I live in a North Seattle neighborhood of modest houses built mostly in the early to late 1940s, generally single-story brick ramblers along with a few slightly larger houses of 1960s or 70s vintage. Back in January, I noticed some renovations being done an unassuming little house around the corner from mine on North 90th street. The house, which had a detached garage with a mother-in-law unit over it, appeared to be getting a much-needed makeover.
A few weeks later, construction crews started taking the garage apart. Or so I thought. Within weeks, the garage became a full-fledged and very tall modern home that towered over the surrounding houses. Not only was this new house out of scale and out of character with the rest of the neighborhood, no public notice of land use action had ever been posted signaling that the lot would be subdivided. I decided to try and find out how this could happen.
Searching on the Web, I was able to determine that the house(s) had been purchased on December 1st by Dan Duffus, one of the principals of Soleil Development, for $340,000. Actually, depending on whether you search on Trulia.com, Zillow.com or Redfin.com, the property is listed as 1911 or 1917 N. 90th. On December 5th, Duffus applied for a permit to construct "an extension of an existing structure" on the property though, again, there's some weirdness. The permits are for 1915 N. 90th, which as far as I can tell, doesn't exist as a stand-alone address. Nowhere on the permit application is there any mention of subdividing an existing lot. Duffus' application was approved on December 19th. I'm no expert on the building and permitting process, but a two-week turnaround seems pretty speedy, especially during the holidays.
It's hard to show just how much this new house dominates the skyline of the neighborhood. Not to mention that the architectural style is totally out of keeping with the surrounding houses.
In talking with some folks in the real estate community and judging from comments from various community activists, Duffus and Soleil aren't cut from the same cloth as the schlock developers who are littering the city with cheap, badly designed and poorly constructed townhouses. Of course, that's not exactly a tough standard. On the Soleil Development website, Duffus notes that he's a frequent participant in "focus groups" for the city and the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and credits himself with "understanding the complexity of Seattle's land-use code." In fact, Soleil has taken flack for shoehorning large projects through the DPD permitting system while avoiding any public comment or scrutiny. Soleil also touts its green credentials along with its design philosophy:
We are committed to sustainable practices, restoring and rehabbing existing properties and innovative designs that are in keeping with the character of a neighborhood. (emphasis mine.)
But if this house is in keeping with the character of my neighborhood, I'm a jelly donut.
Back to the search. While I now knew who was building the house, it still wasn't clear to me how they'd gotten approval for it. If you look at the site map (above), you'll notice that the lot is L-shaped, with the majority of the property extending behind the smaller home. Our neighborhood is designated SF5000, which is regulation-speak for saying that single family houses here require lots with a minimum of 5000 sq. feet. With a total lot size of 10,971 sq. feet, there's no way the area directly behind the new house would meet the minimum square footage standard.
It turns out that when Soleil later sold the small house (for $335,000), it included 5872 sq. ft. of property. That left roughly 5100 sq. ft of property for the much larger house, just enough to comply with city regulations. However, judging by the original map, the property line must have been gerrymandered pretty significantly to get there.
City building regulations also require that single-family homes not exceed 30 feet in height. Judging from the photo above, this house must be within microns of those limits.
I emailed Dan Duffus about the new house and he helpfully provided some information. He said it was approximately 1750 sq. ft and he hoped to sell it for $579,000. (Good luck with that in this economy, Dan...) So, by my math, that's $914,000 in proceeds from a $340,000 investment, minus construction costs. Say it cost a round figure of $200,000 to build that new house. Soleil could clear roughly $374,000 in profit on this little project.
Of course, the eventual owners of the new house will have unobstructed views into the backyards of the two houses immediately to the south of it (as well as mine) despite regulation six foot fences surrounding each. I suppose that's a feature.
But the entire project raises some serious questions about the city's construction planning and review process and the degree to which it favors developers over neighborhoods. How can an entirely new house be considered a renovation of an existing structure? How can a developer subdivide a single-family property without any public notice or opportunity for comment? And does a developer's involvement with city planning boards and focus groups provide him or her with an unfair advantage or influence?
In the meantime, we have a very obtrusive new addition to our neighborhood.