Opinion: How does Edmonds want to be seen? Time to make a list


By Eric Livingston

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; aesthetics is not.

Don’t believe me?

Then I’d like to ask you – the reader – to participate in a little experiment. It should only take a few minutes.

All you have to do is make two lists. The first list is – in order of preference – the 10 most beautiful buildings in the Edmonds’ Bowl. The second list is – again, in order of preference – the 10 ugliest buildings in the Edmonds’ bowl.

The only limitation is that all buildings listed must be commercial, professional or government buildings. NO PRIVATE RESIDENCES are to be listed (condos are OK – I guess). Also, the buildings on your lists should be known by their name or business; i.e.  City Hall, the movie theater or such and such bank etc…  Got it? Definitely – NO ADDRESSES and NO PRIVATE RESIDENCES.

Like I said, these lists should only take a few minutes – so while you’re creating your lists; I’m going to the kitchen and make a sandwich.

Ok, I’m back and hopefully you’ve made your selections. The next step is, you can post your lists in the comment section on this page. I’ll make a list too and post it with the next article.

The phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is often misused to justify poor design – situations where somebody tries to justify poor taste by judging according to their individual preference. The actual meaning of the phrase goes further than individual taste and shared understandings of aesthetics.

Now I’m going to presume that the question you might have in the back of your mind is — if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then why isn’t aesthetics also in the eye of the beholder? Both subjects are related and both deal with our personal likes and dislikes. The same question popped into my mind as I thought about beauty and aesthetics.

But they are not the same.  The following examples might help:

First example: I like Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Most people that I know strongly dislike Pollock’s artwork. Even the other students in the art classes I took in college hated Pollock’s work. In fact, most folks don’t understand why Pollock’s stuff is in art museums around the world.

So why do I like something that nearly everybody I know hates? I dunno. Individual taste, I guess.

Second example:  Everyone I know loves the fall colors as the leaves turn from summer green to dazzling reds, gold and orange.  Even I do. However, when I lived in New England, I hated being stuck in traffic as the “leaf peepers” stopped their cars and took zillions of photos.

The second example shows there are some types of beauty that everybody enjoys. This is known as ‘Universal Aesthetics’

The point of all this is twofold. First, we all know that we, we lucky few, who live in Edmonds, live in a very beautiful spot. Second, and most important, if we are not careful we will lose a great deal of that beauty.

What this is leading to, is that on Feb. 5, Edmonds dodged a bullet when the Edmonds City Council voted to amend the Harbor Square Master Plan rather than simply accept the Port of Edmonds proposal.

As I understand it, the intention of the council is to eliminate major parts of the plan — like 55-foot building heights — and replace that with a lower height limit; or to eliminate the possibility of residential use. I’m not overly sure what the council’s ideas are, but they are going to start deliberating ideas in about five weeks.

The big problem is, Edmonds doesn’t have a clear idea of what Edmonds should look like. The Municipal Code and the Comprehensive Plan give guidelines to the look of the landscaping, the “massing of buildings,” “building’s modulated surfaces” and (my personal favorite) “buildings should of a pedestrian scale.” These terms aren’t clearly defined anywhere in the city’s codes or plans, so that – unless one is an architect – it is extremely confusing for anyone to build anything in this city.

In fact, in the Design Standards sections in the Muni Code or the Comp Plan, there is no defined architectural style for Edmonds.
Yes, we have an Architectural Design Board, but they are limited to making sure that the proposed building designs merely conform to the design standards outlined in the Muni Code. Then they can either recommend/not recommend the builder’s/developer’s design to the City Council to vote to approve, disapprove or amend the required permits.

Consequently, some really wonky-looking buildings get built. A prime example would be the new apartments on Edmonds Way.  You know the one I mean. The building, which is 55-feet tall, painted grey and burnt orange, looks like it should have razor wire and search lights to keep the residents from escaping. This building is right across the street from the gorgeous building the veterinary clinic built.

The city is now studying how to use “form-based codes,” which may give the city and its planners greater control over what, where and how property gets developed. Insofar as I understand this new-fangled concept, there is (again) no architectural style standard discussion for Edmonds. But — and this may actually be more important — there is no anti-franchise architecture language in either the current codes or design standards, and until there is, there will be no such language in the form-based codes if/when utilized by Edmonds.

In short, unless we lucky few who live, pay taxes and vote in beautiful Edmonds, can get language that clearly define the aforementioned terms and define a desirable architectural style in our Comp Plan and Muni Code, we could easily find ourselves living in a city with no aesthetic value. Strip mall and franchise-designed buildings will dominate and the only real beauty will be when we look away from our beloved town and look across Puget Sound at the Olympic Mountains.

When we return our gaze to Our Fair City, we’ll wonder what happened.

Your lists of buildings – of what works and what doesn’t work – are extremely important to give our elected officials an understanding of where the citizens want to go and how we want to be seen.

To be continued……..

About the author: Eric B. Livingston has degrees in art (focusing on sculpture and a minor in music), culinary art, technical writing and has credits towards an MBA. He has been awarded prizes for photography and portrait sculpture, has had a one man show, as well as having had work accepted in juried art exhibitions in Pennsylvania and Connecticut. He has researched and written papers on “Aesthetic Universals in Art”, “Linguistics of Food/Cookery” (which was submitted to the 2009 Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery), a white paper for a non-electric irrigation pump manufacturer and wrote several pieces for Seattle Home & Lifestyles magazine. Currently he is a freelance web designer and tech writer. He resides in Edmonds with wife, Eliza, and a dog, Pershing.

25 Replies to “Opinion: How does Edmonds want to be seen? Time to make a list”

  1. “Strip mall and franchise-designed buildings will dominate…” so far, I’ve not seen any plans to suggest this statement is accurate Eric. If you know where I can find such plans, please let me know as I’ll be right along side you to stop any such progress on those plans.

    Two buildings come to mind – the mixed use building next to SNAP fitness and the building across from Chase are nice. The newly renovated Mill Town is also pleasant. I could go on…but you get the idea.


  2. I would love to contribute. I am adamant about Edmonds NOT becoming another Kirkland! What type of phrases are commonly known to architects?
    How about modern village, or village chic, or Tiburon, CA-ish, or Mill Valley, CA, or natural chic……. any of these work


  3. Interesting thought, but probably better suited to a round table discussion. While I agree that Mill Town is pleasant,,,it could have been so much better if they started with a clean slate and made the developer pay for the park instead of the City.


  4. Mike, I agree with you…it could have been done differently. With Harbor Square I think we can come up with something that is pleasing to the eye,economically beneficial to the city and developer.


  5. Edmonds does not have any”beautiful” modern buildings in my humble opinion. It has a few nice or interesting structures like the new 1st Security Bank on SR 104. Most of the nicer buildings are the older or historic ones – like ECA, Museum, Bell Street Offices on 3rd Ave, 627 Dayton, etc. On the flip side, Edmonds has many butt-ugly buildings like all the older and new the condos along 5th and the buildings inherited from the County along SR 99. Most buildings are squat, bad massing ratios, lacking detail with flat roofs. These bad designs come from the City’s design standards and all the limitations imposed by the City Council over time. Harbor Square design offers a change, but many people are freaked out by something different than “Edmonds’ Bunker Moderne.” John Dewhirst


  6. “Edmonds Bunker Moderne”; I wish I had said that. That’s a perfect description for an abundance of our relatively new downtown buildings. There’s no better example than the 6-unit condo building on the west side of Sunset just north of Main. The developer for that project wanted a little more height, but the city council said no. Left to our city council, that’s how the redevelopment of Harbor Square would look. Fortunately our wise port commissioners will do nothing rather than do that.


  7. Years ago the city hired Mr Hinshaw to help the city with good design practices and ideas for developing downtown Edmonds, some of the ideas were incorporated in the comp plan. This would be applicable for all areas of Edmonds and not just downtown. This study was again examined by the ECDC and you will find it on the link below. I sat on this commission until I moved a year and a half ago.
    It seems that Edmonds is always trying to reinvent the wheel. I love the quip about “Bunker Moderne”! The problem is that there has been no continuity of style and building materials in Edmonds. Some people were and are still adamant that the builders should do as they please about styles and materials used and that is a big mistake in my estimation. I am not talking about having everything the same but it all needs to make a whole, not a bunch of separate pieces that are discordant and create a visual cacophony. Cheap materials, garish colors (to distract from the cheap materials) should have no place in Edmonds. Edmonds refused years ago to have a historic (victorian) flair to its new buildings so “Bunker Moderne” is what the city got. In 1972-3 Mr. Ward Phillips created Old Mill Town out of what was a garage. He was a man of vision and his creation brought people and prosperity to this part of 5th. It was beloved by all that I have met. I am certainly not advocating for Edmonds to have a Far West theme or any “theme” at all for that matter but as I have said many times: people in general are comfortable with a sense of age (I imply durable, good and traditional materials), not necessarily History in their surrounding. Small (human) scale, harmony and grace should prevail with buildings that should offer cohesion and relate to each other. May be Harbor Square should be re-invented the way the Yost garage was many years ago rather than re-developed with 55ft out of place buildings.
    The ADB (at least as long as I lived in Edmonds : 10 years) bends over backwards to accommodate the builders and in the staff’s defense it has also to deal with an unclear and not well developed codes. The city council does not always vote correctly either as when they denied the Hotel Group proposal for a beautiful and high end Frank LLoyd Wright-ish building right off the railroad tracks on Sunset where we now have “Bunker Moderne” condos…
    Edmonds is a jewel and the citizen need to also realize that to keep Edmonds “as is” (meaning without tall buildings on the near shore and other developments that would bring money to its coffers but not be to the existing code) has a cost and they should accept that this luxury of views, space, light and landscapes, parks and flowers, all come with a price: taxes. A small price to pay in my estimation for such amazing luxury! It is a fundamental choice Edmonds has to make: you can’t have it all.


  8. Truly, beauty is in the “eye of the beholder”. But building beauty is in the budget of the developer. In order for the developer to build beauty, it has to be profitable.


  9. First, we need to make sure buildings are built to be safe for the occupants and contents and to meet reliable codes of the city such as sewage, earthquake, fire, parking. We all know that Ace hardware was a loss to the downtown area because the construction was not strong enough to hold the contents. Second, we are want the beauty of the scenery to be enhanced by the human structures we create. The gathering of buildings at the fountain is people friendly and inviting; the trees and flowers enhanced the beauty. The murals are colorful and speak of our community. Now, we need to be very careful about the appearance of new buildings which brings me to the proposed building of a five-story, ugly exterior, gigantic apartment complex to be built at the top of Point Edwards. It will loom over the city; everyone will see it right off. It was a building originally planned to match the and facades of the condos already on that hill. If you would like to voice your vote, go to this website and sign the petition: http://www.change.org/petitions/edmonds


  10. At their December meeting the ADB referred Point Edwarda Building 10 back to the applicants to make some changes. Here’s the synopsis from the draft minutes.








  11. Mr. Livingston, your article is spot-on and thank you! To get right to my point, I think the residents of Edmonds should be made aware that the developer who built the new and quite ugly apartments on Edmonds Way is planning a very similar building to finish off his development at Pt. Edwards. The current plans are for a 5-story building, consisting of studio and one bedroom units, plus an on-site leasing office – basically what I would call an apartment building. This lot was to have been the “crown jewel” of his development. What he is proposing is “sight blight” at its worst, clearly seen from downtown, the entire waterfront from any direction, as well as the Edmonds Bowl. If Edmonds is worried about the direction to take, I would think this definitely is not the way!!!!

    Concerned? – please visit the following link – https://www.change.org/petitions/edmonds


  12. @Betty Larman’s #9 I had the pleasure of serving with Betty on the EDC in its early days. Her passion for Edmonds was always a pleasure to witness. At the end of her remarks she correctly points out that if we want some of the small town charms we will have to be willing to pay with higher taxes. She is right.

    If the HS development proceeds as envisioned by the Port the city and other entities like the schools, county, library and the state would receive added taxes and fees. The one time revenue for the City alone would be between $1.3m and $1.8m. The ongoing revenue to the city would be $276,000 to $369,000. New jobs during construction would be 385-616 with a payroll of $17.9m to $28.7m.

    If we want to scale back the development those numbers would be reduced if a developer could be found to buy and build with a weakened profit outlook. If the public would want to buy the land and turn it into a park or added marsh that too is possible. All we need to do is raise our taxes to buy it and change it to a park or marsh. The public purchase of $10m would only cost the average house hold about $600 to buy and another $100 to offset the one time revenues for the city. Tearing out the old and building a park may cost another $10m so that would make the total cost to the average homeowner about $1200-1300.

    People should be willing to pay for good government with taxes or new development or combinations of both. There is no free lunch when it comes to wanting the small town charm. Willingness to pay more in taxes will increase the odds of maintaining the small town charm so many talk about. Look at how places like Woodway or Medina have limited business and development. They have some small town charm but seem to be willing to pay for it.

    I agree with Betty that we should be willing to pay for the charm of Edmonds with higher taxes. Once we have paid for the charm we can then work on paying for better streets. Better streets will only cost the average homeowner about $90 a year. So let decide what we want, and the get out our check books and get going.

    Thanks Betty for all the other things you mentioned, I just wanted to comment about the tax issues.


  13. Thanks for the kind words Darrol. It always was a pleasure trying to work with you on solutions to Edmonds paucity problems. I don’t advocate a park at HS but it could be remade into an attractive area for entertainment may be with restaurants, breweries, and enlarged museum, it could also be the focal point for sports with a baseball and soccer field. So when the kids play and come for tournaments on week ends the parents have things to do and see.The marsh should be restored and Willow creek day-lighted so the salmons run again. It would be such an asset to Edmonds and attract many bird watchers and the marsh could then be a teaching tool as well for kids to understand good sound ecological practices. A smaller tax would have to be in order to offset the cost as you mentioned. Smaller than you mentioned. On the ECDC we had talked about sports as a source for bringing constant revenues to the city. It is a huge business that most people of Edmonds do not know about. To me that is one of the solution for Harbor Square. You all have been given the opportunity to decide by the last decision of the City Council, a wise decision in my estimation, since NOW you have been given the opportunity and the time for all the people of Edmonds to speak up and decide the futur of the city. Those that advocate that the only salvation is tall building need to think out of the box. There are other solutions to the problem.


  14. Sounds like such a beautiful use of that land and sooo many would benefit! I would definitely be willing to pay a little more for something of this value.


  15. Darrol, I didnt see the cost to maintain the property . Look at what is happening to our parks and public buildings with out proper up keep. Darrol your examples are some of the riches communities in Wash.


  16. Don, the total cost to buy, tear down, and build public amenities will likely be closer to $30m or $1800 per avg household. Depending on what we have for the amenities will figure into the cost for ongoing maintenance. What has been tossed around as ideas like parks, soccer fields, public market, limits of 35ft on building, and add to the marsh will each have their ongoing costs. How would we manage coal dust, train noise, land liquefaction, and existing contamination for these ideas.

    Edmonds is one of the “richest” in the state. We have a higher than average income, higher education levels and higher wealth than most. That’s why we have all the banks here. There are now banks in Woodway or Medina. Why? Their model is sleep her but go somewhere else for your bank or groceries. Their tax rates are lower and they subcontract services rather than doing their own. My point is we are what we are and what we want for our future may cost more in taxes to achieve. We can have our cake and eat it too if we are willing to pay for it.


  17. I feel the need to put a few things into perspective.

    $1,800 is more than twice the city property taxes on an average Edmonds home.

    Edmonds ranks #37 in per capita income for places in Washington State.

    Among the other things that Woodway property owners don’t pay taxes for are: parks and a library.

    The average Edmonds taxpayer may be willing to pay for more, but does not have the ability to pay the sort of increase being discussed.


  18. For my 2 cents: I believe the beauty and aesthetics of the structures are almost completely irrelevant to how vibrant the downtown area of Edmonds can be (and I’m not talking about the condition of a building, I’m talking about the style. Run-down buildings should be renovated). I would instead like to seize on the phrase mentioned “buildings should [be] of a pedestrian scale.” This is more commonly known as “human scale” but “pedestrian scale” is appropriate because what makes Edmonds great is the ability of pedestrians to comfortably move about the downtown area.

    Some call it “small town charm” but what I believe they are perceiving is in fact open (sun accessible) comfortable spaces with streets that you don’t feel threatened by – pedestrian friendly, human scale, humane. Note: we do not have any large streets penetrating the downtown area. If we did, that would immediately ruin the character of Edmonds, no matter if you built a jewel encrusted Taj Mahal of Edmonds, Edmonds would be ruined by too much traffic.

    Now if you built buildings that are too tall or encroach too much on the pedestrian space, you will also ruin the pedestrian scale of the place. This is why 55ft tall buildings are offensive to the character of Edmonds. A pedestrian can relate directly to a person on the 2nd story of a building (regardless of how often it happens), 3rd floor it’s still possible, 4th floor you can barely perceive a face and interactions are not practical, you’ve built a barrier, you’ve lost the pedestrian scale. Tall buildings too close to the open space cast day-long shadows and create wind tunnels. Again, not friendly to the pedestrian. Lack of comfortable landscaping is offensive to the pedestrian space as well.

    Ugly is a moving target. You’ll never arrive at an enforceable code on what is ugly without ruining creativity and individual character which is more important. If you did codify aesthetics you would create a place similar to the Harbour Pointe area of Mukilteo which is probably one of the most boring places to walk thru this side of the Cascades, in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, the style of architecture of each individual house is very handsome. Repeat it ad infinitum and one feels like a prisoner with the home address as your prison number.

    It is individual character; human character, that people are interested in. No one wants clone town America. KEEP EDMONDS HUMANE!


  19. Here is approximately what the average house hold pays for taxes:

    Schools: 1700
    City: 800 this includes 180 for EMS tax
    State: 800
    County: 375
    Library: 180 same amount as EMS
    Hosp: 40
    Port: 40 only ½ of Edmonds is in port dist.
    Conservation Dist: 2

    I am not in a position to judge what people are willing to do with taxes. But I believe they should know the alternatives and what it might cost. Then if they want to buy something for the public good they ought to have the right do do so. The numbers quoted earlier are one time charges not ongoing. So it would be a one time charge of $1800 to do a bang up job. Another way to finance the buy would be with bonding. That would obligate the average house hold for 180 per year for 20 years and spread the cost. This raises the cost because of interest payment but it would spread the cost out. Not my favorate solution. It would obligate future generations for what we decide to do. We should just pay for it if we want it.


  20. We would be more than willing to pay higher taxes to protect Edmonds’ small town atmosphere. The proposed building #50 at Point Edwards is not what we would want to see built in Edmonds, let alone at Point Edwards. This would be the first step towards becoming another Kirkland, Juanita Beach, or Ballard. Edmonds is one of the last “small towns” close to Seattle that has managed up until now to maintain its integrity to some degree. People come here from the surrounding city to relax and enjoy what Edmonds has to offer. It would be sad to see that disappear.


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