High-density housing plan in Magnolia stirs protest

By Brandon Sprague
Seattle Times business reporter

Four attached metal folding chairs are the only evidence that a school once existed on the lot of the former Briarcliff Elementary School in Magnolia. A proposal for "cluster housing" is upsetting neighbors.

An Eastside developer is hoping to build 39 homes on about 4-½ acres atop Magnolia, with small yards, porches close to the sidewalk, garages in back and streets that would become a "safe, shared space" in short, a place that would bring neighbors together.
In that last regard, at least, developer John Cochenour has succeeded, though not in the way he had hoped.

Shocked, frustrated and angry, neighbors living around the open tract that once housed the old Briarcliff Elementary school, parking lot and playground have banded together to oppose Cochenour's plan, saying it amounts to sticking row houses or a dense subdivision in the middle of an older Seattle neighborhood of single-family homes.

Cochenour's company, Lexington Fine Homes, which typically builds luxury homes on the Eastside, has applied for a decades-old but little known and rarely used conditional-use permit that city planners have dubbed the "Chip Dip."

Created as part of an ordinance passed in 1986, the Cluster Housing Planned Development Permit (CHPDP) allows developers to build homes on smaller than normal lots when certain conditions are met. In this case, that means lots could be as small as 3,600 square feet instead of the usual 5,000 square feet. Briarcliff Revival Development

Number of homes: 39

Size of development: 4.5 acres

Conventional zoning: Single-family houses on 5,000-square-foot lots

Cluster-housing conditional-use permit: Allows 3,600-square-foot lots

Developer Lexington Fine Homes

Projected construction date: Spring 2005.

For more information www.lexingtonfinehomes.com/briarcliff.htm

Sources: Lexington Fine Homes, Seattle Department of Planning and Development

"Nobody is against a development there," says Magnolia resident Nick Marchi, a lawyer who, with his wife and fellow lawyer Michele Marchi, has led the opposition. "We're just against the amount of houses they are trying to ram down our throats."

Officials at Seattle's Department of Planning and Development say they are not sure how many cluster-housing permits have been issued by the city, but they could remember only two since the ordinance was passed.

The reason: Vacant plots large enough to house such developments are rare in Seattle.

"It's definitely the exception and not the rule," says Diane Sugimura, the planning department's director.

The city's first cluster-housing project, Stendall Place, was built in the mid-1980s at Wallingford Avenue North and North 103rd Street. The other, Croft Place, with 28 town houses, is to be built this summer in Delridge.

Critics say the permit gives developers too much leeway.

"The problem with this cluster-housing permit is that there are so many exceptions," Michele Marchi says. "It's really the back-door way into a subdivision."

So many houses on such small lots, the Marchis say, would create traffic problems and congestion in an established neighborhood with many small winding streets and cul-de-sacs, and only a couple of major ways in and out.

With a mix of housing styles and sizes, some with views, the Magnolia development would follow a design style called neo-urbanism, which hearkens back to more-traditional neighborhoods before automobiles dominated the landscape.

This is a conceptual plan by an Eastside developer to build 39 houses at the site of the former Briarcliff Elementary in Magnolia.

Cochenour won't say what the asking prices would be. If he gets his permit, work would begin in the spring.

The planning department will decide on the permit in the next few months. If it's granted and neighbors then appeal, the case would go to a hearing officer, who would hold a public hearing before making a decision.

"Chip Dip" predates Seattle's Comprehensive Plan under the state Growth Management Act, which was designed to fight sprawl. Cluster housing is distinct from cottage housing, which is allowed only with multifamily zoning. And it differs from the city's urban villages, which put high-density housing near commercial areas.

Even the wording of the permit is somewhat elusive, planners admit.

According to the Seattle Municipal Code, the Chip Dip is "intended to preserve natural features, encourage the construction of affordable housing, allow for design flexibility and protect ... environmentally critical areas."

Detractors say that the three criteria that would have any public benefit preserving topographical or environmental features or providing affordable housing are not present in the Magnolia development.

"It's a flat lot on the top of a hill," says Greg Canwright, a general contractor who lives and works in Magnolia and is among the opponents. "If you drop a ball there, it won't roll."

Canwright adds that since the developer paid $7.3 million to the Seattle School District for the site, there is little chance that the homes will be designated affordable housing.

Cochenour says he is applying for the permit for the "design flexibility" clause so he can decrease front-yard space, move garages to the back of houses and create a more communal environment.

The theory of neo-urbanism sounds good, Canwright says. "But read between the lines and it says 'I get to stuff more homes in there.' "

Late last month, more than 120 Magnolia residents attended a public hearing at Catharine Blaine School to voice their opposition.

One of the project's few supporters is Lindsay Brown, whose rambler abuts the former Briarcliff property on the south side. She sees the development as a way to control sprawl.

"I don't think that's an unreasonable place to fit in a few more houses," she says. "If every neighborhood did this in a fair and well-managed way, maybe we'd cut down a few less swaths of Bothell forest."

Brandon Sprague: 206-464-2263 or bsprague@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company



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