As the project for the City People’s site drags on into the new year, a grumble has been heard about those ‘darn Save Madison Valley NIMBYs who are getting in the way, AND costing the long-suffering developer and architect valuable time and money!  Shame!’  

While it could be flattering to suggest that one group can wield that kind of influence, it’s not accurate.  The project has been delayed for a number of important reasons.

First off, there is nothing out of the ordinary happening in Madison Valley.  The design review process is an established program in Seattle, created to give “…planners, residents, and professional volunteers on the Design Review Board a voice in the design” of projects.  Residents:  that’s all of us – those who like this project as is, and those who want to see it improved.  We’re on the guest list, not party crashers.

The Design Review Board has consistently turned its attention to the height, bulk, and scale of the proposed building.  One Board member described it as a trade-off between setbacks and height: a bigger building needs bigger setbacks; small setbacks fit a smaller building.

The Board doesn’t seem to like exposed garages – sending out exhaust, noise, and light – any more than would-be neighbors do.  The Design Guidelines advocate garages underground whenever possible.  Instead, the Board suggested residences on the building’s backside.  Their expression was “like facing like.”  

Some Board members were confused, and perhaps a bit skeptical, about the changing status of the hillside’s trees:  Exceptional? Not exceptional?  Some trees have been designated a “risk” because the development will destroy them.  This puts every tree in Seattle “at risk.”  No tree will stand up to a bulldozer.  Ultimately, if the trees are removed, the Board seems committed to an equal replacement, something that the plans have not yet provided.

As Velmeir, the developer, and Strazzara, the architect, have begun to alter their design, some have responded as if the developer has been pushed to accommodate unreasonable demands.  Sometimes compromise is a lot about where you start.  Part of the reason for the community’s success in impacting the project at all is because the initial design was, in some significant aspects, outside the Seattle Design Guidelines, and out of character with Madison Valley.

Developers serve an important function in helping our City grow.  Ultimately, they are responsible to their companies and their investors.  Architects, similarly important, are responsible to their employers: developers.  It’s the City’s job to protect existing communities, while growing those communities and shaping that growth.  The City straddles a line (sometimes more deftly, sometimes less) between developers and the community.  We have a role as residents to remind the City of its responsibility to all of us.

In Seattle the design of a building is reviewed before many of its environmental impacts are evaluated.  Therefore, if a developer wants to build a garage that houses too many cars for the surrounding roads, there is no avenue to challenge that until after the design has been reviewed and set.  So, even though a respected, independent traffic engineer found the developer’s traffic data to be flawed beyond use, the Design Review Board won’t enter that debate.  It’s a matter for SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act).  And, yes, SEPA happens after Design Review, when the Board will have signed off on the 150-plus garage.  So, if you’re concerned about the massive amount of traffic this development will bring, if you fear you may never leave Madison Park again except in the dark of night (and very, very late night at that), then stay tuned.  We have still more work to do.