The Behemoth Beside (Across) from Me

I am a West Seattle mother, wife, high school teacher (West Seattle High School), and home owner. My family and I live on 48th Ave. SW, just eight houses up the street from Lowman Beach Park. We have owned our home for fourteen years. We love living here.

When we moved to our home, the first people we met were an older couple, Ed and Olga Thyfault. They lived right across the street from us. Their address was technically 6762 Beach Drive, SW, but they treated their larger, flatter 48th Ave. SW back yard and entry-way as a front yard, and neighborhood gathering place. Olga came over with a cake to welcome us. The cake was followed by more cakes, by tin cans of old fashioned, home-grown sweet peas; by invitations to get-togethers for snacks and coffee at their back door picnic table. Ed was a cantankerous but caring old coot who'd bring over shopping bags full of empty beer cans when he heard we were going for a sail. "Thought you could use some floats," he'd tell us.

Olga would tell us stories about the history of our neighborhood, and the history of West Seattle. Olga had been a factory worker, and a maid of all work for wealthy Beach Drive clientele. Ed had worked in the ship yards. He also laid concrete foundations (including the foundations for our house and our neighbor's) and did tile work. They had built their own house, entirely on their own, from the ground up. Olga had roofed it. It was a beautiful, big, very serviceable house for the two of them and their daughter, Diane. And, of course, they had a gorgeous view of the Sound. That was back before views got "big".

Olga was in her late seventies when we first met her. Memories of World War II and the internment of local Japanese Americans were still sharp for her. She remembered seeing her (white) neighbors walking down the street with uprooted plants and small trees. She asked them, "Where did you get those?" "Oh, from some Japs' house. They won't be back," was their reply. Olga felt terrible about that. She had a strong sense of social justice. She did what she could to help others. One thing she did was to hire a Japanese American, Jack Shimizu, to maintain the lawn she was so proud of, that we could see from our front windows. Olga did all the other yard work, including the trimming of an onerous privet hedge, and the maintenance of an exquisite, steep, hillside garden on the Beach Drive side of the house. One of Olga's passions was to cultivate the perfect long-stemmed rose. She also dearly loved and maintained three apple trees on that grew at street level on Beach Drive. "The apples are ready! Come pick them!" She'd smile over at us in the fall. Local apple lovers may not have known the Thyfaults, but they sure knew about those trees. Olga didn't mind the many and varied harvesters. Those were some of the best apples anyone ever tasted, and Olga loved to share them.

Olga, was so hard-working, so apparently healthy, and so good-hearted; it was surprising to all of her friends and neighbors when she began to decline. One of her good friends, Jack Shimizu, picked up some of the slack in her yard. He maintained the back lawn, trimmed the privet hedge, and helped keep some sense of order in the dangerously steep hill garden that Olga had once appeared to float effortlessly through. It was tough on Jack. He was in his 80's and still doing yard work, but he wanted to do it for Olga. After Olga died, he continued to come to work when called by her daughter.

We developed a familial closeness with Ed and Olga. We loved them very much. Over the years, we supported each other; helped each other out. The Thyfaults celebrated our successes with us. They cheered us on in our quest to become parents through adoption, and they became another set of grandparents to our beautiful baby girl. When Olga became ill with pancreatic cancer, I provided some of her home health care. We mourned Olga's passing. Ed followed her two years later, on our daughter's third birthday. We had also helped to care for Ed.

Ed and Olga's daughter rented the house out for several years. She was reluctant to sell the house that her parents had built; that she had grown up in. Unfortunately, the last renter in the house was an alcoholic who relapsed. There was a lot of cosmetic damage done to floors, walls, and new carpets. She fixed up the house once again, and sold it last year for over $700K.

When I saw the `SOLD' sign up, and the apparent buyers across the street with a realtor, I introduced myself and welcomed them to the neighborhood. I told them that it was a great neighborhood, and that we had been good friends with the couple that had built their house. I congratulated them on buying a beautiful home. The buyers are a relatively young married couple. I asked them if they had children. They said, "Not yet." I said, "Great! We may have a babysitter for you in a couple years." I hoped that I could follow in Olga's footsteps, by some day telling this couple about neighborhood history.

Months went by with no activity in or around the house. My husband told me that he had seen one of the owners on the roof. "I think they're going to go up," he said. Last April/May, workers showed up to begin tearing the entire house down. My husband, a carpenter, rationalized it. "Really," he said, "Construction technology has advanced so much since Ed and Olga put their house up." The foreman on the job told me that he really admired how well Ed and Olga's house had been built. Neighbors and passers by, including old friends of Ed and Olga's, expressed lots of emotions about the house being torn down. Shock, grief, and disgust were among them. I am a teacher and a department co-chair at the high school. I was swamped with end of the school year student activities, final projects, and paper work. I didn't have time to be really dismayed, but, I felt a dull kind of ache settle in my chest. It started every morning around 5:30, as I stood by my front window, drinking my coffee, watching my old friends' hard work and dreams disappear.

My summer break began as June ended. Our house was suddenly full of young children to care for and amuse. For about two seconds, with the whole house across the street down, we were looking at the Sound. I wondered and worried about how much of our view the new structure would obscure. We'd had a water view to the north of the Thyfault's house. I used to look out at it as I did the dishes in my (still) un-updated kitchen. Olga used to walk across the street and ask me, "Should I trim the lilac back a little so that you can have more of a view?" The days of view consideration were over, I feared.

My fears were warranted. The framing for a garage happened one day. There went our kitchen view. Instead of lilacs, a sliver of the sea, flowers, green plants and a welcoming back patio, there will be now be a huge garage extending almost to the street. By coming forward and going up, the new structure obscures almost all of the view we had to the north (we still have a view down the street, to the south). I feel that I am looking at someone's backside when I do the dishes now. That is, if I bother to look up anymore.

The McMansion being built across the street far exceeds the footprint of the former house. The graceful lawn is gone, replaced by the framing for what could be a "Big Box Mart" at this point. The foundation has been dramatically extended. Workers came a couple days ago on Saturday to begin the framing for a third story. Next door neighbors in the house immediately south of us complained that their view of the western sky had already been blocked. So has ours. Now, it will be blocked much more. The roof top, and the entire house will be very much out-of-scale with the rest of the houses in the neighborhood. Being directly across from it, we will be the neighbors most affected by the new construction. As I write this, the front wall for the third story has gone up.

City Councilman Richard Conlin has proposed new legislation that would limit new construction after tear-downs to 35% of the lot, and two stories. If legislation like this were in effect now, the behemoth under construction (on a good deal more than 50% of the lot) across from us would not be as obstructive. Needless to say, we support Councilman Conlin's efforts.

My husband tends to not get overly concerned about things until they reach the boiling point. I, on the other hand, tend to worry about things in stages. I have not been happy about the construction across the street. Matter of fact, I've been pretty depressed about it. It doesn't help matters that so many people on and off our block, heck, even contractors coming to work on the house, say things to me like, "Man, if something like that was going up across from me, I'd be plenty ticked off!" It's a bit too much validation for my already-negative attitude, you see. My husband tries to not vent his negative feelings about the house too much, because he's afraid of getting me riled up. A couple days ago he became a bit wistful, however. He said, "You know, if I had a lot of money, and I was about to build a huge structure that would dramatically reduce my neighbors' views, I would at least talk to my future neighbors and say something like, 'We're building our dream house. We know that we will be taking your view, and that all the new construction right across the street from you might be inconvenient at times. We're sorry about that. We'll try to be great neighbors."

Our prospective new neighbors have not done that. They did allow my husband to salvage some windows from the teardown, which was nice of them, although once the garage went up I drew an unflattering analogy. "It's kind of like donating your used glasses to someone before you blind them," I vented. My husband just sighed.

The neighbors to the south of us had a conversation with the couple. "We'll have you over when it's done," they were told. "We hope we don't take away too much of your view."

A couple days ago, working class neighbors on our side of 48th Ave. SW (including a landscape architect) sat and had a conversation. We talked about the social aspects of McMansion construction. Our views would be affected by the McMansion in our neighborhood. Views of the western sky and sunsets that we so enjoyed would be significantly decreased. One neighbor wondered why the couple didn't just come and live on the street for a year or two (in the beautiful house that they tore down) to get the character of the neighborhood before they impacted it so significantly. That neighbor's spouse told of a conversation he had had with a developer about a multi-million tear down (with new construction) that is occurring on Beach Drive around the corner from us. He had wondered about his view being affected. The developer had laughed and said, "Then you'll just have to go up, too, won't you?" My neighbor said that he didn't have the money to build up, and besides, why would he want to? Their house was already big enough for their family. Why do people need 4000 - 5000 square feet for just a few people to live in, he asked the developer. "That's progress," he was told.

My husband and I commiserated. We are in a similar economic position to our neighbors. We were among the last working class families to be able to invest in our neighborhood. He is a carpenter, and I am a teacher. Our house is cozy and lived in, and a bit tattered around the edges. We have busy schedules, child and family responsibilities. We can't afford to pay other people to work on our house, and, as I said, my husband is a carpenter. His poor house is like the cobbler's shoe-less children. We worked very hard to become homeowners, though, and we have invested our labor and our care throughout the neighborhood and throughout our community. We love it here, and we love it especially because it didn't come easily to us. Sometimes, as I look around Seattle at the houses being torn down and the behemoths rising in their places, I get the feeling that some of the money for these things came to easily to those responsible for them. This feeling is depressing to me.

The landscape architect said that the design of the new house was "inconsiderate". She said that the scale was way out of line with the rest of the houses in the neighborhood, so of course, that would put more than a few noses out of joint. The garage abutting out near the curb and the blotting out of anything resembling a yard on the 48th Ave. side is also "inconsiderate". It does not exactly say, "Welcome." (I will not go into what I think it does say here.)

Our landscape architect neighbor also pointed out that there were, in addition to the social aspects of McMansion construction, some serious environmental aspects to consider. What if every house in our neighborhood that sold was torn down, and a McMansion built in its place? We live right by the Puget Sound, a highly sensitive marine environment that is already in grave danger. Our governor, Christine Gregoire, has succeeded in passing a multi-million dollar initiative to clean up the Sound, but Seattle's shoreline development practices are out of sync with the new Puget Sound Protection Act. Smaller houses have a much smaller environmental impact. The house going up across the street from us is antithetical to the whole theory and practice of protecting and restoring habitat. It is a key example of a housing footprint exceeding lot capacity AND OCCUPANCY. The house has a much larger footprint than what is needed.

An interesting thing about our block and our neighborhood is that we have a large resident songbird population. Songbirds and other wildlife need trees, snags, and other vegetation for habitat. When habitat is removed, we no longer hear the songbirds. The songbird population has decreased near Alki, as cottages have been replaced by condos. Olga's yard used to be a favorite hang-out for neighborhood wild life. She had a lot of trees, shrubs, flowers all around. Birds nested in her apple trees, and she used to love to watch the hummingbirds at her kitchen window feeder. A couple weeks ago, I took a walk around to the Beach Drive side of the house. Olga's apple trees had been cut down to stumps, as had another, larger tree. Bye, bye habitat. So long, songbirds.

My neighbors shake their heads. There is a scale that fits the community. We are losing sight of it. There is a neighborhood design review board, we know, but who is there to defend the integrity of our neighborhoods against greedy, wasteful, anti-social, habitat-destroying building practices?

There is a disconnect between development practices and what we know is necessary to protect Puget Sound health. Large houses that exceed lot capacity increase storm water run-off. Storm water run-off decreases habitat value. The State of Washington has new storm water treatment standards that businesses and larger developments are being held to. A good example of a new development following good storm water treatment procedures is the Highline Development. Storm water is treated there as it comes off the roof tops. The Highline Development is adhering to other good development practices as well; they are reducing environmental impact by keeping open spaces. New regulations may not be being enforced with single family residences, however. It seems as though you can just go ahead and adversely impact neighborhoods and habitats, as long as you have enough money to throw around.

My landscape architect neighbor came home tonight to see that tall walls had gone up for the McMansion's third story. "If I had that kind of money, " she said, "I'd use it to set an example of sustainable technology and building practices." She sees the behemoth across the street as an example of "the lifestyle of conspicuous consumption that we cannot afford any more as a society."

My husband came home and tried to be reticent, but he was too angered by the ugly sight that confronted him. He had to say something. He talked about a co-worker of his who is also a social worker. Recently, his co-worker attended a symposium on global sustainability. Speakers had included indigenous people from the Peruvian Rain Forest. These people saw a crying need for their stated mission: to contact as many First World people as possible; to ask them to please stop exhausting the world's resources so quickly. The global rate of human consumption is approximately 160% of what the planet produces each year, and the rate increases annually. "And that @#%&*! house across the street is a huge example of why it's increasing," my spouse spat.

My husband and I know that we are privileged people. We are privileged to live in West Seattle, so close to beautiful parks and the Puget Sound. We are privileged to be home owners, and fortunate to be living in a relatively peaceful city. We are lucky that, unlike many people in Seattle and King County, we do not go to bed hungry at night. We are blessed to have our child, our family, our friends and our good neighbors. We are healthy and strong, and we do not live in Iraq. We know that it is unhealthy and narcissistic to hold on to personal resentments. We have to move on, and try to turn our negative feelings into positive action. It may be too late for us to do anything about the behemoth across from us, but we can lobby for sustainable building practices in West Seattle. We can campaign to get Councilman Richard Conlin's proposed legislation passed. We can hold sustainability salons in our living room, for crying out loud! Especially since we have a perfect example of what we will be lobbying against right across the street from us!

West Seattle is known as the birthplace of Seattle. Lowman Beach, down the street from us, was once a confluence of rivers; a place where Indian tribes gathered to trade and share the bounty of the Sound. The neighborhood that grew up around Lowman Beach has been, for the most part, a great place to socialize and to get to know your neighbors. It has been that way because the layout of the houses and yards invite interaction. Closed-off McMansions are an affront to historical preservation, and a slap in the face to neighborhood socialization. We need to come together to set reasonable building standards.

If my landscape architect neighbor suddenly had a windfall, she probably would do what she said she'd do: she'd set an example. Other people might say that, and just go ahead and build their own self-aggrandizing, narcissistic monoliths as soon as the loans went through, and the moneys were secured in their hot, little hands. Basic human greed plays a huge role in personal decision making. Mega-mansions on small lots may well come to symbolize and illustrate a new take on "the Ugly American". The damage that unsustainable building practices can do to the larger community, to wild life habitat, and to the already-imperiled marine environment eclipses our petty personal resentments. Greedy, unconscious, narcissistic building mania must be controlled by strong regulations, and neighborhood review.

Come on over and look out my kitchen window, if you want to know what I'm talking about.

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