Affordable housing vs. design standards

  • Sunday, February 28, 2021 8:12am
  • News

Bainbridge Island faces a quandary. It wants to have affordable housing, but it also has high design standards.

Something has to give. For years it’s been the lack of affordable housing. Now, a developer hopes the city will back off some on design so he can afford to build the Wintergreen Townhomes.

Planning Commissioner Joe Paar gets it. “You don’t get all the whistles and bells” with affordable housing, he said at a recent online public hearing.

He encouraged developer David Smith of Central Highlands Inc. to continue to work with the city to make the housing happen. “We have a need for this,” Paar said, adding it’s a good location, close to services, shopping and transportation off High School Road and Highway 305.

He said residents would not be car-dependent, which would be good for lowering greenhouse gas emissions, another of the city’s goals.

Paar said he knows Smith has a difficult job trying to win over the city, but to consider ideas brought forward that night. “I hope you try to weave and bend to move it forward,” he said.

Commissioner Ashley Mathews agreed with Paar. She said if BI wants affordable housing to provide equity, it’s not going to get it if its design standards are so prohibitive. “I think this is a great project. I hope you are able to make it happen,” she said.

Mathews does not think the project is perfect, by any means. She said a traffic light may be needed at McDonalds because turns are confusing. She also recommended encouraging biking more than walking. “I’m a new electric biker,” she said, adding the ferry is too far away for many people to walk.

Jon Quitslund, who normally is a strong advocate for affordable housing, said he has doubts about the project; some of it is hard to understand. He said he’d like to see a list of risks vs. benefits. “There are many parties with different needs,” he said, adding, “It’s somewhat of an adversarial process.”

Two other planning commissioners were strong against the project, instead favoring design standards.

Lisa Macchio said the planning commission spent a lot of time on design guidelines. “When you pack a lot of people into a place like this” it lacks community spaces, like a garden, she said. Macchio would like to see more land and trees and less asphalt. She said the design standards show “how to create livable places in concert with nature.”

Sarah Blossom said this project has to be a success otherwise it will be tough for residents to accept other affordable housing projects in the future. “The way you want to do this project is not going to work,” she said. Blossom said the housing is not inexpensive. “$350,000 for tiny units is not what the community had in mind for affordable housing,” she said.

During public comments, residents brought up concerns such as: noise, safety, standing water, traffic and trash dumpster location. Others were concerned units would be bought and turned into rentals. But it was pointed out that a new city law keeps affordable housing in place for decades.

Resident Georg Svertsen said: “We need affordable housing. It’s been over 16 years. I cannot believe we’re not just moving forward.”

In a previous meeting with the Design Review Board, developer Smith and his lawyer, Hayes Gori, argued with Joe Dunstan, chairman of the DRB. Those disagreements continued at this meeting.

They disagreed over whether the setback off Highway 305 needs to be 50 or 25 feet. Wintergreen is planning a 35-foot setback.

They disagreed if Wintergreen has to go offsite for parking. Gori said while they would like to be able to use parking at Virginia Mason it’s not needed. They already have a number of extra spaces, he said.

Dunstan called the architecture “boring” and said developers have not been willing to change designs. The board also had ideas on nearby wetlands that the developers did not incorporate. And Dunstan said Wintergreen’s traffic study is flawed.

Gori said some of Dunstan’s information is for commercial, not residential, development. He also said the development meets or exceeds city code and actually has double the required open space.

Smith said they have responded to some DRB desires to add to residents’ “quality of life. We’re not short-changing these future homeowners,” he said.

As for noise, it was mentioned that it would not be hard to mitigate with certain types of windows.

As for traffic concerns, Smith said 74 homes is just a portion of the 140 that could have been built there. He also mentioned even before COVID-19 more people were using the Kingston ferry and fewer using the one in BI.

Smith said the development plans to sell some homes to the Community Land Trust, and that their self-help program is vital to getting costs down.

As for affordability, Smith said two-story townhomes with 766 square feet would sell for $350,000. However, people who qualify for the self-help program would get a discounted price to $265,000. Larger three-story 923 square foot homes with a garage underneath would sell for $422,000.

While only 26 of the two-story units have to be affordable, Wintergreen plans for all 36 to be. Smith said it’s their way of giving back to the community but “we need open market housing to survive” with the rest of the development.

“There’s an affordable housing crisis in America, the state and Bainbridge island,” Gori said. He called housing a “basic human need” that many people who work on BI can’t afford so they commute, adding to congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. He said since affordable housing became voluntary in 2005 there has been none built. He called it a social justice and equity issue.

Planning commission chairwoman Kimberly McCormick Osmond ended the online meeting by saying, “It’s been a very helpful exchange of ideas.”

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