It was the element of surprise that was the most disturbing.
Last Dec. 19, as Bonnie Walters was walking across Boren Avenue to her home in the Parkview Plaza Condominiums, she noticed that a white Master Use Permit sign had been posted on the North Cliff Apartments on the west side of the street. It stated, in stark black and white, that the Virginia Mason Medical Center intended to build a block long, 240-foot building directly across from her building.
This was news to her. And not only that, but the period for comment was set to expire on Dec. 31, which left only a few days to react amidst the holiday season.
But rather than utter a sigh of resignation, Walters jumped into action. She was able to extend the comment period to Jan. 14. She contacted her neighbors. Soon residents from at least five neighborhood buildings were involved, and they went to work. In short order, more than 100 letters were sent to city planners. A petition gathered 140 signatures requesting that a public meeting take place between residents and Virginia Mason. Included among the group are attorneys, a former architecture professor and an urban planner.
Such a large building, neighbors contend, would dramatically alter views and be well out of scale of their First Hill neighborhood, which, while accommodating high density, is primarily residential. Additionally, with a new emergency room entrance planned for Spring Street, neighbors expressed concern about traffic and parking impacts as well.
Walters, who moved into the Parkview Plaza condominiums six years ago and whose view faces west, said she knew when she moved in that Virginia Mason was likely to expand on the Boren Avenue property between Spring and Seneca streets at some point. She said she has no objections to such an expansion, presuming it remain within the height limits proposed by its original plan. She, and her neighbors, also want issues of view corridors, parking and emergency room access to be discussed with the community that will be directly impacted by the expanded hospital.
The issue of ground-level retail is also a concern. Residents hope the west side of Boren Avenue doesn't become a block long "dead zone" which could reduce the eyes and ears on the street and perhaps become less safe.
"Development was always a possibility, and my husband and I knew this from the beginning. But we were always aware of a possible 145-foot building, not the structure we saw posted at the end of the year," Walters said.
"We were taken totally by surprise, and then we started looking into it," said Mary Ellen Hudgins, another Parkview resident "The problem was the scale of their build-ing, not that they were expanding. This is a residential neighborhood. The bulk of the proposed building would have put a huge wall between First Hill and Downtown and weakened the natural connection between them."
Walters and a growing list of concerned neighbors were surprised to learn that the hospital considered making the building 100 feet taller a "minor amendment" to its 1994 Master Plan. Word spread quickly; there was strength in numbers. The mood went from feeling like their backs were against the wall to a sense that residents could do something about it.
"Our group, and our energy, snowballed. We are able to draw on a large number of people with a great many talents. It bothered us that Virginia Mason could consider the change a minor amendment," she said. "We got the sense that they didn't want to hear from us, that in fact they were trying to slip this under the residents radar. That the comment period was over the Christmas season supported our view. I certainly don't think Virginia Mason was anticipating anything like our response."
On Jan. 15 - the day after the extended comment period expired - Virginia Mason representatives invited residents to give input on the project. A large number of neighborhood residents attended, many more than Walters had expected. The issues of the proposed building's scale, traffic and parking impacts, as well as the feeling that the a major institution was trying to make an end run around a residential neighborhood, were not perceived to have been adequately addressed.
"At that meeting [Virginia Mason] was not receptive to any possible changes," Walters said. "We felt we had our backs against the wall."
Walters scheduled a Feb. 6 meeting at the Parkview Plaza to discuss the project and to consider what future steps might be taken. But earlier in the day she learned that Virginia Mason had announced it would no longer pursue the 240-foot structure, and would instead work on a building that stayed within the original 145-foot scope.
The event then morphed into a celebration. More than 50 people attended, including newly elected City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen. Also present was Todd Johnson, the medical center's vice president.
Walters said there was great relief at the news, as one might expect. She feels hopeful that the hospital's future plans, which have not yet been announced, will include significant neighborhood participation and input from the beginning.
"Of course we were all pleased at Virginia Mason's decision to go back to the original height. I am hoping this means that we can work well together in the future," she said.
Hudgins agreed that it doesn't have to be a battle between the neighborhood and Virginia Mason. But she felt the hospital tried to pull a quick one on the neighborhood and said the residents would continue educating themselves.
"It's great if they go ahead with their long-term plan to expand their hospital. We are not trying to be unreasonable. But we do want to make sure everyone's interests are considered," she said.
Hudgins would like to see one possibly symbolic issue resolved:
"I'd like to see them correct the big permit sign that's posted on the apartment building, the one that said they're going to build a 240-foot building. It's inaccurate now and potentially damaging," she said.
But, Walters said, while there was great relief at the news the newly formed group of residents intends to remain vigilant. Virginia Mason will have to apply for a new Master Use Permit, likely within the next few months. The neighbors' watchful eyes will remain on development. The group still meets weekly and is planning to codify a list of concerns it will present to Virginia Mason.
"It's very good news, but we haven't disappeared. The neighborhood is organized now, has a lot of professional ability and has been enthusiastically engaged in this process," said Walters. "The energy is still high. We look forward to working with Virginia Mason to find a building that meets their needs and be one everyone can be proud of."