Living beside four new Madison Valley construction projects in the past five years has given me a first-hand view of differences that exist between residential and commercial building in Seattle. The challenges of accommodating change while reinforcing the desirable characteristics of neighborhoods including stewardship of the environment, public safety, affordability and accessibility often depend more on the developer’s agenda than compliance with design principles, zoning and environmental laws. The practical outcome of this dependency can lead to undesirable consequences such as unnecessary degradation of the environment and reduction of the quality of life in our neighborhoods.
Residential design plans must be submitted to and approved by the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI, formerly the Department of Planning and Development), but the final plans need not conform to zoning and environmental rules. Some developers/builders submit initial plans that misstate critical dimensions or locations of buildings that may exceed thresholds for environmental or zoning restrictions, and may simultaneously begin asking for concessions (such as removal of public trees that stand in the way of their intended driveways). Several SDCI staff each review different aspects of the submittal, sometimes asking for clarifications or corrections, but once they give their approval they will not look at the plan again, despite whatever changes and alterations are made to the plan after their individual approval stamp. When subsequent changes push the plan out of compliance with environmental or zoning laws the response of SDCI is to vigorously defend the knowingly flawed plan as being valid and buildable. In contrast, commercial construction would require prompt correction to all violations once they are discovered, for all stages of the design, building and inspection process.
For Environmentally Critical Areas, this lax approach to residential building oversight is a formula for disaster. Discussions between Madison Valley neighbors often revolve around sharing how frequently our plumbing has backed up, how flooded our basements are, whether sump pumps are adequate or if new drainage constructions and trenches are working, and whether retaining walls are holding landslides in check. Although Seattle has made some significant improvements in local storm-water control, the work is far from being complete, and the flooding situation in recent times has become worse for many. The massive scale of the excavation of the Wilcynski development demands Environmental and State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review, yet the original geotechnical study was given inaccurate dimensions and SDCI did not bother to calculate the volume or environmental impact of either the original proposal or the final design. Excavation on the actual site now has exceeded the final permitted plans (greater than 600 cubic yards), and includes dangerous large, unsupported, vertical cuts prone to erosion and collapse, in contradiction to safeguards called for in the geotechnical study. The excavation will remove almost one million pounds of soil that serves as a buffer and filter to flooding storm-water, and it will destroy more than 1500 sqft of green canopy and 2500 sqft of water permeable ground. The increased storm-water burden of this greatly altered site will create a new combined sewer input, causing additional stress on existing overburdened pipes, and leading to more combined sewer overflow events that expose residents and the environment to raw sewage and toxic heavy metals.
Better solutions exist. Many progressive cities recognize development as a catalyst to improve infrastructure, something Madison Valley desperately needs. Disruptive aspects of construction such as tearing up sidewalks, curbs, streets and parking spots may enable easy access to build and connect better infrastructure systems that benefit the neighborhood and the environment. As developers convert Seattle’s available housing stock into $1-2+ million-dollar luxury homes they also could partially ameliorate the negative impact of their construction on the environment and community. We would welcome the stewardship that would enable such improvements, rather than constantly fighting to stay afloat under worsening conditions that cause serious flood damage (typically ~ 50 claims per decade in Madison Valley, with damage payouts exceeding $5 million in the most recent decade). In the absence of such leadership, we expect responsible and unerring enforcement of existing environmental and zoning laws to provide some level of minimal protection to the residents in of our community that have endured so many hardships. Neglecting environmental and zoning rules will perpetuate negative outcomes witnessed over the past decades, squandering the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and build a better future for Madison Valley.