Magnolia lawyers Michele Marchi and Franca Baroni are no strangers to taking on developments in the neighborhood. Marchi was involved in the Briarcliff development, and Baroni successfully fought upzoning in the Magnolia Village. Now, the women are taking on the subdivision of the historic Fort Lawton homes in Discovery Park.
Developers plan to subdivide the properties so future homeowners can buy their own individual plots. Gary Blakeslee, president of Thrive Communities, said the subdivisions are a “matter of clarity for the homeowners.” The 26 families who live in the homes will be subject to certain responsibilities from the historical guidelines so this clarity will let them know what they’re responsibilities are, he said.
The sale from the current property owner, Forest City, to the new owner, Rise, still hasn’t gone through, said Blakeslee, whose company will manage the properties. Blakeslee doesn’t know when the sale will go through, but the sale isn’t contingent on the subdivision, he said; it’s contingent on other internal documents that are “being prepared.”
There is typically a 120-day clock for the DPD to issue a decision, but that clock stops when it is waiting on corrections, which is the case now, said DPD spokesperson Bryan Stevens. There is a pending lot-boundary adjustment between the developers and Seattle Parks and Recreation. Once those corrections are taken care of, Stevens estimates a decision will come about one month later.
Both Marchi and Baroni are concerned about the subdivision and the way the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and project manager Lindsay King framed the issue at the public meeting on May 29. The issue was framed like it was already a done deal, and the DPD would look at it like it was any other development, Baroni said.
Discovery Park is unique, and the subdivision should be viewed as such, she said.
“It seems like the city comes in and has sort of made up their mind, and they go through this exercise of getting comments because they have to,” Barnoni said. “They painted this meeting as a very technical issue.”
In this case, the DPD wasn’t required to hold a public meeting, but it did so to give residents a clear picture of exactly what was going on there, with a chance to voice their opinions, Stevens said.
King was not available for comment.
Baroni said she went into the meeting with an open mind but quickly became frustrated with the “defensive” approach. She said she felt the burden was on the residents to prove they didn’t want the subdivision, versus the developers needing to prove the subdivision was necessary. Blakeslee said he thinks the question is whether what Rise is asking for is entitled by the code, and the DPD hasn’t made that decision yet.
Marchi agreed, adding the city seems to be very developer-friendly. Marchi and Baroni, like many others at the meeting, pointed to a rule under the Land Use Code that says the subdivision should be in the public’s interest. “I’m not sure how public use would be enhanced by subdivision,” Marchi said.
Marchi said she doesn’t see what benefit there is to subdivide other than a larger profit for the developer, who can sell the homes as individual plots of land. Not owning the plot of land under their home would make the area less attractive to buyers, Marchi speculated. Blakeslee countered he didn’t expect the profit to be any different whether they subdivide the properties.
Marchi thinks the subdivision will be the start of a slippery slope for the properties there. Even though the new homeowners will be subject to guidelines from Historic Seattle, she expects that, while they may be nice people, they will be wealthy and able hire a good lawyer and fight whatever rules they don’t agree with.
Homeowners have certain expectations and entitlements to their homes, she said. Renters won’t put up a fight about the same issues because they don’t have those same rights, she said.
“With good lawyering, you can interpret anything — we’re lawyers, we know,” Baroni said.
This case only handles the subdivision and no additional construction or additions, Stevens said.
Baroni hopes the DPD will delay the subdivision decision until the fall, when people are home from summer vacation and able to focus on the issue. She’d also like to see the developers, DPD and residents meet through a facilitated process that could result in more creative ideas and transparency.
“I don’t want to create this adversarial climate,” she said. “It’s more like, ‘Let’s really look at what’s at stake for the city and not to hide behind this technical, narrow view.’”
Doing it this way could allow the groups to explore possibilities they’ve never considered before, Baroni said. And it would restore trust in the public process, which she believes is needed.
Blakeslee said he’s happy to meet with neighborhood homeowners to talk about different ideas; they have had informal gatherings with interested parties.
When Marchi was involved with the Briarcliff development, she and others were able to hold it up in litigation long enough that the original developer, Lexington Fine Homes, eventually sold to Toll Bros. Marchi sees those same “slivers of hope” in this development.
If Rise is not able to complete the sale with Forest City, there is a possibility the development could go back to the beginning and the city could have a chance to step in, Marchi said. She would love to see the city buy the buildings and use them for the public good.
Discovery Park is Seattle’s biggest park, and it’s not comparable to the other parks nearby, with its location toward the Sound, Baroni said: “I was finding it pretty outrageous when the city planner was saying she was going to look at it like any subdivision in Ballard or downtown. It doesn’t even make legal sense.”
Both Marchi and Baroni believe this is a case where the DPD should look at the big picture and the underlying purpose of the Land Use Code.
If the decision is approved, the appeal period is short, Baroni said, which wouldn’t give them much time to get people together, raise the fees for a lawyer and fight the decision if it is approved. Right now, no one is stepping up to organize the community until the DPD’s decision comes out, Marchi said.
“I think a lot of people are concerned,” Marchi said. “It’s going to take someone to organize and bring people together and fundraise...in order to get the money to hire the lawyer and pay the filing fee.”
Blakeslee said he thinks there’s a “reasonable expectation” that there will be an appeal. If people do appeal, Rise will just follow the standard appeal process. They will have renters in the homes until they’re able to transition over to homeowners, he said.
The appeal period is open for the 14 days following the decision. The appeal will then go to the Office of the Hearing Examiner. Following the hearing, the examiner has two weeks to issue his/her findings. If the DPD’s decision is upheld, the residents can then appeal to the Superior Court; if the DPD’s decisions are denied, the decision goes back to the DPD for revision or reversal.
This process creates a system where people must hire a lawyer to get some sort of credibility, Barnoi said.
When people hire lawyers for a legal challenge, “that’s where the city listens and that’s what the developers listen to,” Marchi said: “We could talk until we’re blue in the face, and they’ll just politely listen and say, ‘You make some good points,’ but they’re just going to do what they’re going to do.”
There is a general push toward development in Seattle, and it is for this reason that the city should try to preserve the greenspaces it has, Baroni said: “That’s why we really need to put our arms around parks like Discovery Park.”
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