Affordable housing on Bainbridge Island is one step closer to becoming a reality after the Planning Commission voted 5-2 last week to approve the Wintergreen Townhomes project, with conditions.
“Our development team very much appreciated the five planning commissioners who worked continuously with determination to complete their task last night, despite opposing members efforts to keep delaying the project,” developer David Smith said last week. “Though the process was so long the project was in jeopardy of being lost, we have renewed confidence that the Wintergreen Townhomes will become a reality.”
The project now goes to city Planning Director Heather Wright, and then on to the hearing examiner.
At the previous Planning Commission meeting, it said two factors were holding up approval. One was a 50-foot buffer from Highway 305. The other was assurance that the townhomes would remain affordable in perpetuity.
Attorney Gori Hayes addressed the buffer right off the bat. “We had to sharpen our pencils a little bit to make it work,” he said of the 50-foot buffer. Developers did away with a sidewalk and took 5 feet off the front yards. They also had to lose four parking spaces to now have 86. The courtyard area is narrowed to 8 feet at the north end, but is up to 50 feet wide in the southern end. “The changes are not very dramatic,” he said.
Along with the buffer, developers will build a 10-foot berm to help reduce noise. They will also plant trees to “improve the quality of life for those who live in the open market homes” on the west side of the project near Highway 305.
To make sure that 31 of the 73 homes remain affordable, the developers will sign covenants. It also is donating $10,000 for partners Housing Resources Bainbridge and Housing Kitsap for each of the 31 affordable homes and $1,500 for all 73 homes. “This is our good-faith effort to make the project work,” Hayes said.
He added United Food and Commercial union employees support the project because, “They struggle to live where they work,” Hayes said, adding 65% of grocery workers live off BI.
Not so fast
Despite those two main concerns being addressed, there ended up being more.
Kimberly McCormick-Osmond, planning commission chair, said she combed through public comments, looked at code provisions and design standards, and work done by the city’s Design Review Board to come up with a draft of potential conditions. “A matrix for marching through this.”
“They have the experience we don’t have” as our advisory committee, she said, adding the DRB recommended denial.
That upset Hayes. “It was frustrating, but we anticipated the opponents would bring up additional objections. We got it done in the end, but it was a heavy lift.”
Smith was a little more understanding, saying the “details” will “contribute to creating a livable and quality community” that “future homeowners would enjoy living in and have pride of ownership.”
Planning Commissioner Lisa Macchio, who along with Sarah Blossom ended up voting against the project, was concerned about traffic having to flow through parking lots of businesses next door. She said the city should do a lot more on High School Road to make it safer.
“They’re dropping a residential community into a commercial development,” she said, adding Wintergreen isn’t doing what the community wants with things like charging stations for electric cars and e-bicycles.
Hayes responded there are charging outlets in every garage, but they could put some outside, too. He said there are bike racks, and they’re open to a dog area. “We’re here to work with you,” he said.
As for safety, he said sidewalks go from the project to High School Road so pedestrians don’t have to go through parking lots.
Blossom said she wouldn’t vote for it because of parking. She wanted the developer to come back to the Planning Commission with a better plan. “I’m not comfortable that this will be adequately addressed,” she said.
Hayes said he knows the Planning Commission is seriously concerned about it, but there “still is a tremendous amount of review to go.”
Ironically, during public comments, two people mentioned Blossom’s passionate plea for affordable housing when she left the City Council a few years ago.
“I always support” affordable housing, except when it’s not done well, she said. Blossom said this project could hurt support for future projects because it’s not a good example. She has said the developer cut too many corners to make money.
Wright assured the commission that she would not approve the project until parking improvements are made.
Some on the commission voiced support for the project.
“Parking is not a fatal flaw,” Commissioner Yesh Subramian said. “I see light at the end of the tunnel.”
Joe Paar agreed nothing should hold back approval. “We talked exhaustively about this project,” he said, adding the list of conditions is really long.
As has been the case all along, Commissioner Ashley Mathews led the charge for affordable housing. “I’m a product of affordable housing,” she said, adding she only wants to “do what’s best for the community.” She said the development will bring a diverse set of community members to BI. “We all come from different places.”
Mathews did say she was disappointed in the DRB, and the developer, for letting negotiations get out of hand. “It was unacceptable on both ends. We can do better,” she said.
Another problem was misinformation, she said. For instance, neighbors at Stonecrest complained about things at Wintergreen that apply to their development as well. One even called the Wintergreen project a “ghetto.” Mathews said the Wintergreen developer should reach out to Stonecrest residents to “reach some common ground. Let’s stop the name-calling and come together to make this happen.”
McCormick-Osmond said the reason the commission “worked as hard as we have” is because it was an affordable housing project, and they were trying to make it livable for the people who are going to buy there.
Commissioner Bill Chester said what made it so hard is, “We don’t have an affordable housing ordinance.”
Hayes said it was like trying to fit “a round peg into a square hole.” He thanked the volunteer commission for making the process better, adding, “Emotions run high – especially with affordable housing.”
Phedra Elliott, executive director of HRB, says in an email they are happy the project is moving ahead. “It will make a measurable difference in who can afford to live on Bainbridge Island.”
She says despite the long process, they felt confident about a compromise. “Affordable housing is very important to so many on Bainbridge, including those on Planning Commission and DRB.”
Elliott said she was glad the city boards fought for quality, attractive homes, and that Central Highlands was willing to help HRB out financially. “CHI understands that as a business, HRB has expenses to meet also and wanted to support our ability to do this project,” her email says.