By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
One man’s mere presence underscored the high stakes at last night’s Southwest Design Review Board meeting on the redevelopment proposal for The Kenney, the century-old nonprofit retirement complex in Fauntleroy: Vince Lyons.
Lyons, who manages the Design Review program for the City of Seattle, is not usually in attendance when meetings like this are convened by the SWDRB, or any of the other DR boards around the city. They are routinely led by whichever members of these all-volunteer boards are serving as chairs, with the (non-volunteer) city planners assigned to the project(s) in question on hand too.
However, he was a forceful presence at this one – briefly addressing the standing-room-only crowd (60-plus people) before The Kenney’s consulting architect began his presentation, occasionally interjecting follow-up questions as attendees addressed the board during public comments, and then offering sometimes-stern words of guidance while the board discussed its decision and recommendations.
When the meeting ended after two-plus hours, with board members agreeing The Kenney’s proposal could advance to the next step of the process (and providing detailed feedback on what they expect to see next time it returns for their review), we asked Lyons why he had come: To help the board stay on track, he replied, having gotten a sense “the last meeting was pretty rough.”
That was a reference to the first “early design guidance” meeting for this $150 million proposal, back on October 23. As we wrote following that two-hour meeting, SWDRB chair David Foster, a West Seattle-based architect, declared this proposal to be more “complicated than any (he’d) seen in (his) 3 1/2 years on the board,” since it also is likely to require multiple City Council votes (for rezoning and street changes) before winning final approval. And the nature of those complicating factors led to the most confrontational moments last night, when Cindi Barker from the Morgan Community Association had to ask repeated, pointed questions to get city clarification on which stage of the process would be appropriate for public input on those possible zoning changes.
(In our conversation afterward, Lyons indicated that his department prefers to take the City Council a proposal that has had all the details worked out and secured community support before reaching that stage; he says feedback will be most important at the next Design Review meeting for the project.)
One more note – the board makeup for both Kenney reviews has diverged a little more than usual; in October, only two of the five board members, Foster and Joe Hurley, were present (quorum is not required for “early design guidance” meetings, we were told); last night, the project was formally reviewed by those two, board member Christie Coxley (a landscape designer), and fill-in (but former member) Vlad Oustimovitch, sitting in for the next few months for Brandon Nicholson, who’s on hiatus because he’s working on a city contract (as explained here). Board member Deb Barker said the city Ethics Board advised that she has to sit out reviews of this project because her mother-in-law is a Kenney resident.
But let’s backtrack – first to details of what’s being proposed now. Since this was another “early design guidance” meeting, as requested by the board after its October review, The Kenney’s proposal addresses generalities — shape, size, statistics — more than specifics.
Their presentation (most of which is online here) — led by Gene Guszkowski from the Wisconsin-based AG Architecture firm, which specializes in senior-living projects — examined five possibilities for the project. The first two were sketched out in response to requests from the last meeting: One that would work within existing zoning for the site, and one that would save the century-old Seaview building — The Kenney’s iconic cupola-topped structure — which otherwise is slated to be demolished as part of this project, along with a majority of buildings on the site (including rental housing to the south that The Kenney has purchased).
First, the “code-compliant” option:
Problem with that one, Guszkowski said, is that it would enable 25 percent fewer new units than “the program requirement to keep The Kenney viable.” (Kenney CEO Kevin McFeely, who was in attendance last night but did not speak, said at the last meeting that the facility is “not going to be able to survive financially” without this “reinvention” project.)
Next, the “saving the Seaview” option:
Guszkowski reiterated what he, McFeely, and other Kenney project consultants have said before: That the century-old building’s “construction type” is not conducive to remodeling that would transform its units into the larger, more comfortable retirement apartments that retiring baby boomers are expecting. He also said the “existing corridors would (result in) inefficient floor plans,” that existing floor heights don’t line up with new ones elsewhere in the complex, which would result in “more costs for vertical transportation,” and a big factor – The Kenney wants to build an underground parking garage, and it wouldn’t be possible to do that for the Seaview’s section of the site with the building still there. However, the Seaview-saving plan would enable The Kenney to get the ultimate number of units it wants, he said, including converting the Seaview to something with four units per floor, and increasing the height/density elsewhere on the site.
Then, he moved the three other options, A through C. A would require a two-step rezoning, changing the entire site to L-3 (city zoning designations explained here) and then a “contract rezone” – where the city and property owner agree to a zoning change with very specific terms – in the center, to enable a larger building. This one also would include a “re-creation of the Seaview building” on the northeastern corner of the site. B, Guszkowski said, would “spread out” across the entire site to “achieve our goals” and reach the hoped-for number of 194 units, but that also includes giving up The Kenney’s famous “park-like” area on the northwest corner of the property.
Finally, what he described as the “new preferred alternative,” C:
This would seek a rezoning of the entire site to MR (again, city zoning designations explained here), which usually allows 60 feet of height but “controlling the height by suggesting we would follow L-4 height standards” (around 40 feet). The northwest corner would remain a “park-like” space, and the buildings would mostly be four stories high.
At this point, he also showed some renderings that showed the potential height and bulk of the project under that proposal, from vantage points to the east, and said those renderings were proof that nearby residents’ “view of the Sound would really not be obstructed.”
In the next phase of the meeting, questions from board members, Hurley — who had voiced strong concern at the last meeting about the prospect of Seaview demolition — said he’s “suspicious” of the value of the concept of trying to “honor” the Seaview by re-creating it, “because of the expense .. and quality of materials that the Seaview has,” so he asked whether the consultants had looked at the possibility of moving the building, ostensibly so it would be away from the area where it would get in the way of the underground parking plan.
Looking a bit startled and bemused, Guszkowski said, “You’ve certainly given us something new to think about.”
Responding to a followup question about any particularly “Seattle”-style aspect of the project, the architect added that he wished he “had more height so I could bring in more light.” Repeatedly during his presentation, he mentioned “permeability of the site,” which referred not to its land, where the word more often comes up, but to the opportunity for passersby and neighbors to see into the site, so it doesn’t look like a massive fortress amid single-family homes.
Once the public comment period opened, one neighbor said he didn’t see much value in that “swath,” and also voiced concern about the project increasing The Kenney’s height along Fauntleroy frontage.
MoCA’s Barker singled out the architect’s brief mention of a wall on the west side of the site, which could be anywhere from 3 feet high to one story high, and summed up her concerns concisely: “Ick, ick, ick.”
Nearby resident Mary McCullough said she was disappointed not to have seen more “elevation drawings” and neighborhood context for how the project’s bulk and scale might appear from other angles.
Fauntleroy resident Bruce Butterfield expressed concern about the “tall, beautiful trees” on the site’s northwest corner, and asked about their status. The developers said that would depend on a “tree survey” and on the ultimate plan approved for building. (They were reminded later by neighbor Fred Madrid that a tree survey had been requested during the October meeting, and clearly that request had not been honored, but that the board would expect to see such a survey at the next meeting.)
Local history expert Judy Bentley wanted to know more about “the obstacle” with saving the Seaview building. Guszkowski elaborated that “the biggest problem … is its location on the site” (blocking a potential parking garage), with the “secondary concern” being its adaptability to a new use. If a new building is designed in its “spirit,” he promised, the original cupola would be reused, and it would likeliy have brick, a pitched roof, windows in “the same proportion” as the current building, no balconies .. “it wouldn’t be a cheap, aluminum-sided replica.”
Karen White, daughter of a Kenney resident who she said has progressed from independent to assisted living there, cautioned critics: “Keep in mind that what needs to be designed here must be designed from the viewpoint of what seniors need. If the Seaview building does not meet what today’s seniors need to live, that building should be discarded.”
From a current independent-living resident of The Kenney: “I would not like to see the designers and architects be so constrained by height that we will … be ‘squished’.”
Area resident Kathryn Armstrong said she’s concerned that the “height, bulk, and scale of this project really is incompatible with the (surrounding) single-family neighborhood … it just seems like the owner is intent in packing this ultimate ‘program’ onto the site.” She asked whether the landmark review for the Seaview has begun yet — it is routinely required for buildings 50 or more years old that are proposed for demolition — and was told, no.
Peg Staley, who also lives nearby, said: “I think these are good site plans, but they are fairly similar — I thought the point of design review, since they are going for a rezone, is to look at the site as a whole. They should also do a comprehensive review on the property they own to the north (across Myrtle). They’ve said they’re ‘sequencing’ (phases of this project), so we also need to look at what happens there.”
Other concerns and questions included a suggestion to pay special attention to the project’s roof, given how visible it is from uphill residents; a request to preserve that “park-like” area at the northwest corner because residents take walks there; an alternate suggestion for a “green roof” where residents could take such walks instead; and more concern about the proposed west-side wall.
Jerome Diepenbrock presented board members with a document compiling community concerns about the project, as voiced at previous community meetings; you can read it here. As they began their deliberations, the board referred to that document, and used its key points to coalesce their recommendations for the developers.
Before those deliberations began, Foster asked for a reiteration of how the “contract rezone” process would work; the city reps said recommendations from the SWDRB would inform that process, and before the City Council signs off on any such proposed rezoning, it would want to know that “this has been turned over, looked at, thought about” by the community as well as design reviewers.
That’s when Cindi Barker said, wait, you told us at the start of the meeting this isn’t about zoning, it’s about design. Lyons said, well, the two go together. She said the process was starting to seem like a “railroad.” Lyons then said, “So you’re saying you would be good with just keeping the zoning that’s there now?” Not necessarily, she said – she was just seeking clarification regarding what stage of the process would be open to that community input specifically on possible rezoning.
Lyons said, write down your concerns and send it to DPD. (You can do that through Dorcy, the planner on the project, by the way: email@example.com), and added, “The council wants to hear about a Seattle-type compromise from you out in the community. This is nowhere near done, they’re going to apply for their permit, there will be several more meetings before (DPD makes its recommendation), it’s still very early in the rezone process. I’m serious – this is very early on – this is not a railroad job – we’re trying to be open and transparent about it – we wouldn’t be out here at this hour if we weren’t serious about it.” (The meeting ran past 10 pm.)
Then – board members began discussing what they would recommend. (If you’ve never been to a Design Review Board meeting, by the way, this portion of the process is always open to the public too, so those who are interested in staying to hear the deliberations and discussion generally gather around the table where the reviewers sit, and quietly listen.)
Oustimovitch described the proposal as a “classic” rezoning discussion, “five pounds (of site) and you have to put 10 pounds into it … My suggestion, the best way to do that, is to deal with the edges of the site first, look at all those conditions, then leave it to the architects to see how they can work from the outside in, instead of the inside out.”
And that is how the discussions proceeded. Overall, they urged The Kenney’s team to take a “wholistic” look at the site, rather than building by building, and to pursue “a connection to the neighborhood that’s real, not just an institutional edge when you approach the building,” to keep the site “as open as possible”; to pay special attention to landscaping; to “modulate” the site. Overall, a majority of board members preferred the general spirit of Alternative B more than the other two. Guszkowski noted at this point, “Because (that) grew out of the ‘code-compliance’ plan, there is indeed more modulation.”
“Reducing bulk and scale around the perimeter in favor of more intensive units around the center, is what we’re getting to,” Foster summarized. “I would support more stories in the middle if it meant a reduction in bulk around the outer edges.” And he brought in the word “permeability” again.
They also stressed the importance of parking and access, especially because by nature, there are more ambulances visiting senior-living centers; The Kenney’s team says Othello will be widened for at least part of the stretch along the project’s south side – Oustimovitch suggested that should cover its entire length, perhaps as the public benefit that’s expected to be provided as a quid-pro-quo for street vacation/rezoning type requests.
A few more board comments — Foster: “We want something that has the flavor of the Northwest, if not West Seattle itself.” Oustimovitch: “I think it’s important to treat these as separate buildings … consistency (of design) is NOT necessarily the issue – one way The Kenney has evolved is as a diverse set of buildings.”
Januszkowski agreed: “One of the things that makes it work is, functioning as a village.”
Before board members agreed unanimously to recommend that The Kenney’s project proceed out of “early design guidance” stage, Hurley said that if he were in the architects’ shoes, he’d want a third EDG meeting, since they’d just been handed so many suggestions for how to shape the project: “It’s a lot to handle while expecting them to bring in a functioning building.”
What’s expected to happen next, though, is that The Kenney will apply for its Master Use Permit, and another Design Review meeting will be scheduled for board members to review a more detailed proposal; what happens after that, depends on how that meeting goes (no date set yet – sometimes more than a year can elapse between EDG and the followup meeting, as was the case with 4502 42nd SW, the other project on last night’s agenda, about which we’ll write more later).
Summing it up in our aforementioned conversation afterward, design-review program boss Lyons said, “There are many steps to this process … we’re only a step and a half along the way.”
LINKS YOU MIGHT FIND HELPFUL
City project page for The Kenney
The Kenney’s online project FAQ
WSB archive of The Kenney coverage
City Design Review citizens’ handbook
(City zoning designations, explained)