Design Review round 2 for Conner Homes’ Junction project

May 30, 2008 at 2:33 am | In Development, West Seattle news | 14 Comments

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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.”

With that, he yielded to architect Peter Greaves from Weber Thompson (below left):

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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:

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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.

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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.)

14 Comments

  1. I agree that the Cal/Ala intersection building should be stepped back and not a vertical mountain at the intersection. The current plan is boring and no thought has gone into keeping the intersection open. It would not be difficult to have a 2 or 3 story wall followed by stepping each floor back away from the intersection.

    I would not like to see cars entering or exiting on California. That should be done via 42nd by an entry possibly through the other building?

    Comment by Cowpie — 9:52 am May 30, 2008 #

  2. I’ll add a word in there – it’s not a car entry that’s on California, it would be a residential pedestrian entry. Conner is currently proposing having the car entry on 42nd, which would require a special exemption from the city, as these types of projects are generally expected to have alley entries now.

    Comment by WSB — 10:11 am May 30, 2008 #

  3. I went to the meeting last night and it was my first development board meeting.

    Pretty interesting, I’m going to have to go to more of them.

    I was the first speaker and I brought up the parking situation and was told that this was the wrong place to address it (?). Left me wondering why, since this, and all developments in the area affect parking.

    It is a beautiful building, but truly doesn’t fit into the West Seattle/Junction area. At 75 feet and 85 feet tall it would look like the “Box the Space Needle came in” in Downtown when it was the first skyscraper we had in Seattle. TOTALLY out of place.

    One thing about the board, I got the impression that, though they look at each development, they look at it individually instead of the total impact that ALL the developments have on an area. ANY development needs to look at the whole picture and the TOTAL impact of ALL developments in the area.

    No traffic mitigation was discussed and I got the distinct feeling that they didn’t want it mentioned.

    I had a nice conversation with Mr. Conner when the board was having its discussion and he sympathetic with the desire of have a building that fits in. Its just finding the balance making it economically feasible to build it and get a return from the sales/rental of the residential units.

    But like I said at the meeting – This building starts turning the Junction into another Belltown that will end up catering to only those that live in this and the other new residential developments in the area, effectively cutting off those of us that live outside the junction area and enjoy coming to the junction.

    Comment by Frank — 11:15 am May 30, 2008 #

  4. I agree with many people’s concerns about the scale and massing, but I would also like to raise concern about a smaller idea that Conner Homes is promoting in their presentation: varied paving treatments. There is no precedent in the Junction for such varied paving along any one block and I worry that this will look very busy and have the effect of looking like it is making up in quantity and busy-ness what it might not be doing in quality. Simple, clean street fronts that replicate the existing conditions elsewhere nearby should be the goal.

    Comment by esdl — 11:16 am May 30, 2008 #

  5. They seem fixated with prettying up the alley. It is for delivery and garbage trucks. Focus on California & Alaska!

    Comment by JM — 11:27 am May 30, 2008 #

  6. Frank – sorry I didn’t know that was you – I’ll add your (first) name to the story – I recognized either names, voices, or faces (though I sat in the front row, bad tactical move for seeing attendees) of almost everybody else who spoke – TR

    Comment by WSB — 11:41 am May 30, 2008 #

  7. as always, major kudos to Tracey for incredible reporting; I was sitting nearby watching her type away, and listen; amazes me how much detail in names/comments she was able to get down; I can’t even fill in a sign-in sheet and answer a question at the same time

    this has been an incredible learning process; after 3 meetings on this development and reviewing presentation pdf doc, still not “getting” some details, so appreciate the recap to fill in some gaps missing for me, and some that I apparently misunderstood what they were presenting; still confused about options re residential driveway vs alley access and vehicle access for everyone else.

    my favorite part is listening to board discussion, taking into account public comment, professional and friendly, nice mix of humor, expressing passion for what we want, and disappointment with presentation, then clearly summarizing and stating what is it our community wants from this project, within context of what is allowed by code

    and I learned a new term, “barn dance” at all-ways walk intersection; 10 yrs here and 1st I’ve heard that; funny!

    Comment by Diane — 2:34 pm May 30, 2008 #

  8. Re specifics of project

    I do really like the mid-block pedestrian connection from 42nd to California, and since I was sitting next to the visual for that rendering, noticed stairs on 42nd side; I requested that they reconsider the stairs, that West Seattle is filled with families pushing strollers, and it’s important for that walkway to be accessible to all; I was very happy to hear the board address this issue, and request Harbor and Conner collaborate to bring the 30 ft wide pedestrian corridor (15 ft owned by each) into alignment, fully and easily accessible to all.

    comments from others were thought provoking; i.e., will the underground parking really be used? Deb Barker said that parking under Jefferson Square is not used; oh yeh, I forgot there even was parking down there, have never used it; BUT there have been so many times in pouring rain that I wish we had a grocery/other shopping with covered parking, especially when traveling with babies, juggling umbrella, shopping bags, pulling out stroller, and carrying little ones; if the underground parking is designed well with easy access in/out, and easy option to take stairs or elevator, that would be excellent, guessing it could be much used (depending on retail tenants to attract customers)

    most important, massing at Cal/Alaska junction; Greaves kept saying they were trying to meet specs of West Seattle Junction design guidelines, with majority of massing to “hold the corner”; in response, my later comment, I’m guessing the authors of these guidelines were not envisioning 8 stories, or 6 stories to hold the corner, maybe 1, 2, or 3 stories; just like many others, I was extremely surprised that they could “hear” the many comments at previous design review, and if they really do read the blogs, to come back with renderings that looked so similar to the first, with no setbacks at our junction corner; it wasn’t til the very end, when Greaves got out the marker to draw on the board what a real setback at the corner might look like, that it seemed he was finally hearing our requests.

    Comment by Diane — 2:37 pm May 30, 2008 #

  9. also to note, I was struck by the beginning of Greaves presentation, seemed very defensive about the whole alley issue, and repeated throughout, that their intention is not to focus all activity on the alley, just in addition to street retail; it was good to see them acknowledge public reaction on this issue, yet I don’t see that reflected in changes to drawings; hoping they will truly take to heart community comment, reiterating again last night much of what was said loud and clear in first review meeting, and come back with something much different, much better

    there were many wonderful comments about this project setting a precedent, being a landmark, setting a tone for future development, etc; I would really like to get a sense from the developer that they envision this project as an ethical and social responsibility, and honor, to create incredibly beautiful/functional architecture and spaces for our community.

    Comment by Diane — 2:41 pm May 30, 2008 #

  10. Frank – the design review process is supposed to deal primarily with the design of the individual project being reviewed. It can (and should) take into account the neighborhood context so that an appropriate design will be pursued, but solving traffic problems and urban design issues is generally beyond the scope of design review.

    However, all projects over a certain size are also required to undergo an “environmental” review, led by the land use planner. Any comments relating to parking, traffic, or overall environmental impacts can be addressed to Michael Dorcy (contact info in the original post). He is supposed to determine what, if any, traffic or parking mitigation will be required. Sometimes there are public hearings as part of the environmental review as well.

    I know many people get frustrated when they show up to a design review meeting to express concern about things like parking and traffic, only to be told it is not the appropriate forum for those discussions. But there are ways to have your opinions on those issues be heard. Also, there has been talk recently of re-opening the neighborhood planning process. That would be a great opportunity for everyone to get together and really look at the bigger picture. I hope it happens!

    Comment by SLK — 4:49 pm May 30, 2008 #

  11. Wow from this Stranger article looks like Peter Greaves is the same guy designing ugly buildings that are ruining Pike/Pine area.

    http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/Content?oid=111746

    Comment by John — 10:38 pm May 30, 2008 #

  12. “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.”

    Now, what’s wrong with it looking like Downtown Disney? I prefer the pedestrian friendliness and courtyard ambiance of Downtown Disney or Disney Main Street over a six story wall of bricks cornering California & Alaska.

    Thank you WSB for your excellent reporting.

    Comment by WSMom — 12:19 pm May 31, 2008 #

  13. I have to ask why this (or any other area in WS) is zoned to 85 feet? There are very few other “neighborhood business” areas in the city zoned this high. I find it difficult to believe that much density is needed here. As far as the proposed designs, take a look at the NW corner of N 34th and Fremont. The corner is a decent design effectively stepping the height back from the street.

    http://maps.live.com/default.aspx?v=2&FORM=LMLTCP&cp=ry7gp44t3rdv&style=b&lvl=2&tilt=-90&dir=0&alt=-1000&scene=3693438&phx=0&phy=0&phscl=1&encType=1

    Comment by steve — 1:09 pm May 31, 2008 #

  14. One of the architects at the meeting (Catherine?) made the comment that ‘pedestrians won’t notice the mass of the building from street level because they plan to put a canopy over the sidewalk’. DUH. Gosh, when we walk thru the Junction, we actually look around and notice things like the sky above the buildings across the street and in the next block(s).Think about an eighty foot wall “held to the corner” where there was sky. We aren’t going to notice this? We don’t have good feelings about this ‘process’ so far.

    Comment by Bob & Myrna Sherman — 9:16 pm June 1, 2008 #

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