(Sketch of California-facing view from latest version of Conner project in The Junction)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Since nothing’s happened publicly with the Conner Homes two-building development proposal in the heart of The Junction for two years, you might have thought that, like other once-active local projects, it’s stalled indefinitely.
Not so, we learned when its “alley vacation” component – asking to take over city right-of-way under part of an existing alley, so its two buildings can share one parking garage – suddenly appeared on last week’s City Council agenda.
The project’s potential effects on the alley that runs south from SW Alaska between 42nd and California once drew opposition vehement enough that a petition drive was started (here’s our report from July 2008). And concerns still lingered when the project finished going through Design Review two years ago.
But you won’t see key opponents speaking against it at the April 26th public hearing. In fact, some of them have signed an agreement not to. The agreement ended a process that has played out over a year and a half outside the public spotlight, addressing concerns that participants had voiced about the project. If you want to cut to the chase – this document is the result of that process, and will be presented to the Council this month; it includes changes in the “public benefits” that are considered crucial for allowing a development to take over public right of way. It also includes the text of the agreement signed with the seven participants in the mediated community discussions.
Ahead, a more detailed look, including project backstory as well as comments from Conner Homes’ Charlie Conner, who spoke with WSB a few days ago:
Backstory: It was March 2008 when we first reported that the Conner site had an active proposal again. As the information unfolded over subsequent days and weeks, we reported on the two-building proposal, spanning the southern frontage of SW Alaska between 42nd SW and California SW – the buildings that currently hold businesses such as AAA, The Beer Junction, and SIMA Martial Arts, as well as Rocksport, Super Supplements, and California-fronting businesses southward to Rubato Records.
A year of reviews followed. The last major public meetings related to the project were two years ago. On March 5th, 2009, the Seattle Design Commission – which has to sign off on street/alley vacation proposals’ “public benefit packages” before the proposals go to the council – finally gave its approval, after reviewing the Conner proposal for a third time. (Here’s that 3/5/09 report.)
The next month, April 2009, the project finally won approval from the Southwest Design Review Board (meeting coverage here) – after five meetings over the span of a year. (For context, check out our report on the first meeting in April 2008 – a concept also was shown that night for Link [WSB sponsor], the Harbor Properties development that is now complete and housing its first tenants as well as its first of three businesses.)
But after that April 2009 meeting, the last time we talked with Charlie Conner was July 2009, checking in on the Junction project when his company made news for an Eastside foreclosure (he drew a contrast in our conversation, saying The Junction made sense, while that Eastside project didn’t).
One excerpt from our July 2009 story hints at the process that ensued:
And he says he’s hoping to meet “in the next couple of weeks” with “a few folks in The Junction” whom he says are still not happy “with the process … (I want) to talk to them about that and see what else we might do to make sure everybody likes what we’re doing, and then we’ll be moving forward with (Master Use Permit) approval and the alley vacation … so we’ll be ready to start next year.”
“Next year” at that time would have been 2010. Right now, Conner tells WSB, it looks like a 2012 start. But here’s what’s happened in the meantime: The meeting “with a few folks in The Junction” turned into five meetings between August 2009 and August 2010 – detailed on page 3 of the presentation document intended for the Council.
After those five meetings, here’s what Conner Homes had agreed to (as spelled out in the text of the signed agreement, included in the document prepared for council presentation and provided to WSB by Conner, at our request – it contains many more sketches than the ones shown in this story, including the fine points detailed below):
1. To re-engage the community and solicit neighborhood participation in the design of cornices, sills, canopies, soldier courses, art, lighting and other details at the construction document phase.
2. Include an art panel program with historical representations in the north ground plane facade of both buildings.
3. Incorporate dark bronzed window framing at retail level.
4. Endeavor to reduce the planting strip on California 5’ to 4’ increasing sidewalk width to 8’6”, subject to SDOT approval.
5. Install special pavement detail providing texture and way finding elements throughout the midblock passage.
6. Carry brick elements from West building to the north fagade of the East building. Preferably a light gray color rather than the red brick color of the West building.
7. Work with Harbor Properties to explore opportunities to integrate east building plaza with the Mural project plaza including signage, pavers and other design elements. Install a way finding sign at plaza entrance that denotes the connection to California Avenue. Complete Plaza design details as part of construction documents.
8. The set of streetscape amenities including benches and pedestrian lighting proposed for the West building will be carried to the East Building. Landscaping on SW Alaska Street will be designed to integrate with the Junction Plaza Park across the street.
9. Applicant will contribute $5,000 towards development of Junction Plaza Park upon construction permit issuance.
The agreement also notes that the surface alley will remain open “throughout every phase of construction” – a promise that hadn’t existed early in the original project-review process.
Participants in the talks, as mentioned in our March 28th Council coverage and listed in the presentation document, were Susan Melrose of the West Seattle Junction Association, Erica Karlovits of the Junction Neighborhood Organization, Rene Commons (now also of JuNO), Abdy Farid, Heather Leaman (WSJA board), Michael Godfried, Rhonda Laumann (those without organizational mention were listed as “residents”).
With project changes including those listed above, they agreed to:
…not appeal the DPD Director’s Decision, so long as all conditions and this agreement are incorporated as requirements in the Director’s Decision, as expressed in the Master use Permit (MuP) decision. the signatories below will not oppose the project’s partial subterranean alley vacation petition, contingent upon implementation of the construction plan, which leaves the alley operational throughout every phase of construction, when the alley vacation is considered by the City Council.
Toplines of the project as it stands now, according to the Conner presentation: Both buildings at 7 stories (84 feet) high, with 198 total apartments – Conner says they once were envisioned as condos, but now apartments make more sense – 25,000 square feet of retail, and 271 parking spaces, 62 more than they say the city requires. (That would all be retail parking; the city requires 11 retail spaces, the Conner document says, but they’re planning to provide 73 – “We think people still need cars, so we’re going to provide more public parking,” he says, while also noting that he himself bicycles to work a few times a week.) The parking garage entry would be from 42nd SW.
Conner believes the end result will be “one of the best-looking new projects out there – a lot of modulation and color, activating the alley and providing the midblock connection” – as discussed during the original Design Review process, you will be able to get from California to the alley via a walkway on the south side of the project.
He insists that his “longterm goal is to own a piece of West Seattle indefinitely, (to) be part of my retirement plan … I have always built and sold things. This would be something I would own a piece of, instead.”
WHAT’S NEXT: The council Transportation Committee hearing on the alley vacation is 9:30 am, City Hall downtown, Tuesday, April 26. (The resolution setting that date is here.) After that – Conner tells WSB he is continuing to proceed through the permit/application process. He says the businesses on the development site have leases through the end of this year: “Nothing would happen till at least year’s end, it takes that long to get construction designs done and details done.” He also has not secured financing yet, but says “the market is improving” and doesn’t believe he’ll have trouble finding it.