Saturday, 7 March 2009

Scenes from the End of Suburbia

Walking in my in-laws’ neighbourhood in Bothell, Washington, a satellite town orbiting northern Seattle, I came across an increasingly common feature of the local scenery. Hidden from the busy suburban street behind a uniform wooden fence, an entire housing development sits in an island of tranquility. One long street stretches perpendicularly from the main drag, and from it radiate three short stubs of road, their names advertised on shiny new street signs — ‘9th DR SE’, ‘20th DR SE’. Everything here is new. The sour smell of new tarmac still lingers over the freshly-paved road, and the white stripes of the pedestrian crossings glow in the sunlight. All is in place, in fact — the street lamps, bright yellow fire hydrants, large communal mailboxes — except the houses. It’s as if they simply vanished in the night.

The previous occupants of this particular site, my mother-in-law tells me, ran the area’s last remaining family farm. In fact, an aerial photograph of that farm can still be found — the modest house, the pasture, and its tin-roofed stables — on the website of the holdings company that razed it to make room for ‘Muriel’s Landing’, a residential community that fits 22 lots into the space where there was formerly but one. But then, here and elsewhere — this ghost-community is one of three to be found on that street alone — the money simply ran out. Projects all over town have stopped dead. Blocks of condos have been left half-built, the chipboard of their inner walls left to bleach and warp in the sun. The realtor’s webpage for Muriel’s Landing lies in a similar state of abandonment: ‘Coming Fall 2008’, it reads, ‘Construction starting in September, Pre-Sales Available Now!’ Below, four black boxes enclose the words ‘PHOTO COMING SOON’.

The city of Bothell (‘For a Day or a Lifetime’) has grown beyond recognition in the past decade. As the prices of houses and land continued to rise, developers responded by cramming larger and larger homes into smaller and smaller lots. A controversial change in zoning regulations, called ‘lot size averaging’, judges the legality of lot sizes on the average size over a whole development, instead of the individual lots. Thanks to this change, on the newest developments here, monstrous 3,000 square-foot McMansions — many of which are sitting empty — have been packed onto lots more than 25% smaller than code. The parcels on Muriel’s Landing actually stand at a luxurious 9,600 square feet each, which will no doubt be in their favour when the housing market finally recovers.

But for now, nature is restaking its claim. Here on Muriel’s Landing, the expanses of land on which new homes should stand are overgrown once more with weeds and yellowed grass, pasture for whatever grazing animals have littered the new pavement with detritus and excrement. Extending from the earth, thick orange pipes of electrical wires bow sadly in imitation of the long grass that surrounds them, and wooden posts to mark the intended positions of water and sewage lines now seem to serve as makeshift headstones, memorials to a planned but unaccomplished future. The funereal air is heightened by three broad, twisted trees, as yet unfelled, upon which scores of cackling crows have made their own temporary homes.

In the time that I was visiting the site, I was surprised to see first one, then another, and then a third car turn into the empty cul-de-sac and stop. But each time, the drivers merely reversed into the nearest of the dead-end streets and headed straight back out again, turning back the way they had come to correct their wrong turn.

Picture, courtesy of Google Earth Streetview, depicts development at Muriel’s Landing last summer. © 2009 Google.

1 comment:

HkdonXetG said...

I very much liked your article about the development, Muriel's Landing in Bothell, WA. With your words you painted a vivid, almost stark portrait of the new construction housing market. It conjured up images of ghost towns of the 19th Century. I could almost see the sage brush rolling through the abandoned street! My favorite part was your description of the powerlines "Extending from the earth, thick orange pipes of electrical wires bow sadly in imitation of the long grass that surrounds them...a planned but unaccomplished future." Very well written.