Residents contend the tree is genuinely exceptional, but the developer has rejected their alternative plan for the property and says it’s a question of what rapidly growing Seattle needs more — “density or trees?”
It’s never just a tree when you see it every day for years. When you can spot it from blocks away as you head home at night, or when it stands outside your bedroom window throughout your childhood and is still there when you come home from college.
A constant. A landmark. A friend.
So you may understand why the neighbors on North 82nd Street in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood are fighting so hard to save a not-ironically named Exceptional Western Red Cedar Tree that is more than 100 years old.
The property on which it stands was sold last December, and the prolific developer Andy Duffus has filed plans to build two 3,000-square-foot homes where a small farmhouse has stood since 1904. It’s called “short-platting” — turning one lot into two smaller ones.
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Neighbors presented more than 75 letters and a petition signed by everyone on the block, asking the city to save the tree. They made a website and held a “tree party” to raise money for a lawyer, who not only appealed the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspection’s approval of the building plans but also found an architect who came up with a design that would have given Duffus the square footage he wanted while saving the tree. (They even offered Duffus the design, for free. He declined.)
At one point, Duffus said neighbors could buy the lot from him for $500,000, or pay him $175,000 to cover what he would lose if he built a smaller house. They didn’t have the money.
They’re now on their second appeal of the city’s approval, arguing that city codes should consider exceptional trees in short-plat decisions. Both parties are scheduled to meet with a hearing examiner on Oct. 3.
I met neighbor Kim Brotherton on the sidewalk in front of the lot where the tree stands, making sure to honor the “No Trespassing” sign nailed on the front gate, and wondering if it was really necessary to nail another into the trunk of the tree.
It was as if we were peering into a cage at a shelter, or a cell on death row. Brotherton, one of the neighbors leading the fight to save the tree, told me how she used to go over and stand under it, and that when it was slated for removal, she hung ribbons in the branches.
“These trees, once they’re gone,” she said, “there’s no way to replace them.”
What’s happening in Greenwood has been happening all over the city as homes go up for sale and developers swoop in, eager to make the most of what’s permitted on a lot, some in the name of density, others in the name of currency.
Many of those new homes have been built by Andy Duffus and financed by Blueprint Capital, co-founded by his brother, Dan, who is also the owner of Soleil Development.
The brothers have a long history of clashing with residents for eschewing a neighborhood’s character and history, and tearing down old homes and trees to build large, boxy houses as high as permitted.
In 2012, the brothers were the subject of a Seattle Weekly story that outlined how they took advantage of a zoning loophole that allows building on certain undersized lots.
When I first reached Dan Duffus, he didn’t want to talk about the Greenwood tree.
“You should be doing a story on there not being enough places to live in this city, which drives up costs further and further,” he said. “I like Seattle; I like that it’s green. But at the same time, they need more houses built.
“We have to decide what we want: density or trees?”
That’s the question of this time in Seattle’s history. We may like to think of ourselves as The Emerald City, but the bigger we get, the browner and boxier we are becoming. Things like neighborhood character and what was there before fall by the wayside when there’s money to be made.
Those of us who own homes have an indirect role in that change.
We love that our values are growing seemingly by the day, that the Seattle housing market is the hottest in the nation. I have checked Zillow and Redfin with a guilty kind of glee. My house. My friend’s house. The place across the street that sold in less than a week.
In truth, though, we are paying for that increased value not with cash, but a different kind of green: Leaves. Shade. The hiss of wind through the branches. Shelter for animals.
A study released last fall by the Nature Conservancy hailed urban trees for their ability to curb urban air-pollution levels, reducing respiratory problems, and their cooling effects, making air-conditioning unnecessary. Another study connected green space with reduced crime. And yet another found that living near trees reduced people’s need for anti-depressants. They were just happier.
The Duffus brothers have said in the past that if we build more here, we save more trees elsewhere and reduce sprawl.
“I love trees,” Duffus told me, “but they have to be appropriately placed.”
Oh, but the Exceptional Western Red Cedar has always been in the perfect place for Haley Durslag, 23. She grew up with the tree standing tall outside her bedroom window.
“It’s 100 years old and has the rightful property of the land,” she said.
That’s a lovely sentiment I understand and appreciate.
But here’s another, harder one: Money doesn’t grow on trees.
If it did, we’d all have the green — and motivation — to save them.