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Pacific Northwest | October 10, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineMONTH, DAY, home Home delivery

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Taste To Spare
Classical Modern
Uptown Downtown
Suburban Zen
Up and Over
New Meaning


A community grows within a community, giving

New Meaning To Neighborly
After work, Marcie and Dave von Beck prepare dinner and catch up on the news with their daughters, Gabrielle (left) and Jordan (right) in the open kitchen. The custom cabinets and floor are maple, the countertops honed granite. To the far right is an antique Chinese cabinet, which was originally used to store dishes and linens.
The city-child within me found the sprawl of abandoned property at the edge of Mount Baker an irresistible draw — especially just before dusk when things are at their spookiest.

There, across the street from a stretch of well-tended homes, was a modernist wreck of a building with broken windows and battered-in doors. Tossed outside the low-slung structure were refrigerators, desks and piles of unidentifiable junk. Overhead, tall trees caught the breeze and swished menacingly.

It was the kind of place that gave you a funny feeling in the pit of your stomach, as if prowling around was somehow forbidden — which it probably was. Still, you'd go back to it again and again with your buddies just for the thrill of whispering: Do you think there's a body in there?

Better yet was this mystery: How had this block-sized plot of in-city land stayed vacant so long?

Of course, the real story is as convoluted as can be.
Five houses designed by four architectural firms cluster around a cobblestone lane in complement to the existing neighborhood charm. Each of the houses to the left has an unobstructed view of Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains out the back windows. The shared grounds and streetscape were designed by landscape architect John Bernhard.
Since 1995, the acre-and-a half parcel of pricey land overlooking Colman Park and Lake Washington sat deteriorating, thanks in part to vandalism and to community challenges of the property's long-standing zoning status. According to real-estate professional Michael White, the structure originally housed a private group home for people with disabilities. When the owners decided to sell, a community-health group made known their intention to expand the number of beds from less than 10 to almost 40.

The neighbors howled.

Soon after, the property went back on the block.

Brightwater School was next, entering an agreement to establish a 200-student facility. Again, the neighbors protested, saying a school wasn't an appropriate fit with the area — or with the cul-de-sac turnaround at the end of the street. With a long fight brewing, Brightwater School went looking for a residential developer to take the deal off their hands.

When White contacted developer Jason Kintzer, Kintzer was fresh from another project where neighborhood preference was an issue. He wasn't interested in a tussle but was intrigued enough to propose a solution. "Let's have a town meeting," he said. "I'll show the neighbors what I'd do and, if they'll sign a letter saying they won't fight us, we'll do the project."

With that, some 40 neighbors came together, signed a "no-fight" agreement, and the planning began.
An 18-plus-foot bank of windows anchors the space; a small outdoor deck opens up off the dining area. The lighting is by Lightwire, the blown-glass art is by Marcie von Beck. Above is one in a series of interior windows off the main bedroom suite on the second floor.
That was in 1999, and this year, five families moved into five architect-designed homes that came to be through a truly collaborative process. Instead of building virtually identical homes as is developer custom, Kintzer commissioned four architectural firms to create five distinctive designs. He chose two — Johnston Architects and Krannitz Gehl Architects — after seeing their work in publications. Abrahams Architects, with whom Kintzer had worked in the past, was asked to design two homes. Stock and Associates came with high recommendations.

Kintzer's firm, JRJ Development, took over general-contractor duties as well as responsibility for making sure all environment-friendly "build green" standards were met. Even the process of dividing the land into buildable lots was a challenge. Given the steep slope and erosion issues, only 40 percent of the 66,000-square-foot lot was usable.

Kintzer was interested in creating, at its most basic, a varied streetscape minus the cookie-cutter look. Without a doubt, he says, it wasn't the most economical way to develop, but he was committed to doing something different, and doing it well.

When Dave and Marcie von Beck came calling, they had — like so many Sunday open-house shoppers — no intention of selling their Capitol Hill Craftsman. But a few minutes after walking into the Krannitz Gehl house, they were buyers in lust. They lusted after the open layout, the view of Lake Washington, the natural light, the interior finishes. The couple also liked the sense of urban density out front, the wide openness out back. Their daughters, 12-year-old Jordan and 11-year-old Gabrielle, quickly caught on to the fact that each would have her own room.

In two blinks, the von Becks made a call to their banker.
As was the intention of the open-plan configuration, the main dining area communicates directly with the action in the kitchen. Small square windows provide pattern — and light.
On one hand, they were the perfect new-house candidates. On the other, they were a potential developer nightmare. Dave is a plaintiff's construction-defect lawyer with Levy-von Beck and Associates. Familiar with everything that could go wrong, Dave started making a punch list of his own.

Marcie brought a whole other world of experience to the mix. An architect who traded in her 12-year career to teach fourth grade at McGilvra Elementary, she hadn't lost her professional chops.

From the get-go, both were impressed with the entire project as well as with "their" house, but they were determined not to fall into the trap of being so enamoured with the newness-of-it-all they didn't ask the hard questions. "It's a typical new-construction buyer mistake to make," says Dave. Besides getting the home inspection required by a mortgage lender, the couple brought in a forensic inspector to go over the exterior with an exceptionally fine-tooth comb.

Except for a few minor issues, the construction passed with flying colors. The couple says Kintzer's willingness to fix even those minor things made them more comfortable. "I have to say that bringing in specialized inspectors was a good internal test," says Kintzer. "The fact is, we were so impressed with the recommendations they made, we hired them to work with us on our next project."

"I think that if I designed a house, it would pretty much look like this," says Marcie, giving the ultimate architect-to-architect compliment. She especially likes the impact the one-big-open living area has on the quality of family hang-time. "I'll be cooking dinner, the girls will be doing homework, Dave will be playing guitar, and we'll all still be in the same room together."
At the end of the main living space, a cluster of family-friendly furniture takes in the view — a view protected on two sides by “no-build greenbelt” zoning. The coffee table was fashioned from an antique barn door from China; the art at the center of the mantle is an abstract paint-on-metal sculpture by artist/anthropologist Heather Myler.
As for Dave, he believes the house has had a life-changing influence. Instead of getting in the car and driving to their personal pursuits, Marcie (a triathlete) now rides her bike the short distance each morning to row on Lake Washington — or walks down to the water with Dave or the girls in the afternoon for a swim.

"To be able to look out from the house and see her row by is amazing," says Dave, who in addition to his law practice writes songs, performs and records with the band "Straw Dogs."

At the end of the day, the thing that impressed them most in the beginning impresses them still: the abundance of natural light. "The energy you get from light is one of the most important things in architecture," says Marcie, "and one of the things represented so well in this house."

Victoria Medgyesi writes about houses and the interesting people who live in them. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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