Saturday, January 30, 2010

The new 520: What are they thinking?

When he was a newly-minted, wet-behind-the-ears civil engineer employed by Seattle’s public works department, former Washington Governor Daniel Evans worked on the Alaskan Way Viaduct project. That gray monolithic artery is now, of course, regarded as such a monstrosity and egregious planning error that it naturally raises the question: “What were they thinking?”

That very question was recently put to the former Governor by an enterprising KPLU reporter when she interviewed Evans about his support for the Viaduct replacement tunnel. His matter-of-fact response was that what they were thinking about was solving a problem: getting traffic moved through Seattle quickly in the absence of any alternative road (I-5 was not built through downtown until more than a decade later). According to Evans, the engineers and public officials working on the project were focused on getting the job done (which they accomplished) and he can’t remember anyone complaining about the waterfront location, which he describes as having been a blighted area.

Flash forward more than a half century and we now have another civil engineering dilemma: how to safely meet the cross-Lake transportation needs of our growing community. Are we getting ready to repeat the mistakes that were made with the Alaskan Way Viaduct? Will residents of Seattle and the Eastside be asking “What were they thinking?” sixty years from now?

According to the opponents, that question will not have to await the verdict of future generations—at least not if the proposed Option A+ is implemented without revision. It will be obvious as soon as the thing is put in place, they say, that this was a tragic blunder—a project wasting of billions of dollars while incurring environmental havoc, creating visual blight, and not even solving the basic transportation problems the new 520 is supposedly designed to ameliorate.

Sounds harsh, but there you have it in a nutshell: the main objections to Option A+. If you’re interested, however, in the rationale in favor of the plan, you can check out the State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) website, which has the complete supplemental draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for Option A+ available here. I’ve read it--or, rather, its 66-page executive summary—so that you don’t have to wade through it unless you are so inclined.

But first, some background.

If you’re like me, you probably haven’t been paying that much attention to the fact that the 520 bridge, which opened in 1963, is nearing the end of its useful life. WSDOT gives the bridge 10 to 15 more years. The need for a replacement is based both on the bridge’s structural insufficiency and the growing transportation needs of the region. It was designed to accommodate 65,000 daily vehicles when it opened and is now estimated to be handling over 115,000 vehicles per day. As we all know, it is often clogged with traffic. Additionally, the bridge is potentially unsafe in high winds and is subject to possible collapse during an earthquake (as graphically portrayed in this WSDOT simulation). I don’t think anyone is suggesting that the bridge should not be replaced. The issue is: with what?

The State, in conjunction with the Federal Highway Administration, plans to replace it with a new bridge that will be located 190 feet north of the existing structure. Construction on the floating bridge portion of the project is scheduled to begin in 2012 and be completed in 2014. The remaining changes to 520 would be completed—if they are funded and the project remains on schedule—by 2018. That’s six years of construction or more, principally impacting the Montlake neighborhood.

The cost of the project, which includes a new interchange at Montlake and a new bridge approach through Portage Bay and over Foster Island, is estimated at between $4.5 and $4.8 billion dollars, with $4.65 billion budgeted to date. The State has yet to identify how it will meet the anticipated $2.66 billion difference between funding sources (including tolls) and the total cost of the highway project.

Although the recently released supplemental draft EIS reviews three possible configurations for the project, a Legislative Work Group has already recommended to the Governor and Legislature that Plan A+ be adopted. As noted in a previous posting, this plan involves a second drawbridge at Montlake and a six-lane floating bridge.

As laid out in the EIS, here are the advantages of this bridge design (in addition, of course, to making the bridge structurally safe):

· The addition to two HOV lanes will reduce or eliminate congestion

· Landscape lids over portions of the highway will “reconnect neighborhoods”

· Pedestrians and cyclists will be able to cross the Lake on new pathways

· Stormwater treatment facilities will be installed for the first time

· Greeenhouse gas omissions will be reduced due to less standing on roadway.

The EIS summarizes the history of the planning process for the bridge, noting that both a four-lane and an eight-lane alternative had been considered. The four-lane replacement was rejected because it would not meet the goal of improving traffic flow. The eight-lane option, meanwhile, was considered impractical in terms of connections to both I-5 and I-405.

Here are some of the principal downsides of the new bridge, as identified in the EIS:

· The Montlake freeway transit station is eliminated, forcing riders to change current travel routes

· Tolling, which will be electronic, will force a hardship on those with low incomes (tolling on 520 will begin in 2011, before the new bridge is even under construction)

· Parkland will be eliminated (5.5 acres or more) due to the larger footprint of 520

· “Visual quality” will be impacted (though the report does not actually say negatively)

· Traffic noise is expected to increase in some areas, even if noise-abatement walls or “quiet asphalt” are installed

· Some wetlands will be filled in and other wetlands will be shaded

· A sockeye salmon spawning area will potentially be eliminated

· Fishing areas utilized by the Muckelshoot Indian Tribe may be adversely impacted

· Vessels over 70 feet high will no longer be able to pass through the bridge due to elimination of the draw span

· Changes to the west approach to the bridge will affect the experience of boaters and park users in the Arboretum.

With surprising understatement, the EIS notes that “broad public and political consensus has not been reached in support of this (Option A+) recommendation.”

That’s for sure. Fran Conley, coordinator of the Coalition for a Sustainable SR 520, has this to say about the WSDOT’s efforts: "It is now clear that the intention is to build a highway looking back into the 20th century instead of a transportation system for the 21st century. After years of working cooperatively with the state, all of our communities are now unalterably opposed to the current proposals." The representative of the Roanoke Park/Portage Bay community, Ted Lane, goes further, stating “this process has been a charade.” And Madison Park's representative to the Coalition, Maurice Cooper, calls the new floating bridge design "that prison wall across the Lake."

The Coalition objects to many of WSDOT’s assumptions about the bridge replacement, including the idea that a safety fix could not be undertaken on the existing bridge at an economical cost. But the biggest issues for opponents are the doubling of the width of the bridge corridor, the addition of a second drawbridge at Montlake (rather than a tunnel), and the “unnecessary” height and profile of both the Westside approach and the new floating bridge itself.

The Coalition notes that the proposed new bridge is actually almost 150% wider than the old bridge, sits 30 feet above the water across Lake Washington (“as tall as a three-story building”), and does not properly incorporate mass-transit options into the mix. As noted in an article in the Seattle Times today, opponents of Option A+ are now pushing for the new HOV lanes to be used by buses only or for a shared bus-rail corridor. In other words, the State should not be encouraging more car use on the revamped bridge but focus rather on mass-transit options.

With regard to the visual impact of the floating bridge itself, the Coalition states that the height can be reduced without negatively impacting the integrity of the structure. Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond is quoted in the Times’ article as saying that WSDOT engineers are now looking at ways to cut the bridge height to 20 feet.

Why a higher bridge was ever thought necessary was not addressed by Hammond, however. And it may well be that the engineers, just as in Dan Evans' day, simply designed the new bridge with utility rather than aesthetics in mind. In the case of 520, the goals were to have the new bridge be high enough to keep waves from blowing onto the roadway while still allowing room for worker access to the brdige deck from underneath. Now, apparently as a result of public criticism, the engineers are back at their drawing boards. It raises the question: what other changes are possible to WSDOT’s current plans as a result of public pressure?
I guess we’ll find out.

Here are some ways you can give input to the process during the comment period, which ends March 8: 1) you can comment by mail to Jenifer Young, Environmental Manager, SR 520 Project Office, 600 Stewart Street, Suite 520, Seattle, WA 98101, 2) you can email your comments to, or 3) you can comment online here.

You can also attend the Environmental Hearing and Public Open House which will be held February 23 at the Lake Union Naval Reserve Building (860 Terry Avenue N.) from 5 to 7pm.

Meanwhile, the City Council has just gone on record asking for a 120-day delay in the decision-making process, and opponents of Option A+ and “the massive high bridge across the Lake” have scheduled a press conference for Monday morning at which they will be presenting their position. City and State politicians are expected to be in attendance. The event will be held at the intersection of East Miller Street and Lake Washington Boulevard East, in the green space immediately north of the parking lot (near the "ramps to nowhere"), just south of 520 where the Arboretum and Montlake join. The Coalition requests that opponents turn out for the press conference to show their solidarity.
[Upper photo: SR 520 at Foster Island from Google Earth 2009. Middle graphic: configuration of new floating bridge from WSDOT. Lower graphic: configuration of Option A+ showing interchanges and western approach from WSDOT.]

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

December Real Estate Report

Steady as she goes

The year ended on a pretty positive note for the real estate market here in the Park. Sales were steady, inventory was down, and there’s good reason to hope that even if things are not improving quickly, at least they don’t seem to be getting worse.

In line with the activity level that began in the early fall, there were eight houses sold in Madison Park during December, as well as two condos. Not bad for the holiday season. Among the sales was the spectacular $12.8 million waterfront mansion in the Reed Estate (shown below) that I profiled during the summer (“A glimpse beyond the gates”). After over a year on the market, the house changed hands at $10.6 million, a discount of 17% from the list price. A local real estate blog reports this as the second-highest -priced home sold in Seattle in 2009, based on data from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service (MLS).

Confirming the rarefied atmosphere of the market here in the Park, there was only one house sold in December at under $1 million; and the New Year begins with only four such houses listed for sale. December also saw the sale of two homes built by speculative builders (i.e. spec houses). But this still leaves, by my count, nine other spec houses on the market as of mid-January, with another two nearing completion. These represent 14% of the total homes listed for sale here—28% of the houses on the market outside of Broadmoor, which does not allow speculative building.

There is one spec home currently listed as a short sale by the MLS. A short sale is a situation where the sales price is (or, in the case of a listed-but-unsold house, is expected to be) less than the amount owing on the underlying mortgage. The particular spec house that has now become a short sale is located at 628 32nd Avenue E. (shown below). It was built in 2008, is listed at $1.65 million, and has been on the market for over 600 days.

As I noted in an earlier posting, it’s a tough market for spec builders—and there’s a limit to how long most can afford to wait before unloading their houses. Usually a short sale occurs when the property is turned over to the bank that financed the project. I am aware of only one other short sale in Madison Park during the past year, a Broadmoor home that is currently listed as pending sale. A short sale is always a sacrifice for both the owner (who gives up all equity) and the mortgage holder (who receives less than the amount financed).

Inventory shrinks

We begin the New Year with an inventory of only 64 homes listed for sale, including 18 residential condominiums. The for-sale properties are certainly not scattered uniformly about the Park, however, especially the houses:
So, while Broadmoor represents less than 20% of the total housing units in Madison Park, listed houses in that enclave constitute 50% of the Park’s for-sale inventory. This was the general pattern throughout 2009, but it has accelerated as the cheaper housing inventory outside of Broadmoor was gradually sold but not replaced with new listings during the year. There have been only three new house listings in our market during the last 30 days, and two of these were in Broadmoor (one was in Washington Park). And there were only two new condo listings during the period.

Here’s how the Madison Park market (Washington Park and Broadmoor included) looks in January, as reported by Redfin:


Listings: 46
Median List Price: $ 1,995,000
Median Sq. Ft.: 4800
Median Price per Sq. Ft.: $415.63
Percentage with Price Reduction: 39%
Average Days on Market: 154


Listings: 18
Median List Price: $550,000
Median Sq. Ft.: 1,125
Median Price per Sq. Ft.: $488.89
Percentage with Price Reduction: 44%
Average Days on Market: 218

There’s a significant difference between the houses that sold in December and those that remain on the market, both in terms of price:

and in terms of size:

Houses sold in December were on average 35% smaller and 23% less expensive than those still on the market in January. There are currently four houses listed as pending, and these houses have a median list of price of about $1 million and median square footage of about 3,000.

The most expensive house currently on the market is the $10,995,000 Normandy-style home shown in the photo at the top of this posting. Built in 1931 and extensively reconstructed in 2005, it sits on a half acre of prime Broadmoor real estate and boasts four bedrooms and seven and a quarter baths (listing by Betsy Terry of Ewing & Clark). The least expensive listed house, at $599,950, is a 2,400 sq. ft. 1925 Spanish stucco located on the south side of E. Madison Street, but with a view of Lake Washington.

As an aside, I see that at least two houses are “for sale by owner” in Madison Park, listed on Zillow at $2.2 million and $1.5 million respectively. It’s unusual for homeowners in the upper market to try this gambit, so I’ll be watching to see their success (or otherwise) in marketing their homes without an agent involved. It’s not the kind of thing real estate professionals advise, of course (the doing it, I mean, not the watching it).

Up next month: an overview of how the Madison Park real estate market fared in 2009 compared to previous years.

[Thanks to Wendy Skerritt of Windermere Real Estate/Capitol Hill for her help in providing market data used in this report. Upper and bottom photos courtesy of Redfin.]

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Day Two for McGilvra's new principal

McGilvra Elementary's new "interim" principal, Birgit McShane (at center in the photo above), listens as seven McGilvra students speak extemporaneously on the subject "Why I Like McGilvra." It was Open House at the school this evening, and several dozen parents who are planning on (or at least considering) sending their children to McGilvra were in attendance for the presentation by PTA members, School District officers, and students. The event was held in the school library, following which there were tours of the classrooms, interactions with some very well-behaved McGilvra students, and questions for McGilvra's teachers and staff.

Also making a presentation was Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, who gave an overview of the District's plans for the year, including how the new student assignment plan will (hopefully) work. Goodloe-Johnson proved quite adept in cutting off questions on why the school's departed principal, DeWanda Cook-Weaver, is now on leave.

It's my impression that many of McGilvra's parents are pleased with the change in leadership at the school. I had an opportunity to speak with McShane, who seemed pleasant, open, ready to get down to work--and perhaps slightly dazed by the suddenness of her return to the principal's role. She had retired from the district in 2008 after a long career, which included stints as principal at both Bagley (Green Lake) and Sacajawea (Lake City) Elementary schools. She herself is a graduate of the Seattle Schools (Roosevelt High School) and currently resides in Ballard. She is expected to be on board through the end of the school year (though the school district cannot confirm this because of the "personnel matter" involving Cook-Weaver that it's currently dealing with).

McShane agreed to let me quiz her once she gets acclimatized at the school. This I plan to do.

Monday, January 25, 2010

McGilvra principal is out

Effective last Friday, DeWanda Cook-Weaver is on an indefinite leave of absence as principal of McGilvra Elementary School. “We can’t say anything about it because it is a personnel matter,“ says Seattle Public Schools spokesperson Teresa Wippel.

Effective today, Birgit McShane, a former elementary school principal in the Seattle Public School system, has taken the reins at McGilvra as “interim principal.” It is possible that she will serve in that role through the end of the school year, according to Wippel. Officially, the school district will not comment on whether Cook-Weaver might return to McGilvra at some future date. To quote a statement this afternoon from a school district spokesperson: "We are not legally able to comment on the terms of the leave or speculate on the timeline."

McGilvra PTA President Bob Steedman was reticent about discussing the situation publicly, except to say that Cook-Weaver’s decision to leave was made for “personal reasons.” It is well known, however, that McGivra benefits from having a high level of parent involvement in the school, meaning a very activist PTA. This is a fact Cook-Weaver herself acknowledged when I interviewed her at the beginning of the school year (“What’s new in the schoolhouse?”). I’ve been told that some parents felt that her management style was not a “good fit” for the school. She had only been in the position at McGivra for four months at the time of her departure last week.

Steedman was full of praise for the district’s handling of the situation and, having just met McShane this morning, says he is excited that she’s on board. Both McShane and Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, he notes, will be attending the open house tomorrow evening at McGilvra (6:30 – 8:00 pm). The ostensible purpose of the event, scheduled earlier this year, is to provide information about the school to parents of children not yet enrolled. But the curious are also welcome.

[Photo courtesy of the McGilvra School Messenger]

Friday, January 22, 2010

The 2010 Seattle tax rate is up a whopping 13.4% (but our tax bills will be down!)

The King County Assessor’s Office this morning certified the 2010 property tax rate for Seattle, and property owners will be seeing the implications when they get their tax bills in early February. The 2010 rate is $9.04 per $1,000 of assessed value, which compares to the 2009 rate of $7.97. While this is a huge rate increase--13.4% to be precise--it doesn’t mean that Seattle property owners will be getting tax bills that show a big hike in their tax obligation this year. And depending on where they happen to live in Seattle, many homeowners will actually end up with a significantly lower tax bill.

But not those of us who live in Madison Park. Our property taxes will be down just slightly-- essentially unchanged.

This is one of those good news/bad news situations for most homeowners in Madison Park, Madrona and Leschi. Our three neighborhoods share the same tax-assessment area (see map); and as I reported in June, our section of the City had the lowest decline in property values of any area: 12.8%. This is the good news part of the story, since in the opinion of the tax assessor at least, our property values held up better than the values elsewhere in Seattle.

Now here’s the bad news: since we had the lowest decline in property values, the typical property owner here will not see the kind of decrease in absolute tax obligation that the typical property owner living anywhere else in Seattle may experience. This is the bottom line: for the vast majority of us in our area of the City, our 2010 tax bill will be about the same as last year (assuming we made no improvements to our homes). The reason is essentially this: the decline in the value of our properties was pretty much offset by the amount of the rate increase.

Homeowners in the rest of the City “lucky” enough to see bigger declines in their property values will have a lower tax burden in 2010 than they had in 2009. In this respect, some neighborhoods are really benefiting in tax terms from big declines in property values.

Seattle Neighborhoods with the Biggest Declines in Property Values

Beacon Hill (down 22.4%)
Queen Anne (down 21.3%)
Rainier Beach (down 19.1%)
E. West Seattle/Georgetown/South Park (down 19.0%)
Central Area (down 18.5%)

These neighborhoods all come out ahead for tax purposes since their property declined in value to a much greater extent than the amount of the 13.4% tax-rate increase.

Seattle Neighborhoods with the Smallest Declines in Property Values

Madison Park/Madrona/Leschi (down 12.8%)
Rainier Valley (down 12.9%)
Ravenna/University District (down 13.1%)
Mapleleaf/Wedgewood/Bryant (down 13.5%)
Capitol Hill (down 14.0%)

These neighborhoods came out the worst for tax purposes, since their property-value decreases were effectively offset by the 13.4% tax-rate increase.

Although Madison Park and our two neighboring communities had an overall decline of 12.8% in property values, that’s not the decrease in value that any of us saw reflected on the 2010 property assessments we received last year. For reasons too involved to go into, most Madison Park, Madrona, and Leschi property owners (94% of us, to be precise) received an actual downward property-value adjustment from the Assessor of 12.3% for the 2010 tax year. (If you want to know why it’s not 12.8% you can email me for an explanation).

To understand why Madison Park has not come out ahead in terms of taxes this year we can compare our situation to that of property owners on Beacon Hill, where property values (again, in the opinion of the King County Assessor) declined the most of any Seattle neighborhood. The Assessor adjusted property-tax values downward by 22.4% for about 89% of homeowners on the Hill. That’s not quite twice the level of decline experienced in Madison Park.

This is how that difference between the two Seattle neighborhoods results in a far different tax outcome in 2010 for a house valued at $500,000 in 2009 in each of the two neighborhoods. I picked the house value based on what the King County Assessor’s Office tells me was the “average” assessed value for houses in Seattle last year (give or take a couple thousand).

In 2009 the tax obligation for a $500,000 house on Beacon Hill was $3,985 ($500,000 x .00797). For 2010, the house was reduced in value by 22.4% to $388,888. The 2010 tax obligation for the Beacon Hill house is $3,507 ($388,000 x .00904). That’s a decrease of $478, or 12%.

In 2009 the tax obligation for a $500,000 house in Madison Park was also $3,985. But for 2010, the house was decreased in value by 12.3% to $438,500. The 2010 tax obligation for the Madison Park house is $3,964 ($438,500 x .00904). That’s a decrease of $21, or less than 1%.

Like I say, it’s a good news/bad news situation. At least we’re not paying a big increase in taxes as a result of our property values holding up better than those in the other parts of town. I'll have more on Madison Park's tax situation next week.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The new 520 bridge: higher, wider, noisier and butt ugly to boot?

The State’s so-called Plan A+ for replacement of the SR-520 floating bridge is not getting much respect from those neighborhoods, such as ours, that will be impacted most directly by the $4.6 billion project. Opponents of the plan, organized as the Coalition for a Sustainable 520, say that the proposed bridge is aesthetically challenged, environmentally degrading, and doesn’t even meet the region’s transportation needs.
Tomorrow, however, the State moves one step closer to implementation of the locally unpopular plan when it releases the supplemental draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project. Opponents are bracing for a rough time trying to convince the powers that be (the Governor and the legislature) that Plan A+ (which they jokingly refer to as “Plan F”) is too flawed to be implemented. They propose a temporary retrofit of the seismically unsafe floating bridge while a better plan is developed for a replacement.

As we reported in November, a legislative work group recommended Plan A+ as the best of several options. According to the Coalition, however, the input of the affected communities was given short shrift in the decision-making process. A mediation group created by the Governor, which included Seattle neighborhood representatives, failed to come up with a consensus recommendation. So what we’re left with is something the opponents consider to be—both figuratively and literally--a very ugly potential outcome.

The likely negative impact on the lakefront communities of the proposed new bridge is laid out in detail by two of our community council members, president Ken Myrabo and Kathleen O’Connor, in a guest column in the current issue of the Madison Park Times (“Viaduct on the Lake?”). They point to the visual impact of the proposed bridge on our community, noting that “the roadway base at Foster Island will be about 10 feet higher than the island. It will then slope upward to about 30 feet above the water in front of Canterbury Shores and Edgewater and rise to 45 feet and possibly higher at the west high-rise.”
(This is what the current high-rise looks like from the Edgewater Apartments)

And the proposed bridge won’t be any more pleasing to the eye, say the opponents, as it heads east across the Lake. Here’s how the Coalition describes the visual impact: “The roadway…is 30 feet (three stories) above the water. Above the pontoons is a service area, then columns holding up the main roadway. This hulking overbuilt and overly expensive structure will permanently block views up and down the lake, from its swimming beaches, from tourist and recreational boats, and from homes on both sides of the lake.” The diagram above shows a side view of the bridge as it will look from the Lake.

The aesthetics and cost of the bridge are not the Coalition’s only concerns. There’s also the potential negative impact of the bridge’s wider roadway and entrance ramps on the Arboretum and the surrounding waterways; the creation of a massive, neighborhood-destroying highway interchange in Montlake; the lack of noise abatement as a design element; and the absence of adequate provisions for future light-rail and bus usage.

In addition to Madison Park’s, the Coalition for a Sustainable SR 520 is made up of the community councils of Laurelhurst, Roanoke Park, Portage Bay, and North Capitol Hill. Also involved is the local boating community, consisting of the Seattle Yacht Club and the Queen City Yacht Club, as well as other concerned individuals and businesses. The Coalition, which is coordinated by Capitol Hill resident (and longtime Seattle private equity investor) Fran Conley, has hired a lawyer and is actively fundraising to support its efforts to stop Plan A+. (Additional information on the Coalition, its anti-Plan A+ arguments, and how to get involved is available on its website.)

Here’s what’s coming next in the replace-the-520-bridge drama: 1) the supplemental draft EIS will be issued by the State Department of Transportation (SDOT) on Friday (and should be available for viewing here); 2) interested parties will have a fairly short period during which to give input in response to the EIS; 3) the EIS will be approved, amended, or withdrawn; 4) the Governor will approve the resulting plan (or not); the legislature will fund the plan (or not). Throughout the process, the Coalition, in conjunction with the Sierra Club and the Transportation Choices Coalition (and possibly Seattle’s new mayor), will try to kill the plan by lobbying the Governor and legislature to have SDOT go back to the drawing boards and produce a more “context-sensitive” design. And I’ll be covering the whole saga here on the blog.

As an aside, here’s an interesting photo I unearthed showing the Lake as it looked in 1963, before the existing Albert D. Rosellini Bridge had been built (although it and Park Shore, in the foreground, were both under construction):

[Upper graphic courtesty of SDOT, with labels added by the Coalition for a Sustainable SR 520; lower photo courtesy of the Museum of History & Indlustry.]

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Happy 100th Birthday, Governor Rosellini

Congratulations and best wishes to former Washington Governor and longtime Madison Park resident Albert D. Rosellini, who turns 100 years old on Thursday. Rosellini, the State's 15th governor, left office on January 11, 1965--over 45 years ago. He is the nation's oldest living former governor, according to Wikipedia.

In case you missed it, Erik Lacitis wrote a nice piece in The Seattle Times on the Governor's birthday party last week with all of the other living former (and current) Washington governors in attendance. Rosellini, who served two terms in office before being defeated by Daniel Evans in 1964, remains active in both politics and business. He still gets around fairly well, though he apparently is no longer driving his white Cadillac (license plate: "GOVADR"). has an interesting retrospective on the Governor's life, available here. I dug up this photo of Gov. Rosellini with Elvis (and a ham) from the digital archives of the Museum of History and Industry. It's 1962, and Elvis was in town filming "Take Me to the Fair" at the Century 21 fairgrounds (now the Seattle Center). Supposedly the the ham was a gift to the Governor from Elvis, the source being Presley's Tennessee farm.

There's another picture in the archives showing Gov. Rosellini cutting the ribbon opening the Evergreen Point floating bridge (later renamed the Governor Albert D. Rosellini Bridge). I wonder what he thinks of the State's plans for building a new 520 bridge. More on the subject of 520 tomorrow.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Going dark in the 'hood

You may not be aware of this if you are not a dog walker or a runner who regularly transits the neighborhood at night, but as we approach the darkest depths of winter there seems to be an inordinate number of burned-out street lights here in the Park. As one of my neighbors points out, this is not only a safety issue--given the state of some of our sidewalks--but it's a security issue as well. Car prowls, for example, are much more common on darkened streets than on lighted ones, according to Benjamin Kinlow, Seattle Police Crime Prevention Coordinator.

So what's to be done? Report the problem. If you are aware of a street light that is not properly functioning, there are three ways to get that information to Seattle City Light. You can call the department at (206) 684-7056, you can email ( or you can file a Streetlight Trouble Report on line:

Whatever reporting method you decide to use, be sure that you have the necessary information in hand. This includes the closest address to the street-light location and the pole number (4202 on the pole shown below).

It is more likely that you will get action if you provide your phone number or email address when making your report. Or so I am told.
Seattle City Light says that it has 84,000 street lights to maintain, so it definitely has its hands full. It took well over a month to get a street light replaced in our neighborhood last year, and that was during the summer months. In 2008, the department began a program of automatically replacing Seattle street lights on a four-year cycle: in other words before they burn out. Phases I and II of the program replaced street lights all the way from South Seattle to Denny Way. Phase III, which begins this year, will include our area and take the replacement program all the way to 65th Street. So help is on the way.
While we're on the subject of getting City services for the 'hood, here are some other important numbers to keep in mind:
Reporting street and traffic signs that are knocked down: 684-5087; reporting graffiti: 684-5004; reporting parked cars on the street for more than 72 hours: 684-8763. And if you don't know where to call to report something not covered on this list, call the City of Seattle Information Line at 386-1234. Note also that the Madison Park Community Council has a printable phone list for City services available here.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Zillow decides: the Washington Park neighborhood is part of Madison Valley

For some reason, seeing Madison Park misrepresented on maps really irritates me; so I’ve made it my mission to at least try to get these geographical mistakes corrected whenever I find them. In furtherance of that effort, I’ve been trying literally for months to get Zillow to acknowledge the fact that the Washington Park section of Madison Park is not located in a fictitious Seattle neighborhood called Harrison/Denny-Blaine, which is where Zillow had securely placed it.

Zillow is an influential real estate website that increasing numbers of homeowners and buyers regularly consult in order to help estimate not only the value of their own houses, but the value of their neighbors’ houses as well. Given that Washington Park is a vital component of the Madison Park community, it seemed to me that Zillow ought to include that enclave in its evaluation of Madison Park property values. Or, at minimum, it should break out Washington Park as a separate neighborhood; much as Zillow treats Broadmoor, Madison Park’s other tony subunit.

As I’ve reported on this blog (perhaps ad nauseam), the City of Seattle is ultimately responsible for the silly idea the Harrison/Denny-Blaine is a Seattle neighborhood and that much of Washington Park is a part of it. Zillow accepted the City’s perverse designation, calling the neighborhood simply Denny-Blaine (which is, in reality, just that sliver of a gold-coast neighborhood to the south of us). I supposed that anyone looking at the situation logically would see the perverseness of the City’s position. And since Zillow is a local company, some of whose principals have current or historic ties to Washington Park, I thought it would relatively easy to get their attention to this situation. .
Well, I am happy to report that Zillow has finally made the change to its map of our area, confirming that Washington Park is not in Denny-Blaine. Zillow has now concluded, however, that Washington Park is a neighborhood in Madison Valley (as shown on the map below).

But before any of my readers in Madison Valley decides that I think there’s something wrong with being associated with Madison Valley, let me set the record straight. The issue as I see it is this: should the City of Seattle and third parties such as Zillow correctly identify Seattle neighborhoods based on our community of interests, our historic connections, and shared reference points, such as our business district? Or should all of those things--as well as the opinions of the people who actually live in the community--just be ignored and neighborhoods designated arbitrarily?

Zillow has apparently decided to go with the second approach, establishing a new boundary between Madison Valley and Madison Park that excludes virtually all of Washington Park from the Madison Park community. Previously, Zillow had accepted the City’s contention that the area of Washington Park near the Seattle Tennis Club (shown in the GoogleEarth photo above) was part of Denny-Blaine. Now, however, Zillow has decided that all of Washington Park, including the area west of McGilvra Boulevard, is within Madison Valley. Go figure!

And strangely, a small part of Washington Park has actually been retained by Zillow as part of Madison Park. Zillow’s old border between Madison Park and Denny-Blaine was E. Prospect Street, from Hillside Drive E. straight across to the Lake Washington shoreline. As seen on the map above, Zillow’s new boundary between Madison Park and Madison Valley meanders south from E. Madison Street, running down 37th Avenue E. for a block, across East Highland Street for two blocks, up 39th Avenue E. for a block, across E. Lee Street for a block, down McGilvra Boulevard for a block, and across E. Highland Street for two blocks to the shoreline. Whew!
The end result of all this craziness is that Madison Valley is—in Zillow’s opinion-- creeping northward into Madison Park, many blocks north of where Denny-Blaine was thought to end under the old Zillow scenario. Perhaps coincidentally, Zillow has managed to preserve the Washington Park home of its current president and the boyhood home of one of its founders solidly within the boundaries of Madison Park.

And if Zillow had pushed Madison Valley even one block further north, my house would have been effectively re-districted out of what Zillow considers to be Madison Park. But I guess I won’t have to change the name of this blog to Madison Valley Blogger, since they've decided to keep me in the Park!

Redfin, another important locally based real estate website, has told me it is “likely” they will be able to make the necessary changes to their site to reflect Washington Park as an enclave of Madison Park and not a subunit of Harrison/Denny-Blaine.

We shall see!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Madison Park’s alleged bear poacher is finally charged

Dr. Tohru Shigemura, a Japanese psychiatrist and part-time resident of Madison Park, has been charged by King County prosecutors with firearms violations and with illegally hunting bears in Washington State. So says the Seattle PI in a posting on its website this afternoon. As we reported last summer, officers of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife raided a waterfront condo in Madison Park in early June, discovering evidence of bear poaching and a cache of firearms. Shigemura has now been identified in charging documents as the condo resident.

According to news reports, it is alleged that Shegemura killed the bears in order to sell their gallbladders, which are used in traditional Asian medicine and are quite valuable. Shigemura, who reportedly has a history of wildlife crimes, has not been jailed.

The PI has an interesting synopsis of court documents detailing how investigators came to suspect Shigemura and how they followed his trail for more than a year before finally making their move. The full story is available here.

[The bear poacher story was originally broken in The Stranger by Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, who now writes for The Humane Society of the United States has an informative article on why bears are more valuable dead than alive here. Grizzly/Brown bear illustration courtesy of the ICWDM.]

Monday, January 11, 2010

Do Broadmoor’s dredging plans pose a threat to Lake Washington wildlife?

I'm sure it comes as a surprise to many of us that Broadmoor Golf Club keeps its course green and lush during the summer with the help of water pumped from Lake Washington. Under grandfathered water rights which probably date back many decades, the Club gets Lake water from an intake pipe located at the foot of the 37th Avenue E. road end in the Canterbury section of Madison Park, just to the east of Broadmoor’s Union Bay shoreline (marked in red below):

Attention is now being focused on Broadmoor’s water-intake system as a result of the Golf Club’s request for a permit to dredge the Lake around the intake pipe. The purpose of the proposed dredging is to improve water flow to the golf course’s pump house. Some Canterbury residents are disturbed by the possibility that the habitat of wildlife in the area, particularly a small population of beavers and otters, may be negatively impacted by the dredging. They are seeking to, at minimum, delay permit approval in order to allow more study of Broadmoor’s plans.

A leader of the locals is Gene Brandzel, a Canterbury Shores resident and attorney who says that the “Biological Evaluation for Sensitive Fish and Wildlife Species” that Broadmoor submitted as part of its dredging application is inadequate. The study, which was prepared for Broadmoor by The Watershed Company, “doesn’t deal with any of the wildlife issues at the inlet,“ he says, “other than those related to salmon and certain other fish.”

Brandzel is upset that Watershed’s report “says nothing about the beavers other than to state there’s a beaver lodge in the area but that no beavers were observed.” The reason no beavers were observed, he notes, is that the report writers visited the site during the day. Beavers are only observable in the area at dawn and dusk, he says.

As proof that there is a lot of beaver activity, Madison Park resident Jana Wilkins visited the area on Sunday and provided these pictures of beavers frolicking during the early morning hours:

In this shot, looking north to the SR-520 Bridge, three beavers are visible (click to enlarge):

Brandzel, who visits the road end frequently, says that Broadmoor has not addressed most of the wildlife issues in its report. “What we want is a complete biological study of the wildlife--including the beavers, otters, herons, eagles, turtles, ducks and geese, and red-winged blackbirds--that inhabit the area where the dredging would be done.” Secondly, he notes, “we need time to work with Broadmoor to see if there‘s a way to give them the water supply they need without disruption to the natural habitat.” He notes that there are alternative water-pumping systems to the one Broadmoor currently employs which might be less costly, more effective, and not as potentially detrimental as dredging would be to the environment of the inlet. What the opponents have asked for, he says, is for the permit process to be delayed for 90 days in order to see if both objectives can be achieved during that period.

On my own visit to the site with Brandzel and his wife, Liz, we observed a heron standing in or near the area of the proposed dredge. And to the right of the dock at the road end there appeared to be several tunnels, which the Brandzels say are used by the beavers to access their lodge (beaver dam) which sits less than 100 feet to the north. It seems apparent that the beaver tunnels extend directly into the area that Broadmoor will be dredging. According to Brandzel, dredging--if approved--will occur within 15 feet of the beaver lodge (shown to the left in the photo below).

Alan Foltz, permit coordinator for Broadmoor’s dredging contractor, Waterfront Construction, tells me that regarding the beaver lodge “we are not going near it” during dredging. “It is not our intent to endanger the wildlife” in the area, he says. He adds that the beaver dam is an appropriate distance from the dredging operation. “We do dredging in a lot of areas of Lake Washington, and if the federal, state and local agencies all agree we are in compliance, then we're able to dredge. We never dredge unless we are in compliance.” He notes that Waterfront Construction has been in business for a good 30 years and in its history has always been very conscious of the environment. "Almost all of our work involves environmental enhancements," he notes.

According to Foltz, his company’s experience with beavers is that during the dredging period they tend to scatter but then return to the area as soon as dredging is completed. He acknowledges that Waterfront Construction is looking at ways to minimize the impact of the dredging on the area’s beaver population: "Mitigation is definitely under consideration.”

Under Broadmoor’s permit request, planned dredging would remove up to 1,000 cubic yards of silt and sediment in a 20-foot radius from the water intake pipe, which is housed in a wooden structure near the road-end dock. The dredging would also remove “invasive” plant species growing within the proposed dredge zone. The project is expected to be completed in a two to three week period and will be accomplished through the use of a barge-based crane and clam-shell dredge.

The last dredging which occurred in the area was reportedly in 1974, and the intent of this year’s dredging would be to return the water intake system to its 1974 level of “operational integrity and efficiency.”

Foltz notes that multiple permits are required for the project, some of which have been approved and some of which are still in process. The City of Seattle’s approval process is still underway, and the public-comment period has been extended until January 14, this Thursday. Anyone who would like to give their input is encouraged to do so by faxing their comments to project planner Craig Flamme at the City’s Department of Planning and Development: (206) 233-7901. He can also be emailed (

The Madison Park Community Council (MPCC) considered the Broadmoor water intake issue at its monthly meeting this month, informally agreeing to support efforts to find a solution to Broadmoor’s needs other than dredging. MPCC President Ken Myrabo says “it’s a very sensitive wetlands area and we’d like to work with them to find other options.” He notes that former MPCC board member Maurice Cooper, who is a Broadmoor resident, has been asked by Council members to meet with both sides and see if there’s a possible compromise. "I applaud what they’re doing,” he added.
More to follow.

[Upper photo courtesy of Broadmoor Golf Club. Aerial photo by the US Geological Survey. All other photos by Jana Wilkins. ]

Friday, January 8, 2010

A message from the McKee family

To the Madison Park Community,

We would like to acknowledge the incredible outpouring of love, support, flowers and cards that have been sent by the Madison Park community in honor of Scott McKee.

We all loved Scott dearly, and will miss his presence in our lives, at the store and in the community. His charm, wit and humor can never be replaced.

Thank you all for coming together to create such a beautiful memorial for Scott.

Lola, Kay, Jeri, Jane and Family

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Impromptu bites the dust

The outdoor Christmas lights are still on, but the restaurant itself is dark and most of the furnishings have been removed. Impromptu is no more.

At the end of 2009 there was a sign on the door stating that the restaurant was closed, but I assumed that was just for the holidays. Now it's clear that was not the case. An announcement on the restaurant's website says it all: "Impromptu Wine Bar Cafe is currently closed. We thank you for your patronage and apologize for any inconvenience this may cause."

The restaurant, located at 4235 E. Madison Street, had mixed reviews since the change in ownership (and executive chef) over a year ago. While many found the food good to excellent, the various restaurant-rating websites also documented some curious service issues (my wife and I experienced one there ourselves, for that matter). In spite of being a very small establishment, it was usually uncrowded even during the height of the summer season, which is a very bad sign for a Madison Park restaurant. Most of the higher-end ones live or die by what they earn during the good weather (in other words, before the Washington Park Tower crowd heads south for the winter).

I am sorry to see the loss of any decent neighborhood eatery. Hopefully, there will soon be a replacement for Impromptu.

Meanwhile, across the street, Cactus! is on a two-week hiatus in order to renovate. As we reported in July, the restaurant is expanding its kitchen into part of the space that was once the Yankee Peddler. This will result in some reconfiguration of the seating area by the entrance. Hopefully Cactus! will be back in operation by January 20 or so. Now there's a restaurant that doesn't have to worry about lack of traffic, summer or winter.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Inspiring a daydream

Madison Valley artist Heidi Randall may seem a bit omnipresent in the neighborhood over the next few weeks, with her art on display in multiple Madison Park locations during the first two months of the year. (Can one be a bit omnipresent?) Anyway, those, like me, who are big fans of Ireland should check out her current show on the walls of Park Place Deli, which features her paintings of places in Europe. The focus is particularly on the Emerald Isle (that's Ireland's Eye shown above).

In February, Randall moves to Starbuck's, with a month-long show, Quebec: La Ville et La Campagne, featuring her paintings of places in and around the City of Quebec.

She says that her work is inspired by early American Realists, the Impressionists, and 17th Century Flemish and Dutch painters. Her stated goals: to be aesthetically pleasing, and to create a meditative reaction (maybe even a daydream) in those viewing her work.

You can read about her and check out more of her art here.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A limited audience for Madison Park real estate

We begin the new decade with a strange real estate situation in Madison Park: the median price of houses for sale here is so far out of line with what the vast majority of home buyers could ever afford that it's just not possible for most home sellers to expect anything other than a long and frustrating sales process. As we noted in our real estate report last month, there are still "affordable" houses in Park, but they are few and far between. Only four houses are listed at under $1 million as 2010 begins.

To put the rarefied atmosphere of Madison Park real estate into perspective, I decided to ask a mortgage-financing expert to walk me through the loan underwriting process that a prospective buyer would face if purchasing a median-priced home here in the Park. (Again, the median price is that midway point where half the houses cost more and half cost less). Based on December’s listings, the median cost of a residence in this market is $1,995,000--the exact offering price, coincidentally, of the four-bedroom, 2,700 sq. ft. Washington Park home (located at 1009 37th Ave E.) pictured above.

What would it take to buy this house? In theory, of course, one could just plunk down the purchase price in cash. But as Priscilla Crutcher, vice president & manager of Golf Savings Bank’s Private Banking Group in Kirkland, notes, most home buyers are wary of liquidating investments in a down market in order to pay cash. If you need to finance, you’d probably require a jumbo mortgage—and the requirements to qualify for one are certainly much tougher today than they were at the height of the market.

Crutcher, who reports that she does a lot of financing of Madison Park homes, says that the starting point for underwriting a jumbo mortgage is to assess the applicant’s monthly income relative to his or her monthly debt payments. This is known as the “back ratio”: monthly installment and term debt payments divided by gross monthly income. In today’s environment, lenders may not finance someone whose back ratio is greater than 45%, Crutcher notes. In other words, all debt payments—mortgages, car loans, and credit cards included—cannot equal even half of an applicant’s income. There can be exceptions to this 45% “back ratio” guideline, Crutcher says, but this is the general rule.

Another way of evaluating an applicant’s ability to repay a mortgage is the “front ratio.” This measures the relationship between a borrower’s housing-related expenses (mortgage payments, taxes, and insurance) and his or her gross monthly income. In general, this ratio should be between 30-38%, according to Crutcher, but there are often other things a lender will take into consideration as well.

In our example of the $1,995,000 home, the maximum amount that probably could be borrowed in today’s market is 80% of the cost. For our example, however, we will assume a more likely 75% loan, which would result in a $1,496,250 mortgage. For this loan, a down payment of almost a half million dollars would be required, representing 25% of the home's cost.

Based on current interest rates of around 6.125% for this type of loan, the monthly mortgage payment (taxes and insurance included) would be about $11,000. If you assume that the applicant’s other required debt payments are no more than 22% of the mortgage payment, the applicant’s total monthly debt payments would then be about $13,500.

So what annual income would this applicant then need to qualify for a mortgage? The answer is $360,000 (monthly debt payments of $13,500 would require monthly income of $30,000 to meet the 45% maximum debt-to-income “back ratio” requirement). This is an income six times the estimated $60,000 median household income level for King County residents, as estimated by the U.S. Census for 2008.

Only 2.1% of U.S. households have annual income in excess of $250,000. So in cases where the buyer would need the maximum level of financing available, it’s a pretty small segment of the population that would qualify to purchase today’s median priced Madison Park house. Residences such as the Washington Park home pictured above, therefore, have what’s known as a “very limited audience.”

And that explains a lot about the state of our real estate market as we move into the New Year.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Scott McKee (1951-2009)

Scott McKee's many many friends and relatives turned out en masse yesterday afternoon at McGilvra's to pay their respects and show their support for the McKee family following Scott's untimely death on December 27. Scott's cousin, Kirk McKee, estimates the turnout at between 400 and 500 people, with McGilvra's totally packed and the line of well-wishers waiting to gain admission stretching all the way down the block to Cactus.
It was an extraordinary testimonial to Scott's unique position in our community. He was an all-around good guy who was very much appreciated for his humor and helpfulness. The online guest book (from which this photo was taken) already contains 12 pages of condolences and memories of Scott, with the words funny, classy, wonderful, gentle, smart, good-natured, and appreciated being the most-used descriptors. It was typical of Scott both that he did not want people to know of his illness and that he worked at the store all the way through December 23rd.
Kirk reports that Scott's mother, Lola, who had suffered a heart attack soon after Scott's death, is doing well and that Madison Park Hardware will reopen on schedule, January 11.
["Lifetime Madison Park resident" Will Loman has a nice piece on his blog about Scott's wake, available here.]

[Postscript: More than 400 people read the posting on this blog about Scott's death last week, making it the most-read story on Madison Park Blogger during 2009.]