If Linda Buck gets her way, her 1914 Craftsman home will be demolished. The blue house, which Buck has shared with her husband for 30 years, sits on a mostly vacant block where developers want to build six-story apartment buildings. A neighborhood group that Buck describes as "intimidating" is opposed to the taller buildings—the group even stacks public meetings with people who boo and hiss at speakers they disagree with—but Buck wants the taller buildings there for the city's well-being, and so she wants her own house torn down.
"You are asking me to leave my beautiful old home," says Buck, a silver-haired computer programmer who works at the University of Washington's applied physics lab. "And if I do leave it, I will leave it for something I believe in."
What Buck believes in, she says, is increasing density in the blocks east of the Roosevelt neighborhood's future light rail station and across the street from Roosevelt High School. "You are going to get an enormous amount of density for these three homes," she says of replacing her house and two neighbors' homes with two blocks of six-story buildings affordable to renters. "A lot of people in the city helped me, and I am really grateful. It's my turn to sacrifice." She adds one more point: "I don't have any arrangement with the developer."
Years in the works, the neighborhood's density issue is set to arrive before the Seattle City Council's land-use committee on November 30, when council members will consider competing visions for the Roosevelt area. While Mayor Mike McGinn and Council Member Tim Burgess support buildings up to six stories where Buck's home currently stands, the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association (RNA) is insisting on its own proposal for buildings only four stories tall. It's a familiar clash over density. But now, when light rail lines are under construction from Tukwila to Northgate and the housing construction market is experiencing an uptick, Roosevelt serves as a bellwether for several neighborhoods up and down the Sound Transit corridor.
The critics of density use familiar arguments. The RNA fears that allowing the two additional floors on these blocks would obstruct views, create shadows, and conflict with their own dreams for the area.
"Our long-term vision was a classic wedding cake, stepping down from the middle [where the light rail station will be] to the edges of the neighborhood," says Jim O'Halloran, chair of the RNA's land-use committee. To his group's credit, they agreed to allow 85-foot buildings in a three-block swath around the light rail line. From that apex, he says, "The ideal model is to step down: 85, 65, and 40 feet." The block where Buck lives, however, is not where the RNA thinks a swath of 65-foot-tall buildings should go; O'Halloran says putting that layer of the cake in that particular spot would mean "the guy who lives in his house near the tall building is uncomfortable."
But as it happens, one of closest residents is Jim Nobles, who has lived in his bungalow for nine years across from the two blocks in question. Would a six-story building so close make him uncomfortable? "I would not be uncomfortable—not at all," says Nobles. "Get the density where it needs to be."
It may be a choice, ultimately, between six stories or nothing.
The properties at issue are owned almost entirely by controversial landlord Hugh Sisley and his partner, the Roosevelt Development Group (RDG). Sisley says he won't build unless he has six stories to work with, because it doesn't pencil out to build four-story apartment buildings in this economy. Instead, Sisley would let his dilapidated properties—already the source of neighborhood complaints—further decay. "If RDG doesn't build, and if no one else gets into the game to build, you keep a set of blighted properties that makes none of us happy," says Sally Clark, chair of the council's land-use committee.
Buck adds: "They have a fantastic idea that someone will build a gorgeous four-story building, but it's not going to happen."
Even if the council allows six-story buildings, the neighborhood group is certain to have its desired wedding-cake effect of declining heights. Why? City zoning maps already show the properties buffering the two blocks include—you guessed it—buildings zoned for 40 feet. So the buildings would stand 85 feet above light rail, 65 feet where Buck lives, 40 feet across the street, and then down to standard houses.
O'Halloran points out that neighbors would happily allow taller buildings on the other side of the neighborhood—above the light rail and next to the freeway.
Council Member Clark remains mum on how she'll lean in the November 30 meeting. But here's hoping she supports six-story buildings on the two blocks where development is actually possible by the time the light rail station opens in 10 years. More people, commuting people, non-car-owning and non-house-owning people—working people—need to live nearby. And as Nobles and Buck point out, some of the neighbors most affected are the ones most in favor.
But the RNA—some of them good folks—have clearly been bullies over this issue. At a September 19 hearing at the high school, RNA members reportedly booed and hissed at people who spoke in favor of the 65-foot buildings.
Buck sums up what the council should keep in mind about the activists who are sure to make a stink: "They represent the RNA, not the neighborhood."