When their elderly neighbor died last year, residents of the Benchview area of West Seattle expected her large corner lot with its gorgeous view of Puget Sound to be redeveloped. The 1950s rambler sits on a lot of almost 11,000 square feet, more than double the underlying zoning of 5,000 square feet.
But they didn’t expect this: A builder asked the city to adjust the lot lines and allow two new houses alongside the rambler, one in the backyard and another where the garage now stands. The new houses can be built up to three stories high, potentially towering over the rambler and most of its neighbors.
The City Council in September imposed a moratorium meant to stop the development of big houses on small lots while the city studied the issue. The developer of the Benchview property redrew the lots so they are large enough — just more than 3,750 square feet each — to avoid the moratorium.
The city hasn’t given its decision, but in a letter to neighbors earlier this month, Diane Sugimura, director of the city Department of Planning and Development, said the three redrawn lots appear to be legal. That includes an L-shaped lot the developer created by combining the rambler’s front yard with the land under the garage.
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That infuriates the neighbors, who say the two new houses would be out of scale with the midcentury neighborhood.
“Because of loopholes in the zoning code, the city is allowing developers to put big houses where they don’t belong. They’re gerrymandering lots,” said Dave Allen, a neighbor and block-watch captain.
Similar fights have gone on in single-family neighborhoods across the city. Some Green Lake residents are now suing over the city’s failure to provide any notice that it was going to allow a three-story house on a 1,050-square-foot lot in the backyard of an existing bungalow.
Besides angering neighbors, the issue reopens an ongoing debate in Seattle about density — how much to allow, how high buildings should be and where it should go.
Looking for lots
Developers say buildable land is scarce and that they are helping to accommodate growth and more housing options in desirable, close-in neighborhoods.
“Neighbors are never going to be happy when new homes are going up,” said Dan Duffus, a developer who estimates he has built 200 houses on substandard lots over the past 20 years.
Residents counter that developers like Duffus are cramming in houses that don’t fit the existing neighborhood character and do little to accommodate growth. What’s more, they say, city leaders are breaking a promise made with adoption of the Growth Management Act that the majority of growth would be directed to urban villages and centers while single-family neighborhoods largely would be protected.
“The neighborhood doesn’t have to be brick ramblers for all time. Change is inevitable,” said Julia Strand, who lives up the block from the Benchview lot. What she objects to is the nature of the change.
“Density makes sense along Avalon (a major arterial in West Seattle). To go into a neighborhood and build three-story houses in someone’s backyard is very different.”
Room to grow
City planners say residential neighborhoods were never intended to absorb a lot of the projected growth. By 2024, Seattle is supposed to find room for 47,000 new households under growth targets set by the state.
Currently, with existing zoning, the city could accommodate almost 150,000 new households, said Tom Hauger, comprehensive-plan manager for the Department of Planning and Development.
Many of Seattle’s urban centers have met their 2024 growth targets, including Downtown, Pike/Pine and Ballard.
Among urban villages, 23rd Avenue between Union and Jackson streets, Columbia City and Green Lake also have surpassed their growth targets for 2024, largely through the addition of apartment buildings and mixed-use developments that include both retail and residential units.
“We have over 50 years’ growth capacity across the city,” Hauger said.
Roger Valdez, a density and transit advocate, objects to the way growth is apportioned under the Growth Management Act. With density, he said, come urban amenities that attract people to the city in the first place: transit, stores and restaurants, a variety of housing.
“Growth targets turn growth into something like toxic waste that is ‘taken,’ as if it were a bad thing. Instead of neighborhoods saying, ‘We don’t want density,’ they should say, ‘We’re going to triple it, and it’s going to be awesome,’ ” Valdez said.
Valdez was recently hired by Duffus and other homebuilders to represent their interests before city leaders. The new organization, Smart Growth Seattle, supports new rules for small-lot development to make it predictable and in scale with existing neighborhoods.
But neighborhood activists are wary. One of the group’s proposals, to allow development of any piece of land that is 80 percent of the average lot size on a block, including backyards or side yards, would amount to a citywide rezone of residential neighborhoods, said Peter Krause, a member of a group fighting small-lot development, One Home Per Lot.
City Councilmember Richard Conlin, chair of the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee, said infill development in single-family neighborhoods “provides more opportunities for people who want to live in the city.”
Requiring some height and scale proportion with the existing neighborhood might allow for new homes while also protecting neighborhood character, he said.
A stakeholder group that formed after the moratorium was adopted is currently advising the Planning Department on new rules for small-lot development. The City Council likely will take those up in March.
Benchview residents say they’d like the new guidelines to include a notice provision for substandard lot development so neighbors’ first warning isn’t a bulldozer.
“We have a plan to add density in the city. That’s the urban village,” said neighbor Dick Miller. “Why are they out hunting for lots in the neighborhood? It’s like a shark attack.”
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter:@lthompsontimes