(One of the “massing” graphics from the meeting presentation)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Harbor Properties‘ next West Seattle development Nova (36th/Snoqualmie) stirred little controversy as it sailed through “early design guidance” last night, at the Southwest Design Review Board‘s first meeting in seven months (if there’s no project to review, they don’t meet).
However, a revelation about recent city code changes loomed large: The fact that Nova and other developments in certain areas of the city could be built with no on-site parking at all (though Harbor is currently looking at providing .6 of a space per unit, about the same as its nearby Link and Mural [WSB sponsors] developments).
“When did (the rule) change?” asked Triangle property owner Jim Sweeney, saying that he believes few are aware of the changes.
Here’s the answer we found afterward:
It was part of the “multi-family code” changes that worked their way through the City Council for the past few years, finally approved in December. The key points are listed on this page of the city website. Among them, the provision in question:
Waive parking requirements for projects in growth areas and within .25 mile of frequent transit service (15 minute headways), allowing the market to dictate the level of parking to provide
And that’s how city planner Scott Kemp attempted to explain it, after Sweeney’s question at last night’s meeting: “I think it’s a shift in the way our City Council and planners are thinking about the automobile … In the past we were thinking people are going to have all these cars … and now we would like to let the market determine how many parking spaces are going to (be provided) … and create transit-oriented areas of the city … That’s the thought; I don’t expect you to agree with it, but that’s the thought.”
Another attendee’s retort to that: “That’s not market-driven, that’s government-driven.”
In this case, the developer believes the market requires some parking: If what Harbor’s Onslow said at the start of their presentation carries through, .6 of a space per unit, with about 60 units envisioned, that would equal about 37 parking stalls in a garage that would be underground on the west side of the site, entered through the lower east side (on the alley). He said based on what they are seeing with Mural and Link, they believe it’s “the right balance.”
It was acknowledged even toward the start of the meeting, by outgoing SWDRB chair Christie Coxley, that parking had been a hot topic in WSB comments following recent coverage of the Nova plan, though she reiterated that parking is not one of the project elements that design-review boards are empowered to review.
She also provided the 40-strong audience with a quick primer on the process, after joking, “Welcome to the first annual West Seattle Design Review Board meeting,” since its last meeting was midsummer 2010, regarding a Delridge project. And the process had high-level oversight: Bruce Rips, current interim manager of the entire citywide Design Review program, was at the table with the board.
Yet another unusual element of the meeting: Context for the discussion of the project, something new – Susan McLain, senior planner assigned to the Triangle planning process, provided an “introduction” to that still-under-way project, which has sought to lay some groundwork for a unified vision for the area as its redevelopment unfolds in the years ahead. (Behind her during the presentation was a graphic provided by Harbor Properties labeled “Fauntleroy Triangle Neighborhood Plan” [not yet adopted].)
McLain recounted how the planning process began with the Huling properties, and questions about “how is this area going to develop over time?” She mentioned the “draft concept plan” that is now in existence as the result of community meetings, focusing on the area’s streetscapes and “how (they) might develop in the coming decades,” how it might affect the area’s 70 businesses and the residents in and around The Triangle, as well as business customers and visitors. McLain said SDOT is reviewing the streetscape plan right now. (Triangle Advisory Group members were in the audience, as McLain noted, including Sharonn Meeks of the Fairmount Community Association immediately south of The Triangle, Denny Onslow of Nova/Link/Mural developer Harbor Properties, and Kandie Jennings of Tom’s Automotive Service (WSB sponsor) which is in The Triangle.)
Then, after the aforementioned process refreshers, the presentation began, first with Denny Onslow from Harbor Properties: “This is our third project in West Seattle,” after Mural and Link (which is getting its first tenants within days). He described it as something of an extension of Link – not a twin, but similar finishes, similar landscaping, similar tenants. “We want to make it street-friendly, to fit into the neighborhood.”
The architects are Runberg Architecture Group, whose Brian Runberg provided the overview – again, “early design guidance” is for a broad look at project concepts and principles, such as a building’s size and shape (“massing”).
Runberg gave a nod back to McLain’s appearance, saying the 19-foot “right of way” along 36th would allow for street trees as suggested under the not-yet-finalized city Triangle plan.
For “early design guidance,” developers are supposed to propose three alternatives for massing. In the Nova plan, A and C would be five stories, B would be 6 stories (the maximum allowable under current zoning), with a live-work commercial space on the ground floor. While B would “maximize development potential,” Harbor described C as its preferred option.
The lobby would be at the corner of 36th and Snoqualmie, with some ground-level housing, since there is room for “landscaping buffers” and “transition thresholds of space,” as Rundberg put it. (In terms of another transition, there is an alley between Nova and Merrill Gardens-West Seattle [WSB sponsor] to the east; that’s where the entrance to the parking garage would be, as per current city preference, which means curb cuts now existing along 36th for the current parking area will be eliminated, creating more street parking.)
Runberg also noted that the development is attempting to follow some of the design guidelines for the West Seattle Junction area, which official city documentation currently describes as including The Triangle, in addition to the proposed Triangle guidelines.
As always, images of the principal entities’ past work were shown – Runberg showed a West Seattle project his company had worked on, as well as Link and Mural (which they did not). Another similarity to Link: A landscaped roof. And his presentation concluded by saying they are not proposing any “design departures” – no exceptions to current guideline/rules.
*The site is only 11,500 square feet, and as Rundberg put it, “there’s only so much you can do with it.”
Public comments came next, and there, the parking issue reappeared, and not just with the comments mentioned earlier from Jim Sweeney. The first commenter, identifying himself as the manager of a nearby apartment buliding, declared that “this whole project comes down to parking,” saying he “deals with (the parking crunch) every day.”
Diane Vincent said she appreciated hearing the discussion of parking, and also noted she’s glad development is getting going again. She also suggested that, before Design Review Board meetings, a printed-out copy of the “meeting packet” could be made available locally somewhere, perhaps at a library, since downloading a big PDF (like the one for this meeting) can be difficult (not to mention impossible for those without computer access). And she thought at least a bit of retail might be appropriate for Nova: “I’m not completely convinced this is going to be so passive once we have the RapidRide and a lot of people (in the area) – something like a convenience store could be helpful for people,”
Sharonn Meeks, of the Fairmount Community Association and Triangle advisory group, said she was OK with the absence of retail in the “preferred scheme,” but did want to make sure the landscaping would be significant. “This is a dominant corner for the neighborhood,” she said, “and it would be nice to have some greenery when you come out … as part of the design we’ve been working on for our Triangle area. … I like what I see here.”
Judy Sweeney, now a co-owner of the undergoing-renovations motel adjacent to the Nova site, said she wanted to be sure the alley to the east would remain an alley, because of utilities and other business-related needs (as well as parking entrances for Merrill Gardens and now for Nova), countering an earlier musing that it might be “activated” for pedestrian use. “It’s going to be an alley,” Coxley declared.
At DRB meetings, public comment is followed by the board’s final discussion to settle on recommendations for the developer and architect; this is done in the open, with audience members and project presenters all invited to gather around the table and listen in, though not to offer further comment.
In the board discussion, board member Brandon Nicholson had generally positive comments about the.massing.
Robin Murphy said he has some concerns about getting into the building and circulating, though he agreed that the lobby belongs at 36th and Snoqualmie. He thought the ground floor should have higher ceilings and needs to “embrace the street” more than it does now.
Norma Tompkins agreed that “C” is best, and mentioned that she is familiar with the neighborhood, as a relative once lived in Merrill Gardens.
Overall, the board’s back-and-forth highlighted the fact that The Triangle is an area in transition – as McLain’s presentation at the beginning had stressed.
“It’s not just what’s happening right this very second, but how the future is proposed,” observed Coxley.
There were a few words of advice about how the building could and should look when an actual design is brought back to the board in the second stage of the process:
Nicholson noted that Runberg had mentioned some decorative grill work where the parking level would face 36th; he wondered if perhaps it could be like Site 17 in Belltown.
Murphy said he is concerned about the face of Nova being right up against the south property line, flat wall up against the motel property and rising above it, with no windows on that side.”That’s an area that’s going to be very visible coming from the south, visible to all the residences over there, and that has to be dealt with.”
Nicholson noted it’s certain the adjacent motel site eventually will be developed to full height too (the board was going to ask the Sweeneys, but they had departed).
Are they addressing the corner enough? it was asked. Corner lots are one thing – but this isn’t necessarily a significant corner, it was pointed out, not like, oh say, Alaska/California (Walk All Ways in The Junction).
How much ‘modulation’ in design does this building need? was another topic of discussion. Nicholson thought that since it’s such a small lot, not much. Others said – well, it’s 51 feet high, so it’s still not that small a building. At the street level, they expressed hope for some stoops, a transitional space along the frontage, and some “overhead protection.” Bottom line, “if they come back with some horrible plaid vinyl box, then we will have a discussion … a quality track record spares you (over) scrutiny,” Nicholson quipped.
Till the next design-review meeting is scheduled, you can watch the project’s page on the city Department of Planning and Development website here; and again, the packet of information – including “massing” proposal graphics – for the project, reviewed last night, can be seen online here.