Norton Playfield housing project for homeless kids
denied 4-2 over location
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EVERETT — In a 4-2 vote that was clearly tough to make, the City Council last week denied a nonprofit’s rezone request to be able to build a multi-story apartment complex for homeless families in a historic single-family neighborhood.
Housing Hope will back out of developing on the Norton Playfield west of downtown and formulate a new plan, its CEO Fred Safstrom said.
The council’s “no” votes rested on a matter of location. The Norton Playfield, a greenspace owned by the Everett School District, is nestled among single-family housing.
Neighbors here would have “reasonable expectations” that their area would stay zoned for single-family housing, Councilman Scott Bader said for his remarks, a point that other council members echoed in explaining their votes to deny.
Council members Bader, Brenda Stonecipher, Scott Murphy and Judy Tuohy voted no. Council members Paul Roberts and Liz Vogeli voted yes on the basis the project helps address the homelessness crisis.
The idea proposed 44 housing units for homeless families with students in the Everett School District.
The decision was crucial to everyone at stake: Housing Hope needed a “yes” to start building, and neighbors wanted a “no” on the basis of neighborhood character.
With no rezone, the project could only be developed with single-family houses to adhere to the underlying land’s zoning.
The 3-acre site can fit about 20 houses, but a project like this wouldn’t pencil out for debt lenders and grant-writers, Safstrom said. The houses would end up being much more expensive to build per-unit compared to an apartment building. Also, the school district contract calls for at least 36 units.
“If the project would have been feasible, we would have done it,” Safstrom said post-vote on why Housing Hope will do nothing versus something at the playfield.
Balancing the issues agonized council members; a few described it as “heart-wrenching” in their comments before the vote.
“This project is not the right fit for Norton-Grand, but we’ve got to work together with the Everett School District, Housing Hope” and others to quickly coordinate putting the project elsewhere, Tuohy said, saying “we need this type of project in our community.”
The weighty topic generated more than 200 letters as well as a petition of 266 neighbors against it.
Post-decision, neighbors heaved a large, collective sigh of relief.
However, “nobody’s celebrating a victory,” resident and neighborhood representative Ken Ries said. “It worked how we hoped it would, (but) there is a need.”
“It was really the scale of the buildings was not in the character of the neighborhood,” Ries said.
The conversation’s been spread over 16 months, and the project already was a metaphorical phoenix: Last year, the City Council put a temporary moratorium on all supportive homeless housing projects citywide to pause everything in response to initial neighborhood concerns to the Housing Hope project.
Housing Hope pulled the project back to the drawing board during the moratorium period. Using a different approach, it filed paperwork to upzone just one piece of the playfield to have the zoning allow a multi-family building. It also wanted the restrictions of a historic preservation overlay peeled off to be able to build the structure taller than the restrictions allow.
This fall, the request split the city’s Planning Commission and a majority of the Historical Commission voted to deny the request.
It’s “cartoonishly evil” how far this was delayed, resident Leanne Knott told council members during last week’s public comments.
Safstrom said the project would benefit “hundreds of students” who attend nearby Jackson Elementary and Sequoia High School. Students in those schools would be given priority.
The school district has more than 1,000 homeless students.
What’s next? “I think we have a will to find a solution and think the school district has a will, and we need the city on board,” Safstrom said. As of Thursday, Oct. 22, Safstrom hadn’t met with Superintendent Ian Saltzman yet.
Housing Hope and the Everett School District signed their project partnership in 2018, when at the time a quirk in city law previously allowed homeless housing projects to be built on any suitable public land, regardless of zoning. The zoning exemptions are meant to erase barriers to future homeless housing projects.
The rules tightened up from a 4-1 council vote on Jan. 29 to protect single-family neighborhoods, particularly so big homeless projects can’t be developed amid neighborhood homes.
On paper, the decision is about land use. In the public arena, it’s been framed as a decision between homeless children versus a neighborhood’s concerns. A few council members have called this an unfair “false choice.”
Councilman Jeff Moore didn’t participate in the vote because he has a conflict of interest as he’s an executive at the Everett School District.
If last week’s vote tied 3-3, Mayor Cassie Franklin would not have been able to cast the tiebreaker because the item is a vote on an ordinance, according to state law.
Franklin supports the project to benefit homeless children, and said post-vote that “this project would have brought us a step closer to creating homes for families in our community and an opportunity for children to learn and grow and thrive.”
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