‘Northwest Style’ doesn’t feel right

By Eric Livingston | May 15, 2012

In the world of architecture there is no ‘Northwest Style’!  None.  It’s that simple.

In early February this year, almost everybody received, via the mail, a brochure from the Port of Edmonds presenting a concept for a future redevelopment of Harbor Square.

In the brochure was a listing of design principles that were developed by a steering committee.  One of the principles listed was that the; "Architectural character (of the redevelopment - ed.) should emphasize a  “Northwest Style”  compatible with existing downtown Edmonds character and feature high quality traditional materials incorporating a variety of colors, forms and textures".

What caught my attention, aside from being a run-on sentence, was that I wasn't aware of any architectural notion of a 'Northwest Style'.

Also, I'm sad to say; aesthetically the existing downtown Edmonds character is, with several exceptions, rather unmemorable.

I'm not convinced that building anything that is compatible with unmemorable aesthetics is a good idea.

I am aware that many will disagree with me regarding some aspects of that last paragraph.

However, several things that - for me anyway - make living here a pleasure are the views of both Puget Sound and the cliffs of Whidbey Island, being able to walk to anything downtown, the delightful charm of seeing the ferry, from my living room window, all lit-up at night and, (this is a big point), the gorgeous waterfront.  The Port of Edmonds has created a waterfront that is one of the gold standards on the west coast and one to which others aspire.  The Port created memorable.

So, why is the Port of Edmonds promoting the concept of redeveloping Harbor Square into a 'Mixed Use Transit Oriented Development' (TOD) which could have as many as 358 new condos, plus office space and retail stores?

Curious, especially if one considers that there is no actual housing shortage in Edmonds.

Plus building more housing could have the detrimental effect of lowering the already depressed values of homes in the “Bowl. “

Add to that the fact that downtown currently has plenty of office and retail space that could easily be leased.

Presuming that Adam Smith's economic theories are correct, creating an oversupply of residential, office and retail space won't push prices/values up, but will push prices/values down.

Again, the question, why is a Mixed Use TOD concept of redevelopment being promoted?  There are a number of possible answers to that question.

One is the Siren's Song of increasing tax revenue for the City of Edmonds which, it is hoped, will help to prevent the growing gap between City’s income and its expenditures.

This is one of several possible benefits that are hyped in the brochure.  Understandable considering that real estate development and redevelopment historically has been a primary way municipalities increase land values which in turn increases tax revenues.

Consequently, real estate developers have been among the 'Sirens' that help create 'boom and bust' cycles in our economy. Particularly the 'bust' that we are in currently.

Probably a more realistic answer to the question of why promote this TOD concept for redeveloping Harbor Square is that The Port, who owns Harbor Square, is not receiving the benefits of ownership.

In short, the costs of owning Harbor Square are beginning to exceed the profits that were generated in the past.

They want to sell and they want to sell to a real estate developer to try and maximize the sale price.

So, like any homeowner preparing to sell their property, the Port wants to make Harbor Square look as attractive as possible.

But, unlike the rest of us who put in new counter tops, they know what looks good to any developer coming to Edmonds is the view.  However, the current building height limit of 35ft probably won't attract many developers because that height won’t allow developers to build enough condos to make a reasonable profit.  Also, the 35ft limit isn’t high enough to have the grand views which builders need in order to charge premium prices and maximize profits.

With a Win-Win scenario the Port hopes to generate political support for the project so that they can ask City Council to grant a contract rezone to allow a developer to build to a height of 50ft, (here is where the Port help the Sirens sing their song of increased tax revenues for the city.)

This will, theoretically, give a developer the height to build enough condos and enough view to sell and make a large profit.

By doing this the Port saves the potential buyer both time and money which, like a new counter top, will hopefully induce the buyer to pay a higher price.

To help things along, public support also needs to be generated.  This is where it gets a little problematic for the Port.

Earlier I indicated that there is a very real risk of lowering the value of nearby homes, but other issues like increased traffic and convincing possible residents to live next to the tracks – not to mention the train noise.

Also, there are questions of what will be the effects of both the light rail transit along the I-5 corridor and the probable move of the ferry dock to the UNOCL property.

Then there are the views.  Regardless of what the view shed studies indicate, somebody’s view will be diminished.

These are only some of the very real concerns that were acknowledged in several early studies sponsored by the Port and are posted on its website.

Some might argue that such concerns be resolved prior to granting any contract rezone or height increase.

Both land use planning and property redevelopment are necessary in any municipality’s existence.  But I am of the opinion that this redevelopment vision is not up to the Port’s high standards.  Perhaps this is the key problem of their vision.

The brochure’s illustrations only indicate how the project might look.  But those drawings were, for me, a red flag that the vision of a Mixed Use, Transit Orientated Development is flawed.

To the best of my knowledge, no other concepts were actually explored.

Nothing exciting, unique or aesthetically memorable is shown in the brochure.

Those characteristics may be the very heart of “Northwest Style”.  It just may be that simple.


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