Housing project on Briarcliff site sparks concerns

Plans are firming up for a luxury-housing development on the old Briarcliff Elementary School site in Magnolia, but the housing project has alarmed and divided many in the neighborhood.

The plans have also revealed a splintered opinion on the project, depending on whether people live south or north of the long-closed school.

Saying the number is too high, some object to the developer's plans to build 39 homes on the 4.5-acre site. But the biggest objections center on the project's impact on traffic and parking in the neighborhood near the water tower off West Dravus Street.

"I don't think anybody's opposed to the development, but the number of units is shocking," said Nick Marchi, who lives north of the site on 40th Avenue West.

The land is zoned Single Family 5000, meaning the lots are 5,000 square feet. Under that zoning, there is room for 35 homes, but developer Lexington Fine Homes has applied to put in so-called cluster housing, which would allow 39 homes to be built.

"So there's not a huge difference," said John Cochenour, president of Lexington. Cluster housing, he went on to say, allows for a mix of regular and smaller lot sizes, along with reduced setbacks from adjoining property or streets.

The idea behind cluster housing, which the city approved more than a decade ago, is to increase density in neighborhood housing, Cochenour said. Increasing housing density in some areas is one of the city's goals, according to Seattle's Comprehensive Plan.

However, Cochenour stressed, the Briarcliff development won't be a series of East Coast-style row houses. "These are detached houses; these are not townhouses (and) these are not cottages."

According to the current plan for the development, access to the site would be along a U-shaped road with two entrances off West Dravus Street, along with dead-end alleys off Dravus at the east and west ends of the property.

The current plans also call for setting up emergency road access to the site by extending 39th Avenue West onto the site from the south. The extended 39th Avenue road would connect to the U-shaped access road, which would run down the middle of the property. The 39th Avenue extension would be open to pedestrians and bicyclists, Cochenour added.

The access issue has become a sticking point in neighborhood sentiment. Magnolia Community Club president Lindsay Brown lives on 39th Avenue right next to the southern boundary of the school property - and stressing she was speaking only for herself and not the Community Club - Brown said she thinks the street should remain closed to all but emergency traffic.

Brown has even gone so far as to detail her objections in what she describes as a manifesto posted at www.orgsites.com/wa/briarcliffneighbors. "Putting the street through would be poor traffic management, it will be unsafe, and it will not provide extra access for emergency vehicles because they will not use it," she wrote in the posting.

Another reason Brown objects to opening up 39th Avenue to through traffic is that parking is allowed on both sides of the street south of the school. She pointed out that the intersections are unmarked and potentially dangerous since there are so many kids living in the neighborhood.

Additionally, Brown objects to opening up 39th Avenue to through traffic because construction might damage a "heritage tree" growing in her front yard. Construction on the road also might force the tree to be pruned on one side for clearance, she adds on her Web site.

Des Steele, who lives on West Viewmont Way north of Dravus, is unimpressed with Brown's worry about the heritage tree, saying it shouldn't be in danger because the tree is far enough away from the curb.

Steele conceded that traffic would be increased south of the school site if 39th Avenue was opened up, but he insisted that the issue is also one of fairness.

"Why should those living on the north side of the project have to deal with all the extra traffic?" he wondered. "It's like she's setting the north against the south. It's like the Civil War again."

The intersections south of the site may be unmarked and uncontrolled, but so are the intersections north of the site, Steele added.

Steele, Marchi and a couple dozen other residents living north of the school also worry about the neighborhood getting slammed with spillover parking from the housing project.

That shouldn't be a problem, according to Cochenour. "Every house is going to have a two-car garage," he said, adding that each home on the U-shaped access road will also have 15-foot-long driveways that can be used for additional parking.

Marchi was a little skeptical. "I don't have enough information about it, and that's what's wrong," he said of the project. "They say they're going to have two-car garages, but that's not on their Web site," Marchi said of www.lexingtonfinehomes.com.

The Web site, Cochenour said, is meant to gather neighborhood opinion about the kinds of housing that would best fit in with the area, and several examples from other Lexington projects are displayed.

While that's true, Marchi said he and 25 to 30 other people met on June 12 to discuss their parking and traffic worries. The group also has started a petition drive calling for a public hearing on the project, and they have talked to a number of land-use attorneys, he said.

Many in the group have also used a form letter to express concerns about the project to the Department of Planning and Development.

Alan Justad, planning-department spokesman, said keeping 39th Avenue closed is not a done deal. "The Seattle Department of Transportation is thinking they want 39th open," he said. "We need their sign-off."

Justad also said that Lexington will have to do a traffic analysis for the project, and he added that the city council will have to OK an administrative conditional use for the cluster-housing project because it's like a rezone.

The old school should be demolished within the next several weeks, but the asphalt on the site will be left in place until construction on the project begins in about a year's time, Cochenour said.

Cochenour declined to say what the cost range would be for the houses in the project, but homes listed on the Lexington Web site start out in the $500,000 price range.

He also said that there is a lot of nostalgia about the old elementary school. But Cochenour plans on giving people a chance to buy a piece of the school's history by selling salvaged bricks from the school.

He's not sure where the bricks will be sold yet, although the Magnolia Thriftway grocery store is one possibility, Cochenour said. But proceeds from the sales will go to the Magnolia Helpline, he added.

Reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at rzabel@nwlink.com or by phone at 461-1309.[[In-content Ad]]