Roosevelt's dilemma: How should a neighborhood grow?

A developer's proposed amendments to increase density in the neighborhood near a planned light-rail station didn't pass the Seattle City Council - yet.
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Department of Neighborhoods alum Sally Clark meets Roosevelt residents.

A developer's proposed amendments to increase density in the neighborhood near a planned light-rail station didn't pass the Seattle City Council - yet.

Early this month, the Seattle City Council voted to drop consideration of several amendments to Seattle's Comprehensive Plan that were proposed by the Roosevelt Development Group (RDG).

The organization, a partnership of developers working with property owner Hugh Sisley, was seeking to change key provisions in the neighborhood plan for the area where I live. A North Link Light Rail station is slated to be built in the neighborhood by 2030, and the Regional Growth Plan requires greater population density near the station.

The question for interested parties is not whether to construct new buildings that will house more people, but where to situate the buildings and how tall they should be. RDG wants to construct buildings as high as 16 stories on 15th Avenue Northeast at Northeast 65th Street, adjacent to Roosevelt High School and single-family houses.

Roosevelt is a quiet neighborhood, with streets that can feel almost rural (the potholes help). An elderly friend of mine remembers when as a child she rode north with her parents from the University District to visit relatives near Roosevelt High. Once they crossed the 15th Avenue Bridge spanning the Ravenna Park ravine, they felt, she said, "out in the country."

Despite the designation of Roosevelt as a Seattle Urban Village, the sense of the place as a green retreat from urban life lingers with a few residents. But most accept the proposition that increased population density must come with the planned transit station. Some residents, including local small-business owners, imagine Roosevelt as a future "destination neighborhood," where people will top off a hike in Ravenna Park, a volleyball game on Cowen Park playfield, or a bicycle ride around Green Lake with visits to a wider variety of shops, additional restaurant choices, and jazz clubs or other new nightlife.

RDG argues that its project would further the Regional Growth Plan by bringing large numbers of new residents into the area. The group's amendment proposal stated among other things that building high would "use limited land resources more efficiently and pursue a development pattern that is more economically sound, by encouraging infill development on vacant and underutilized sites, particularly within urban villages."

The Roosevelt Neighborhood Association (RNA) counters that the 16-story height of RDG's project would be out of proportion with surrounding structures, and that new buildings should be no taller than four stories. The association adds that the buildings should be located farther west, close to the planned station between 12th Avenue NE and Roosevelt Way, to reinforce the existing business district and patterns of commerce.

Of concern beyond the neighborhood is the shadow that RDG's project would cast over Roosevelt High School. In the recent $93.5 million restoration of this historic city landmark, the architects' design made generous use of natural light. The 1922 building used to be so dark that students compared it to a dungeon, but increased natural light has made the building more welcoming as well as a more sustainable structure, with the potential of conserving energy and reducing operating costs.

On Aug. 2, the Council voted 9-0 to exclude the RDG amendments.* Council member Sally Clark, who chairs the Committee on the Built Environment, wrote in an e-mail to RNA members, "Your near-unanimous community feedback and advocacy were instrumental in this decision." Still, she added, dense housing near the planned light rail station is inevitable, and rezoning to make this possible is imminent.

Likely to weigh in RDG's favor as the city planning process unfolds is Sisley's willingness, as a single property owner, to have hundreds of apartments built as soon as possible on contiguous lots that either have decaying structures awaiting demolition or are already vacant. With such ready cooperation, density in the area would increase relatively easily and quickly, since fewer owners would have to go through the process of separately selling and vacating. Sisley has already signed a 99-year lease with RDG, a partnership of capable developers who are prepared and eager to build.

When Clark dropped by the Roosevelt “Night Out 2010” block party Aug. 3, residents applauded the council's decision and expressed gratitude for her support. But she was careful to warn those present, "We can't always make you guys happy." Decisions going forward will depend on many things including reviews by the Department of Planning and Development.

Here's video of Roosevelt residents at the block party, with Clark appearing briefly at the end:

Speakers: Jim O'Halloran (chair, RNA land use committee); Peter James (RNA president); Brian Albright (RNA member); Councilmember Clark.

*Note: The earlier statement that the vote was 8 to 1 was mistaken.


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