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The zoning junta was in a foul mood

SEATTLE, Washington - I have criticized the proceedings of zoning meetings before, but I did this based on media reports and not from personal witness. This is not journalism! So, I decided to attend an Early Design Guidance meeting for a proposed six-story, mixed-use building in my neighborhood.

I arrived a bit early. There were three design proposals taped to the wall, which differed from one another in their placement of the building's courtyard. The designer may be good at designing buildings but is not so good at English, as one design noted that something was "shaded for the most of the day, accept for high noon." I have a diagram that includes helpful comments like "live/work units?" (seemingly an orgasm-inducing phrase among planning types) and "ped friendly storefront" (it's a storefront on a sidewalk, yes, I guess that's ped friendly).

The zoning junta was in full attendance, seated in a row at a table. After some brief comments, the developer (who seemed to know he was already a beaten man) discussed his proposals for about 15 minutes. The board then started questioning him; it reminded me of oral examinations from high school.

The concern that emerged from the board at this time (and it came up over and over) was the "massing" of the zone and the "use of the envelope". Nobody was thrilled with the courtyard. When asked about whether the courtyard space could be used differently (e.g. for "jagged edges"), the developer noted that they "haven't designed anything yet." This is the EARLY design meeting.

The developer was also asked what "themes" from the neighborhood he had incorporated into the design. He was as evasive as an unprepared high-schooler on this, noting that the neighborhood had an "interesting pastiche" of stuff. (Of course, the way to get a neighborhood with an interesting pastiche is to have less restrictive zoning, not more restrictive.)

Comment from the dozen or so members of the public in attendance followed, with many concerns about the location of the parking entrance (in my view a legitimate concern) and one person that had a bunch of criticisms locked and loaded, from wanting "shadow studies" to "more landscaping" to changing the design to have "a lot less coverage" of the lot, to doing something about the "huge blank wall" on the south side of the building.

Finally, the board members deliberate among themselves, which you can listen to but you're not allowed to say anything. Some attendees pulled their chairs right up to the board's table, but had to stay silent.

Most of the board's focus was on the evils of the courtyard and how this "mass" could be better used in the building. While one member thought you could have a courtyard if it was "done smart", most of the others wanted to change the roofline of the building to make it lower on the east side, to have it agree more with the slope of the hill and fit in better with the shorter, differently zoned buildings to the east. To do this, and have the same number of units in the building, you have to get the "mass" from somewhere, thus putting the courtyard on the sacrificial altar.

The developer noted that one of the advantages of the courtyard was that it allowed all the apartment units to have at least 2 walls with natural light. The chair of the board said she lived for years in a small apartment in San Francisco with only one wall of windows. Well, if it's good enough for her, it's good enough for you!

This was roughly what I expected, some legitimate concerns (the issues of ingress/egress to the parking level and alleyway are legitimate, as this location is on a sleep slope on an arterial road) along with lots of issues that are only of external, cosmetic importance to anyone that doesn't live there - the landscaping and the roofline being most prominent. Removing or diminishing the courtyard significantly hurts the building's residents, and the resulting change to the roofline is only going to be noticed and appreciated by experts and the people that demanded it.

Usually there is only one Early Design Guidance meeting for a proposal, but it appears (I did not stay until the very end) that the zoning junta is going to demand that this developer go back to the drawing board, shift the "massing" of the building to please people looking at it to the detriment of people living in it, and come back for another EDG.

update: here is West Seattle Blog's coverage of the meeting.