Grow won’t grow as much

“Who are those guys?”

Local architect Jonathan Davis likely wondered about that phrase made famous decades ago in the classic “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” movie when talking to the Bainbridge Island City Council last week.

Davis was requesting a change for a development in Winslow that would have less density, be green, have fewer traffic and parking issues, have more open space, less asphalt, be more visually pleasing to the eye – and so much more. Those are all things the council normally emphasizes for developments.

But in typical council fashion, it didn’t make it easy on the applicant. But this time it was for an entirely different reason. Councilmembers actually liked the previous version better because it had more density.

Doesn’t make sense? Well, yes it does actually. That’s because the development is in Winslow, where growth is targeted so population doesn’t creep to more rural areas of BI.

To be fair, councilmembers did praise the Grow development for its climate-friendly features. But they said this just isn’t the area where that is as big of a priority.

“I struggle with the different needs,” Councilmember Kirsten Hytopoulos said. “But we can’t make one parcel solve everything.”

Davis said the previous plan had more density but because of parking requirements in city code it would have had to be underground, which would be so expensive the project would not be affordable.

Maybe the city’s work on the Housing Action Plan this year will fix that and other issues.

Hytopolous blamed the city’s own code for making more density unaffordable for the developer. Also, the earlier version had rentals, which are in large demand. “We need to ensure that we get rentals, and they stay rentals,” she said. “We need to learn from this.”

Deputy Mayor Brenda Fantroy-Johnson said the phased-in approach over a number of years also is an issue because project and community needs have changed. “Nobody likes a big block of cement in the middle of any type of community,” she said of the original plan for parking. She said city code restrictions in this case dictated change. “I wish the city could be a better partner.”

Councilmember Leslie Schneider said the city’s parking requirements are a big part of the problem. “I wish the parking requirements could go away and let the market decide how many are needed,” she said. “We need to take the burden off our housing by saddling it with parking requirements.” The city could allow for other amenities, such as car sharing, “Which is coming in the near future.”

Mayor Joe Deets said he was reluctant to go with the project’s proposed changes because of the fewer housing units. “We have a severe housing crisis, and Winslow is where we want it to go,” he said.

Obviously sensing the opposition, Davis said some people don’t want anything built there. “It makes a great tobaggan hill for kids,” he said, adding owners could sell to another developer who could build something less attractive. He said they looked at the land available, the code restrictions and everything else to find a balance. “This is the one that made the most sense.”

He said whether 14, 40 or 60 housing units were built on the property, “It’s not going to solve the problems in one fell swoop.” Plus, he said it wouldn’t be fair of the city to expect the property owners to solve the housing crisis all on their own. “The community has a hole in it right now, but this is the best solution for this site.”

Davis said more housing units would require underground parking that would require a “big expensive hole in the ground built out of concrete and cost millions of dollars,” making that plan unaffordable for a market-rate project, or even an affordable housing project.

His comments seemed to change the discussion.

Most of the development is already done. Fantroy-Johnson called it a “great community,” and said the people who “live there are very happy.”

Schneider called it a “beautiful-looking development” with many pluses to it, especially regarding the climate, which the city is “addressing all over the place.”

Deets admitted it “was less attractive,” and now it “looks nice and seems to fit in in the neighborhood.”

Councilmember Clarence Moriwaki said he wishes it was an affordable housing project because that issue is at the top of his list. “It’s heartbreaking it’s not longer apartments” because people can’t afford to live on BI, he said. However, he loves the project’s new green footprint. “It has many things the community is asking developers to do.”

He added the project should be commended, and he’s glad the developers are sensitive to what the community wants. “It will be here long after us,” he said of the development.

Deets brought it back around to being the city’s fault for not having better code. “We have a lot of work to do,” he said. “We have to find a way to make this happen.”

City manager Blair King said city staff will prepare a document on the changes to bring back to the council for a vote.

Project changes

Davis opened the discussion by saying Grow was the first multigenerational development endorsed in the U.S. as a “resiliant neighborhood” that has inspired similar development and been used for student learning.

“Grow is good for Bainbridge,” he said. adding the property owners are longtime locals, and the contractor builds with a sustainable green canopy. The latest project is the last of three phases first approved in 2014. It was for 14 two-story multifamily units and four single-story family homes.

Because of the parking structure, that project no longer makes sense for the developer financially. Rather than build on 45,000 square feet, the revised project now builds on 20,000, meaning a much smaller footprint. There would be eight 2-bedroom homes of 991 square feet and six 1,560-square-foot, three-bedroom homes. “Less building, more open space,” he said, adding the new proposal received “enthusiastic” approval from the city’s Design Review Board.

He said it’s a rare project in that developers usually want the maximum density. “It’s far more energy efficient. It’s good for the people who use it and the community.”

Asked by Deets about affordability, Davis said when Phase 1 homes were sold schoolteachers were buying them at the market rate of $300,000. The new ones are about the same size, and while developers would like to keep them as inexpensive as possible, “the housing market here is crazy, as are construction costs.”

Davis said Phase 1 had 42 residences over 2.75 acres and the next phase 91 units over 5 acres.

Moriwaki said he “really liked in the first proposal” because there would have been rentals.

Davis said about 15% of the project already has rentals. He said rentals can be challenging in that someone has to commit to keep running them.

Public comments

There were only a few.

Mary Abarbanel, who lives in a finished portion of the development, said she lives close to the construction and is concerned about road access, no loading area for deliveries and only six guest parking spaces for the 14 units.

Her husband, Robert, said he likes that there is charging for electrical vehicles at all 14 units, but “serious inspection” needs to take place because code was not followed and mistakes were made during previous construction, leading to defects.

Two other residents supported the changes. But there was some concern about the project’s “aging in place” claim because multilevel buildings don’t support people who use wheelchairs.

Davis said maybe they should not “talk that way” about the project, but there is flexibility and a “blend of opportunities.” He said people with different abilities could live on the ground floor with a “caregiver upstairs or a spouse.”