(WSB video of tonight’s entire Design Review meeting)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
After an hour and 20 minutes and just four members of the public commenting, board members gave their approval for the proposal to move on to the next review round, which also means the project team can apply for a key city permit.
Two of the commenters were a resident and manager from Mural, the three-year-old building immediately east of this project’s site; the board also heard from Rich Koehler, whose thoughts on the project were featured in this WSB story, and from Rene Commons, a community advocate and Junction Neighborhood Organization member who had also been active in speaking out during the Design Review process for the ex-Conner/Equity Residential project on the boards for California/Alaska/42nd, north of this one and Mural.
Key points of discussion: Whether the building’s upper stories will be set back enough that, from the California SW streetfront, it will not appear to be a 7-story building; also, the width and character of the “midblock crossing” on the north side of the building, envisioned to connect with the passageway alongside Mural, and to the crosswalk on California.
ADDED EARLY FRIDAY: Full details, ahead:
Three members were there, along with city planner Shelley Bolser, as the meeting began at about 6:40 pm in the Youngstown theater – chair Rob Murphy, Norma Tompkins, and Daniel Skaggs; new member Laird Bennion joined a bit later; member Myer Harrell had to recuse himself, as he works for Weber Thompson, the architect on this project. Video of the meeting, in its entirety, unedited, is atop this story; in text, here’s how it unfolded, and what happens next:
DEVELOPER AND ARCHITECTS’ PRESENTATION: It began with a preface by Greg Van Patten from the property buyer/project owner, The Wolff Company, explaining that he’s the Spokane-founded, Arizona-headquartered company’s “local” representative. “(This) has really been shaped by some thoughtful input from the community,” he said, mentioning they’ve had “six to eight community meetings of various sizes.” (None were publicized; the project team sought out reps of groups such as the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce, WS Junction Association [local merchants], and WS Junction Organization [nearby residents], as well as community members who commented through the project website.) He said the project team already had incorporated some feedback from those meetings: “You’ll notice we’re proposing a midblock pedestrian connection” – that, some private-meeting participants had told WSB, was a desired feature. He also mentioned “nice, wide sidewalks” so stores “could spill out and really engage the street,” as well as “upper-level setbacks,” and “having the residential entry and lobby not off California” – which had been a sore spot exactly four years ago for the ex-Conner, now-Equity Residential project north of this one. “This is not a develop it, flip it, and run away (project),” Van Patten said, adding that they are hoping to achieve the green-building designation LEED Silver.
Jeff Bates from Weber Thompson was the presenting architect. (You can see the “packet” – the presentation graphics, and accompanying text – by going here.) “In our learning about the site, the solar orientation … the nice thing about this site is that we have excellent southwest orientation for solar,” he said, adding that it has “potential Puget Sound views.” He pointed to a map next to the solar orientation, showing where the site (in orange) is in relation to the Equity Residential site, Mural, and Capco Plaza.
Though the site has long been zoned for 85 feet in height, he says they are proposing to go to about 75 feet.
Discussing California SW’s importance as a “pedestrian street,” Bates showed examples of the potential midblock crossing, with space between its building and the property to the north, “open air, having as much daylight as possible … with overhanging trellises … not a thoroughfare, we don’t want bicycles moving through at high speeds .. we want the opportunity for people to look through the (building’s windows).” And they have tried to minimize the windowless space, he said, though they also greatly admire the murals on some windowless walls around The Junction.
He repeatedly mentioned retail opportunities, potentially “spilling out onto sidewalks,” as he showed examples such as the Menashe and Sons (WSB sponsor) clock and the Cupcake Royale corner. The first two floors would be retail/commercial, with the residential above, he reiterated.
Their “massing schemes” started with A, which he called “simplistic,” possibly with the east side of its north wall being an opportunity for murals, while there would be windows on the west side of that wall. B didn’t get much airing, a little less blank wall. Then came C, their “preferred” massing scheme:
“This is an envelope drawing,” he cautioned, making sure those who hadn’t been through this process before wouldn’t mistake the drawings for an actual windowless yellow building plan. “The setbacks are starting to develop,” he said, mentioning that community members mentioned the desirability of “2-story podium heights.” Another important feature, he said, would be marking a “mini-corner” next to the pedestrian crosswalk and connector, and on the southwest corner, a “stepback” in higher floors to “diminish the massing,” still with partly blank upper walls on the northeast and southeast sides.
After massing, he went into two of the three sketches we showed here on May 17th – first (above), the layout of the lower level, with a garage entry off the alley, three live-work units on the alley to “help activate” it, in addition to the alley “servicing” the retail – but “the big issue on California is … successful retail.” He said that the lobby, proposed for alon the midblock connection, would be a rarity for the projects they work on, so that California frontage is ALL retail. They’re looking at a 15 to 18 foot sidewalk on California, and 10 to 15 along the midblock.
In this sketch , there would be a three-floor “stepback so that from the street, on the south side of the building,it would look more three-story than seven-story, and there would be a 15-foot wide area on the northwest side with a potential seating area. He followed that up with a quick review of existing West Seattle Junction design guidelines, and how the project could fit in with those; after that an eight-square page reviewing the shadow pattern of the building.
(By this point, more people had arrived, and about 40 were in the audience.)
BOARD MEMBERS’ ‘CLARIFYING QUESTIONS’: There weren’t many. Tompkins asked about landscaping; Skaggs, about the alley. board chair Murphy talked about how Mural handles its midblock connection, with awnings, and wondered what Weber Thompson was thinking about its part of that. Bates pointed to the second-floor overhang and reiterated that they want to keep the crossing “open-air as much as possible.” But he said they’re still working on details. Murphy then asked about the building going “off-grid”; Bates pointed to the angled northeast side of Mural, the building immediately behind this project, while saying they wanted to be “more subtle” about it. They want, he said, to provide architectural expression “breaking the building down into two pieces” (zooming into the top-center rendering on the “preferred scheme C” page).
PUBLIC COMMENT: First question was from a Mural resident who said she’s on the 7th floor, asking about “massing on the east side of the building – the side I’ll look at.” Bates said, “We are not there yet in terms of looking at … articulation on the alley.” They’ve spent most of their time so far on the other three sides of the building, he said. “Obviously for the leasability, for this to be a good place to live, we have to pay attention to this,” he added, noting that Mural is “longer than” this building will be.
Rich Koehler, whose ideas were featured in this WSB story, commented that he is interested in design that will make it feel like a 3-story building when you are standing next to it, instead of a 7-story building. He didn’t feel the “twisted 7-foot levitating tower” type of design is consistent with the historic feel of The Junction, saying modern design should be “pushed into The Triangle” instead. Weber Thompson, he pointed out, did do a “traditional take” on the building – not shown at the meeting, but it was featured in our story last week:
The next comment was from the manager of Mural, who said she wanted to point out how busy the alley is, and wondered if it would be one- or two-way traffic. Overall, she said, the alley currently feels narrow – it’s 16 feet, “typical” for the city, responded the architect – and parking/garage access “is a huge concern for our residents.” She asked when demolition would start and Murphy suggested that the process from here would likely take a year. (That’s consistent with the timeframe the project team has mentioned in previous conversations.)
Rene Commons from the Junction Neighborhood Organization spoke next; she was involved in detailed feedback on previous projects, and lauded The Wolff Company for “being proactive with all the people in our community” in the early stages of the process. “The struggle here is the community versus the zoning,” said Commons – making the current Junction work with the 85-foot potential zoning. She thought the sea-view side of the massing needs to be mitigated “a lot more, especially along California, to berak this up into smaller quadrants … I’m recommending that in the mid-block passageway … it (become) 15 feet,” instead of the 10 recommended for most of it; she envisioned bicycles and strollers crossing. Her third point included landscaping and materials; she also noted that many commenters on WSB were concerned about the “canyon effect” and wondered “where do you put trees?” She said she’s hoping for an enduring building that the community will “love” in 100 years, including “traditional materials … because they endure the test of time.” She drew applause for that.
BOARD DELIBERATIONS: Tompkins began by pointing out that the Conner/Equity development up the street would be contemporary. Murphy said, “It’s a big deal … it comes up every time … 85-foot buildings going into the Junction, changing the character of California. It is going to change. Eventually it’s going to be a lot more like Ballard, and the reality is that the developer has the right to build all the way up to the envelope … we can’t change that from happening … but we want to mitigate those impacts through materials, massing, fenestration, circulation … We’re aware the building is very large in relationship to the existing buildings but the reality is that in 10 years most of those buildings will be gone.” He moved on to discuss the crossing: “It is important if the architect could really work on the materials, the paving surface pedestrian realm, I think it’s a great idea to put the residential area on the north instead of bisecting the retail, it’s fabulous …” Murphy added the three-story massing on the southwest side of the building, but he’d like to see more of a setback, “because it is a 7-story building,” for non-occupyable space. “It would be nice if that (above the three stories) was some kind of a terrace that defines what’s the street and what’s the residential portion of it.”
“What do you think about the ‘twisted’ suggestion for (part of the building)?” Murphy asked, adding that he thought it seemed more subtle than Mural and QFC. Tompkins wondered about signage, “since that has to do with so muc of the context.” Regarding the not-yet-defined back side of the building, Murphy warned that it will need some work, since Mural’s west-side balconies are going to be “15, 16 feet away.” He added that the “main point” would be “concealing the upper mass of the building … gracefully integrate into the context that is already there, and frankly, I don’t feel the QFC building does a good job of that” – he said that building “feels bigger than it almost is,” and is “monotonous” in material/color.
Murphy said he and Tompkins, the senior members of the board, joined it at the end of the Conner (now Equity) process, and that it went through many revisions, telling the architects – who worked on that project – they needed to utilize some of the lessons they learned in that process, again, especially, fitting a 7-story building into a community in transition.
New board member Bennion spoke for the first time, wondering about parking – will there be parking in the building for anyone but residents? (The developers are currently proposing 70 spaces.) Bolser pointed out that the city is moving toward requiring very little parking for buildings in areas like this, “it’s up to the applicant.”
Murphy acknowledged, “This parking issue is a big deal, and the city is clearly in transition on that.”
Next, they moved to the massing discussion. The project team’s “preferred scheme,” C, didn’t draw any major objection. But Murphy said, “This is still a pretty massive, blocky building … some effort should be made, perhaps pushing back the seventh floor, taking a chunk out of it off the California side and possibly off the alley side as well, to let it recede – that would be the most effective way to do that, instead of doing it with materials … push the plane of the building back and define it as residential. In fact, it would be good if all the future buildings along the block did something similar.”
Since they all agreed that scheme C was their “preferred” scheme too, it was on to the checklist. Factors of key importance: Streetscape compatibility was at the top of the list. They also looked closely at the alley, and how there would be space for loading and unloading – not just deliveries, but also people moving into and out of the building – so that will be a formal request for the project team to address with more specifics in future reviews. For the “height/bulk/scale” section of the checklist, Skaggs said, “I think we need to work to develop a street front … how will (this) orient itself … there is a real possibility someone may develop right up to (the north) edge …” He also suggested “defining the retail more strongly.” In the next checklist section, Murphy identified a “unified” architectural concept as important, not just “throwing patterns onto buildings in a pleasing way.” And in the “D” checklist section, the talk of some blank wall space and murals will need to be fleshed out, board members agreed. They also told the project team they need to see more of where the retail signage is likely to go, even knowing that can’t all be defined by the architect.
Murphy summed up by saying he felt they had been “nitpicking” but saw a lot of positive, and “Weber Thompson’s a good firm, they’ll get it right on the next one.”
Planner Bolser wondered if the board had any thoughts about the second-floor live-work units, since that deviates from the usual plan for live-work. Architect Bates said there is a staircase in the lobby to the second-floor live-work units. The first floor is intended to be 14 feet high.
And at 7:58 – they agree the project can move on to the “recommendations” phase, which means possibly only one more SWDRB meeting.
WHAT’S NEXT: The city will have to schedule that next meeting. In the meantime, if you have feedback about the design or other aspects of the project – such as “environmental” impacts like traffic and noise – contact the planner, Shelley Bolser; her phone number is on the official notice, while her e-mail is email@example.com. And the project team says they invite more comments, too, via the feedback form at 4724California.com; even after the meeting, they continued to work the room, asking stragglers who hadn’t spoken about what had brought them to the meeting and what they thought of the project. We are told they will likely post “reflections” on this meeting and the project’s status on their website within a few weeks.