Alley Scraper

(Ed note: Back in May, we posted a letter from Shannon about a large house being built on a tiny lot up near 55th and Kensington. The letter served as a catalyst for like-minded neighbors finding each other, researching the house and the developer and gathering to take action. We asked Shannon to come back and let readers who didn’t follow the comments on the initial letter know what’s happened since. Below is her response.)

After the initial posting in May of the Disturbing Development article (that generated nearly 150 reader comments), we’ve connected with an amazing group of neighbors throughout Wallingford who offered their services, counsel and energy to close the zoning loophole that allows developers to build in the backyards and side yards of existing homes. We’ve met with the Wallingford Land Use Council, gathered in person to share different approaches and found collaborative ways to work with city. Collectively, we’re making progress.

A Seattle Weekly story published this week which leads off with the Wallingford backyard monolith as an example of the obscure loophole. But it also shows that our three-story project built on a 1,050sf tax parcel is just the tip of the iceberg.

This spring, we thought the “Alley Skyscraper” was a unique issue for our block, but through the Wallyhood blog (and some effective research by neighbors), we’ve connected with residents across the city who have been impacted by similar projects. We’ve identified 44 new structures, but developer Dan Duffus explains in the Seattle Weekly story that he’s built some 100 of these homes on small Seattle lots. And more could be coming unless we close the loophole.

Together, we’ve taken action and encourage you to do the same:

  • Sign the petition that requests a moratorium on the zoning exception until further review is performed with a panel that contains community representation.
  • Learn how to avoid a similar project on your block by visiting the www.OneHomePerLot.com website that provides resources that have been gathered by those who learned the hard way.
  • Write to Dept of Planning & Development leader Diane Sugimura, Councilmember Richard Conlin or the elected official of your choice to share your perspective on backyard and side yard homes.

Join us in taking action to keep backyards and side yards for our gardens, chickens and children.

  • Junipero

    And what about those of us who support these kinds of developments? Where do you suggest we send our comments?

  • Bruce

    Most of the houses on the One Home site look pretty nice. Taller, skinnier single-family homes allow more families with kids to live in the city, a little like some of the tall, skinny brownstones and small-lot houses in Brooklyn and Boston etc, and it complements the city’s efforts to encourage more mixed use multifamily housing around areas with good transit transit service.

    I’m going to write to DPD and suggest we have more of them. Thanks for bringing this important issue to my attention!

  • Matt the Engineer

    Wait. What’s the problem with these? You do realize we don’t live in Bothell, right?

  • Sean

    I applaud you for taking action against something you do not agree with. It’s better than a lot of people who would just bitch and moan but never actually do anything.

    However I do not agree. It’s called Urban Density. These homes may not appeal to your personal aesthetic, but that doesn’t make them wrong. If you want to live somewhere were all the houses look the same and everyone has to ask for permission before they do anything slightly different, then go find a suburban subdivision with a home owner’s association. As for me, I’ll embrace the diversity.

  • Mickey

    I agree, most of those homes are really interesting and well designed. This looks like good, necessary, urban infill to me.

  • Erin M

    I think some of you that are leaving comments are missing the point. If you go to any of these sites in person you can see how out of scale they are in comparisson to the neighboring homes. Pictures don’t do them justice. Some of the new structures have decks that are directly over the homes/yards of others with little or no yard space – not sure where children would play in that scenario.
    Also, if in fact the city intends this as a method of infill why all the secrecy? Neighbors are given no notice or right to appeal these projects that often times drastically reduce their property values as well as what little privacy or solar access they have. Current code interpretation and enforcement around this loophole is biased against existing homeowners. If the city wants to start a density program than it needs to establish, publicize and enforce it in a consistent manner so all parties know what they are getting into when they invest in a home and community in the city of Seattle.

  • Sharon

    Small lots, especially in dense urban villages, could be purchased by the city and used for pocket parks, p-patches, rain gardens or public parking where new multi-family developments without parking are permitted.

  • Donn

    Urban planning is not well in Seattle.

    A high quality urban environment is a slow, complex phenomenon. When it’s overrun by the imperative of the day, like “infill” or “density” in the present case, to the extent that all other considerations are cast to the side, then you get crap. From the looks of it, you might wonder if DPD staff like McKim are on the take, but they probably think they’re heroes, and the protests are just confirmation that they’re fighting the good fight for the imperative of the day. Their boss may think so as well, and no doubt some on the city council, because the farther up you are in the policy chain the more likely you’ll salute when someone runs “density” up the flagpole.

    What you really want, for a good city, is a planning department headed by some old curmudgeon who won’t put up with buzz words, knows quality when he sees it, and insists on the same from staff. Not something that could ever happen in our city, but one could dream.

  • Michael H.

    I haven’t had an opinion on this until now. The horror stories about the other Duffus properties made them seem pretty bad but now that I see pictures, they look like improvements to me. I’d be happy to see one across the street or next door.

  • Donn

    After reading horror stories, you had no opinion, but now that you see pictures that make the developments look like they might be OK, this enables you to have an opinion. Some opinions come easier than others, it seems.

  • SeattleAlan

    If you want to live in an old traditional neighborhood in Seattle, live in one.
    If you like square, odd angled, different than any of their neighbors, go to Bothell, Bruce. Don’t support “jam & cram” high density development in nice, family neighborhoods.
    You want your kids to have the pleasure of living in a nice, old neighborhood in Seattle, buy a house on a whole lot, not a abomination jammed into what used to be someone’s backyard or side yard. Especially one that looms over someone else’s dream and investment, where they are raising their children.
    And if you want to live in a high-density row house, like our friends do in Pittsburgh, move to Pittsburgh. They bought their house with only 3′ to their neighbor with the knowledge that this is how it was. No surprise of a neighbor building that close in the future.

  • walkinroun

    One of the other elements of quality city living is room for other life, like trees, bushes, shrubs, flowers, vegetable gardens, vines, grass, birds, goats, small mammals, bees, and so on. There is plenty of research that links good health with nature, cleaner air, better water quality, better stormwater drainage, and so on.

    When our cities give up even these little remaining spaces that allow residents and neighborhoods to nurture this relationship with nature, we all lose something. Building out every available space for too large too tall too big places takes something away from all of us. The arguments favoring increasing density ultimately fail because their trajectory, like unlimited growth, leads to a pigpile. Saving farmland from development is necessary, but so is saving space in cities for nature, for backyards and habitat connections.

    Wallingford is a treasure in large part because of its residents commitment to gardens and wildlife. Today I began a walk a little bit down. But my spirit was lifted so much by the generosity of the neighbors here – the beautiful gardens, the care and tending of flowers, the whimsy and love so many express in what used to be paved or mowed parking strips.

  • Matt the Engineer

    “Saving farmland from development is necessary, but so is saving space in cities for nature, for backyards and habitat connections.”

    Wait a second. You must see that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. By not letting this guy build a home in Seattle, you’re forcing him out to the suburbs. Don’t you see that’s how we’ve lost a huge amount of farms, fields, and forests? If you want your city green space so badly that you’re willing to tell someone else how to use their own property, that’s fine. But don’t pretend you’re an environmentalist while you’re forcing sprawl.

  • bb

    Looking at the photos, I have to say the most objectionable part of the houses shown is not so much that they are built as infill, as that the structures are out of scale to their neighbors.

    For those that object that infill is what they want, perhaps a compromise could be made by adding some additional height restrictions on the homes built on these grandfathered small lots, so that they can’t tower above their neighbors crowding out their light and air.

    I doubt there would really be as much objection if the developer were producing much more modest bungalow sized houses. His claims to be a “green” builder are some what belied by the scale of the homes.

    That said, I agree that if what we want is denser development in the city this isn’t really the way it should be done. Better to have upscaling of density in certain areas, along with the necessary improvements to support that density.

    This isn’t a intelligent plan to increase density; this is just some dude making a living out exploiting little known information. I don’t blame him, but it doesn’t mean it makes sense, even if you are pro-density, to let it go on.

  • laineyk

    For quite a few years Seattle has officially embraced ‘higher density’ in order to make Seattle more affordable for its workers (school teachers, firefighters, etc.) and to prevent further urban sprawl. These higher-density programs have been widely publicized and vetted. You all do know about the second-story dwelling units above the alley garages along the same alley(s) as this ‘scraper,’ right? Also widely publicized and vetted by the public. I think much of this was part of a 20-year plan (conceived of what, 30 years ago?; I’m not sure of that). No matter what you think, higher-density plans have ALWAYS been out there in public, for all to know. Either you weren’t paying attention, didn’t read the newspaper or watch the news, or came after comment periods. The skinny houses caused lots of twitter when proposed; they are old hat now and most of you don’t know what was there before much less they too were considered … out of place. I wish we had saved the Kent Valley from manufacturing building though; it was one of the most fertile agricultural valleys in the world and we gave it to manufacturing, which could have been located on the hills. (haha! I sound ‘old’ to me. :) … but I was here when there were bridle trails in north Seattle, and cows and chickens and little truck farms.)

  • walkinroun

    Decrying too big too tall too dense development on too small too close too obstructive lots while encouraging responsible building in appropriate places with sensitive considerations is not an exercise in contradiction. The builders/developers in this instance are not angels of environmentalism. They are hardcore profiteers exploiting a loophole in the law that has permitted them to make money at the expense of other neighbors’ privacy and enjoyment of home in this and several other residential neighborhoods. These density arguments are deeply cynical attempts to paint this activity “green”. What a hoot to have developers moaning about the losses of farmland, wetlands, forests and fields.

  • SeattleAlan

    Well said on both posts, Walkinroun! Thanks.

  • Fruitbat

    Urban density is not achieved by shoehorning more single family houses into odd spaces. True urban density–which is environmentally sound–comes from taller apartment buildings (yes, you can raise children in apartments). This condenses the footprint of housing and allows for more shared green space.
    However, I would bet a large number of those who oppose these infill houses also oppose large (i.e., taller than two stories) apartment developments.
    And no, I am not a developer, just a city person.

  • JN

    It’s better than a 16 or 50 room boarding house.

  • Entropy’s Bitch

    I find it interesting how many lurkers come out in favor of these projects. I wonder if any of them actually live in Wallyhood, or if they’re paid to search out and neutralize negative comments?
    WHY hasn’t he person who has been approving these projects for Duffus been investigated? This just reeks. The whole situation reeks.

  • Neighbor2You

    I recommend the Seattle Weekly article, which I thought did a good job of explaining how these developments have been considered lawful (and why they are not subject to a public comment requirement). Very informative piece.

  • Michael H.

    I find it interesting that you can’t imagine that some of your neighbors would have a different opinion than you.

  • Donn

    I think it’s just the nature of online commenters. When the first five responses to an article are eager boosters who will likely never even see the development in question and have nothing at all at stake, that’s a clue. They may live in Wallingford, or not, it hardly matters.

  • Jack

    I live in Wallingford and completely support the construction of modern buildings like this. Chickens that live nearby are probably neutral on the subject.

  • abc

    It’s a little elitist of Wallingford residents to fight new residents and construction like this…I often feel like the way Wallingford residents talk about incoming/new residents, and new development which allows other, equally deserving folks to enjoy the neighborhood to be ironically similar to a lot of anti-immigration folks and their argument about our country. Except in this case, it’s classism disguised as “preservation” of a “feel” of a neighborhood.

  • SeattleAlan

    Wow, “abc”, that is truly a wild stretch. Anyone from any background is welcome to buy a home and live in our lovely neighborhood.
    The folks that are against the Alley Skyscraper and that type of development are just that, against that type of development and how it radically changes the look and feel of the neighborhood. It would be quite a jumbled mess to have 3 story “homes” jammed into backyards all over the neighborhood. Open back yards where neighbors can grow gardens, have bbqs with their neighbors or just hang out is not an option for this one lot that got sliced up and over built. It also impacts their neighbor directly to the north – so much for any sunlight getting to them for their backyard where they’ve lived for close to 30 years.
    Wow, “class warfare”, kind of a warped take on the whole thing, don’t you think?

  • gregf

    I do not believe that some of the folks posting here understand that this building is built on a 1050 square foot lot in an area zoned SF5000 (5000 square foot lots) and that it is a lot splintered off from an adjacent lot at essentially no cost to the owner.

    Backyard cottages are limited to 22 feet height, whereas this building is 35 feet high with essentially zero setbacks from adjacent properties. I cannot believe that anyone would welcome a structure with so little taste built looming over their back yard. Duffus probably understands this, or he would not feel compelled to lie each time that he is building the home for his personal use.

    Duffus is a profiteer, taking advantage of a loophole in existing law. In my opinion, Shannon and the similarly affected homeowners from three other neighborhoods have done a great service to improve the quality of life for many other Seattleites by working to change what appears to be an egregious error in Seattle land use code.

    The change will not help their situation but rather than sit back and let it happen again and again (up to 100 times so far according to Duffus), Shannon and her group have worked to improve the code. This is activism at its finest. Thank you for all your hard work.

  • SeattleAlan

    Very well said, GregF!

  • Doug

    Pure NIMBYism, get over it, you live in Seattle- Progress will not stop for you. We live in an area people want to come to-density will increase! We had one of these monsters next of us that blocked out all our sun 8 years ago and we have adjusted. We love the new neighbors and carried on with our lives. If you plan to hate the new neighbors-you better move now.

  • Donn

    Please pay attention, this is a relatively inconsequential contribution to density – especially the extra floor that makes them especially unwelcome.

    I would be careful about taking Conlin at face value. It doesn’t cost him anything to politely pay attention and sound sympathetic, but he’s not exactly known for being a champion of the people’s interests.

  • gregf

    I do not understand how this is NIMBYism. The efforts by these folks are not exactly out of self-interest. Quite the contrary, it strikes me as pretty altruistic since their work will not help their own situation.

    @Doug – I am interested in more details. You had a three story home built on a 1000 square foot lot next door to you?

  • IrishJunkie

    Jack, Doug and abc you are absolutely right. I couldn’t agree with you more. Donn and entrophy’s bitch I’m sorry that you don’t believe anyone who lives in Wallingford could have a different opinion than you and therefore must live somewhere else. The neighborhood has changed a lot since my great grand parents ( two sets) moved into a poor working class neighborhood called Wallingford in the 1910′s and 1920′s. My family has been here ever since. All my grand parents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins started here. It has changed a lot in all those years and looks very different than it did. The sadest change is the intolerance and elitism that has crept in to a wonderful neighborhood.

  • gregf

    @Junkie – Read your post again with its name-calling and then decide who is intolerant and elitist. I do not see how you being “absolutely right” leaves any room for “a different opinion”.

    None of the posts say anything about folks living “somewhere else”, only that cramming a three story home on a 1000 sq ft lot appears to lack taste.

    I believe the general sentiment expressed is that it might be better if the BUILDER built in a manner more sympathetic to his neighbors.

  • Jack

    Using a blog as a platform to attack a specific neighbor’s “taste” is reprehensible.

  • IrishJunkie

    I apologize for the way I worded my previous post. It was never my intent to call anyone a name or to attack anyone or their taste. After rereading the post I can see where what I was trying to say was not clear. No one can be “absolutely right”. I can and do frequently accept and acknowledge that I make mistakes.

    I was trying to express that I agree with some previous posters and disagree with others just as many people do on this blog and in this stream. Many commenters in this stream have also listed the names of people they agree with or don’t agree with. I have lots of different opinions as do others on this blog. I feel that we should all accept that we have different opinions and be able to express them. I feel that I can learn a lot from listening to opinions that differ from mine.

    In post #20 it said – “I find it interesting how many lurkers come out in favor of these projects. I wonder if any of them actually live in Wallyhood, or if they’re paid to search out and neutralize negative comments.” That is what I based my comment about living somewhere else on. I also feel that comments 22 and 23 are also refering to this but I may be wrong. Comment #25 also mentions elitist. I also do not see that the general sentiment expressed here is that the builder should build in a more synpathetic manner to his neighbors. I do not think that there is one general sentiment being expressed here. But that’s just my opinion.

  • SeattleAlan

    Well, the conversation got far afield from the original concern.

    It is not who lives in Wallingford – the more diverse the population = the more interesting the neighborhood is.

    It is not “Modern Architecture” – the ugly blue house across from the Mosaic Coffee house is modern (and ugly – my opinion – the architect that built it and lives in it is probably in modern housing bliss). This architectural marvel is a single family home built on a single family lot with all the set backs needed to give his/her neighbors some space from his ugly home.

    It IS about a builder finding a old, mislaid-out lot that he was able to, within the specific legal workings of the city codes to cut up the single family lot, rework the boundary lines and cram a very tall (for the space) house with none of the usual set backs and no forewarning to the neighbors that their back yard would have this looming over them. hacking back their very old tree without forewarning, either (knocking on the door the morning of the tree hacking does not constitute proper forewarning).

    I am sure that the cheering section for this type of cram & jam development would not want to purchase the house directly north of this monstrosity (and give them a “before the skyscraper” price), then invite their friends over for a BBQ in the alley-scraper’s shadow.

    New & different people are nice, and modern architecture is interesting – not my style – but neither of these are the point to this whole issue.

  • Jack

    IrishJunkie, I wasn’t referring to you in post #34. I thought your post #32 was spot on. What bothers me is the way people gang up and attack a neighbor because they don’t agree with a certain architectural style or with that neighbor’s use of his or her own yard space. Even people who lament the attack mentality (like you) are themselves attacked. It’s sad.

  • Donn

    If this were simply a question of one man’s taste vs. another’s, you might have a point. It might seem like such a question, if you came from another planet or something.

  • Autumn

    I always thought over the years as a Wallingford resident that this neighborhood was an eclectic neighborhood that would welcome all different styles, including modern architecture (especially the house talked about in this blog thread), which I do believe is fantastic… but really all this neighborhood is all about is the unkept houses and yards, junker cars and chickens… and this is very close minded and truly sad. There is something to be said about thinking outside the box and showing off your creativity and what better way to do this then through your modern architecture home. Now no slander please… everyone is entitled to their own opinion..

  • gregf

    Again, my understanding is that the issue described in the article is not objecting to the modern architecture or the style, but the no-setback, lot-line-to-lot-line, three-story building being placed on a lot ONE FIFTH the size of other lots in the neighborhood. The lot is only about 1000 sq ft.

    Remember, if this lot was the same size as other lots (4000 or 5000 sq ft), the developer would not be allowed to build a home this close to the adjacent properties.

    A backyard cottage (which this home resembles) is required to be shorter than this building, even though placed on a lot four to five times larger… and also has to meet setback requirements and have a yard.

    The code loophole is absurd. What is the point? Kudos for getting it changed.

  • SeattleAlan

    Thanks, gregf. Well said.
    Some people won’t understand what the real issue is no matter how well it is explained. You said it well. I thought I said it well, but I was too snarky about “modern” architecture, and that threw some folks off topic.

  • Andrew E

    The issue is whether this is good infill. I don’t think it is good infill when it negatively impacts in a significant way all the homes that are near it. Most Seattle homes are built on small lots but these lots are so small that there is no yard. In many cases the houses don’t even meet a standard 10′ distance required between all new houses. A code that is there to prevent a fire spreading from house to house. This is a bad code which provides a few infill homes while decreasing the quality of life for everyone around them.

  • http://www.onehomeperlot.com Shannon

    Update on the Alley Skyscraper issue:

    On Sept 5, Richard Conlin introduced emergency legislation that would require lots to be at least 50% of the size of a legitimate building lot and would restrict the size of houses in lots smaller than 3,750 square feet to that of an accessory dwelling unit. This legislation will stop the out-of-scale, monolithic structures like the Wallingford Alley Skyscraper while the Council strives to find a permanent fix.

    Developers are out in force to lobby city council this week, and we want the voice of residents to be heard too. Please email/call city council members by Monday morning (9/10) and/or sign the petition if you haven’t already.

    Petition: http://www.change.org/petitions/seattle-mayor-mcginn-dpd-director-diane-sugimura-and-seattle-city-council-city-of-seattle-close-land-use-loopholes-in-city-codes

    Read more on the Seattle Weekly blog update on topic:
    http://blogs.seattleweekly.com/dailyweekly/2012/09/richard_conlin_introduces_emer.php

    COUNCIL MEMBERS CONTACT INFO:

    206-684-8806, [email protected]
    206-684-8800, [email protected]
    206-684-8802, [email protected]
    206-684-8803, [email protected]
    206-684-8807, [email protected]
    206-684-8805, [email protected]
    206-684-8801, [email protected]
    206-684-8804, [email protected]
    206-684-8808, [email protected]

  • KimberlyC

    This was posted on the Greenlake Moms’ List. Some of you might be interested in signing.

    Petition to amend legality of building two homes on one lot

    The vote is on Monday 9/10.

    You can view the petition here:
    http://www.change.org/petitions/seattle-mayor-mcginn-dpd-director-diane-sugimura-and-seattle-city-council-city-of-seattle-close-land-use-loopholes-in-city-codes?utm_campaign=new_signature&utm_medium=email&utm_source=signature_receipt#

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