You could almost hear the unofficial slogan of the neighborhood — “Don’t Phuck with Phinney!” — resonate through the halls of Ballard High School last night as the Northwest Design Review Board met to discuss the Condo That Nobody Wants in the school library.
(Disclaimer: Yeah, I live on Phinney. But I wouldn’t doubt this kind of thing is coming to a corner near you soon!)
About 80 people, civil but mightily ticked off, gave the board an earful from the get-go, including a white-haired senior who told Mr. Whisper, the board chair, that nobody could hear him — to a chorus of affirmation. Mr. Whisper, who spoke so quietly that I could not begin to even hear his name, responded by raising his voice slightly while seated in the opposite direction of the audience. Deirdre Bowen, a neighbor of the proposed project, finally had to specifically ask that he rise and face the people that the board had so graciously encouraged to attend.
It was a rocky start to a rough evening.
The four-story, 19-unit, big, imposing and many would say ugly
condo (correction: apparently the project is now for apartments, although it was earlier identified by the city as condominiums) apartment project is proposed for 6010 Phinney, the corner of Phinney and 61st. Existing structures that house popular neighborhood businesses — not chains, by the way — including Chef Liao, the Daily Planet, Phinney Ridge Cleaners and Roosters cafe, would be torn down. The businesses would also go away, to be supplanted by ground-floor commercial space. Maybe an office or two, perhaps yet another tanning salon or nails boutique.
Beyond its address, the project seems not to have a name (unlike the Roycroft, across the street, and Fini, north on the ave). One occurred to us: Mondo Non-Condo. It is such a mish-mash of design cacaphony, and towers so insultingly over its neighbors, crowding pedestrians on Phinney Avenue and shadowing homes all around, that you can’t help but hate the thing.
Members of the so-called public have been working with the sponsors of the development for months and even met in January to discuss concerns. The main result has been catastrophic: The primary residential entrance and underground parking entrance were moved to 61st Street instead of where they should be, and where virtually all similar projects place them, on the main corridor of Phinney Avenue.
What this means for narrow, currently untrammeled 61st Street is, as one neighbor put it, a “NASCAR speedway to and from Aurora” for traffic accessing the project. It also creates safety and congestion problems where relative quiet exists today.
Attorney Esther Bartfeld, who was instrumental in the neighborhood’s successful battle to keep a massive, mall-sized parking garage out of the Woodland Park Zoo, pleaded with the board to reconsider the entry location. When the board protested (I believe its point was that it had already changed the location once, putatively but not actually in response to citizen concerns), another neighbor put it bluntly: “We’re telling you, we want it moved back. You were right the first time.”
So upset and vocal were neighbors from the starting bell that one board member testily admonished the crowd, “This cannot proceed in the fashion it is going right now!” The problem, he said, was that the Design Review Board did not have yea-or-nay authority over the project, and that there was a certain meeting protocol that had to be followed which presumably did not include unruly citizens asking pointed questions.
Before his outburst, it was determined through repeated questioning that the DRB had never actually recommended that a project not be built — which is precisely the action most of the audience favored.
The official part of the meeting began with what I like to call Dental Therapy, meaning a Novocain shot of bureaucratese and design specifications guaranteed to discourage the public from any hope of having an impact. As Bert Sacks, who was sitting next to me, put it, “I have a feeling this is pacification of the audience — he keeps talking and talking and we’ll all fall asleep!”
Slides showing the shadow footprint of the project at various points of the day drew considerable interest, but the audience had to ask what time of year (autumn), and one person noted that solstice shadows should be included — “it will make a big difference.” Good catch. One technique developers use is to supply data that seemingly covers concerns, but does so only in a way to put their project in the best possible light (so to speak!).
There were innumerable other concerns: The design, broken up vertically by a handful of different materials, looked like Belltown, not Phinney. Why not lower the structure to three stories? Why not do step-backs on upper stories as with Fini, to mitigate (somewhat) shadows and the “prison wall” effect of big structures next to homes? Residents spoke of losing trees and gardens, of noise and traffic concerns. Craig Fryhle asked if the rooftop commons available to residents for parties and gatherings could be moved to the Phinney side of an elevator tower, which as currently positioned would bounce noise into the neighborhood.
“We have a garden, apple trees, plum tree, plants in our windows — that’s a lot of shade,” said next-door neighbor Bruce Ramsey. Step-back upper stories, he said, “and we would get a little more sun.”
Ridgers also complained about a “tunnel effect” of putting another big structure across the street from Roycroft. Irene Wall, president of the Phinney Ridge Community Council, has talked about density planning in Seattle creating “canyons of glass and steel,” where winds whistle along sidewalks plunged into day-long darkness.
“You’re creating Phinney Canyon,” one neighbor protested.
Then there was the issue of parking, technically not under the purview of the DRB but a topic of opposition nonetheless. For 19 units only 23 parking spaces are planned. Do reality math and you can figure at least 15 more cars added to street parking.
No parking is set aside for ground-floor businesses. Why? Code calls for parking only for businesses occupying 1,500 square feet. The Mondo Non-Condo business will occupy only — by amazing coincidence — 1,400 feet.
Several representatives of what we ’60s types like to call The Youth of Today were there and gave the board an earful. Why were they holding a “public” meeting when they couldn’t represent the views of the public in their decision-making? What would it take to get the project shut down?
“We’re saying we don’t want this thing,” one high-schooler said. “We’d like you to tell us how to make it go away.”
After nearly two hours of citizen unrest, the board huddled to discuss the project. Catherine McCoy, the land-use planner assigned by the city Department of Planning & Development to the project, recorded the proceedings on a digital recorder. I asked if it would be transcribed.
Alas, she said, the city lacks resources to provide transcriptions.
I volunteered to transcribe it. Just send me the digital file, I said. She said she’d consider it, but I’m not optimistic. She did say that a full accounting of the discussion would be provided.
For the insatiably curious, details of project No. 3006773.
We’ll report back on the board’s deliberations.