Sunday, February 28, 2010

A road end in the raw: what will we make of it?

At 9:15 on the morning of August 31, 1950, the ferry Leschi pulled out of the Madison Street ferry dock for its final run to Kirkland. For 35 years there had been scheduled ferry service between Madison Park and Kirkland, but the opening of the Lake Washington floating bridge in 1940 had made the ferry route redundant. Now, after ten years of competition with the bridge, the run had finally succumbed to economic reality. When the Leschi tied up at the Kirkland ferry dock after her final twenty-minute crossing, it was the end of an era. Neither she nor any other car ferry would ever call again at Madison Park.

In the months following the last sailing of the Leschi, the Madison Street ferry dock was demolished; and what had once been a trans-Lake connection point was transformed into simply a dead end. And not a very attractive one at that.

In spite of its prime waterfront location, its historic significance, and the fact that the land is owned by the City of Seattle Department of Parks & Recreation and the State’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Madison Street road end has been preserved for sixty years as nothing much more than a concrete-paved parking lot and holding area for apartment-building garbage containers.

But perhaps that’s an advantage. A lot of things could have been done with the road end over the years that weren’t. As longtime Madison Park resident Dan Clancy puts it, perhaps we’re lucky that previous generations never got around to “developing” this jewel in the rough. Just imagine, he asks, what they might have decided to do with it in the fifties or sixties. Instead, the opportunity that the road end represents has been preserved for our generation to exploit. “We now have a chance,” he says, “to do the right thing.”

This may, in fact, be the decade in which our underachieving road end is finally transformed into a Madison Park amenity. That’s certainly the goal, at least, of those involved in LOLA (“Love our Lake Access”). Named in honor of Madison Park Hardware owner Lola McKee, LOLA is a special project of the Madison Park Community Council (MPCC). As we reported last summer, the community, the City, and the DNR all seem to be on board to having the road end dedicated to some higher purpose than parking and trash collection. The question, however, is this: what do we want to make of this prime waterfront location?

According to Kathleen Stearns, who heads up the LOLA committee, the idea of “Lake access” is only part of the equation. The opportunity exists to create something other than just extending the existing park north into the road end, she says. In fact, it now seems clear that what’s wanted by most of the people involved in the project is something that’s distinct from both the city park and the beach.

The objective of LOLA is to create a community focal point, a place where many things might happen. Among the different (but not necessarily mutually exclusive) ideas floated at a recent focus-group meeting were these: 1) an outlook with seating for viewing the Lake and Mount Rainier, 2) a civic gathering area for small group meetings (at least in good weather), 3) a garden spot or natural sanctuary, 4) a promenade, and 5) an artist exhibition area with opportunities for permanent or temporary installations (or both), and perhaps even artists working or performing (musicians or dancers, for example).

Whatever the details of the final plan, it’s evident that both green space and art will be essential elements. Last month the MPCC hired a local landscape architectural firm, Murase Associates, to assist in the development of a design concept for the project. The firm has a lot of experience in creating interesting urban parks. Among their most successful efforts in designing an “urban oasis” is Counterbalance Park on Queen Anne (shown below):

Another Murase project that has drawn a lot of positive notice is Vera Katz Park in Portland, where a relatively small sidewalk area was transformed with natural elements (stone, water, and grass) into an “inviting urban outdoor space” which has since become the site of performance art:
The stair climb at the Benaroya Hall was also designed by Murase Associates:
Murase’s Liz Wreford Taylor cautions that the Madison Park project may look significantly different from any of these examples. The design will be developed from the input of the community and will also depend on what is possible on the site.

The process of obtaining community input has begun in earnest, with a series of six focus groups so far this year, one on each of these topics: history, gardens, and art; and one for each of these special interests: the business community, the immediate neighbors (of the park site) and service providers (such as police, fire, utilities, transportation, and parks). According to Stearns, most of the focus groups were well attended. “We are continuing to contact people who have expressed interest in giving us input and advice regarding the park development,” she says. “This is exciting for us because it is feeling more and more like a collaborative effort with many people in the Madison Park community.”

In addition to the focus groups, community meetings are being planned for March 18, April 15 and May 26 so that a wider range of the public opinion can be solicited. Everyone involved agrees it will be a long process from conceptual design to realization. But as was noted in one of the focus group meetings, it’s taken us 60 years to get to this point, so the community can certainly afford to spend some time to do this right.
[Top photo: the Madison Street ferry dock 1939, courtesy of MOHI. Bottom photo: the Medicinal Garden (Seattle), designed by Murase Associates. All other pictures, except for current picture of the dead end, are courtesy of Murase Associates.]

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Seventy years ago in Madison Park

I don't know about you, but I am fascinated by history and find old photos of Madison Park particularly arresting. This is a 1939 photo looking westward up E. Madison Street from the area of the Village. While the trolly tracks are clearly visible, traffic is certainly not.
If you have old photos of the Park that you think Blogger readers would be interested in seeing, please send them my way. I will be presenting historic photos on the site from time to time. This one is courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives.

Madison Park Blogger passes two milestones

It's turning out to be an eventful month end at Madison Park Blogger. Not only are we celebrating our ten-month anniversary this week, but I am happy to report that we also achieved two notable benchmarks of success: the average number of daily visitors to the site and the total number blog subscribers each surpassed the 100 mark for the first time.

Thanks so much for your support. I appreciate your loyalty and the kind words that so many of you have directed my way.

Please keep those story ideas coming!

Bryan Tagas
Madison Park Blogger

P.S. I almost forgot to mention another distinction of sorts that occurred during the week: I became a broadcast media news source for the first time! KOMO Radio interviewed the Madison Park Blogger on my reaction to the SR 520 controversy and my thoughts on the probable outcome. (In case you missed it, I predicted higher, wider, and uglier.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

520: It's all about process

The bottom line on this evening’s “Environmental Hearing and Public Open House” on SR 520, which was held at the Naval Reserve Building on Lake Union, is that about 150 citizens were given the opportunity to spend some quality time walking around in a very large room while looking at a series of professionally presented displays showing various aspects of the upcoming bridge project. If those attendees had expected to have any kind of meaningful give and take with State officials about the design of 520, they must have been gravely disappointed. For the event was certainly more open house than hearing.
Yes, it’s true that about 15 hardy souls—those were willing to wait around for at least an hour for the honor—did get the chance to stand up and deliver their views. But the time limit of three minutes per speaker necessarily truncated this input, and the format did not provide for any response from State officials to what they were hearing from their tax-paying employers. This made the whole thing seem very pro forma to at least some of us.

By my count there must have been about twenty or so employees of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) present; and while I found them on the whole to be both pleasant and forthcoming, I also had the strong sense that many of them had gritted their teeth—at least figuratively—in order to suffer the affair. It’s all just part of the game, after all, mandated by some federal act of 1966 and some later State add-on requirements. For WSDOT, everything is moving forward as planned. It’s a process, and the public “hearing” just brings the State one step closer to the conclusion.

Or perhaps I am just too cynical.

Anyway, the event was interesting as a piece of political theatre. The public officials played their parts, as did the attendees. In the parking lot, prior to the hearing, Madison Park Community Council (MPCC) members Jim Hagan and Ken Myrabo set up a 40-foot pole with balloons attached at the top in order to provide a visual demonstration of how high the new bridge would rise above the level of Lake Washington (i.e. very high):

One of the most interesting “visualizations” presented by WSDOT was this set of before and after pictures showing the existing and new bridges as seen from the park at E. Lynn Street (thanks to MPCC member Jim Quigg for pointing these out to me). This is before:

And this is after (click to enlarge):

Some opponents refer to the new floating bridge as “that Alaskan Way Viaduct on the Lake.” You be the judge. For those interested, there are many more “visualizations” on the WSDOT website, here.

In case you missed them, there were a couple of interesting developments on the 520 front today: 1) Microsoft weighed in this morning with a full-page ad in the Seattle Times stating “It’s Time for Action on the 520 Bridge: Let’s Move!” and 2) Mayor McGinn announced that the City of Seattle has hired a consulting firm to “review how better to structure the 520 bridge on the Seattle side” as well as look at opportunities for putting light rail on 520.
Eastside-employer corporate money on the pro side. Seattle city taxpayer money on the anti. It's getting interesting.

Monday, February 22, 2010

January Real Estate Report

New evidence of a real estate market turnaround?

The big news in the local real estate market last month was the report by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service (MLS) that the median price of Seattle homes sold in January was actually higher than in the same month a year earlier. For the city as a whole, this represented a 2.63% increase over the past year (houses and combos combined). It is the first time in almost two years that there has been a year-over-year increase in Seattle’s residential property values. The rest of King County did not fare as well, however, with home values continuing their downward trend.

But how did prices hold up in our neighborhood? Madison Park itself is a market that’s a bit too small for year-to-year median price comparisons to be meaningful (seven total home sales in January 2009 and only five this year). But for our general area of the City (MLS Area 390, which also includes Capitol Hill, Montlake, Madison Valley, Madrona, and Leschi), the news was pretty good. There was a modest 2.1% increase in value between January last year and this. This improvement, however, perhaps has more to do with a year over year change in the mix of sales (houses versus condos) than a real move up in home values.

Nevertheless, it’s a good start to 2010. Whether this welcome news means we’re on an upward trajectory will only become evident when we’ve got a few more months of sales data in hand. It’s just possible, however, that for our area of Seattle—like for the rest of the City—the downward slope of real estate values has been arrested. At minimum, the rate of decline seems to have abated.

In Madison Park January was actually a pretty slow month. Only three houses and two condos changed hands, a level of sales activity which was well below the nine-sales-per-month average of the last quarter of 2009. The median price of houses sold was a relatively high $1,275,000, and all of these properties were priced in excess of $1 million. The average sale price for the condos was $973,000. On average, sellers in January accepted a 9.4% discount from their original listing prices.

The big news in January was not the number of sales but rather the 15 homes (13 houses and two condos) that were listed as pending sale. Since 11 of the pending houses are priced at over $1 million, this may add to the sense that there is movement in the upper market. Broadmoor has more than a third of the pending houses, which was certainly not typical of the sales pattern in that area of the Park in 2009. There were 18 new listings in Madison Park during the month, which was great news for the real estate professionals. Inventory rose from 64 listings to 70.

While the agents I’ve spoken to are hardly ready to declare victory (even in private), the apparent increase in upper-market activity is cause for some cheer. Longtime and well-known Madison Park agent Val Ellis of Coldwell Banker Bain, for one, says she’s “thrilled” at the uptick of buyer interest in the over $1 million market. “It’s been a dry spell for a couple years,” she commented.

Dave Hale, Managing Broker for Windermere Real Estate’s Madison Park office, is cautious but notes that “we’re feeling fortunate.” He says “it’s still too early to tell if the market has turned,” but he reports that his agents are seeing an increase in demand. He wonders if this might cause some homeowners to re-list homes that they had taken off the market. “Open-house traffic has been excellent,” he says. “Hopefully this will result in some written contracts.”

Here’s an overview of the Madison Park market (including Washington Park and Broadmoor) as of mid-February (market data supplied by Redfin):


Listings: 50
Median List Price: $1,950,000
Median Sq. Ft.: 4,430
Median Price per Sq. Ft.: $440
Average Days on Market: 129
Percentage with Price Reductions: 28%


Listings: 19
Median List Price: $495,000
Median Sq. Ft.: 1,045
Median Price per Sq. Ft.: $474
Average Days on Market: 210
Percentage with Price Reductions: 42%

There is also one multi-family property on the market, a two-unit building listed at $849,000. Although there are many relatively new properties listed, there are three houses and three condos currently for sale that have been on the market for more than a year. Several other properties are approaching that milestone. The most expensive house currently available is this impressive Washington Park mansion originally built in 1923 but extensively reworked by architect Stuart Silk, with remodeling completed in 2005. Listed at $6,850,000, the house had been marketed last year at a higher price but was withdrawn and recently relisted.

In line with current market trends, only 5 houses, 10% of the total available, are listed at under $1 million. Twenty-two houses, meanwhile, are listed at over $2 million, representing 44% of the total inventory.

A retrospective on 2009

With the rather lackluster decade-ending year now behind us, I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at how the market fared in 2009 relative to previous years. While sellers, buyers, and real estate agents bemoaned the market last year, statistics show that 2009 was actually not that different from 2008. Though annual house sales still have not returned to their 2007 levels, condo sales seem to have rebounded.

Interestingly, while the median price of Madison Park houses sold in 2009 was down 14% from 2007 levels, the median price of Madison Park condos was actually up 8% from 2007.

The price per square foot for condos, however, was down substantially from 2007 levels ($492 in 2009 versus $562 in 2007). House prices per square foot, on average, fell a dramatic 17% from their 2008 levels (from $535 top $444).

As noted, Madison Park is a very small real estate market and its metrics are therefore significantly impacted by the mix of property sales that occur in a given year. Some of our market statistics, however, are absolutely meaningful. One of the most noteworthy trend lines (and one of the most baneful from the point of view of property sellers) is the lengthening of the sales process that has taken place in Madison Park over the past three years:

Perhaps even more noteworthy (and baneful) is the trend line for discounts that sellers have had to accept from their list prices:

All in all, 2008 and 2009 were a couple of years that many sellers and agents would just as soon forget.

[Thanks to Wendy Skerritt of Windermere Real Estate for her help in providing some of the market data utilized in this report. Top photo: This 3,600 sq. ft. 1924 home located at 1527 39th Avenue E. was renovated in 2005. It is a new listing this month by Janet Schanno and Reilly Schanno of Windermere Real Estate, priced at $1,300,000. Lower photo courtesy of Bob Bennion, Winderemere Real Estate. Map of MLS Area 390 is from]

Friday, February 19, 2010

Zillow reverses course: Decides Washington Park is NOT part of Madison Valley

Having taken Zillow to task earlier this year for advancing the crazy idea that the Washington Park neighborhood was not located in Madison Park, I am happy to now report that the company has seen the error of its ways. This just in from Zillow: The residences of Washington Park are not an enclave of Madison Valley after all. They are actually part and parcel of Madison Park. The official Zillow map for Seattle has been adjusted accordingly, and Zillow will now evaluate Madison Park’s real estate to include almost everything that most of us think of as Madison Park (Broadmoor excluded).

Zillow could have decided to break out Washington Park as a separate neighborhood, just as they do Broadmoor. But in the end, Zillow’s head honcho decided not to go that route. Company president and co-founder Lloyd Frink gave me his reasoning: “In all my life that I have lived here, I have never once said I live in Washington Park – I always refer to the overall neighborhood as Madison Park.” I’m sure he’s not alone.

Zillow’s new map does still carve out a few residential blocks from our neighborhood that the Madison Park Community Council, at least, thinks of as being in Madison Park. Those blocks to the North of Madison and East of Lake Washington Boulevard (known affectionately to some residents as Shellville, formerly Texaco Heights) are—in Zillow’s opinion—located in Madison Valley. The same holds true for several blocks south of Madison, beginning at about 33rd Avenue E. and extending West to Lake Washington Boulevard. In this, Zillow is consistent with the opinion of the Madison Valley Community Council. Zillow also places Denny-Blaine outside of the Madison Park boundaries, which is probably quite alright with the residents of that neighborhood.

Now that Zillow has come around to some correct thinking on Madison Park, the question remains as to whether the City is capable of doing the same. The Madison Park Community Council, I am told, has submitted a letter to the City’s Department of Neighborhoods asking that their maps be redrawn to show that the Washington Park portion of Madison Park is not located in the “Harrison/Denny-Blaine” neighborhood.

Good luck with that!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Two chances to weigh in on 520

Opponents of the State’s plans for the new SR 520 floating bridge think they may have come up with a ‘smoking gun’ buried in an appendix to the supplemental draft environmental statement (EIS) that the Department of Transportation (WSDOT) recently filed. They claim that while the bridge is being publicly touted as a six-lane affair (two car lanes and one high-occupancy vehicle lane in each direction), WSDOT’s real plan is to build a bridge wide enough to eventually accommodate eight or even ten total lanes. They base their claim on this diagram for the “West Transition Spans” which WSDOT included in the EIS:

According to the Coalition for a Sustainable 520, the illustration shows that the bridge pontoons will be significantly wider than necessary just to accommodate the six lanes legally authorized. Opponents note that WSDOT worksheets show that the pontoons will be 240 feet wide at some points, roughly four times as wide as the current bridge.

Whether WSDOT has a stealth plan or not may become a subject of debate at the upcoming SR 520 Environmental Hearing and Public Open House, which will be hosted by WSDOT this Tuesday, February 23, at the Lake Union Naval Reserve Building (860 Terry Avenue N.) from 5 to 7pm. It’s an opportunity for the public to give input on the State’s 520 plans, including Option A+ for the Westside approaches.

Another way to provide input is to attend a town hall meeting this Saturday with the 43rd District’s three legislators: Senator Ed Murray, Representative (and House Speaker) Frank Chopp , and Representative Jamie Pedersen. The meeting will be held from 1:30 until 3 pm at the Seattle First Baptist Church, 1111 Harvard Avenue (at Seneca Street, up the hill from the Polyclinic).

Our entire delegation, by the way, is already on record as against both Option A+ and the plan for a high-and-wide floating bridge. This is more than can be said for the delegation from the 46th District (which includes Laurelhurst).

[For more background on 520 and for information on how to formalize your input on the State’s plans, click here for all the Madison Park Blogger postings on the subject. Note that the top graphic, courtesy of WSDOT, shows the west approach to 520 under Option A. Option A+ includes on and off ramps from Lake Washington Boulevard, as well as an HOV connection from Montlake Boulevard.]

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The latest on our neighborhood beavers

Well they’re still out there alright, frolicking in the waters off Madison Park’s northern shore, blithely unaware that the City is rapidly moving towards a decision on whether to allow dredging within just a few yards of their snugly lodge located near the dock at the foot of 37th Avenue E. The Seattle Department of Planning & Development (DPD) reports that they expect to have a decision within two weeks on Broadmoor’s request to dredge the general area.

As we reported last month, the managers of the golf course say they need a less-obstructed water intake system for hydrating the grass during the summer months. Neighbors in the area of the beaver lodge worry about collateral damage to the beavers and other wildlife as a result of the proposed dredging. In particular, there was concern that the dredging operation would damage or destroy several suspected beaver tunnels that were thought to run underwater into the beaver lodge from the land near the dock (one of the tunnel entrances is shown below).

However, neighborhood activist Liz Brandzel notes that she has been told this by the DPD: "Biologists confirmed that beavers do not build tunnels from their lodge or from their dam to the shoreline. The dredging therefore would not affect the beavers in this way." The tunnels may, therefore, be the handiwork (or rather, the paw-work) of a different kind of rodent.

In any event, the public comment period on Broadmoor’s permit request has now ended, so the next opportunity for the public to be involved will occur when and if a dredging permit is granted. DPD spokesperson Bryan Stevens tells me that a permit approval would be appealable for a period of two weeks. We’ve requested a copy of the permit decision when it’s issued and will be report what we know when we know it.
[Photo of beaver lodge by Dave Hutchins. Photo of beavers at play by Jana Wilkins. Photo of mystery tunnel by Bryan Tagas.]

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Communication (or lack thereof) in the ‘hood

Here’s a little piece of information that close readers of this blog already know: the construction of a new SR 520 floating bridge will necessitate the closing of the on and off ramps from Lake Washington Boulevard for the duration of the project, which is scheduled to begin in 2012. This means that for a period of about two years, everyone who currently uses those ramps will be forced to find an alternative route, thereby changing the traffic patterns along the E. Madison Street corridor, in the Arboretum, and—most especially—at Montlake.

Now maybe this information is of interest to only a few people here in the Park, but I suspect it is something that if the uninformed knew about they would be saying “What? Why didn’t I know about this?” News about future traffic flow, I think, fits into that category of information that might be called interesting or useful, but probably not critical.

The category of critical information, however, might very well include the fact that the State is seriously considering a plan to build a three-story-high floating bridge across the Lake to replace the existing low-rise affair. Many otherwise well-informed neighbors of mine (and probably most of the people living in Madison Park) have little idea of what’s going on with 520 or what the potential impact might be on them personally or on our community. Their probable reaction when all decisions have been finalized and the bridge is being built: “What? Are you kidding me? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

Critical information is the kind that if people had it they could act upon it—perhaps even change outcomes. Without information, the possibility of influencing events is forestalled. What you don’t know can hurt you. That’s true with regard to 520, and it’s also true for a lot of other issues that potentially impact the Park. For example, if a water taxi service were under consideration or a light-rail line extension planned for Madison Park, if parking meters were being proposed for our arterials, or if bus service were being re-routed through the neighborhood, would each of us who is potentially impacted become aware and be able to react?

Not hardly. You who are reading this are among the best informed in the ‘hood, but you’re a pretty select group. Those involved with the Madison Park Community Council (MPCC) are also well informed, but they are an even more select group. There are approximately 4,300 adults living within the confines of Madison Park—and perhaps a few hundred of them (I’m being generous here) are actually aware on a regular basis of what’s happening in the neighborhood. Many may not care to know—they lead busy lives, have a lot of responsibility, and are already dealing with too much information.

Many others, I suspect, would like to know what’s going on, but are just not up on how to get the information. Right now the Madison Park Times and Madison Park Hardware (that’s their message board pictured above) are among the best sources. But they both have their drawbacks. In the case of the paper, it’s not timely--and it attempts in its limited space to cover several more neighborhoods than just ours. The hardware store, meanwhile, has a limited audience--and you have to walk there to get the news.
So how do we widen the circle of people in the know? This blog is one attempt, and the MPCC has now come up with another. Residents interested in getting information by email about happenings in our community can sign up for the Madison Park Email Exchange, a new service designed to promote the sharing of news and ideas. About 70 people are already signed up, I am told.

Well, it’s a start.

To date, I have never encouraged anyone to subscribe to this blog, although the subscription option has been available almost from the inception of Madison Park Blogger. I've preferred that people come to the web site to read the blog, since event information and other details are available here. However, I am often told by people that they forget to check the blog regularly, or they have forgotten its internet address, or they don't know how to bookmark a website in their browser. For those people--and for those who do not like reading white type on a black background--I now recommend a subscription to Madison Park Blogger.
It's easy to arrange. Just go to the convenient box in the right-hand column of this blog labelled "Subscribe via Email" and fill in your email address. Click "subscribe" and you're almost done. You will receive a confirming email from Google Feedburner regarding your subscription, and if you reply as instructed you will begin receiving emails of each Madison Park Blogger posting automatically. No more worries about missing information! (You can also subscribe by RSS feed, if you prefer).
Just another option for keeping up on the news of the Park.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Reassessing the reassessments

Since I reported last month that Seattle’s tax rate is going up by 13.4% this year, I’ve been asked by readers to explain why such a huge increase is necessary. With inflation running at only 2.7% last year, how does local government justify a tax hike that’s almost five times higher? Also, how exactly does the 12.3% downward assessment of residential property in our area of Seattle impact what we end up paying in taxes to the City? And since Madison Park’s property values declined less than the property values in the rest of Seattle, does this mean that we will now have to pay a greater share of the City’s total property taxes this year?

Thanks to the assistance of the King County Assessor’s Office, I have the answers to all of these questions.

But first of all, a word about the relation between property taxes and property assessments. You probably received a King County property tax assessment last year stating that the value of your residence had declined by 12.3%. I warned everyone at the time (or at least everyone who was reading this blog) that they should not expect their tax bill for 2010 to decline by the same 12.3%. The reason for this is that the total property tax obligation of the citizens of Seattle is determined by the multiple taxing districts (e.g. city, library, sewer, school, state, county, EMS, ferry, flood) that have the legal right to tax Seattle property. In other words, the annual need for property tax revenue is determined totally independently of the process by which our property values are determined. Or as the Assessor effectively puts it: don’t hold me responsible for the taxes you have to pay; I’m only responsible for figuring out how the property-tax obligation is distributed.

The following chart shows how much Seattle’s property owners are expected to pay in total taxes this year as compared to last:

That actually amounts to only a 1.6% increase in the property tax obligation for all Seattle properties, both residential and commercial in 2010. Not too bad.

And here’s how our area of the City (Madison Park/Madrona/Leschi) fared in terms of overall property value decline, year over year:

That represents a 10.6% decline in the total value of properties (residential and commercial) in our three contiguous communities. Seattle’s total property value, meanwhile, was $131.7 billion in 2009, declining by 10.3% to $118.1 billion for 2010. So what this means is that Madison Park/Madrona/Leschi actually had a greater decline in overall value than the City did (10.6% versus 10.3%).

So how is it possible for both things to be true: our total property value declined more than the City’s, while at the same time individual residential property owners here, on average, had less of a decline in value of their homes than those in all other areas of the City? The answer is that the rest of the Seattle had a lot of new construction and redevelopment, and a significant level of new property value was created in the process. Without this added property available to tax, the City would have had to tax previously-existing property at an even higher rate to make up the difference. Even so, just to stay about even with last year's tax revenues, the tax rate this year had to go up by 13.4%.

For Madison Park, then, this is the outcome of the whole process of tax setting and property reassessment for this year: we lucked out. With our below-average decline in individual property values, we could have faced paying a bigger portion of the City’s total tax obligation in 2010. Instead, because a lot of new property was created in other areas of town that can be taxed this year, we are actually paying a smaller portion of the City’s total property taxes in 2010 than we did in 2009:

And that’s the rest of the story.

["Our share" in the above chart refers to the proportion of total City taxes paid by Area 14, which consists of Madison Park, Denny-Blaine, Madrona, and Leschi (as detailed on the map above).]

Monday, February 8, 2010

520: where to from here?

It’s been a pretty eventful week since the opponents of the State’s current SR 520 plan held their press conference in the Arboretum last Monday. For those who haven’t been paying close attention to the issue, here’s a summary of what’s been happening, as well as a brief look ahead:

As you may recall, the opponents--including all of our 43rd District legislators, the Mayor, two City Council members, and a coalition of the immediately affected Seattle neighborhoods—are opposed both to the Option A+ design for the Westside approaches and to the design of the high-and-wide floating bridge that the State is planning to build, beginning in 2012. Fran Conley, coordinator of the Coalition for a Sustainable 520, summed the opponents’ views by arguing that the State should not be designing a transportation system for the 21st Century while using the outmoded transportation concepts of the 1950s. Opponents want a delay to the process and a redesign of the project that allows for only high-density transit (buses and potentially light rail) in the two addition lanes which will be added to the 520 corridor. And they want the height of the new floating bridge (currently designed to rise 30 feet above the water line) lowered significantly.

The opponents got a fair amount of publicity for their position during the week--as well as an immediate reaction from Governor Gregoire, who issued a statement declaring that delay and redesign of 520 were unacceptable. "Changing the configuration now would require a new environmental process,” she wrote. “The office of the Attorney General tells us that revising these decisions from several years ago would set the project back at least 18 to 24 months. Our commitment to ensuring public safety does not allow that kind of delay."

Eastside legislative and city officials then piled on, telling the media that the issue of 520 has been studied for many years and that the six-lane concept advocated by the state’s Department of Transportation (WSDOT) must move forward without delay. At this point, leaders of the transportation committees in the state legislature added their voices to the no-delay chorus. Finally, as if to add insult to injury, five members of the Seattle City Council (who just days earlier had signed a letter to the Governor asking for delay), stood shoulder to shoulder with the Eastside public officials to voice their opposition to delay. Mayor McGinn, for one, found their about face confounding.

All of this might lead you to believe that the opponents would be packing it in and licking their wounds. But not so. I talked to Fran Conley today (that’s Fran in the photo below, taken at last Monday’s press conference), and she actually believes that the anti Coalition is gaining momentum.

“For one thing,” she said, “we are raising awareness.” She noted that the lack of leadership by Seattle's ex-mayor, Greg Nichols, was devastating to the process, which has been very influenced by those suburban politicians who have taken a leadership role. The citizens of Seattle have not been represented and have not been informed, she believes. This is changing.

Though she hopes for a quick resolution though the political process which will result in a new 520 design, she noted that there is another option which might prove necessary. “We are hoping to avoid legal action,” she told me, “but we have funding and we have hired a lawyer.” I asked her if she envisions a legal battle like the one that Mercer Island residents waged against I-90 in the last century. She’s hoping it doesn’t come to anything like that, she said, but she nevertheless sounded determined to do what's necessary to stop the State from building the six-lane 520 as currently proposed.
Next up on the agenda is the Coalition's response to the supplemental draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project issued last month by WSDOT. Public comments are being accepted through March 8, and the Governor has stated her intent to approve the configuration for 520 by the end of April. It's anticipated that the EIS will be finalized by the end of the year. If it is accepted, if the Governor approves the design, and if the legislature funds the program, court action may be the only recourse for the opponents.
But at least one thing is clear about the process: it ain't over.
[Graphic above, taken from the supplemental draft EIS by WSDOT, shows the height of the new floating bridge relative to the old bridge.]

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Mad Pizza gets some competition

Apparently you can never have too much pizza. And just to prove the point, we're about to get a new pizza place here in the Park. The construction crew has been working away this past week in the old Impromptu space (4227 E. Madison St.), knocking down an interior wall and installing new pizza ovens.

Word on the street is that it's a "gourmet" pizza parlor, which may be opening as early as a week from now. The name of the new place is unknown, at least to any of the local merchants I spoke to, however. The construction crew tells me that even the construction plans do not include the restaurant's name.

While there are many kinds of food that you cannot get in the neighborhood, pizza is certainly not one of them. In addition to Mad Pizza, the longtime stand-alone pizza parlor further up the street, there are quite a few other options, given that there's pizza on the regular menus of Bing's, The Red Onion, The Attic, and McGilvra's (have I left someone out?).

Of course "gourmet" is another niche. We shall see.

Home financing in a ‘pragmatic’ environment

[Pacific Publishing Co., the publisher of the Madison Park Times, asked me to write a piece about the current state of the local home-finance market for their City Living section, which is an insert into several of their Seattle community newspapers (not including the Madison Park Times). Since the article may be of interest to some Madison Park Blogger readers, I am reproducing it here.]

You may have seen the story in the local press recently about the supposed new “trend” in home buying: paying cash. Reading a little deeper into the story, however, it becomes clear that this approach is being pursued by a pretty tiny fraction of the population—and only at the very low (or very high) end of the market.

For most of us, figuring out how to pay for a home is the largest financial decision we will ever make in our lifetimes. And for perhaps 99% of us, that means deciding on how to finance the purchase. As we’re all aware, however, the collapse of the residential real estate bubble and the resulting tightening of lending standards have impacted the financing options available for home buyers. But in what way? Is it possible today for home buyers to get a loan approved on reasonable terms, at a good rate, and without undue delay?

“Yes,” says Tom Golon, a home mortgage consultant at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage in Seattle, “but people are realizing that times have changed.” What this means, he notes, is that most people who are now applying for loans are less likely than in the past to “stretch” to get into the biggest home they possibly can qualify for. Also, they are likely to have higher credit scores than was true a few years ago, and they probably are looking for a traditional 30-year, fixed-rate loan rather than an adjustable-rate mortgage or some exotic financing option. “We currently have a more pragmatic population of home buyers,” Golon reports. “People who have been sensible can certainly buy a house today.”

And the timing is certainly right for getting a good deal on the financing, according to local mortgage professionals. They point out that rates continue to be low relative to historic patterns, home prices have fallen to a level where there are some real values in the market, and there are special government programs still available to help support home buying.

The program having the most impact, especially on the lower end of the real estate market, is the $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers. The program was extended into this year and applies to qualified purchases that are entered into by April 30 and that close no later than June 30.

Additionally, however, there is a “long-time resident” tax credit of up to $6,500 available for buyers who have owned the same home for a least five consecutive years of the last eight and who purchase a new primary residence. Apparently few buyers are aware of this little perk. An advantage of the program is the fact that those who qualify this year for it (or for the first-time-buyer tax credit) can use it either on their 2009 or 2010 tax return.

Another way the federal government provides support for home buyers is through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA)’s insured-loan program. According to Trevor Bennett, a mortgage loan officer at Bank of America in Kirkland, FHA-backed loans offer several advantages for many home buyers. Unlike conventional mortgage loans which generally require a sizeable down payment, loans insured by FHA can be approved with only 3.5% down.

Additionally, says Bennett, there is greater underwriting flexibility with FHA. “You don’t have to have perfect credit,” he notes, “and settlement costs related to the closing can be paid by the seller.” Additionally, gift funds can be used by the borrower to support the down payment. This is quite different from the standards lenders use to underwrite conventional mortgages. The cost of this kind of loan is higher, since a monthly FHA mortgage insurance premium must be paid until the loan amount declines to no more than 78% of the house value. But the program allows for people who might not otherwise be able to buy a house to have an option. FHA-backed loans currently represent a very high percentage of overall mortgage lending in this market.

For those who qualify for conventional mortgages “it’s a promising scenario right now,” according to Wells Fargo’s Golon, “certainly better than it was a year ago.” A 20% down payment is pretty much the standard for this kind of loan, he says. For a down payment of less than that, mortgage insurance would probably be required. So-called “conforming” loans are those that meet the 20%-down standard and that are not for an amount in excess of $567,500 within the Seattle market, he says. Interest rates for this kind of loan still range in the high-4% to low-5% range for qualified buyers with reasonably good credit scores.

A typical borrower today has a score in the mid-to-high 700s, Golon says. Someone with a lower credit score--but one that’s still good--might have to pay a slightly higher interest rate. (If you are interested in knowing your current credit score you may obtain it without charge by going online to

According to Golon, the typical underwriting standards for “conforming” loans include a requirement that no more than roughly one third of the borrower’s monthly income can go to home-related expenses, and monthly debt payments cannot exceed 45% of income. “Non-conforming” loans (jumbo mortgages) typically have tougher standards and higher rates but are more readily available than they were at this time last year.

Certain loan programs that once proliferated, such as Option ARMs, Sub-Prime, and Interest-Only mortgages, are now out the window, however. “These loans were originated for sophisticated buyers but later were offered to very unsophisticated borrowers who had no idea what they were getting into,” says Golon. Things really got out of hand when these loans were coupled with low (or or no) underwriting standards—including, in some cases, no requirements for borrowers to document income. “Those days are over,” Golon reports, “and people should expect to be able to document their income in order to qualify.” He notes that self-employed borrowers will probably have to provide at least one year’s tax return to verify their income.

Bennett of Bank of America agrees that now is a good time to finance a home, but he notes that buyers should feel a certain sense of urgency. In addition to the fact that several of the government programs will be expiring soon, there’s the added probability that mortgage rates will be rising in the coming months. For one thing, says Bennett, the federal government will be ending its purchase program for mortgage-backed securities in a couple months. This will almost certainly drive rates up at least marginally, making home buying more expensive.

In addition, it is possible that as early as this Spring, the upfront mortgage-insurance premium will be rising from 1.75% to 2.25% for FHA-backed loans. That’s just another reason why it probably makes sense for some prospective home buyers to make their moves sooner rather than later, says Bennett.

Then there’s the issue of refinancing. The general rule has always been that it takes an interest rate decline of at least 1% for a refinance to make sense. There are closing costs and loan fees to take into consideration in addition to the rate decrease. A lot of refinancing has occurred in the past year as rates have remained low, but there’s still a fair number of people who are looking to refinance their existing mortgages, according to Bennett.

Those still seeking refinancing, says Bennett, should consider taking advantage of a government program called “Making Home Affordable.” In general, if you have been current on your mortgage payments for the past 12 months and you originally put 20% or more down as a payment on your residence, you may qualify for a lower interest rate with your existing lender, with little or no closing cost and no mortgage insurance requirement. This assumes, however, that your mortgage is currently no more than 125% of your house’s value. Refinancing this way can save a borrower hundreds of dollars in mortgage payments each month, says Bennett. “We’re processing thousands of these loans,” he adds. “That’s my world right now.” (To find out if you qualify for this program go to Note that not all mortgage lenders are participating in this program).

So here’s the bottom line: the opportunity exists in the market for both mortgage financing and re-financing on very reasonable terms. Borrowers are more likely to qualify if they have realistic expectations and good credit history. But if you’re interested in taking advantage of today’s market you should probably get moving soon.
[Mortgages rates, courtesty of, show average rates for mortgages in the 98112 zip code on the date specified. Assumptions: Conforming loans with no points and good credit scores for borrowers.]

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Japanese Garden celebrates 50 years

The Japanese Garden in the Arboretum is about to end its winter hiatus, reopening on Sunday, February 14, for its 50th Anniversary season. Rated by a garden journal as one of the ten most favorite Japanese gardens in the country, Seattle’s Japanese Garden was inaugurated in July 1960, after only four months of construction. It’s now ready to celebrate a half century of giving pleasure to visitors seeking sanctuary and a connection to nature.

The concept of adding a Japanese Garden to the Arboretum goes back to 1937, but it took another twenty years for the idea to gain enough popular support to enable fundraising to begin for the project (a war against Japan had intervened). In 1959, with funds in hand and the design completed, Juki Iida and Nobumasa Kitamura were hired to build the garden, which originally was scheduled to take up to three years to complete. Using heavy construction equipment, a somewhat scaled-back design, and a capable crew of mostly Japanese-American gardeners, the builders transformed an Arboretum ravine into a colorful and tranquil garden, offset by boulders, water features and formal elements. And they did it all in record time. (That’s Juki Iida in the photo below, standing on the site during the construction).

The original design of the Garden was by the Tokyo Metropolitan Park Department, and Iida carried out the scheme by installing in a combination of traditional Japanese plantings, such as maples, gingko and bamboo, and Pacific Northwest natives, such as rhododendrons, azaleas, and cedars. In 1959, a hand-built teahouse was added to the Japanese Garden, the gift of the people of Tokyo. A fire destroyed the teahouse in 1973, but it was rebuilt in 1981 with the help of the Arboretum Foundation and Urasenke Foundation of Kyoto. The Garden itself was significantly renovated earlier this century, after over forty years which saw little change. Koichi Kobayashi, who undertook the renovation, called the Arboretum gem “one of the finest Japanese gardens to be constructed outside Japan.”

You will get an opportunity to view the Japanese Garden for the first time this year when it reopens one week from this Sunday (on February 14), at 11:00 a.m. There will be formal tours of the Garden at both noon and 2:00 p.m. on opening day, as well as a Shinto/Buddhist Opening Blessing at 1 p.m. Information on the Japanese Garden, including hours and scheduled events, is available here. There is also a nice, short video about the Japanese Garden available from Lonely Planet TV . The narrator sums up the Garden as an example of one of the “few places left in which you can approach nature in a small area and have it serve as a kind of textbook on life and how to live.”

[Upper photo by jamec199 on Flickr. Lower photo of the Japanese Garden in Winter by Spiral Cage on Flickr. Middle photo of Juki Iida courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives. Information included in this posting was obtained from “Legacy of the Japanese Garden of Seattle” by Prof. Koichi Kobayashi of the University of Washington, available here.]

Monday, February 1, 2010

Stuck with ugly?

Though their cause may ultimately prove futile (a fact admitted by our own State Senator, Ed Murray), opponents of the State’s plans for re-engineering the 520 floating bridge were out in force this morning for a news conference in the Arboretum, during which they spelled out their objections to both the proposed 30-foot high floating bridge and Plan A+ for the bridge’s west approach. A significant number of elected public officials made their voices heard at the event, including all of the 43rd District’s legislators (Representatives Jamie Pedersen and Frank Chopp, in addition to Senator Murray), City Council members Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien, and Seattle’s new mayor, Mike McGinn (shown in the photo below).

They, and the rest of the Seattle City Council, are—at minimum—on board to delaying the 520 decision-making process for about 120 days in order to look carefully at alternatives that are more mass-transit intensive than Plan A+, the option that the Legislative Work Group has proposed to the Governor and Legislature.

The public officials who were present--along with the Coalition for a Sustainable 520 (made up of the Seattle community councils most impacted by 520 and the local boating community), the Arboretum Foundation, the Cascade Bicycle Club, and the Sierra Club--want more than just a delay in the process. In essence, they would like to see a scaled back plan for 520 that does not have as wide a footprint through Portage Bay and across Foster Island, allows for no cars in the HOV lanes (only buses and, potentially, light rail), and does not include new much-wider on and off ramps in the Arboretum. They’re also not too happy with that high and ugly floating bridge that is being planned.

But in spite of their best efforts, ugly (in both its figurative and literal senses) is still a likely outcome in the opinion of many observers, including some members of the Coalition. Publicola, a Seattle political blog, sums the situation with this headline: “Seattle’s Preferred 520 Alignment Unlikely to Find Support in Olympia.” The blog argues with some persuasion that the process is too far along and the Seattle City Council too divided for the opponents of Plan A+ to get anything more than changes around the edges of the proposed 520 design. The basic idea of six lanes with two of them dedicated to HOV (car pools included) was established as the basis for all design options years ago. And no plans currently exist to bring light rail across the Lake using the 520 corridor.

Several of the politicians present referred to themselves as being in favor of construction and not obstruction. The issue, as they see it, is whether or not the new 520 will be part of an integrated and well-thought-out transit plan for the region or whether it will simply represent a short-term fix for getting more cars across the Lake more quickly. “This is a decision that is going to have a profound effect on our environment,“ said Representative Pedersen. “This is not a decision that should be entered into lightly.”
(For previous posts on the issue of 520, click here.)
[Upper graphic, courtesy of the Coalition for a Sustainable 520, shows a view of 520 from the lawn at Canterbury Shores with an outline of the Plan A+ configuration for that location. Graphic by Legal Media Experts Group.]