "We are just not sure whether the market rewards developers for [better design]."
There is a solution to unsightly construction: the city's design review process.
As part of the permitting process, developers are required to hold open meetings with neighborhood groups and the city up to two years before construction begins in order to flesh out—and sometimes argue over—the design and scope of a project. Sometimes neighbors are able to make an impact on sizable projects, as seen in the Pike/Pine corridor over the last several years, but sometimes the process falls apart. Design review only occurs when projects are of a certain size in a specific zoning area, and some townhome developers have found ways to dodge the process altogether.
In the last three years, Ballard has become one of Seattle's most heavily developed neighborhoods. It's one of the city's top three neighborhoods for condo conversions—along with Capitol Hill and Queen Anne—and rows of townhomes have replaced a number of Ballard's small single-family cottages. However, the city's lax—and sometimes avoidable—design review process has left some Ballard residents resentful of cheaply built, badly designed architectural eyesores. "We all know we have to accept more density," says Beth Miller, executive director of the Ballard Chamber of Commerce and a longtime Ballard resident. "But in 10 years, are those [new developments] going to really hold up? Are they going to be something you want to look at?" Miller points to a development near the neighborhood's center with garish paint schemes and uninviting concrete exteriors, and cookie-cutter townhome developments, which stand out from Ballard's hundred-year-old craftsman homes as the problem. "It's not that [developers] are building something that isn't allowed within the zoning," Miller says, "but maybe it could have been finessed into the neighborhood a bit more."
Over in Queen Anne, the community council—working on design guidelines for the neighborhood—declined to address residential design rules because they didn't want to get bogged down by the intricacies of the process. "The Queen Anne Community Council skirts the residential issue continually," says Jessica Vets, a member of the Queen Anne Community Council's Land Use Review Committee. "[But we] decided to stay away from residential [guidelines]."
While Seattle does have more stringent requirements for construction than other cities, Seattle's lack of quality control only gives NIMBYs more ammo against development.
Some developers, like Dunn & Hobbes and Pryde & Johnson, have worked to build projects which mesh with the neighborhoods they're in—building aesthetically pleasing, "sustainable" projects—but other developers are quick to throw up dozens of townhomes as quickly and cheaply as possible.
"It begins to destroy the character and uniqueness of neighborhoods," says city councilmember Tom Rasmussen, who's been a staunch supporter of density, voting for an increase in height limits downtown and on Capitol Hill. However, Rasmussen is also quick to criticize the wrong kind of development.
"What I see happening is we're losing landscaped yards and planting strips; we're having fences or concrete walls built right up to the sidewalk. [It's] sterile and bleak." Rasmussen points to a string of boxy, cheap-looking townhome developments along North 85th Street near the Aurora corridor as an example of development gone wild. Rasmussen says he's continually been told that good design isn't cost-effective. "Does good design always cost more money?" Rasmussen asks. "Can't we be more thoughtful and careful [in the design process]?" Rasmussen says he'd be willing to take a look at revising the city's land-use code in order to put tighter regulations on development.