Wait, They Want More Density?

Neighborhood Groups Are Outraged by Proposals for Squat Chain Stores on Busy Blocks

Wait, They Want More Density?

Kelly O

NEIGHBORHOOD CHARACTERS Vince Lyons, center, and Wallingford residents in front of a beloved bar that will be demolished for a chain store.

Vince Lyons of the Wallingford Community Council is the first to admit that his neighborhood's newest tussle with a developer is "kind of ironic." Usually, he says, "we're trying to look at larger projects and get them to cut back on their bulk." But Lyons is involved in a new kind of neighborhood fight over a proposed development on North 45th Street, a project that would replace a one-story building and its adjoining parking lot with—well, a one-and-a-half-story building. With an adjoining parking lot.

So instead of fighting more density, the neighborhood is saying, "Hey, we want density," says Lyons.

The battle under way in Wallingford is similar to those brewing simultaneously in Queen Anne and West Seattle, where the same developer is planning squat, car-oriented chain stores on busy corners in the heart of pedestrian neighborhoods—places the city and neighbors have designated for larger, mixed-use buildings that promote street activity.

"They're doing just the opposite of what we would anticipate," says the director of the city's Department of Planning and Development, Diane Sugimura. Likewise, a member of a city design board, Joe Hurley, called it "ludicrous" to claim that this proposal comports with the growth anticipated in the neighborhood.

The site that would be razed on North 45th Street currently has three different storefronts—including the beloved Chinese restaurant/dive bar Moon Temple, a former cafe, and a former clinic.

The developer, Michigan-based Velmeir Companies, has submitted designs to replace the entire building with a retail pharmacy, including a partial second story providing room for storage and bathrooms. Velmeir won't comment on who the pharmacy client is, but the designs appear to suggest it will be a CVS. CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis says, "We have no announcement at this time for store openings in Seattle."

Velmeir isn't proposing under-building just a little. The city allows buildings up to 40 feet tall and with more than 61,000 square feet on that lot—this pharmacy would be less than 10,000 square feet. Velmeir project manager Wayne Shores says what happens to the site is the "client's decision"; they're still "very early" in the process and "discussing all options."

When asked about neighborhood complaints that the proposal is at odds with the city's goal for concentrated activity on the busy block, Shores said the company is "taking all the comments into consideration."

On August 5, in a sweltering community center, dozens of Wallingford residents swarmed an early meeting of the design review board to testify on the project. Versions of the questions "Why can't it be taller?" and "Why does it need so much parking?" were brought up repeatedly; people pointed out that many businesses on the strip do just fine without parking. Other neighbors mocked the corporate architecture that ignores the surrounding neighborhood, calling it an "obvious... copy/paste job," "a California strip-mall knockoff," and "a cruel joke."

That last comment came from Wallingford resident Doug Nellis, who points out that Capitol Hill residents faced a similar problem with a pharmacy—and won.

In 2003, at Broadway and Pine Street, Walgreens had proposed a one-story pharmacy with a surface parking lot. After the neighborhood protested, Nellis says, "Walgreens took back their original design and built what is a fairly decent building." That "fairly decent building" is the Broadway Crossing, a mixed-use building with 44 units of affordable housing, developed in conjunction with Capitol Hill Housing, that has won numerous local and national awards.

Meanwhile, on Queen Anne Avenue North and West Mercer Street, the same developer, building for what appears to be the same client, has proposed a similar single-tenant development far below the allowed height and usage of the lot.

"It's almost unheard of that people would want to underutilize such valuable real estate," says Queen Anne resident and architect Matt Roewe. Another proposal would do the same thing in West Seattle at Fauntleroy Way Southwest and Southwest Alaska Street.

But can the city help?

They're limited, says Sugimura, by city rules—and right now, there's no minimum-density requirement.

Which is why city council member Richard Conlin wants to add new rules on minimum density in certain places, as a way of preventing under-building. "To me, this is the perfect example of why we need minimum density [requirements]," says Conlin. But the Wallingford and Queen Anne locations have already had their first design review meetings, and as long as they proceed through the application process, they'll be held only to the standards that were in place when they first applied—new legislation won't affect them.

Neighborhood activists have suggested delaying the projects long enough that they will face new regulations. But Sugimura cautions that if the city forces the developer through too many review meetings "just to delay [the project]... that's just a lawsuit waiting to happen." So Conlin says he's asked DPD to research ways the city council can legally affect the outcomes of these projects. Both Conlin and Sugimura name-check the Broadway Crossing building as a model for what these projects should become.

And though he doesn't know what that legislation may look like, Conlin seems confident he can pass some sort of minimum-density legislation this fall. After speaking with colleagues, he says, "I can pretty much guarantee you that I'll have a majority on this, and possibly unanimous." recommended


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theophrastus 1
stupid, though honest, question: how are we defining "density" seattle ...currently? number_of_business_licenses/hectare..?
Posted by theophrastus on August 14, 2013 at 12:21 PM · Report this
Fnarf 2
The problem is that, as new construction, it's going to be filled with a chain store no matter how tall it is. No one else can afford the rent; certainly not interesting, quirky little stores or immigrant-run restaurants that make neighborhoods so interesting. You might as well built tall, if you're going to build at all, but it's still going to crush the character out of the neighborhood. That's just the way it works.

Especially in the modern economy, where storefront retail is just flat-out dying everywhere. You choose: chain drugstore, nail salon, check cashing. Expensive restaurant if you're lucky.

If you want interesting, you have to go to places where crappy old buildings like the Moon Temple building are not at risk for any kind of new construction. That's where the affordable housing is, too, increasingly -- in the clapped out broken pavement suburbs.
Posted by Fnarf on August 14, 2013 at 12:54 PM · Report this
Let me get this straight, because Slog never will. In West Seattle you oppose a dense project (300 units with affordable housing) because it has a Whole Foods that pays $16/hr on average. In Wallingford you oppose a low density project with a Walgreens that pays on average $10/hour.

Pick a lane and stick in it girls.
Posted by Can't wait for your next lane swerve on August 14, 2013 at 1:01 PM · Report this
Like porn, it's hard to define but you know it when you see it.
Posted by Henry on August 14, 2013 at 1:02 PM · Report this
make it WAY taller, with WAY bigger setbacks used for café type tables fountains a bench, a Parisian feel, add condos THEN it will pencil out.

when you add new units like this, they support the more "interesting" bars and shops on other sites btw. new construction is almost always never the most "interesting"
Posted by parisian on August 14, 2013 at 1:25 PM · Report this
Matt the Engineer 6
@1 One way would be a Floor Area Ratio. This is the ratio of building floor area to property area. For example, a 2-story building built to the property lines has a FAR of 2, a building built on half its property has a FAR of 0.5. We currently limit FAR's for many construction types. It would be great to have a minimum FAR in walkable areas.
Posted by Matt the Engineer on August 14, 2013 at 1:38 PM · Report this
Fnarf 7
@6, in addition to FAR, there's a number I can't remember the name of right now that refers to "porosity" of street facades -- i.e., number of openings, i.e., doors to shops (or upstairs apartments), per 350-foot or whatever block. This number should be high, but it rarely is in new construction, because the ground floor is taken up by parking garage, so there's only room for one or two long, shallow storefronts. That's bad design.
Posted by Fnarf on August 14, 2013 at 1:58 PM · Report this
certainly not ... quirky little stores or immigrant-run restaurants ...

Does everything in Seattle have to be "quirky"? If CVS thinks there is a market for a phamacy in that neighborhood, maybe there is?
Posted by Arthur Zifferelli on August 14, 2013 at 2:01 PM · Report this
@8: There is most certainly NOT a market for a pharmacy in the Wallingford neighborhood. Within five blocks of this proposed development there is already a Bartells, a Pharmaca, and a Walgreens.

CVS's obvious goal is to enter the market and own it. CVS is the 13th largest company in the United States (and the very largest company who does business solely in the US), so they have the ability to undercut their competition until it is eliminated.
Posted by DOUG. on August 14, 2013 at 2:15 PM · Report this
@6 It didn't make it into the piece (cut for space and for being too wonky!) but minimum FAR is definitely one model under consideration. The Wallingford lot has a maximum FAR of 3.0. Their proposal is for a building that's .49.
Posted by Anna Minard on August 14, 2013 at 2:17 PM · Report this
The WCC tries to enforce the neighborhood plan, meaning more density in the urban village area and less build up outside that area. It's not "pro density" or "anti density", it's "pro neighborhood plan". The neighborhood plan promotes walkability with development focused on the retail core along 45th street.

On the chamber side of things, Wallingford already has 3 pharmacies, and the only rationale for a CVS is to come in and crush them. So local residents and businesses are commonly opposed to the CVS invasion at this site and in this configuration.

I know the Stranger often opposes neighborhood groups because they tend to oppose change. People move to an area because they like it how it is, and they tend to complicate the implementation of agendas imposed from the outside. Sometimes that means challenging development and bike lanes, but other times that means blocking a new freeway or parking garage. Having said that, residents will look for win-win solutions that serve both external goals and internal residents. You just have to ask!

Finally, apologies for this comment being middle of the road and mentioning the possibility of "win-win" solutions. I know that is out of character for both the SLOG and Internet comments in general.
Posted by efbrazil on August 14, 2013 at 2:18 PM · Report this
Twilight Sparkle 12
@2 Fnarf, you're right that indie business will be able to afford the rent, so the tenant(s) will probably be chain/corporate. I'd like to invoke Jane Jacobs at this juncture, and remind everyone that buildings have a long lifespan, if they're designed in an adaptable way (see Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn), and as they age, they become homes for increasingly low rent users. A mix of buildings of different ages helps create a vital urban social/economic ecosystem. A new mixed use building can remain usable for a century or more, while a single use box retailer has a much shorter shelf life and consequently a more limited likelihood of contributing to a diverse neighborhood.
Posted by Twilight Sparkle on August 14, 2013 at 2:21 PM · Report this
Twilight Sparkle 13
@11 your comment is just plain "win"
Posted by Twilight Sparkle on August 14, 2013 at 2:25 PM · Report this
theophrastus 14
so current definitions of density don't even factor in residency? a 27 floor office-tower/Walmart (with 17 access doors to allow for Mr Fnarf's point) that is only a third occupied would therefore be considered 'highly dense'?

surely a C coefficient for the number of different local espresso shops, and a "+ Q" for number of farmers' markets multiplied by bike repair divided by Chase banks can be jammed in sideways..? where's the "Drake equation" for Seattle density??
Posted by theophrastus on August 14, 2013 at 2:58 PM · Report this
Matt the Engineer 15
@14 I was about to suggest that it's out of government's purview to force you to have a certain number of people actually live in a building. But then I remember we already do this in the other direction. You're only allowed to have 8 un-related people in each living unit.

The interesting thing about land use and building codes is they really work like an equation that forms cities. For example, the equation that build Pioneer Square is much different from the one that built newer high-rises, and even more different than the equation that built car-loving Bellevue. The trick for a beautiful, livable city is to figure out the best equation.
Posted by Matt the Engineer on August 14, 2013 at 3:11 PM · Report this
I hope this discussion will bring end to the phony meme that predominantly single-family neighborhoods are NIMBY and anti-density. It's never been true, but lazy bloggers (I hesitate to use the term Journalists) keep dredging it up, I guess because they believe controversy sells.

Most all neighborhood plans in Seattle support increased density in their core areas, and they also oppose low-density suburban-type developments like this CVS in Wallingford. And there is more than enough development capacity in these neighborhood plans (and similar urban center plans) to accommodate all the growth projected for many years to come.

BTW somebody might tell the developers and CVS that Wallingforders are pretty savvy people, and I expect they like their locally-owned Bartell's just fine. If I were still a resident there, I'd keep right on shopping at Bartell's and never darken the door of that CVS. Just sayin'...

-Past President-
Wallingford Community Council
Posted by Citizen R on August 14, 2013 at 3:42 PM · Report this
Matt the Engineer 17
"And there is more than enough development capacity in these neighborhood plans (and similar urban center plans) to accommodate all the growth projected for many years to come."

(bites tongue to keep from point out the anti-densityness of this statement)
Posted by Matt the Engineer on August 14, 2013 at 3:53 PM · Report this
@17 if you want density, stick it up your arse.
Posted by Proud single family home owner in Seattle on August 14, 2013 at 6:08 PM · Report this
Matt @17 -- c'mon, you're losing it. The issue is density in the right places, where the City and neighborhoods plan for it, where the infrastructure can best accommodate it. Noting the City is adequately zoned for projected future development, how can anyone construe that observation to be anti-density?

Are you advocating for density everywhere? Density wherever a developer can cut a deal with a property owner, planning be damned? Very few people want to go there, the Roger Valdez route.

Posted by Citizen R on August 14, 2013 at 6:28 PM · Report this
@19 that's exactly what Matt wants. Go read his missives and all the other lunatics at Seattle Transit blog. They won't be satisfied until every SFH in Seattle is torn down and replaced with rabbit hutches. That's why I have a 'I shoot urbanists' sign on my lawn.
Posted by They can stuff that density up their arses on August 14, 2013 at 6:38 PM · Report this
Matt the Engineer 21
"Noting the City is adequately zoned for projected future development" and this is where we strongly, strongly disagree. Everything else is great.
Posted by Matt the Engineer on August 14, 2013 at 8:17 PM · Report this
@13, we are open to working with cvs on a mixed use building that fits the neighborhood plan, ie win win. The chamber would rather they located to Phinney or Fremont as they threaten local business.
Posted by efbrazil on August 14, 2013 at 8:21 PM · Report this
Matt the Engineer 23
(except for the cut on Roger - he has some great ideas)
Posted by Matt the Engineer on August 14, 2013 at 8:22 PM · Report this
Matt @21: Data/sources, please. What's your assumption regarding "projected future development"? 20 years? A century?

And a related Question: Do you believe there are limits to growth?
Posted by TobyinFremont on August 14, 2013 at 9:56 PM · Report this
@22--Oh, foist them off on us, huh?!
Posted by TobyinFremont on August 14, 2013 at 9:58 PM · Report this
If the building is well built and doesn't utterly preclude other, different, future uses, then I don't care who the tenant is. Most of the "quaint" housing/building that Seattlites so love for its "character" were shat out of a logging or other company's production line at some point. The difference, it seems, between uniform looking places with "character" and those without is about 50 years. People are snatching up "mid-century modern" floorplans that were considered low-rent 30 years ago. You can see the flat brick, rambler-with-junipers-in-the-yard everywhere in this city. They were once shat out of a house-mill. Now they are "mid-century modern," and hipsters are falling all over themselves finding the right scandinavian furniture to put in them.

CVS will die eventually but the building will remain. Make them do it right, and we'll still be getting value out of it in 50 years when its cool again.
Posted by nullbull on August 14, 2013 at 9:59 PM · Report this
Meanwhile, so many cool old taverns, historical landmarks, Mom 'n' Pop shops and single-family homes are being razed, regardless....*sigh*
I can hear my Dad telling me and my three older sibs back when we moved to the beach after the massive Boeing layoffs (does anyone remember the billboard that read: "Will the last person to leave Seattle turn out the lights?") 'It's a changing world, kids.'
That was 44 years ago, only 7 years after the 1962 World's Fair and the birth of Seattle Center and the Space Needle.

I wonder what Seattle will represent in 2057?
Posted by auntie grizelda on August 14, 2013 at 11:53 PM · Report this
Matt the Engineer 28
@24 the anti-growth types calculate the maximum # of units an area can build under current code, subtract the existing number of units, and say "there, plenty of capacity for growth". But that assumes you bulldoze every building and build to the maximum allowable. In reality construction becomes expensive far before that point. Nobody will tear down a 3-story condo to build a 5-story condo until prices are extremely high. And many owners have no intention of selling or rebuilding.

Your growth question doesn't make sense in context. There is no threat of becoming Manhattan here in your children's lifetime. I do believe in growing from our neighborhood cores outward, if that's your question.
Posted by Matt the Engineer on August 15, 2013 at 6:13 AM · Report this
CVS is like a noxious fungus.

Once it gets a foothold, it will start opening redundant stores at the speed of light (kind of like Starbuck's but worse) in every city neighborhood, and will try to saturate the market and force out local chains.

It will move into as yet unprotected neighborhood landmarks and either tear them down or destroy their architectural integrity to open another unneeded drug store. It's prescription service was always very bad because its pharmacy techs were always so low paid (prescriptions not filled correctly).

Having lived somewhere where there was no choice but CVS, I will never again step inside another CVS store. Not even at gun point.
Posted by Purrl on August 15, 2013 at 7:14 AM · Report this
As Matt alludes @28, those who suggest all future growth can and should be "accommodated" at a few locations would destroy everything of urban worth in those locations.

The loss of the Pinevue storefronts, the weekly announcements that organic Capitol Hill urbanity is to be replaced with condos-over-garage megablocks, the city's complicit extraction of its own preservation teeth... When all future growth must be channeled into the tiny percentage of Seattle that is zoned to allow it, you deprive those areas of organic growth, of the mixed-age, mixed-size, intermingled-use environments that make city blocks interesting and allow cities to thrive.

And why? So that the 70% of land devoted to an endless sea of bungalows can wallow in monoculture forever?
Posted by d.p. on August 15, 2013 at 1:09 PM · Report this
Matt @28 raises a valid point. When I look at development potential in urban villages and urban centers, I look at older and often decaying lower-density buildings, not anything recent, for the reasons that Matt cites.

If he or anyone has data that indicate that there are not enough such developable sites in those centers, enough to accommodate expected growth over the next XX years, then I'd like to see them. No need for rank speculation. If he or anyone thinks there is need for an increase in zoned capacity in Seattle, let's see some numbers.
Posted by Citizen R on August 15, 2013 at 2:55 PM · Report this
Matt the Engineer and Citizen R should get together to talk this out. This could turn into a great discussion about appropriate scales and densities in core city neighborhoods. As a practicing urban planner here in Seattle, I tend to side with Matt that we are not anywhere near our development capacity. But I also agree with Citizen R that growth needs to happen in the designated centers in order for it to be orderly and efficient. One look at Wallingford-- a central, urban neighborhood with good access to transit and transportation infrastructure, a tight street grid, and a healthy economic mix of neighborhood scale business-- and most planners would say it's seriously under-developed. Wherever possible, the city needs to take charge and leverage developers to build to certain standards, providing assistance (tax credits, use variances, reduced parking requirements, etc.) where necessary to make projects pencil out financially. Growth is coming to Seattle in a major way over the next 20+ years. Accommodating it within our already existing urban centers is the only way to preserve the open space and resource land around the metropolitan area that makes our region so attractive and quality of life so high. As it is, zoning is probably still generally too low in a lot of Seattle neighborhoods.

The real problem here is finding a new place to get a stiff cocktail at a reasonable price around here.
Posted by CthePlanner on August 15, 2013 at 4:05 PM · Report this
Matt the Engineer 33
@31 The trick is, where do you draw the line? The surface parking lot is a given. And the single family home that's managed to stay in the midrise multifamily zone (except when they don't want to sell, of course). But how about the old 2-story condo? Will that go with our current zoning or stay? How about the 7-11 with a parking lot. I don't want that ugly beast around, but odds are they're not selling for decades if ever. Etc.

The best way to judge is based on housing price. Head down to Palo Alto, CA for one extreme example - you can't get a run down old bungalow there for less than a million or two. They should have skyscrapers by now if they wanted to stay affordable, but they stubbornly stay single family, and even limit their few multifamily zones to three stories.

It's fairly easy to judge where the demand has built up - follow the money. Take the average price of a home per sf in a given area, and compare it to the average price of a home in sf for Seattle in general. The higher the difference, the better the location for an upzone.
Posted by Matt the Engineer on August 15, 2013 at 4:10 PM · Report this
34 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
I think we need maximum street frontage. A corner with nearly a block on each street of suburban style big box is not pleasant in what are supposed to be walkable neighborhoods. Let them go up, but have a variety of businesses on the street.
Posted by Just a Suggestion on August 15, 2013 at 9:27 PM · Report this
we want to uplift Wallingford and make it a destination for everyone, that's the goal. This only seems to strip mall-ize the area.
Posted by obiwand on August 15, 2013 at 9:51 PM · Report this
Good story. Thanks for covering the density issue, which promises to be a continuing one. I wanted to point out that Sugimara is correct when she says delaying until new rules come into effect is a "lawsuit waiting to happen." We documented this thoroughly at InvestigateWest in our stories on the Washington's very pro-developer laws on "vesting." See…
If you're interested, there's more. Go to and search "vesting."
Good piece. Keep up the good work.
Posted by Robert McClure on August 16, 2013 at 7:15 PM · Report this
Calico Cat 38
Cap Hill didn't want the Walgreens on 15th either but they built it anyway. And it's still there ~10 years later so it must be doing okay. But it isn't near a Bartell's.
Posted by Calico Cat on August 16, 2013 at 9:50 PM · Report this
Trading local small businesses for retail chain stores will lead to lost local revenues. Density is good, but it should be local businesses that go into the new developments, not chain stores.
Posted by Nil on August 20, 2013 at 9:55 PM · Report this
Boy, sounds to me like someone back in the days of "Urban Villages" hoo-ha shouldve thought a little bit more about zoning regulations that encourage density the way they wanted it. Of course, who knew that Seattleites now WANT 4- and 6-story buildings?
Posted by Shea Anderson on August 21, 2013 at 6:06 PM · Report this

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