Commentary: Community-oriented design standards — let’s do it right the first time

Regarding the GBH Holdings LLC redevelopment at 6th and Main Street in Edmonds. Why is there never enough time to do it right, but always enough time to fix it later?

My wife and I moved here to Edmonds in 1989 inspired by a college class I was fortunate to attend. The class was called Urbanalysis and it’s primary message was that cities compete just as businesses do to remain viable, grow and prosper. Cities compete and remain viable based on their attributes inclusive of commerce, transportation, recreation and livability. Edmonds was a city we had passed through while traveling in the Pacific Northwest during the decade prior to our move. Back in the late 1980s, the Seattle area was primed for growth and Edmonds checked all the boxes as a viable regional city for our future. We loved this area in the PNW and chose beautiful Edmonds to establish our residence.

The 1990s was a decade of substantial growth in the Puget Sound, and the area grew in population and opportunities. Edmonds was then a very sleepy community on the edge of Puget Sound and was slowly evolving to adapt to the new growth opportunities and challenges. Often the most minor of changes to our community were met with harsh citizen comments to curtail any alteration to the established way things were in Edmonds. I recall the concerted effort to develop the Harbor Square complex being rebuked over cries to restrain building heights and as result the Harbor Square redevelopment failed to progress. Any effort by the public (city) or private (developer) to provide new development opportunities was greeted by severe community backlash with criticism like “we don’t want to be like Kirkland” or the extreme “don’t let Edmonds become like Manhattan.” Building heights became the battle cry for any discussion regarding development in Edmonds, especially in the downtown and Bowl neighborhoods. There were some discussions about incentivizing any new development with building stepbacks and providing public or open spaces, but those discussions were too often overwhelmed with cries to keep building heights down. There was additional discussion regarding how much height does first-floor commercial space require to establish a downtown first-floor level and establish criteria for overall building heights in downtown. Eventually some standards were enacted for new development in particular locations, but not an adequate Comprehensive Plan that would support responsible new development, especially throughout our downtown core. Basically the building heights debate overwhelmed the discussion, thus leaving behind lost opportunities to properly discuss and evaluate Edmonds design standards for new development regardless if it was downtown, Highway 99 or anywhere else in Edmonds.

As the Puget Sound region continues to grow, pressure will continue to build in Edmonds to proceed with new development to meet new opportunities and challenges. The city’s population will require more commercial and residential space to be built, and the city will require more revenues to properly function. This community has already witnessed a great deal of change in the last few decades. I continue to be amused when someone states they “just want to keep Edmonds the way it is,” even as many of us can attest that the present 2022 Edmonds is significantly different from the 1989 Edmonds. We have far more opportunities for lifestyle, employment, recreation and entertainment as Edmonds remains a desirable location.

Correspondingly, affordability will continue to be a challenge. We must not shut the door on growth for fear of change nor should we expect that we can. The city of Edmonds will need to strive to continue to be competitive for sustained viability. Edmonds has a unique opportunity to witness the recent growth and evolution of communities such as Bothell, Kenmore and elsewhere to find the successes, failures and challenges to manage growth. We’re all in this together including the developers, city and community of Edmonds. Growth is going to happen, the only question is do we manage it or do we let it manage us?

Now we have a block-style building of 24 apartment units proposed near 6th Avenue on Main Street and located on a major gateway with an opportunity to set the tone for Edmonds. Will that be a welcome message to inclusivity, diversity and community? The city and community are in a difficult position to challenge the overall design impact of this imposing redevelopment based on existing codes and ordinances. It is true that a property owner is fully entitled to build on their property per development standards and building codes to maximize its financial potential for the property. However, just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done.

There is a moral and social long-term benefit to being a responsible member of the community. Development codes and ordinances should responsibly balance opportunities and benefits for the developer and community alike. The city does indeed have tools available to implement community-oriented design standards and requirements for this and future projects. It’s not too late, but community and city action needs to proceed quickly as no doubt the Safadago’s GBH Holdings LLC is moving expeditiously to procure permits and proceed with work for this project as well as other projects in the city. Implementing amended development standards will require community support, political will and a municipal commitment to make that happen. Much should be done inclusive of reevaluating some governing departments and committees, which at times appear to have evolved as the permit expeditors for a developer. It’s important for a comprehensive review of the options available now for reworking development guidelines, as this proposed redevelopment will establish a gateway for a very long time.

I personally have been active in residential and commercial development for nearly 40 years and have witnessed a big difference between good development and bad development. This proposed project by Safadago’s GBH Holdings LLC is indeed bad development. I feel the proposed project design is more appropriate for a medical complex on Highway 99 than a building located at a gateway to our downtown. The project will be a vivid daily reminder to the resident and visitor alike of how we build projects wrong or we build projects right in our beautiful city of Edmonds. It’s the future of the city, and the choice of how we proceed belongs to all of us.

— By Will Magnuson

Will Magnuson lives in Edmonds

  1. Thank you for stating so many details about the local community and future development needed to keep our small town unique. I heartily agree with Mr. Magnuson.

  2. Well said. When buildings go up we have to live with them a very long time. We love Edmonds for so many reasons, including its charm. But charm can go away if not nurtured, and once it does, so do the people. Edmonds has done a stunning job to cultivate charm and livability. Buildings should be good neighbors to their surroundings – in context with where they sit. Design standards are key. Stay on it, Edmonds. We love you.

  3. Thank you for thoughtful insights with clear explanations. You’re wise in saying that change does happen, and our job is to manage it well.

  4. thank you for this insight. i believe in multi-family living options and I believe in aesthetic and sensitive design — these two values are not either/or choices.

  5. Thank you, Mr. Magnuson, for presenting such a clear argument for buildings in downtown that will suit the surroundings and be “good development.” There is definitely a difference between the kinds of buildings that suit Aurora and those that are sited where we want a livable, welcoming city core.

  6. Thanks for speaking out. I like the design and general purpose of the new building at Main and 2nd Ave. Also the design and general purpose of the remodel/building in construction at 6th and Main. The new community center on the waterfront also was done well. I have not seen the design proposal of the 24 unit apartment building at 6th and Main. Is it possible to design a nice looking building with 24 apartment’s staying within the shape of a box? I am skeptical. I hope the design board is critical.

  7. Will, a great call-to-action for our beloved town. You, I and Jack A. have lived in Edmonds many years, decades, and have seen the changes you speak of. It is past time to rethink our codes and ordinances.

    1. You’re correct Doug. Can’t move too fast on this challenge. They have an additional 24 unit in process on Dayton Street below the library.

  8. Kudos to Will Magnuson for sharing his thoughts based on his own personal experience. Like so many others that live in the downtown area, I agree that the proposed apartment building at 6th & Main is not appropriate for the character of the neighborhood. I would like to focus on the humanity aspect of the issue: A 24 unit apartment building is by it’s very nature transitory. For most of the residents there will not be a sense of caring and ownership that is usually seen in a condo building; there will undoubtedly be a steady flow of people moving in and out, thus jamming the streets with moving vans, etc.; the minimal parking available to these residents will send reverberations through the whole neighborhood, affecting both businesses and shoppers alike; and then there is the overall aesthetic affect that will change the ambience and uniqueness of downtown Edmonds itself.

    My HOPE is that the Mayor and City Council will seriously consider the wishes of the citizens. My FEAR is that the tax revenues generated by the developer and the residents themselves will be too tempting to turn down. Everything shouldn’t always be about money or am I just dreaming?

    1. I’m so confused by the framing of this comment, on renters not caring about where they live and not becoming part of the community and other points. I was a renter for years before buying a house here a few years ago, including about 5 years in a townhouse in Seattle. Pretty much all the renters I know stay at a place for *years.* There aren’t moving vans around every weekend when you’re in a neighborhood with more renters. It’s not a college dorm atmosphere during move in week or anything like that. Why are we creating fear around renters??

  9. I’m not opposed to apartments being built at this location in theory. Growth is growth…but this design, this concentration, this height, etc. We can make better decisions as a community more in keeping with the Edmonds frame of mind. I might as well move to a Lynnwood neighborhood if I want a CITY vibe not to mention live cheaper. Please citizens. Voice your concerns but also have a viable option. Don’t just complain & whine about it. Offer some resolutions. It’s about compromise—not win-lose.

  10. When you look at the concerns stated in this op-ed, coupled with all the commentary and passion I’ve seen around this issue and the streateries, and then juxtapose it with the issues highlighted in the article about the violence on HWY99… I’ve never felt more that there are two different Edmonds than I do now. A sad state of affairs for the priorities of this city.

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