Last month, construction began across the street on a new dwelling directly across the street from Casa de Jenkins. And this isn’t going to be an ordinary dwelling — a word I chose instead of “house.” Seems a local developer named Dan Duffus of Soleil Development found a loophole in the Seattle Building Code that allows for second homes to be squeezed on to certain lots where formerly only one home existed. (More.) Duffus either subdivides the lots and builds on the new lot or, as is the case across the street, flips his newly-created sliver to another developer for building. The projects are often financed by Blueprint Capital, another Duffus company. The result — well, they’re almost as hard to believe as they are to look at (see for yourself: 1I2). The dwelling across the street from me will be an ultra-modern one on a block full of traditional homes and, at three stories, will tower over the surrounding houses. Ironically, it’s being built by a Blueprint member company called “Classic City Homes.” No fewer than three neighbors will lose their sunlight to the new Laurelhurst tower, which doesn’t look like it’s going to be “classic” anything.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. According to the pictures in the document numbered “1″ above, Duffus and other developers are building these ultra-modern “skinnies” in Seattle neighborhoods otherwise full of Craftsmans and Colonials: “skinnies” because these two-homes-on-one-lot homes are understandably quite narrow (the one across the street from our house is eighteen (18) feet wide) and usually a story or so higher than the surrounding neighbors. And there’s more on the way: according to this Seattle Weekly article, Duffus has no fewer than forty-three other projects in the works. And given the alacrity with which Duffus obtains building permits — the Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) gave him the project across from us in one month (hmmm …) — Seattle-ites can expect to see more of what one commenter called “3 story refrigerator boxes” in their neighborhoods sooner rather than later. Already plans have been approved for such projects in Queen Anne, Ravenna, Bryant, Laurelhurst, Seward Park and Wallingford to name a few. Worse are reports that a Bothell real estate research firm called New Home Trends is developing software that will enable developers to easily identify parcels eligible to be subdivided under the existing loophole. If that software hits the market, expect to see these eyesores popping up in side yards everywhere.
The good news is that someone’s doing something about it. Wallingford resident Peter Krause has organized a group of Seattle-ites who prefer not to see more dwellings wedged into back- and sideyards. Some of them now have or will have their sunlight blocked out by these skinnies. The grassroots group is well organized and has a friend in the City Council in Richard Conlin (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), who is putting together “one lot, one home” legislation that would close the Duffus-exploited loophole.
I couldn’t imagine anyone would oppose such a fix — wouldn’t you be outraged if Duffus or another developer wedged one of these buildings in your neighbor’s former backyard? — but the Krause group is expecting opposition. Apparently one councilperson is already defending the status quo because developers create construction jobs. But jobs should never be the only concern for policymakers. Legalized cocaine would result in jobs at cocaine processing plants, but no one would seriously argue that those jobs would justify legalized blow. I can see the status quo being defended, too, on the grounds that private property rights are, after all, rights, and even big bad developers like Duffus are entitled to them. That argument is fine as far as existing projects go, but if the City extinguishes the right to squeeze two dwellings on to a single lot then that right would no longer exist, making the property rights argument a nonstarter. The legislation will also no doubt draw criticism from the anti-suburban sprawl crowd on the grounds that it’s anti-density. No one’s more for density than me — but within reason. The “we want density” argument could be justified to eliminate all setback requirements or to justify allowing multi-family apartments in single-family zoned areas: certainly not even the most ardent density advocates would go for that. My fear, however, is that the vote on Conlin’s legislation to come will have more to do with the money than merits. If that’s how it plays out, the grassroots Krause group will be hard pressed to overcome Duffus’s connections and campaign contributions.
Seattle-ites can and should act before their neighborhoods are affected. As per the “Stop It” page on OneHomePerLot.com, concerned citizens can, inter alia, e-mail Conlin (e-mail: email@example.com) to voice support for his upcoming legislation. Or they can sign this online petition at Change.org. Or they can contact Duffus’s West Seattle/Queen Anne development company and simply ask him to spare their neighborhoods — at the very least by building homes that conform in character to the surrounding neighborhoods. (That’s my tactic, not OneLot’s.) If the guy isn’t completely evil to the core, he’ll consider such requests.
Unfortunately there isn’t much we can do about the project across the street. As per state law, once a building permit is issued the right to build vests — the City cannot take that right away. No public notice is required under this loophole, so no one can do anything about it. The dwelling is being constructed at break-neck speed, and I seriously doubt the builder will stop midstream to consider the neighbors’ feelings. According to reports a Queen Anne couple asked Duffus to minimize the impact of one of his projects by building a two-story building instead of a three-story one. He agreed — for $100,000. (They declined.) After losing my kids’ college funds to a Louisiana parish as the result of some serious Olympia overreaching (more), I’m a tad short.
Here’s hoping the Seattle City Council acts before other Seattle-ites are forced to reach into their pockets to prevent neighborhood ruin. If the Council votes “one home one lot” legislation down — well, you’ll know who it’s working for. Unless your name is Dan Duffus, it’s not you.