Neighbors with memories of lush, organic gardens surrounding the multimillion-dollar Coval House were relieved this year when the Mercer Island City Council rejected plans to develop the 5-acre property.
But after the developer filed a court petition challenging the decision, and a few compromises were worked into the plans to build 16 instead of 18 single-family homes, the City Council changed its mind.
At the end of July, the council helped clear the way for permitting and eventual construction.
The Coval House — a property so magnificent that it includes a $10 million tropical pool and rooms accented with ceilings built with wood shipped from Costa Rica and the Republic of Congo — will be leveled.
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Its former owners, scientists Barbara and Myer Coval, put the property on the market in 2011 for $15.5 million with hopes of selling it as-is. But after two years and no takers, the Covals gave in and later sold the property to MI 84th Limited Partnership.
Now many Mercer Island residents are worried that zoning around the island will allow for more of the same kind of developments to pop up near them, especially as real-estate values rise across the Seattle metro area.
Requests for development approvals have spiked since the beginning of 2013, said Scott Greenberg, Mercer Island development director.
In the last year and a half, the city has considered residential-development plans for at least 11 properties.
Similar trends can be seen across the Seattle metro area, but the changes have jarred many on Mercer Island, a city full of residential areas largely unchanged in the last few decades.
The 16 houses to be built on the Coval House property could be the largest single-family development Mercer Island has seen since the 1980s.
Linda Chaves, whose property borders the land, thought the area near the Coval house was zoned to retain the character of the neighborhood, where houses typically have about half an acre and backyards facing each other.
The Coval property has been an expansive estate for an upscale residence since at least 1913.
According to the approved plans, Chaves says three of the 16 houses could be built with side yards, meaning houses that could be built as high as 30 feet on a hill above her house could end up towering over her backyard.
“I could end up with a house 40 feet higher than us peering down in my backyard,” said Chaves. “We’re not against development, but these are going to be too huge and too many.”
Greenberg says that with light rail coming to Mercer Island by 2023, and an aging population that may be more interested in downsizing and retiring soon, the development trend may not slow down.
Some of that development could take place near Mercer Island’s Town Center, in areas zoned for multifamily housing.
Two potential projects include 18 Trellis townhomes, and Legacy’s five-story building that would have 209 apartmentswith about 10,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor.
But plenty more redevelopment is still possible in single-family-zoned areas.
Companies such as Mercer Island-based American Classic Homes know it. Its ads in the Mercer Island Reporter tempt home- and landowners to sell to them directly for cash to avoid paying a 6 percent real-estate brokerage commission.
Greenberg said it’s also becoming more common for landowners to raze a home, build another house, then sell it.
“It’s not just subdividing we’re seeing; we’re seeing houses being torn down and new houses that are larger and have a different configuration built in their place,” Greenberg said.
Although subdividing lots has drawn the ire of neighborhood activists across the island, Greenberg said residents tend not to have a problem when a home is rebuilt and the lot size stays the same.
Mike Cero, the only City Council member to vote against the development plan for the Coval property, said most zoning on the island is not consistent with the character of existing neighborhoods, and that he’d like to incorporate more specific zoning into Mercer Island’s comprehensive plan to prevent more neighborhoods from losing their character.
He doesn’t think he’d have the support of the rest of the City Council, though.
“You can’t regulate the charm and character of a neighborhood. You have to regulate in terms you can touch and feel,” said Cero.
“I don’t blame developers for doing what they’re doing — they’re doing their job. But if we don’t change the comp plan, then most of our neighborhoods will look very different in the next decade.”