It was standing room only in the Ballard High School Library on Monday evening for back-to-back meetings about the Nyer Urness House. Because of the public interest in the 80-unit low-income housing project for homeless men and women slated for 1753 NW 56th St, the Department of Planning and Development decided to hold an environmental review meeting. This is an unusual move for this type of project Lisa Rutzick, the project manager with the city, told the 100 plus people.
The meeting kicked off about 15 minutes behind schedule with Rick Friedhoff, the executive director of the Compass Housing Alliance (formerly Compass Center), explaining what the Urness House is and why this location works for them. “Ballard was selected because it is a residential community that is walkable. It has many amenities from grocery stores to drug stores and movie houses, coffee shops.” Friedhoff told the group. “Lots of amenities for people to enjoy.” He said the Compass Center bought the property in 2008, tore down the eyesore that was known to cause problems in the neighborhood, and began planning the development. The building will be staffed with a concierge 24 hours a day with security cameras on the outside. It will have two stories of offices used by support services to help the homeless.
During their planning phase, Compass Housing Allisance presented information to the Ballard District Council and spoke with other community members about their project, Friedhoff said. “Frankly we weren’t real aware that there was opposition,” he confessed, until design review began earlier this year.
At Monday’s meeting, three dozen people spoke during the public comment period. Although the applause seemed to be split evenly for speakers in favor of the project and against the project, the majority of the speakers that went on public record were for it. Several of the speakers just wanted more answers before making their decision.
The first speaker recalled what Friedhoff had told the group about the Urness House being in close proximity to stores. “A shopping area or a shoplifting area?” he asked, questioning the claim by Compass Housing Authority that they have not seen crime rates go up around other low-income housing properties. One of the final speakers brought a list of 911 calls made to the Compass Housing Authority’s downtown location. He said there were 30 calls last year from assault to suicide. “Protection is my big concern,” he told the group.
Another speaker who is in favor of the project said that people’s negative response to the project is because of prejudices. She referenced previous concerns about property values said, “If all you can think about is the value of your home, you need to reevaluate your values.” Another supporter of the project said, “I thoroughly welcome this house to our community,” a sentiment that was echoed in many of the public comments.
The meeting wrapped up late, causing the Design Review meeting to start late.
During the Design Review meeting, Weinstein A|U presented their proposal to the Design Review Board. The design includes a blue building with orange accents, two garage doors in the back alley on the south side of the building, bare walls on either side except for Virginia Creeper and some windows/balconies in the middle and landscaping out front. It will also have a green roof for residents to enjoy. There will be a guardrail up around the deck so people can’t easily walk to the edge of the building.
A look at the proposed parking garage for Urness House
Public concerns ranged from the number of parking spaces (12 spots), the access down the alley for deliveries and the massing.
In the end, the board gave the Urness House the green light on the design with a few recommendations and approval for four departures (see page 36 of presentation). The board recommends that the design include a seat wall out front, bicycle spots out front and use Urnes style, a Scandinavian textile art, an audience member explained, somewhere in the front lobby. (See entire .pdf design presentation here.)