First Hill organizes

First came the teardowns and the mega-homes, which many viewed as irrevocable changes in the characteristic and compatibility of the neighborhood. Now, there are some neighbors reeling from talk of building several affordable housing cottages on a vacant city-owned lot in First Hill.

Concerned that a new development would add unwanted density in their backyards, establish a precedent of “spot-zoning” on the Island and further change the neighborhood character, some residents are organizing in protest of the affordable housing pilot project.

“We are concerned about the methodology, about the ability of Futurewise [a public interest group focusing on sustainable urban growth] to influence city policy and the patronizing and mixed messages we’re receiving,” said Matt Leibsohn, one of the leaders against building several cottage-style homes.

Five other neighbors joined Leibsohn last Thursday to discuss their concerns about the proposal. Then on Saturday, more than 20 neighbors gathered for a photograph to show their opposition to multifamily housing in their neighborhood.

Mercer Island Mayor Jim Pearman said the City Council had not made any decisions regarding the property and is just now beginning the process to choose from its options.

The neighborhood group said they were concerned about the changes made in 2005 to the city’s comprehensive plan, a dynamic planning guide used by the city. The change calls for the city to consider alternative housing and a pilot project to test its compatibility with neighborhoods. Should the pilot project be a success, section 3.11 of the plan states that the city should “engage in a policy discussion concerning the extension of similar forms of housing to additional single-family areas.”

The group collectively agreed that those words show this is not solely about their neighborhood. Other Eastside cities have undergone similar pilot projects or added such language to their comprehensive plans.

“This is not about it being in our backyard,” Leibsohn said of the Island’s comprehensive plan. “This is about all of Mercer Island.”

The group was also concerned about Futurewise’s influence.

“Just look at the words,” said Mitchell of the comprehensive plan. “Futurewise wrote that part of the plan, and the city implemented the exact same words.”

Mitchell refers to an e-mail sent by Futurewise’s executive director to the city’s former development services director Richard Hart. The policy adjustments that Futurewise suggested in the e-mail are the same adopted by the city.

However, city officials state that the comprehensive plan does not require such developments; it only suggests that the city examine the feasibility and desirability.

Resident Carrie Bell said she is angry that the group Futurewise is trying to force multifamily housing in a single-family zone.

“They are trying to create a density problem so they can fix it with light rail,” said Bell.

According to Futurewise’s Web site, the organization defended funding for light rail in the state legislature and supported the ballot measure last fall. The organization describes itself on its Web site as “the only group in Washington state working to ensure that local governments manage growth responsibly.”

Other worry that a multifamily development would add more cars to neighborhood streets.

“It’s full of contradictions,” said resident Eileen Mitchell. “There would be 18 more cars on the street. There would be no more walking in the area because it would be packed with cars.”

The city-owned lot under consideration is on the northeast corner of the intersection of S.E. 32nd Street and 74th Avenue S.E. It has views of the Cascade Mountains and Bellevue. Today, it is used as open space to walk dogs or throw a ball. Its assessed value is $900,000.

According to city records, the property was originally acquired by the Island’s water district and later by the city upon incorporation. A home was built there in 1953 but was torn two years ago.

Since it was acquired, the property was a possible site for a water storage facility to serve the North end. However, the Island’s Utility Board unanimously recommended last summer that the Council declare the property surplus and sell it. Should it be designated as surplus, state law allows the city to lease, sell or buy back the land.

The Council tabled the motion to surplus the property in December to gain public input about its possible actions. The Council continued discussing the process for the property on Monday night, after Reporter deadline. Next week’s issue will report on how the Council proceeded. The city also plans to host neighborhood meetings regarding its options for the property later this spring.

Last summer, residents and city staff attended an informal neighborhood meeting to discuss the demonstration housing project. Leibsohn and Stephanie St. Mary said they were shocked at the proposal. St. Mary said she would like the property to remain as open space, but the neighborhood should be involved in the parcel’s future, regardless of its fate.

“I don’t feel like there’s been an appropriate or fair method,” said St. Mary. “So far, they’ve only been humoring us.”

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