Thursday, May 20, 2010

Are we dense enough yet?

There was a time, not that long ago, when Madison Park could lay claim to a significant number of modest homes with airy yards and plenty of space between neighbors. In the area to the north of Madison Street, which was once primarily a working class neighborhood, there remained unbroken blocks of one-story cottages. And in the area to the south of Madison, more than a few one-time beach bungalows (such as that classic example shown above) still dotted the landscape.

While we continue to have numerous modest-looking (though few modestly-priced) houses here in the Park, the trend over the past twenty years—as in many other Seattle neighborhoods—has been to demolish the cottages to make room for the Megahouses. Occasionally, modest has been replaced with immodest.

I live in an area of the Park, near the Seattle Tennis Club, that was literally under water until 1916, when the building of the Ship Canal resulted in the lowering of Lake Washington by nine feet. Until that time, much of my block was marshland. Our house, constructed in 2001, sits on the site of what had been a very modest home, built early in the 1900s as someone’s boat house. Next door there was (and still is) a tiny beach cabin originally built in 1914 for the President of the now-defunct Frederick & Nelson Department Store. And the two little houses sitting on the other side of our property were former houseboats that had been pulled up onto the land when the Lake went down. Each was no bigger than 800 sq. ft.

In the eight years we’ve lived here, almost all of the old houses on our block have either been torn down and replaced with larger structures or were significantly remodeled and expanded. The former houseboats are gone, replaced by narrow multi-storey structures that cover virtually the entire footprint of their lots. Even the one-story 4,000 sq. ft. waterside mansion down the street, built in the 1920s, was recently replaced with an 8,000 sq. ft. two-story structure whose outbuilding of 3,000 sq. ft. is larger than my house. And what’s been happening on my block is not atypical of what’s occurring in much of the rest of the Park.

Not everyone, to be sure, is happy about this trend. Local realtor Val Ellis, for one, deplores what she sees as a potential threat to the character of the neighborhood. “I live, work and play in Madison Park, she explains. “It’s my ‘hood, and I’m against anything that will spoil the enchantment of the place.” While she doesn’t oppose people making improvements to their properties that are in line with the rest of the neighborhood, she does object to “obnoxious construction” that is inconsistent with the surrounding houses. She sees the crowding in and building up of the neighborhood as potentially undermining the flavor of the community.

Val and some of her neighbors recently found a catalyst for their concerns when the City notified them that two property owners in their area of the Park had requested approval to divide their lots into two. This is known as short platting and, if approved, allows the development of each lot as a single-family residence.

The property receiving the most critical comment from neighbors is located at 4202 E. Lynn Street, at the corner of Lynn and 42nd (shown below). There are currently two 1940s-vintage structures on the property, one of which appears to be a garage that was converted into a small residence. The other structure is a cottage that is separated into two living units. The lot has about 5,000 sq. ft, and subdivision will result on one lot of 2,557 sq. ft. and another of 2,248 sq. ft.

The neighbors’ stated concern is that future development of the property will result in several large structures at the site, which could negatively impact the “flavor” of the neighborhood and potentially impair sightlines for cars at that intersection. In spite of these objections, however, the City today announced approval of the short plat. The decision by the Department of Planning & Development (DPD) took into consideration only the facts of the case and the requirements of the City’s Code covering situations of this type. The neighbors’ objections were not material to the outcome.

According to DPD planner Holly Godard, the rule is that if there are multiple living units already on the parcel and these were permitted by the City at some point in the past, subdivision of the property is allowed. This assumes that other zoning requirements (with regard to such issues as setbacks) are complied with, she told me. In this case, the structures had been legally approved in the past and the other requirements were satisfied, so the City has allowed the creation of two separate lots, each of which can support a new single-family residence. This necessarily will increase the value of the property for the owner.

A second property on the same block (located at 2330 42nd Avenue E., below) is currently under review for short platting. The subdivision is likely to be approved, since the 4,800 sq. ft. property’s two existing early-1900s cottages were legally permitted. After division there will be a 2,128 sq. ft. parcel and a 2,676 sq. ft. parcel, each of which could be developed as a new single family home.

Godard points out that development of any property in Madison Park still must meet building-code requirements. Nevertheless, grandfathering does allow more leeway for development of smaller parcels—and variances to code can sometimes be obtained when the rules need to be bent by the developer. In the case of a needed variance, however, the neighbors will have another opportunity to weigh in and a much stronger likelihood of impacting the outcome.

Density in Madison Park is theoretically controlled though zoning. Most of the Park, as shown below, falls into the SF 5000 zone, which means that existing properties are meant for single-family residences and can be subdivided only so long as the resulting lots are not less than 5,000 sq. ft. Washington Park is primarily in the SF 7200 zone, so properties there are expected to be 7,200 sq. ft. at minimum. There are a significant number of grandfathered smaller properties scattered throughout Madison Park. And as we have seen, an exception to the subdivision rule occurs when there are already multiple legal structures on a particular property.

The subdividing of existing lots is not, however, the biggest threat to the character of Madison Park. There are probably few—if any—remaining properties that contain two legal residences that could be short platted. The real issue is this: what replaces the cottages and bungalows once the demolition crew has done its job? “It will be a crime if we can’t maintain the existing feeling of the neighborhood,” says realtor Ellis. “Tasteful improvements are fine, but we don’t want those tacky townhouses here like you see in Ballard and elsewhere.” And with regard to the future development of the newly subdivided Lynn and 42nd Street property she adds: “It’s not over ‘til it’s over.”
[Zoning map courtesy of the Seattle DPD. Click to enlarge. Note that the blue areas are zoned Multi-Family Lowrise,the gray area is zoned Commercial, and the yellow areas are all Single Family 5,000 sq. ft. lots. Washington Park and Broadmoor are each zoned for Single Family 7,200 sq. ft. lots.]

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if the free market won't take care of some of this, in that many of these monster homes built on tiny lots during the height of the bubble and subsequently resold (or attempted to be resold) have resulted in crushing losses for their sellers (or the bank holding the mortgage).

    For example, at 4205 E McGilvra St, a house was built in 2006 - 3050 sq ft on a 3000 sq ft lot. The house looks nice, but it is jammed on the lot.

    Sold for 1.5M in 2006, less than 1.1M in 2009.

    There are plenty other examples I could point to, including some on the market today at list prices below their selling prices.

    Sure, all houses have taken a price hit since the peak bubble, but those with land have seemed to have held up much better (i.e. on 38th place and that area some teardowns with 8000 sq ft lots have sold for more than the example above).

    Bottom line is, I would think that sooner or later developers, or new house buyers, will realize that paying top dollar for a shiny new house crammed on a postage-stamp lot is signing up for a potentially life-altering financial disaster. When the buyers pool shrinks, the few buyers left go for more land, every time.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.