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Roosevelt Neighborhood At Odds With Redevelopment Plans

Bryan Buckalew

Regional planners expect the combined population of Seattle and Bellevue to reach nearly one million people by 2040. A major concern is urban sprawl, but planners say Seattle can avoid the problem by focusing growth around future transit centers. As many as 100 are planned in the next 20 years, and that means many communities will have to figure out how to accommodate more density. In one north Seattle neighborhood, KUOW's Bryan Buckalew reports the debate has come down to three final blocks.


In sort of a chicken–and–egg story, the Roosevelt neighborhood was actually named after Roosevelt High School. The school got its name in 1922 in honor of Teddy Roosevelt, and in 1927, the neighborhood adopted the same name. Now, 84 years later, the neighborhood is again trying to define itself.

Jim O'Halloran chairs the Roosevelt Land Use Committee. He's standing at an intersection near the center of the neighborhood. On one side of the street is a Whole Foods and on the other, there will eventually be a train station — Roosevelt Station.

O'Halloran: "I think about it all the time; how great it will be to get on the train in Roosevelt and go to the new Neptune Theatre one station south in the University District, go to a Husky football game, go to Capitol Hill, go downtown, go to the airport. I think light rail is going to dramatically transform life in Seattle, and certainly in Roosevelt. It's gonna be great."

But before the first train pulls into Roosevelt, there's one final disagreement that needs to be settled about future development the neighborhood: How tall should the buildings south of the high school be? The neighborhood plan says 40 feet. The city plan says 65 feet. It's developed into the main sticking point because the three blocks are like a keystone in the larger zoning plan; they border the light rail station and the high school.

Pro–height advocates say as much density as possible should go next to the station. The neighborhood agrees with density, just not near the high school.

And the argument is also complicated by a historical factor. Two of the three blocks are owned by an infamous landlord named Hugh Sisley. Sisley owns about 45 properties near the high school. Most he's let decay. Somel have caught fire. He and the neighborhood have fought for years. The city of Seattle estimates they've issued Sisley about 175 citations in the last 20 years, and says he owes over $600,000 in fines. Sisley did not respond to interview requests.

O'Halloran points out some of Sisley's properties.

O'Halloran: "These are some of the worst buildings you can imagine. The windows are broken because people have tossed rocks. Roofs not containing shingles but strips of tar paper, paint that's peeled, windows boarded up."

Ed Hewson: "Those are the two most obvious begging for redevelopment blocks probably in all of the north end of Seattle."

That's developer Ed Hewson. His firm, the Roosevelt Development Group, has leased the land south of the high school from Hugh Sisley. He wants to develop the properties, but —

Hewson: " — our contract with Sisley does not permit us to build buildings that are as low as 40 feet. And our contract with Sisley stipulates that we have to push the argument for what the highest and best use would be. Forty feet means no project will get developed on those blocks. That is fact."

So, the one thing the neighborhood doesn't want — buildings over 40 feet tall — is exactly what the owner of the properties insists on. What's developed is a complex game of poker. On one side is an alliance of interests including transit advocates, a property developer and an infamous landlord. On the other side is the neighborhood association.

The final decision comes down to nine votes on City Council. Sally Clark chairs the Committee on the Built Environment.

Clark: "It's challenging because really it's three blocks in a larger neighborhood. But for a lot folks it's symbolic because these are blocks where, while they'd like to see positive change there, they don't want reward bad behavior. Mr. Sisley's treatment of the properties in the past, you bet, he's been a very smart worker of the system."

But Clark says an emotional response is not the best way to make a zoning decision.

Clark: "The zoning decision is going to be about what goes forward. And certainly there are arguments to be made for increasing the height there just across the street from the light rail station. Again, it's the easiest and best way for you and me to be able to live with a smaller carbon footprint."

School is letting out, and Jim O'Halloran stops near the front steps of the high school. Looking south, over Sisley's blocks, you can see downtown and Mt. Rainier. If Sisley doesn't get the zoning he hopes for, Roosevelt Development Group says they'll pull out and the derelict houses will remain.

O'Halloran: "Some folks feel that that is a threat, some would call it a bluff and some would call it reality. And some in the neighborhood are quite prepared to live with some additional number of years of derelict buildings in order to ultimately prevail with buildings of an appropriate scale."

Councilmember Clark says she hopes to make a recommendation to City Council before the end of the year. Still, no matter who ends up developing the property, they'll have to deal with Hugh Sisley. He's lived in Roosevelt for 84 years — ever since Roosevelt was named Roosevelt — and neither fires nor fines have displaced him.

For KUOW News, I'm Bryan Buckalew.

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