Little Boxes on the Hillside

The 1972 Malvina Reynolds song, “Little Boxes on the Hillside” criticized the homogenization of a culture obsessed with materialism and upward mobility that was displacing any sense of character, place or individuality, set to a self-referentially folksy tune. As much as the song is a critique of post-war American values, in my view it is perfectly well suited as a critique of post-recession residential construction on Queen Anne.

There are few blocks remaining in our historic neighborhood that are not host to a “contemporary modern” box of a house, the sole purpose of which it seems is to provide the requisite rooftop deck. Neighborhoods are living, evolving things. Not every house on Queen Anne needs to be an early 20th century bungalow, or one of the stately beauties that popped up on its south slope after the introduction of streetcar service in 1902. But every house should be a good and respectful neighbor.

One of the more architecturally eclectic parts of the hill is Queen Anne Park. The area was developed over a period that straddled the Great Depression and post-war prosperity. The majority of its homes enjoy a mutual respect based on scale, construction quality and site consumption despite the decades that separate them. This characteristic allows for a certain quality of life, the value of which is difficult to quantify. But key to that quality of life are two elements: air and sunlight. In residential neighborhoods, these elements are preserved by rooflines that angle or step back to allow light and breezes to move past, around and over them to surrounding properties; and by limiting the footprint of a home to no greater than half of its lot to preserve livable outdoor space.

A Dryvit-clad house with a rooftop-deck looms over a neighboring home in Queen Anne.

Over the past decade it has become sadly predictable that when a Queen Anne home is torn down, a characterless, three-story, box-plus-rooftop-deck will spring up in short order. And this home will be built to eat up as much of the lot as possible to maximize the size of the dwelling below deck; resulting in rooms so large that there is no need for clever, efficient design. The effect on surrounding neighbors is immediate and negative. Less natural light will shine into their homes, and fewer cool breezes will travel through their backyards during our cherished summer months. And if one is fortunate enough to enjoy a peek-a-boo view, it will likely be obstructed by 4,000 square feet of Dryvit-clad belligerence. Many are embellished with a dizzying array of surface materials; some corrugated sheet metal here and there, a few token rectangles of board siding arranged in competing directions in a feeble attempt to convey the illusion that there is something architectural going on.

But these homes are not only discourteous neighbors; they do a disservice to those who live in them as well. Sacrificing easily accessible outdoor space to accommodate a rooftop deck is problematic at best. Unless the designer of the home had the foresight to give up deck square footage for a top-floor room with a half-bath and storage for cold drinks, (or at the very least a dumbwaiter) the deck will rarely see use. Several homes with rooftop decks can be seen from my house and I have never, not once, seen anyone use them. It’s a pain to haul stuff up and down from there. It’s a pleasure to step out into a well-designed and landscaped backyard and wave to your neighbor, whose name you know, enjoying theirs. The sense of community and quality of life imparted by thoughtful design cannot be overstated.

This modern Queen Anne home features distinct façade articulation, high-quality materials and construction. The protruding steel-and-glass window arrangement wrapping the corner balances the weightiness of the brick. The absence of vertical boards at the corner of the horizontal siding shows the care in construction taken to miter the wood for perfect alignment.

 

That is not to say that all contemporary modern homes being built on Queen Anne are discourteous neighbors, even some of the boxy ones. It’s a delighted to see a modern home designed with sensitivity to scale by an architect and client who understand that modernism cannot be successfully executed with inexpensive materials, stock windows and spec-house quality construction. Lack of decorative detail in modern design is deceptive; it requires high-quality materials applied with jewel-box-precise construction to be pulled off. And with any style of architecture, a well thought out and harmonious relationship to site and surroundings allows a home to be a standout rather than a sore thumb.

This modern Queen Anne home features a curvilinear roofline, extensive glazing and Corten steel cladding. High-quality materials and construction methods like these are important factors in successful modern design.

With no enforceable design ordinances in place to discourage construction of the less courteous boxes on the hill one can only hope that this trend will subside before our streets become dark canyons and our historic sense of place is lost. Until then it appears that, for the most part, they will all be made of ticky-tacky and all look just the same

Unreliable Safeway and Thriftway memories prove you don’t always get what you wish for!

Metropolitan Market Goodbye Sign.

Memoirs retell important experiences in human lives, but I think they are unreliable history. This story is my memory of efforts to stop the construction of an expanded Queen Anne Thriftway in 1990 and to block a new Safeway megastore on its nearly full block site in 1993. As sure as I am that these events actually took place, I worry about the details.

First a couple of facts: I live a bit east of both sites on First Avenue North. In 1990, I was the director of the Seattle Children’s Museum, and the Queen Anne Thriftway was a major donor. Talk about conflicts of interest! During this period, the state passed the Growth Management Act which prompted the city’s first 35-year master plan. That plan encouraged new zoning requirements and created urban villages including one on upper Queen Anne that runs west on Galer and stretches alley to alley on either side of Queen Anne Ave. N. except at Safeway where it extends to my street. I love the master plan. It called for increased density in the ‘village’ while protecting the surrounding single-family housing we cherish. The property owners of both the Thriftway and Safeway sites may have been trying end runs around the master plan before it became law in 1993.

Looking northeast at The Towne across the old parking lot.

In about 1990, the Cox family, that owned the Thriftway site, collaborated with Dick Rhodes, the store’s owner, to replace the building with a low-rise structure covering the entire site. The idea to build a store with underground parking and a much bigger footprint on the land provoked neighbors who, while loving the Thriftway, had no desire for a larger store with apartments plunked on top of it. Ours was an anti-density push that reeked of nimbyism and an unwillingness to see the neighborhood change. I was among the people who prevailed at public and design review meetings. I was also among those who cheered when the ownership abandoned the project. Seattle’s up and down economy along with national busts in both 2001 and 2008 helped preserve the existing fabric of the neighborhood. At that time, we didn’t worry about preserving the Elfrieda at Crockett and Queen Anne Ave. or either bungalow on Crockett which shared the same ownership.  Later the Cox family working with Kroger tried again to redevelop the site for a big QFC. That idea failed mainly because Kroger didn’t have the resources to buy into the massive undertaking. Ultimately developer Joe Geivett of Emerald Bay Equity acquired the site along with the Elfrieda and the bungalows. Tearing down everything on the half-block for a multitude of shops below and 140 apartment units above, Joe tried to lease the store in his new building to Thriftway under its new Metropolitan Market banner, but the numbers didn’t work. After closing its doors in 2012, Met Market abandoned the top of the hill focusing on the new store down the hill where it had taken over the bankrupt Larry’s Market. No laggard, Trader Joe’s snapped up a part of the space.

Looking east at what’s left of Elfrieda.

The Safeway’s 1993 redevelopment ideas struck me as even worse than those for Thriftway. Safeway touted the construction of a megastore which would attract shoppers from around the region. I don’t remember how many floors of apartments Safeway and its architect Val Thomas proposed, but we hated it too. The idea of a massive influx of automobiles choking our pleasant hilltop neighborhood appalled us. We didn’t look at the quality of Val Thomas’s design, perhaps because we were conflicted. We all knew Val as the architect of the marvelous preservation project at West Queen Elementary. Indeed, Val lived there in a fantastic condo he converted from the gym. Val also impressed us with his work at Capitol Hill’s Broadway Market. In the end, Safeway relented adopting an addition by Thomas that obscured its historic rainbow roof (it is still there) and the under-scaled clock tower at Crockett and Queen Anne Ave.

Safeway Bell Tower looking northeast.

Alas, when you try to protect the fabric of your neighborhood, you never know what you are wishing for. Now I see that our hostility may have been a mistake. If Metropolitan Market had built a modest building on Queen Anne Ave. N., we’d have been spared the huge development that sits there now, and we might still have our cherished supermarket and Elfrieda with her two bungalow sisters on Crockett. Now comes Safeway this year with a scheme to build out and up. We don’t know what it will look like, but our success in 1993 left the parking lot fallow ground awaiting Seattle’s next big boom and Val Thomas’ sensitive design unbuilt.

My tale is a cautionary one. Think big when you oppose increased density or up-zoning and don’t forget you don’t always get what you wish for.

Now you have my memories and the opinions they shape. They may be false. I sort of hope they are, for the errors will prove the unreliability of memoirs.  I promise to follow up with new information from folks who correctly remember these grocery store battles. Better yet, I could research the facts!