That’s Charlie Conner, president/owner of Conner Homes, whose California/Alaska/42nd project went back to the Southwest Design Review Board last night for a second round of “Design Review Guidance.” He was clearly there to lead the team making the case for the project; this time, he directly addressed the crowd to open what is usually the architect’s presentation to the board — and that followed time he spent before the meeting introducing himself to members of the standing-room-only crowd as they arrived. Then, more than half an hour after the meeting, he was outside the Southwest Precinct, still talking with a small group of attendees in which we recognized at least one Junction merchant. Our full report on what happened, and what happens next, straight ahead — long report, for a long (more than 2 hours) meeting:
The crowd size was no surprise, as this is one of the most closely watched projects in West Seattle in a long time — since it includes the first California-fronting Junction parcel proposed for redevelopment. Conner wants to replace the current one-story retail buildings on the sites with residential-over-retail buildings up to 85 feet tall, which is what the zoning allows.
Alluding to the aftermath of the first Early Design Guidance meeting last month (WSB coverage here), “I want you to know we are listening,” Conner said last night, noting that he wanted to speak at the meeting because he thought it might be important for residents to be able to “put a face” to the name behind the project. “We are here for the long term.”
He said repeatedly that his company had heard residents’ concerns, both at the previous meeting and from “reading blogs and websites” — here’s a short video snippet from his remarks:
Some board members and meeting attendees took issue with part of that, pointing out that the presentation (which included these renderings posted online by the city yesterday – and more) did not address one of the biggest concerns that had been voiced — the height of the building as presented at the crucial California/Alaska corner. (More on that later.)
Conner acknowledged traffic concerns and said he believes that having vehicles enter from 42nd, instead of the alley as per current city guidelines, would be the “least disruptive” option — again, something with which board nembers disagreed when they deliberated after almost two hours of presentations, questions, and public comments.
He also acknowledged questions about the (retail) “tenant mix,” pointing out the biggest possible retail space in the building would be 12,000 square feet, though he added, “we don’t anticipate it’ll work out that way, but it’s important that there be flexibility.” Conner also pronounced it “not feasible” to not have a residential entrance on California — a point of concern in previous meetings — though later board members also expressed disagreement with that contention.
“We’re not going to please everybody,” Conner went on to say. “I wish we could. But (this) has to work economically and aesthetically … we can’t just go back and build single-story buildings.”
He walked through three alternative schemes for the project, A, B and C, identifying the latter as the “preferred” alternative – in this configuration, which pulls the easternmost building back from the alley that runs between the two:
There wasn’t much time spent on options A and B (you can look them up in the presentation here). For the configuration in C, Conner would have to be granted city permission to use the alley space below the ground, enabling the parking garages for the two buildings to connect, with a single entrance on 42nd.
Greaves said the parking would be accessible to shoppers who would use “single-stop elevators’ to get up to the retail area without going through residential areas.
After outlining key points of the proposed configuration, he showed a variety of possible “character sketches” for the buildings, including some options with so much glass that one attendee later voiced concern about glare on the west-facing side of the California-fronting building in the afternoon sun. There were so many options, Greaves stressed they were simply “very early study examples …. so we can cross out the ones you hate.”
The meeting never quite got that granular; the architects’ presentation ran over time, as did other sections of the proceedings, though given the significance of this project, no one seemed to mind. Before board members got to start asking questions — the agenda item that preceded public comment — they also heard from the landscape architect, Tom Rengstorf, who rushed through his portion of the presentation since the architects’ allotment had already expired.
His drawings showed the development surrounded by street trees, new and existing, except for a portion of the pedestrian walkthrough on the south side (which came up as a separate issue later). He also talked about screening for some of the residential units on the alley using bamboo.
On the north side of the development, he said, “We’ll try to respond to the new park across the street” (Junction Plaza Park, the development of which is somewhat stalled because of funding challenges).
Design Review Board member Deb Barker opened the questioning by asking Greaves to clarify the height of the proposed buildings, which are both in an area zoned for 85-foot height. The east building would “approach” that height, he said; the west (California-fronting) would be about 10 feet shorter than that.
Board member Joe Hurley was first to broach the concern that the Conner presentation did not address a major concern from the first “early design guidance” meeting — a “stepback” for the west building at the California/Alaska corner, so that the building’s face at the heart of The Junction wouldn’t be such a dramatic departure from its neighbors.
Greaves replied by saying that kind of stepback didn’t jive with West Seattle Junction design guidelines.
Next, board member Brandon Nicholson asked about another request the SWDRB had made at the first meeting, for an exploration of options to have the buildings’ residential entry on Alaska.
“We think the pedestrian/traffic environment wasn’t conducive to that,” explained Greaves. “That was sort of a nonstarter from the residential side of the equation.”
Nicholson also inquired about how Conner and Harbor Properties, developer of Mural — which is the southern neighbor to the eastern section of the Conner project — are working together on the 30-foot-wide passageway from 42nd to California. So far, it appeared, they really haven’t been – a possible “retaining wall” was in the early Conner sketches – though “early discussions” have been initiated, Conner reps said.
In the midst of a discussion of more of the option sketches that sat on and below easels at the front of the room, Greaves finally explained, “At this point we’re trying to throw as much stuff out there as we can to get as much feedback as we can. … Nobody here wants this to look like Downtown Disney. We’re faced with trying to create an authentic modulation of these buildings …create a large handsome building and at the same time break it down in scale that … sets a model for future development … straddles current development and future of what utimately is an NC-85 (zoned) building.”
Current number of residential units is pegged at 210 to 220, it was noted before the agenda moved on to public comments, which came from a variety of people, both Junction business owners and area residents. They had much to say, so we’re excerpting just about everyone:
Frank, who spoke first, concluded, “It’s a beautiful building — I just think it turns The Junction into Belltown.”
Sharonn Meeks, area resident and community activist: “I attended the April meeting and I see no effort to address (that) citizen input … I think you’re ignoring the neighbothood and our concerns.”
Junction-area homeowner Joanne: “I think we’re all having a really hard time accepting the reality of what’s happening to us here. It’s very traumatic for all of us … I hate Option C the least.”
Resident Nancy Driver: “Had I wanted to move to someplace like Bellevue, I would have moved to Bellevue. This doesn’t fit to me at all within the Junction … To me, it’s completely boring … and it’s just going to lead to total erosion of what we have in The Junction.. Eventually these kind of things are going to drive out all the small business owners.”
Heather Leaman, co-owner of Bakery Nouveau in The Junction, who noted she used to work in a development-related field: “When we’re talking context, the only context I see reflected here is Jefferson Square, which is a huge eyesore in West Seattle. I’m all for growth and change and development. But you really need to focus on California. When people talk about The Junction, they’re not talking about 42nd or the alley, they’re talking about California and Alaska. … What people like about West Seattle is, it’s a small-town feeling. If we are going to respect the history of the neighborhood, we need to be looking back as we look forward. Our bakery is in a building that’s been there since like 1945; before that, it was a post office. The deli’s been here forever. These are the buildings and businesses that bring people to West Seattle to live and work and raise their families.”
JuNO board member Katie Tucker: “I would really like to see an actual stepback on the corner of California and Alaska, not a faux one.”
Resident Diane Vincent: “At the last meeting, there was a ton of feedback about that (California/Alaska) corner. I looked through the whole (presentation available online) and didn’t see anything responding to that request. I envisioned one or two stories, then stepped way back, and I don’t see that. I do love the passthroughs and would like to see the drivers going out on 42nd. I do appreciate that the owner showed up tonight.”
Frances Smersh from Admiral retailer Click! Design That Fits (WSB sponsor): “I love the feeling and look of West Seattle as it is now. I recognize development has to happen … I would encourage you to look around, as others have said, at the materials and styles, and complement that, don’t try to mimic it. … Maybe have local artwork included in the design process.”
Michael Hoffman of Liberty Bell Printing: “This building going up so high is going to make that corner an eyesore.”
Todd Carden from Elliott Bay Brewing Company: “I feel pretty passionately about this building. I think this has the opportunity to be a hero-type situation if it’s treated the way it needs to be. But I’m kind of wondering how much observation has been made about the way the alleys are used now … We have 25 to 30 trucks a week just for (our business).”
Another Junction-area resident: “I appreciate how Charlie (Conner) says he wants to come in and create great communities. I think we already ARE a great community. I’m concerned that development not bring about the cultural extinction of West Seattle.”
Susan Melrose, executive director of the West Seattle Junction Association: “An analogy was made that this project was like a geode with the gems inside [along the alley between the buildings]. It seems like that should be inverted. The setbacks and special storefronts and all that feeling of space and breathing should be on California. This is the avenue that the West Seattle public goes up and down all the time, this is where the traffic is, we should reward West Seattleites with great architecture (there).”
(The public-comment periods of these meetings generally does not include back-and-forth between groups, but to that comment, Greaves said, “I don’t think anyone is proposing ignoring California to benefit the alley, I think we are trying to do both.”)
A resident named Jan: “I think this building has to be a landmark. It’s going to set the standard for everything else that happens. If you want to preserve 2- and 3-story buildings, you have to change the zoning, which allows this kind of construction.”
Resident Bob Sherman: “This is going to be the first of many right in this area on California. This is a chance to get it right and set the tone. If this is a box on the corner and that’s the direction the rest of these buildings are going to follow, then we’re going down the wrong road.”
Former board member Catherine Benotto, now a principal with Weber Thompson: “There’s a very eclectic environment throughout West Seattle, architectural styles of every type imaginable. … I remember a lot of vacant stores because there just weren’t enough people. This corner needs a really good strong presence.”
Those are excerpts from most of those who spoke; Foster said, “Some of the public comments were brilliant,” as he and ther other board members segued into their discussion. Barker added, “I’m so glad everyone came tonight .. that the public is so impassioned, and cares about this.”
Board members, too, proved themselves impassioned about aspects of this development, as proven in their discussion at meeting’s end, including repeated expressions of disappointment that requests from the last meeting had not manifested themselves in this presentation. Ultimately, they decided to allow the project to move on to the next phase of Design Review, “recommendations.” Chair Foster had declared himself in favor of calling a third “early design” meeting — but warned that they are expecting to see the next presentation incorporate these elements (otherwise, Barker said, “it would be a disservice to the community” if the concerns expressed at the meeting were not acted on):
–A three- to four-story face for the portion of the western building that faces the Alaska/California corner (and eastward to the alley, southward an unspecified distance). Nicholson suggested it would be helpful for the board to give the developer that type of specific number, recalling a similar recommendation had helped with one of his projects in his pre-board days. Foster suggested leaving the architect a little room for interpretation, saying, “… so they can do their best work, and I expect their best work – this corner is too important (for anything else).” The board agreed this was a more important “massing” issue than any similar “stepback” for the eastern building’s 42nd/Alaska corner – they thought it would be OK for the mass of that building to be bigger and bulkier.
–Shift the westernmost residential entrance (lobby) from California to Alaska. It was noted the precedent already exists in the old buildings on the other side of Alaska, the Hamm and Campbell buildings, both with residential entrances along Alaska rather than California.
–Have the car entrance along the alley, rather than 42nd. “I think you can have a designed alley, without moving the functionality away,” Nicholson said.
–Be sure that Conner and Harbor Properties are collaborating on the “pedestrian connection” rather than developing two separate halves of a 30-foot width as two separate 15-foot areas. There also was concern about steps in the walkway limiting accessibility.
Partway through the board’s deliberations, Conner returned to the room, after talking with attendees outside. He expressed some concern at the recommendations, repeating, “We have to have something that works economically.” Board members also wound up engaging architect Greaves for a time as their deliberations wound down, which was somewhat unusual – he responded to some of their suggestions by drawing on a few of his renderings with a black marker.
HOW TO COMMENT: If you have something to say about the design, or about other issues that relate to the proposal, send them to city planner Michael Dorcy, who is assigned to this project. This page has all his contact info. (The project’s official city webpage is here.)