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Getting to no on growth. To get to yes.

Older buildings on Jackson Street in Pioneer Square. A proposed 11-story building at the far end of Jackson was rejected. Credit: Sounder Bruce/Flickr

In recent months, we have been inundated by scary newspaper stories, snarky columnists, lively KUOW interviews and hand-wringing public lectures about how the city is growing too fast. Too big. Too out of control.

Then, just as this furor reached a fever pitch, out comes the Mayor’s HALA Committee Report recommending a cure for the relentless onslaught of traffic jams, towering cranes, pounding pile drivers, huge dump trucks, and noisy dumpsters being filled with construction debris. And that cure is? More development!

Now, having read the report, I believe there are many terrific ideas in the document (others, not so much). Thankfully, it is almost devoid of the usual wonky, jargonspeak. It’s pretty much written in plain, clear English. Progress on one front, at least.

Meanwhile, as the storm clouds of potential doom began to descend over those hallowed grounds, almost no one noticed that someone in the City did a distinctly remarkable thing.

They said “No” to development. Wait. What?

Last week, the Pioneer Square Preservation Board rejected a proposal to develop an 11-story apartment building at the foot of Jackson Street, a stone’s throw from Alaskan Way. After holding more than a half a dozen meetings to deliberate this controversial project, the board ended up turning it down flat (by a 7-1 vote).

A group of impassioned neighbors made an eloquent and convincing case through succinct, calm statements along with a graphic that showed the Board just how out of scale the proposal was, compared with its historic surroundings. The tool was wholly original and ingenious; it was simple, powerful and effective.

Essentially, over a year’s worth of work by the developer, Gerding Edlen, and their architectural team was tossed out the window of City Hall. The building was simply too tall, too bulky, too mundane and too intrusive.

Attending the hearing, I was flabbergasted listening to the proponent’s representative crow about the glorious 180 degree views from the apartments and a roof so lavishly appointed that it resembled a small cruise ship. Yes, there would be fab views and a kick-ass rooftop – for the few dozen people who could afford the steep rents. So what? I almost audibly sighed at the tone-deaf audacity

So the Preservation Board concluded with a resounding: Enough! Basta! Non! Nyet! Forget it.

The next step in this process is that the Director of the Department will consider the Board’s recommendation and make the final decision by next Wednesday; the director might be hard-pressed to overcome such a clear vote by the Board.

In the big picture, it might difficult to understand just how remarkable this decision is. Most regulatory review boards of any city are set up to get to yes. They discuss, debate, agonize, suggest, negotiate, even bluff. But they almost never say, “No.” After all, most cities want development. They have no intention of pulling away the welcome mat.

An architect's conception of a proposal that has been rejected by a review board.
An architect’s conception of a proposal that has been rejected by a review board.

Having been on review boards, I know that is not even necessary to have pressure from above, as some citizens with conspiracy theories are fond of claiming. Nope, it’s just the good old collective process of citizen volunteers weighing factors with a presumption that the outcome is going to be a built building. It’s about jobs, taxes, property rights and the power of money. (We are a capitalist country.)

Now, a few things are troublesome about this bold decision on the part of the Preservation Board.

First, they should have never let that many meetings occur without taking a stand and simply saying, “No way.” In the late 1990s, the Downtown Design Review Board did exactly that at the very first meeting on a proposal: An internationally famous architect was told in no uncertain terms to start over again. His initial design was so unacceptable that no amount of commentary by the board was going to make it better. It is really not fair for any official reviewing body to let something drag on that long without expressing a crisp, clear conviction. In fact, this kind of waffling is precisely what makes developers despise government. Just tell them what the expectations are upfront.

Now, let’s turn to the Pioneer Square community. I have no doubt that some folks felt that it was unfair for them to purchase homes and then be faced with the prospect of losing their views of the bay or having a big building next door. Guess what: That is the entire history of cities — larger buildings eventually replace smaller buildings. Private views get blocked. The mantra should be caveat emptor: “Let the buyer beware.” But of course, ebullient real-estate agents like pointing out those views and appraisers deliberately jack up the value of what is essentially a short-lived asset.

Ironically, a six story building constructed on that same property would likely have similar impacts. Deep shadows. Views blocked. Lots of cars using the alley. The developer could likely get almost the same number of units in a building with half the proposed size by simply packing it with “micro-units.” Nothing in the Preservation Board’s purview could stop that.

Finally, when a development review process is this contentious, it usually means that something is amiss in the basic city code. Indeed, it was probably inappropriate for that waterfront area to ever have been zoned to allow buildings 120 feet in height. The City really needs to fix that and should, just as other cities have, adjust and course-correct their land use laws. Pioneer Square can accept plenty of new housing.  But it need not do so at the expense of its long-standing identity.

Moral: Sometimes to get to “Yes,” you have to say, “No.”

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