A proposed microhousing complex in a location that makes no sense

Lanz Fremont is a 32 unit microhousing complex design being proposed for construction at a site comprised of the addresses 3959 Fremont Ave N. and 3965 Fremont Ave N.  The proposed design does not include any off-street parking.

The site location is next to a narrow alley in a dead-end neighborhood adjacent to single family zoned properties.  The east side of the site faces a slope extending down to Fremont Ave N.  Directly across Fremont Ave N. is B.F. Day elementary school.

The developers of this proposed design want to put the only entrance to this high density complex on the alley.  All vehicular traffic servicing the site would need to come through a low density single family zoned neighborhood, and down a narrow dead-end alley.  This is not reasonable.

Map of proposed site:

Rezoning Muddle:

The block of 39th to 40th and Fremont Ave N. used to be zoned L1.  A careful study of the unique physical characteristics, and challenges in accessing the properties on top of the slope, were thoroughly studied prior to determining that it should be zoned L1.  However, sometime around 2010, without public notice, the city inexplicably changed the zoning of this block from L1 to L2 Urban Village.

One of the criteria of an L2 rezone is that vehicular traffic should be able to access the site via an arterial street and not be required to use streets that pass through low density neighborhoods.  This requirement is defined in 23.34.018 – Lowrise 2 (LR2) zone, function and locational criteria, Section B.3. as follows:

“The Area has direct access to arterial streets that can accommodate anticipated vehicular circulation, so that traffic is not required to use streets that pass through lower density residential zones”.

However, in submitting a design for a microhousing building with only entrance on a dead-end alley, accessed by streets going through a single family zoned neighborhood, the developers are proposing a building that directly contradicts the definition of L2 suitability.

Put the Entrance on Fremont:

The developers of the site could terrace into the slope, and fully front the building to Fremont, thus allowing vehicular and foot traffic to directly access the building from Fremont.

Presumably, this was the intent of the Seattle City Planner who decided, sometime around 2010, that this location should be rezoned from L1 to L2 Urban Village.  The intrepid city planner probably looked at a map, saw that these properties were adjacent to Fremont Ave and thought “Hey, this is an arterial street that can provide vehicular access to these properties so let’s rezone this to L2”.  This decision appears to have overlooked the presence of the steep slope from Fremont Ave (not apparent on a two dimensional map), and disregards the thorough analysis that was previously performed in determining that this location should be indeed zoned L1.

However, if the city planning department calculus determined that this location should be L2 Urban Village, because it can be accessed by the Fremont Ave arterial, then they should require that the building design is actually accessed from Fremont Ave and not by a narrow alley going through a dead-end low density neighborhood.

There are other examples of buildings on the 39th to 40th block of Fremont Ave that are successfully terraced in to the slope.  This is not a wimpy slope.  This is dense glacial till.  This is one of the hardest substrates that can comprise a slope.  Any arguments that are made suggesting this critical slope is in anyway unstable are patently false.  The geological stability of this slope has been well documented.  A well designed building terraced in to the slope, to provide direct access from Fremont Ave, would be more stable than a high density building plopped at the top of the slope.  The condominium building at 39th and Fremont Ave, and the quadplex at 40th and Fremont Ave are good examples of other buildings on the same block that were successfully terraced in to the slope.  The developers of this site can be required to do the same.

The developers of this proposed project have argued that SDOT (Seattle Dept of Transportation), the agency that owns and controls the slope, will not allow them to terrace in to it.  Therefore, they have to put the entrance on the alley.  However, SDOT has given dispensation for other properties on this same block to terrace in to slope, so presumably SDOT dispensation can be more strongly pursued for this site as well.  It is likely that the developers are trying to avoid the issue of placing the entrance to the building on Fremont Ave in order to avoid the costs associated with both terracing in to the slope, as well as to providing street level disability access to Fremont Ave as required by the Fair Housing Act.

If SDOT insists that the developers cannot cut in to the slope, regardless of the fact that a property to the south and the north on the same block were allowed to cut in to the slope, then this location should not have been zoned L2.  This would imply that two different agencies in the City of Seattle are making decisions that create a contradiction.  A proverbial example of the Left Hand not knowing what the Right Hand is doing, and thus each is making decisions at odds with the other.  This neighborhood should not have to accept construction of a building completely unsuitable for the location due to poor city planning and breakdown in inter-agency communication.

Design a Building Appropriate for the Location:

An alternative is for the developers to build townhomes with off-street parking in the back, or to sell the property to someone else who could build townhomes.  A lower density townhomes design that fit the L1 nature of the location would be a good choice.

Townhomes would generate far less vehicular traffic going through our low density neighborhood.  The street level access of L1 townhomes are also less demanding than that of a multi-unit apartment building.  A simple sturdy staircase could be constructed from Fremont Ave to the front of townhomes in a manner similar to the townhomes that were recently constructed on the 40th to 41st block of Fremont Ave.

Our neighbor, architect Gordon Lagerquist, has offered a quality townhomes design for the location, free of charge, to the developers.  Alternatively, the properties could be sold to a buyer that would like to develop townhomes.  We have had communications with a real estate broker experienced in facilitating land swaps and transfers of properties to developers with design objectives more suited to the location.  This broker is confident that he can find a developer with design objectives that fit this location, as well as find a site for Lanz that is more suitable for a microhousing development.  Either of these scenarios would provide a good solution.

Safety and Livability Impacts of Proposed Project:

  • Vehicular traffic danger in alley.
  • Vehicular traffic danger to elementary school children walking to and from school.
  • Lack of access for emergency medical and fire.
  • Lack of access to Fremont Ave for disabled residents unable to walk stairs.
  • Parking in single family neighborhood already at capacity.
  • Displaces residences sized for families with elementary age school children across the street from an elementary school.