Saxman takes it to the next level

That the project will dramatically alter the Pike-Pine landscape is hard to dispute. A chain-link fence surrounds the former homes of the Cha Cha Lounge, Man Ray, the Bus Stop, Kincora's, Bimbo's Bitchin' Burrito Kitchen, as well as a clothing store and convenience store. While no architectural treasure, the block was a social hub in a neighborhood that largely welcomes an active and varied nightlife.

As the neighborhood knows, the project slated for the block will be considerably different. Combining three parcels of land, the developers have planned a six-story structure consisting of 108 residential units, two floors of underground parking to accommodate 108 parking spaces and several ground-level retail spaces that abut East Pine Street.

While many people have voiced disappointment or outright disapproval of the project, Dennis Saxman has taken it several steps further. A fixture at Capitol Hill design-review meetings and someone who lives a few blocks from the project, Saxman has continuously spoken out against the project and against the way he says the developers have ignored the Pike-Pine neighborhood's design guidelines.

Last fall, he filed an appeal of the city's decision to approve the project's permit. He had his hearing in early January, and the hearing examiner rejected Saxman's appeal on Jan. 16. Making good on what he always said he would do, his next step was to file a lawsuit against both the city and the developer in the hopes of producing a project that is more consistent with the Pike-Pine neighborhood.

On Feb. 5, Saxman filed his lawsuit in King County Superior Court. Following a number of procedural steps that will take place over the next few months, a trial date of July 7 has been scheduled. The developer, Bellevue-based Murray Franklyn, can proceed with its plans as the case moves forward. Demolition of the existing structures could take place this spring.

Saxman's contention is that the large project needs serious design revisions to bring it more in line with the values expressed by the Pike-Pine Design Guidelines. He also thinks the city's design-review board needed to reference those guidelines more forcefully. Thus Saxman's days are spent at his computer or in a variety of law libraries, poring over legal cases, the Seattle Municipal Code, the Revised Code of Washington, design-review regulations and the Pike-Pine neighborhood's design guidelines.

"It is legal in the state of Washington to legislate aesthetics," he said. "The guidelines establish the historical vernacular of the neighborhood, and they need to be respected."

An offer

His efforts certainly attracted the developer's attention.

Earlier this year, after the hearing examiner ruled against him, but before he filed the lawsuit, Saxman said received an offer from the developer. In exchange for not going forward with the suit, the developer would donate $50,000 to a homeless-youth charity.

Saxman rejected it. He admitted it took him a while to come to that decision. And he's aware that not everyone would agree that he made the correct choice.

"But this is pocket change to [the developers]," Saxman said. "It's a minimal amount given the funds they have available to them. And it doesn't address eliminating affordable housing in the Pike-Pine neighborhood. I felt the effects of that donation would be transitory, and I'm not in it for this kind of result. I'm in it because this project is a terrible fit for the neighborhood."

As for his odds, Saxman shakes his head. He readily admits that the prospects of victory are far from certain. He said there haven't been many court cases similar to his, so there is no real precedent from which he can gauge his odds; he thinks it may be the first such case where an individual is suing the city and claiming the city isn't following its own design guidelines.

Saxman is unemployed and lives on meager state disability payments. While his circumstances allow the time to do a great deal of legal research, he will represent himself in the proceedings. He is a former lawyer and has an extensive legal background, which makes his efforts possible, but he will be seriously outnumbered by the legal team representing the city and the developer.

If he prevails in court, it would mean the developer would need to make considerable design changes to the project. The project would need to more closely adhere to the Pike-Pine neighborhood guidelines.

"A favorable decision would mean that throughout the neighborhoods that have design guidelines, developers would have to pay more attention to them and create designs that were more consistent with them. I think this is worth the effort," he said.

And if he loses?

"Then we have another ugly building that does not fit into the neighborhood context," he said. "But even if I lose, I don't see this as the end: I can encourage a wider discussion about this issues. At the least, this lawsuit focuses on the larger issue of design review, which I see as a failed process."

Saxman laughed at the notion that his is a Quixotic quest and claims he isn't doing anything that hints at tilting at windmills. He prefers instead to regard his lawsuit as a labor of Hercules, along the lines of cleaning the Aegean stables.

"This isn't a futile effort. I am someone who is involved with issues that have large impacts. My pleadings are not ravings. But you always take your chances when you go to court," he said.

His ultimate hope is that the 500 E. Pine St. project will be significantly revised. And he hopes as well that the city's design-review process will become more proactive and have more teeth. He said the heart of his lawsuit is that design guidelines are intended to have an actual impact over design outcomes.

"The neighborhood design guidelines were created for a reason. They are simply not being followed, and this must change," Saxman said. "I really do believe that the neighborhoods should have the final say about projects that are coming to the neighborhood."

Doug Schwartz is the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. He can be reached at or 461-1308.[[In-content Ad]]