Land-use signs for new development are becoming the city’s official flower. A software engineer has quantified them for the first time — and with it some of the angst.
Signs, signs, everywhere a sign. Everywhere a land-use sign.
Those white “Notice of Proposed Land Use Action” billboards have been sprouting all over town to the point they have become Seattle’s official flower.
Put up by requirement of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) for large office or apartment projects, the once little-noticed signs have become a symbol of the big local story of our time: the mass remaking of the city by tech-fueled development.
The signs are heralds of Seattle’s vibrancy and progress. Or they are sentinels of the city’s destruction.
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This week when a guerrilla artist, John Tingley, put up five satirical land-use signs, he was definitely channeling the latter.
“DPD is not conducting (bleep) for a review of the following project: To construct a 13-story concrete box containing 303,666 square feet of office space … with a Chipotle on the ground floor,” read one.
Now a software engineer has effectively quantified all the land-use signs in Seattle — and with it some of the angst.
Ethan Phelps-Goodman, formerly of Facebook, built a website and app that displays every big development project as a pin on a map of the city. Seattleinprogress.com is updated daily from city records, charting all the developments from day one of application through permitting and construction.
As of Friday, there were 476 large-scale development projects in the works in Boom City — 191 in permitting and 285 under construction. Another 78 were finished within the last year. These are multiunit residential or large commercial complexes, big enough to have to go through the city’s “design review” process.
Phelps-Goodman said he’s in favor of high-density development. But when people see all the projects clumped on a map for the first time — “Seattle drowning in pins” — some do freak out.
“The character of a city, completely gone,” one woman mourned after seeing his site for the first time.
The land-use boards have always gotten tagged with graffiti. But lately some of the commentary is more primal scream.
“Are you kidding?” someone wrote on a sign in West Seattle to tear down a single-family house and put up a 30-unit apartment building with no parking.
On Capitol Hill, on one of those ubiquitous apartment complexes above street-level retail, someone penned, acidly: “another cupcake shop?” On a different sign in Capitol Hill someone drew an arrow to the phrase “street-level retail” and just added: “Aauggh!”
Drama aside, Phelps-Goodman’s site is the best resource I’ve seen for telling the story of Seattle’s ongoing transformation through pictures, architectural drawings and data. He said he got the idea from walking around the city and wondering what all those signs really meant.
“What are they going to build there, what will it look like, will I like it when it’s done?” he says. “The signs only give a hint. All the information exists, but people either don’t know about it or can’t find it.”
With his app you can click a pin on the map and instantly see the architects’ vision for the property. Or you can review documents and connect to the city to comment.
Using the app, I was able to calculate that developers are building 6,000 parking spots in underground garages along a four-block stretch of Fairview Avenue in South Lake Union. The intersection at the end, at Mercer, already has a Level of Service grade of “F” (for failing). As one developer helpfully noted, the grade won’t go down!
Phelps-Goodman said his motivation is to empower citizens to get involved and encourage “better development” than what we’re currently getting. The city desperately needs more housing, he says. Countless bad, soulless projects “could spark a backlash like we’re starting to see, and then we might shut down development entirely, as San Francisco did.”
Not much sign of that. Currently the backlash fits into the category of carping.
On one sign in South Lake Union, in the fine print where the city encourages comment, someone scrawled over it: “Resistance is futile.”