Tag Archives: development

Distinctive Mercer Island Home to Go Under for Subdivision

Most houses don’t have a website. Mine doesn’t. But The Coval House does. It’s an old homestead on 5 acres near Luther Burbank Park. According to the site, “There are four enduring qualities that the Covals held in highest regard: a passion for natural materials, an honesty and excellence in workmanship, a reverence for the past, and a desire for the understated.”
Photo from the Coval House website.

The Mercer Island Reporter has reported that the home, orchard, and rest of the grounds will go under for 18 homes after the owners failed to sell it. The Reporter included the plans and did a nice job of being objective.

Luckily, I don’t have to be objective. It’s a damn shame that a beautifully built and maintained house is going to go down. This isn’t about density or affordability. It’s about losing a distinctive piece of Seattle history to mega mansions. Look at the plat plan in the Reporter article– the homes are on top of each other.

If you went to the Mohia’s Celluloid Seattle exhibit, you saw a lot of before-and-after of great theaters in Seattle. Some are heartbreaking, like this one:
Photo from Mohai’s Celluloid Seattle.

To me this project is our equivalent of knocking down a theater house for a noodle joint in a strip mall.

Issaquah Highlands

Unfortunately, right now a rant is all I got. Except an appeal to the planning commission at their Jan 15 meeting: don’t let this happen.

Horse Farm Or Phoenix? New Horse Farm to Go In On Old Stevenson Horse Farm

Have a seat y’all, you’re not going to believe this scoop.

Have you driven by that property on Island Crest Way that used to be a horse farm? You probably have. It sold in Aug 2012 for $5.85 million, and the horses went away.  I fully expected to see a subdivision go up there.

We are luckier than that. According to tipper Bill Kratz, the story goes like this:

“After the sale of the Stevenson property to the MI School District was aborted by the voters disapproval of the  Board of Education’s plans for remodeling and expanding schools (oh well, that’s another story), the property was quietly sold to  TAE Real Estate Holdings of Bellevue.  The only public word was that the new owners intended to continue using the property for equestrian purposes.  The existing buildings and “horse shacks” on the property were demolished, and for some time a construction fence has surrounded a large portion of the property.

A little investigation reveals that TAE Real Estate Holdings is owned by Thomas Ellison (or perhaps the Ellison family), also of Bellevue, and heir to Savers Inc., parent of the Value Village empire.  The Ellisons have since switched the ownership of the Island Crest property to a new entity, MI Funny Farm LLC.  As preliminary work on the property has crept along, more and more building permits have been issued for various preparatory stages of work.  From these building permits, we discover the architects involved with the project. The firm is McClellan Architects, a first-rate firm.

Now for the exciting part … on the McClellan website, under “In Construction” we find a nice set of computer renderings of what is to become of the old Stevenson properties.  They are only referenced as “island equestrian”, but there is little doubt that they are for MI.”

The images in this blog are from that site, and there is a good set of drawings there. I encourage you to check them out there.

We Could Learn a Lot from Crossroads: MICC Lunch Thursday

Never thought I would say this about a mall, but we could learn a lot from Crossroads. It’s not really a mall: it’s an event space, a library, a grocery store, a community place, a food court (ok, maybe it is really a mall.)

This Thursday at the MI Chamber of Commerce membership lunch the developer of Crossroads, Ron Sher, will be the guest. The MICC says: “He is a different kind of developer – a number cruncher who loves books and believes in community which he incorporates in all his projects.”

Here are some of the cool things Crossroads does:

  • Host community celebrations, like India Days which draws from and celebrates the nearby Indian community
  • Have retail that engages people in activities beyond shopping, and brings them back regularly. There are a couple of craft shops for kids, and a Michaels and JoAnn Fabrics that bring out the crafters.
  • Have only local food in the food court, no chains.

There’s a lot more, like putting a supermarket right in the middle of everything and having tons of kids and music events. Downtown Mercer Island could be that good, and even better, our common space is outside not inside a mall. We just have to connect up a few good walking strips and get rid of some of the massive parking lots that break up the vibe of a downtown walking area.

If you’ve got time, join for the Thursday lunch.
Cost: $15 for members, $18 for non members
RSVP: info@mercerislandchamberofcommerce.org

What’s Going Up at the Old Safeway?

The old Safeway site near Aljoya and Freshy’s is finally seeing activity. After a few years of sad destitution, including acting as a temporary parking lot for the Park & Ride while it was under construction, it’s under development:

Destruction of the Safeway seems complete, now to build something in its place.

The MI Reporter reports that BRE Properties is the developer. Plans are:
A six-level mixed use building with one floor of below-grade parking, a ground level accommodating different commercial uses and four floors of apartments.

The new building will have an estimated 166 residential units, and 312 parking spaces with 85 set aside for business customers. A total of 12,000 square feet will be for retail spaces, a restaurant or professional offices.

In keeping with the modern tradition of pretentious and meaningless condo names, the project will be called “Aviara.” Sounds like a step forward for that area of downtown, though, and I hope they get some great retail in there. BRE is based in San Francisco and has built developments from San Diego on up, including several in the Seattle area. Here’s a list.

On the Development of Mercer Island

Interesting perspective on the development of Mercer Island housing styles from the Greater Seattle Homes blog:

The first floating bridge to provide a real path to the eastside was built across Lake Washington in 1940, about where I-90 is today, and development of Mercer Island and Bellevue commenced. From a housing point of view, most of the housing on the Seattle side of Lake Washington is at least 50 years old, built in the styles of those times, usually with nice formal rooms like living room and dining room, tending toward pretty utilitarian kitchens and baths, and often with a basement – usually finished out and incorporated into the living space by now.

Map for showing the housing development waves for the Greater Seattle area
Development on Mercer Island and Bellevue, including Medina and Clyde Hill, and Kirkland proceeded pretty rapidly during the 50’s and 60’s, and the typical housing style was a rambler, or a ‘daylight rambler’ on a hillside, and basements were uncommon in that era.

Housing styles changed rapidly in the 70’s with the popularity of natural wood (usually cedar), exposed beams, and big windows – perhaps influenced by the spectacular house in the great 1959 thriller film North by Northwest with Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason.

The other major housing style to emerge on the eastside in the 70’s was the tri-level, a new design with the entry at mid-level, and living spaces either a half-flight up or a half flight down. Another common design during this period was the tri-level, a very livable and still popular design for sloping lots.

North by Northwest house image credit: Dailyicon.net

The State of Downtown: Groundswell Growing (and Condos Opening)

Our post on the new planning director generated strong opinions. From Bill:

Decades of (perhaps well-intentioned) planning, codification, blah, blah, blah… has resulted in concrete canyons with walls of completely uninspired architecture. A glance down any of these canyons on any day, at any time, reveals a line of vehicles, like a mechanized stream following the ravine, and only rarely an actual pedestrian. It’s basically a ghost town. If the citizens of Mercer Island want something more remarkable, it will take the energetic visions of many, and changes in the behavior of the vast majority.

“Like a mechanized stream following the ravine…”

And  from Ben, some ideas:

I’m interested in working to build character on the island, I hope I’m not alone. I think there are some simple things that could be done — like adding back some of the original street names. And, some more complicated things — like turning the Luther Burbank waterfront powerhouse into some kind of cafe/coffee shop.

Ben, you are not alone. Many residents feel that downtown could be much more vibrant than it is.

Also this weekend, the condos at 7800 are having a Grand Opening. Interesting that they advertise the walkscore of downtown:

7800, welcome to the neighborhood and we hope you rent your retail space to businesses that we want to walk to, not real estate companies and banks.

Mercer Island Nabs City Planning Director from Bellingham

The Bellingham Herald reports that “Planning & Community Development Director Tim Stewart will leave the city to take a job with the city of Mercer Island.” Chief lures on our part for Stewart seemed to be a shorter commute (Stewart lives in Seattle) and a higher salary.

Open letter to our new Director of Development Services:

Welcome! We’re really glad you’ve come. Downtown Mercer Island is a hodgepodge of development with a few great businesses (Bennett’s, Island Books, Six Walls, Cellar 46) but no real walking section. Even the Starbucks is known for its drive through!

Our prime real estate in the middle of downtown is dominated by banks and real estate agents, neither of which are fun to browse on a Saturday afternoon. We could learn a lot from Fairhaven and other parts of Bellingham. Please help.

P.S. Please bring us a killer brewpub like Boundary Bay too.

Photo credit: hopeisalot on Flickr.

Worth Reading: Publicola on Mercer Island Downtown

Walkable Suburbanism: If not on Mercer Island, then Where? and the Manhattanization of Mercer Island both discuss the mid-rises going up on the Island. Good articles, but I think Dan missed the mark on two things (read on).

Dan writes:
“Which leads me to the aspect of the downtown Mercer Island story that I find most compelling, and that’s how the place is such a fascinating living example of our struggles to retrofit suburbia. It’s a classic, last-century, unabashedly car-oriented built environment being invaded by walkable urbanism. It’s a jarring mix, like awkward adolescence, stuck in the middle and still trying to have it both ways.”

Worth reading. As is an older Seattle PI article on the lack of vision in design of Mercer Island’s downtown. However,

Counterpoint #1:The foot traffic to the farmers’ market makes me think that Mercer Island isn’t as car-wedded as the authors think. People are just looking for a place to walk to. But unless you live near North Island or South Island shopping centers, walking isn’t really an option. And the little bus that goes around the Island isn’t that convenient or regular either (try taking it in the middle of the day during the week.) If it were, more Island residents might take it to North Island and walk around for the afternoon.

Counterpoint #2: The bigger mistake Dan made is to assume that the development is making MI more walkable. If all the retail space weren’t vacant, banks, or real estate offices, it might do. Putting these mid-rises up hasn’t done that yet. We’ll revisit this topic later…

What Exactly Are the Development Rules on Mercer Island?

I keep coming back to the subject of development, especially when I drive by a new mega mansion looming over its neighbors, all the trees on the lot cut down.

And occasionally old growth trees are coming down via development and windstorms. That’s natural, but few young evergreens are growing up in neighborhoods. I fear in 50 years Mercer Island will be some shadeless, denuded LA-lookalike suburb. I exaggerate, but not by much (see Issaquah).
Not Mercer Island. Not even Issaquah. LA.

The Rate of Change

Let’s look at the data. A Redfin search shows that 195 new homes either are on the market now or were sold in the last three years. I’m defining a new home as one built in 2000 or later. That’s not complete data, and it doesn’t tell us how many megamansions were built and how many of those lots were all but clearcut. But net 200 homes isn’t a bad rate of development.

The Law

So what’s in place to retain the character of the Island?

  • The Mercer Island’s Comprehensive Plan provides for between 800-odd to 1,700-odd new homes. It says “Currently, the island is almost fully
    developed, consistent with the long term goals of maintaining a single family residential community within a unique physical setting (pg.3)… The City is committed to implementing policies aimed at preserving and enhancing the Island’s physical characteristics. Regulatory tools such as the Zoning Code, Subdivision Ordinance, Critical Lands Regulations, Shoreline Master Program, Tree Ordinance and Design Standards continue to serve as the underpinning for protection of environmental values.(pg. 7)”
  • Mercer Island has surface area restrictions, which means that development can cover a max of 40% of a lot (for flat lots). But you can get a permit for an exemption, and Jason notes in the comments on an earlier blog: “there are ways around square footage restrictions and many, many exceptions to the rules on impervious surfaces — with offsets and exempted uses, etc.” I don’t know how many surface area exemptions have been granted by permit.
  • For any major development, the Design Commission must approve the project according a defined process with citizen comment. Major development is typically large buildings (like the new Boys & Girls Club) and new development in the North Island Commercial Center.

Avoid Issaquah

Let’s be clear: I believe in property rights. People who own land should be able to do what they want with it, like build on it, within certain limits set by the community. I’m not against all development, or tearing down old homes to build new ones.

I just don’t want Mercer Island to look like Issaquah (sorry Issaquah):

issaquah-development-2 No trees, no style.

Photo credit: JannK for LA and youngster for Issaquah.

Listen to the Trees

Or at least the Mercer Island Arborist, who can be presumed to speak for the trees. I left her a message a while back after a fierce windstorm. She was very nice when she called me back.

I was asking whether we should be concerned about the tall trees in the neighborhood blowing down. We bought our house from owners who had cut down three tall trees in the last two years, weakening the grove around. That seems to be common around the Island– groves are thinned over time, and there are few young trees.


My understanding of the MI tree situation based on our conversation:

Planting and Cutting Down Trees

If you remove trees from a grove, the grove is weaker than before. Planting new trees is great: the city lets people plant trees wherever they like and whatever they like, although there are some restrictions in certain geologic hazard area like streams, wetlands, or steep slopes.

They also encourage people not to plant big tall trees in the middle of someone’s view. That’s being a good neighbor.

To cut down trees, you need a permit two years before and two years after construction. That’s to avoid clearcuts, although those have happened. The commercial zone needs permit to remove anything because those buildings went through design review.

Also, what many people don’t know is that right of way trees (on roads) are protected. Parks and easements are also protected. And state and federal regulations protect our 6 eagle circles (there’s a map in city hall).

Health of the Island’s Grove

The arborist couldn’t make a statement on this but did note that we have had a lot of construction on the Island, and we still have a lot of great trees. More info from the city is here.

And by the way, Arbor Day is April 11.

How to Get Trees

There are plenty of nice nurseries around: Squak Mountain, Bellevue Nursury, Wells Medina and Molbaks. The Arbor Day Foundation will also send you ten trees with a $10 membership. Most of the choices are short or flowering trees, except the Eastern Red Cedar option which can grow to 40 feet.

red_cedar 40 feet isn’t so tall in the West.

If you plant a tree or two, you’ll need to water it through the summer. Plant tall trees in places where they can support each other, since single tall trees are much weaker than groves. It might help keep the Island semi-wooded after the big construction boom of the last few years.

Bonus Link: Hour of Darkness

In other tree-hugging news, the Reporter notes that Mercer Island had joined the national hour of darkness tonight between 830 and 930 pm. Parks and city facilities are shutting off lights and the city’s asking homes to do so as well.

Photos: Top, caitlinburke on flickr. Bottom: fcps.edu.