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The Site of City People’s Garden Store: A Complex Future

Having gone through several phases of grieving over the pending loss of a beloved institution, central Seattle must now come to grips with what will take the place of City People’s Garden Store in Madison Valley. With a portion of the nursery’s ownership group having determined it’s time to move on and not renew the lease to the business that calls it home, the end of 2016 will bring an end to 28 years of peddling greenery, and will usher in a new mixed-use building on this oddly shaped, complex site.

Preliminary documents filed with the city to initiate the permitting process identify the proposal as “New construction of a 165,570 so mixed use building with 75 proposed units and 164 parking spaces.” Given the current setting of the site not only as home to a landmark business, but also a simple one-story building with a footprint covering barely one-half of the property, the dry description alone of that level of pending change is enough to give nearby residents the willies. Layer on top of that the bit of harrowing recent history where a resident, one Kate Fleming, in a property just downhill from the site drowned in her own house from raging overflow storm water an aging and overmatched storm system simply couldn’t handle, and you have the makings of genuine development drama. As concerned citizens listened to an April 9 meeting convened by a newly formed group with the torch-and-pitchfork moniker, “Save Madison Valley”, issues not only of stormwater, but of parking, traffic, seismic safety, green preservation and community character were all raised.

To be sure, this is a complicated site, even without the background of tragedy and loss. Despite the expansiveness one might feel when plying the current rows of potted trees and shrubs, the property is not large by commercial standards, especially considering the sharp taper the lot lines follow at the eastern edge of the site. Also impinging on the buildable area is the steep drop- off down to Dewey Place to the southeast, which at greater than 40% grade, is automatically considered an environmental critical area by City regulations, which triggers a host of constraints on what can be done with a new structure. To tread near or in that slope will cost the developer dearly in terms of high-priced foundation work that will actually stabilize the hillside far more than it currently is today.

Current stormwater management regulations will force any development here to provide detention structures (commonly this means massive below-grade vaults) to hold rainwater on site and only allow it to enter the existing system and a controlled outflow. This should actually provide some peace of mind to those living below, as this will lessen the risk of a repeat of the tragic flash flood of 2006.

The building height issue, as the speaker at the April 9 event alluded, will be complicated. The maximum allowable height in this zone is 40 feet, but when a commercial property abuts a single-family zone as this one does, the building must step back and away. Calculating where that 40’ actually occurs is based on existing grades, meaning that as grades drop, so does the maximum height along with it. Couple that with the trapezoidal lot shape, and the architects will have their hands full attempting to hit a maximum buildable envelope with anything rational and useable toward the narrow east end.

This observer holds out hope that the solution the design team comes up with is skillful and sensitive enough to work with the opportunities as well as all the complexities of the site. The curious little holler that is Dewey Place below the lot to the southeast is quiet and subdued, but oddly disconnected from the heart of Madison Valley thrumming just above. A humble pedestrian connection up to Madison Street, constructed by this project at its own expense, could be a sweet addition, and undeniably a benefit for the overall public good. And while the shoes of City People’s will be impossible to fill, the new tenant – which the City People’s website guarantees will “not (be) a Walgreens or any other pharmacy” – may, who knows, grow to be an institution the community adores.

~Jeff Floor, Co-Chair of the Land Use Review Committee

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