By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Dozens of vigilant neighbors comprised a standing-room-only crowd in the Senior Center of West Seattle‘s upstairs meeting room as another 7-story Avalon Way apartment-building proposal debuted before the Southwest Design Review Board last night, second one in two months.
The residents of 32nd SW, north of the proposed development’s vicinity, again wore “Love The ‘Hood” stickers, as they had at the September meeting for 3078 Avalon Way, a similar building proposed next to the site of this one. In this rendering, 3078 is at the left, 3062 (with some coloring) is at right:
At the meeting’s start, people were still streaming in, then waiting in line to get their names on the city’s sign-up sheets for e-mail notification about actions related to the project.
They were a little feistier at this meeting, with two 7-story buildings now proposed to rise south of their neighborhood, a more acute reminder that there is no transition zone between the dense Avalon Way apartment/condo strip and their neighborhood of single-family homes.
The neighbors’ pre-meeting research turned up a planning document from years earlier that exhorted “protecting” the character of their neighborhood and two other pockets of single-family residences in the greater “West Seattle Junction urban village” area, but that, they were told, did not mean the Avalon properties couldn’t be developed to the full size their zoning allowed.
Nonetheless, this meeting brought a reminder that strong public presence and comment can inspire even-more intense scrutiny by the board, which discussed details and ideas at length – more length than often seen/heard – before arriving at the decision: Allow the project to pass Early Design Guidance and move to the second phase of Design Review, but with a two-and-a-half-hour meeting worth of input to guide revisions.
Here’s how it unfolded:
Caron Architecture principal Radim Blazej presented this project – his company is also working on 3078 Avalon (which he said will “probably be built at the same time,” though its developers have yet to apply for their Master Use Permit), but a different staff member presented that project in September.
The 3062 Avalon Way renderings presented at the meeting are here.
Blazej said the two projects are not intended to be identical, but rather complimentary. The site conditions are similar, however. Blazej also said that he met with some neighborhood representatives this past Monday to listen to their concerns, and hopes to address them going forward.
The project, he said, is intended as a continuation of the “urban edge” that the row of apartment buildings along Avalon represents in that area. It will have six levels of apartments over a level of townhouse-like units on the streetfront. They are putting in 80 parking spaces though parking is not required since it’s on the RapidRide run – 40 accessible from the alley, 40 from Avalon. Blazej ran through the massing options – with only the “preferred” option fully fleshed out in the packet (you can see them all here).
That option would create an L-shape, “with most of the units to be pushed as close to Avalon as possible” with “the amenity area close to the alley.” On the street, there is some “recessing” to help break down the massing of the building. Like most other buildings on Avalon, it’s 100 percent residential, he reiterated.
Three “departures” from zoning rules are proposed – including one to allow parking access from both Avalon and the alley, as well as waiving required setback from the alley for the included parking; they’re asking for an exemption so that the proposed parking will fit, and that would mean the building would stretch to the property line at that spot.
In response to board questions, Blazej said he’s hoping for a brick veneer and fiber-cement facade “with some metal accents.” He was also asked how RapidRide’s debut had affected their thinking about parking, if at all. Blazej said it hadn’t had much effect, though he appreciates Avalon being used as a pedestrian connector. Another board member asked about the building’s proximity to a RapidRide stop, pointing out there will be a fair amount of pedestrian traffic (which is what could result in concern about the parking garage entry fronting Avalon).
The other questions, before the public comment, involved largely fine points of the project.
(Aerial photo from project packet; project site is outlined in white, with the 32nd SW homes on the other side of the alley “above” it)
Before the public comment, planner Papers addressed some comments he’d received by e-mail. Why is this zone so much taller than nearby neighborhoods? “I don’t know,” he said – the City Council decided that many years ago. Regarding the claim that this is a “protected neighborhood,” he said, “That is true for the portion west of the alley, but that does not mean that adjacent zones have to stay static …” So, asked board chair Rob Murphy, what does the protection mean? Papers said he could only read the document, not interpret it. (See it here.) Regarding the alley exceptions, Papers reiterated that the city wants alleys to be used as “working alleys” which it’s why a “departure” was requested.
PUBLIC COMMENTS: Brian Padgett spoke first. “Essentially, to the point of the protected neighborhood, we’ve done a little more digging into it,” he began, “… to see what it that’s implied by that.” He stressed, “We all want this site to be developed in some way .. but as it does abut a single-family neighborhood, we want that transition to be present.” Their contention is that “the height of the development that runs parallel with 32nd Avenue is inconsistent with a single-family neighborhood.” He says the project only exists to maximize the height, bulk, and scale of the zoning, and that it would be more appropriate for a two- or three-story development.
Paul Haury spoke next. He reiterated the protected-zone element. “If you were to read this actual plan, you would get straight up that … these neighborhoods in particular were the neighborhoods that were being looked out for…” He said it wasn’t intended that their neighborhood be a fishbowl, and “our neighborhood’s not a fishbowl. … We might expect a two- or three-story house in our backyard, not a 7-story building that makes you go ‘Holy crap!’ every time you look up. … It’s simply not right that we lose our privacy, the character of our neighborhood, block parties … The police have said they love coming to our neighborhood. We got rid of a (drug) house. … We should not be overlooked.”
The next neighbor to speak, Gary, said that both buildings on the drawing board are “out of scale” and he thought removing a story or two would be appropriate. The neighborhood is great for apartments; “it’s not that we don’t want an apartment building …the main issue is, just a few fewer residents.” He raised concerns about an oversupply of apartments “that are going to sit vacant and huge.”
Board chair Murphy at that point said that it’s most helpful to express design ideas regarding how to minimize this building’s bulk and scale, rather than to say there are too many apartments in the neighborhood – that’s not in the board’s purview, he reiterated. That led to some questioning, “How can we give you design ideas when we’re not architects?” “You don’t have to be,” he countered.
Neighbor Rene Commons then said, “We would like to see more options than the high-mass building – can the developer provide two or three options – it’s hard to comment on just one option.” Technically there are two or three, Murphy noted. “Yes, but we all know the other two are throwouts,” she countered, bringing uneasy laughter from several quarters.
Another attendee got up and pointed to a page of the presentation regarding the parking. He suggested the project dig one more level down, so that it would be one story shorter. That would raise an access issue, he was told.
What about staggering down the height with the slope of Avalon? another attendee asked.
Then an Avalon Way condo resident spoke, saying her garage has its entry/exit onto Avalon, and there are visibility issues. She wondered how much separation the building would have from Avalon. About 15 feet, Blazej replied. Murphy asked the crowd about the overall thoughts on alley/Avalon access, and was told that the main point with the alley is that it’s going to become crowded.
The two buildings together – this one and 3078 – will lead to “two huge walls” from their neighborhood, the next person suggested. Another person said even from Avalon, it would look like “one huge block.”
Then the roof was mentioned – whether it would have increased height elements that could be brought down.
After that, one man read from the Design Review standards online, including a passage regarding how development should “sensitively” fit into the existing neighborhood. “I know the building can be 70 feet high, but it doesn’t mean it has to be full depth and width 70 feet high,” he said.
Next, a woman said, “I don’t think the developers care about us or West Seattle. They just care about money”
One corner of the room clapped and hooted.
Murphy, briefly at a loss for words, replied calmly that the developer had bought the land and that “the code allows a pretty massive building here. … We need constructive solutions.”
Board member Norma Tompkins noted that the zoning was likely adopted because city leaders were thinking about increased density.
A neighbor then said, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. … I understand they’re doing what they can, why wouldn’t you try, but … You have to have a level of transition. The alley is not a river. To put a seven-story building tapped out at the max right next to a single-family neighborhood, I don’t think that’s what the city planners intended.”
Rachel Padgett was the last to speak. “What I’m really struggling with tonight … I understand the zoning … From our perspective, reading the Design Guidelines, all these recommendations that have been put in place over the years, to create sensitivity to these transitional areas, to the neighborhoods that abut one another, is that we feel we are looking at these guidelines that say there should be graduations, that sensitivity should be paid to abutting neighborhoods, and what I’m hearing in response is ‘But they can build it.’ (So) where can we insert ourselves into this, with the city guidelines that say this is a protected neighborhood, when do we get the opportunity to have that say? … When does this get paid attention to, if not here?”
“Good points,” said Murphy, “all good points.” For one, he said, there are greater setbacks because of the single-family zone. “But you didn’t answer the question,” someone asked from the audience, “when do we have (our say)?”
City planner Papers then said, it would come into play next in the board’s deliberation, at this meeting and the next one.
Blazej then tried to explain that when you buy a certain piece of land zoned for a certain height, you have expectations. “If you buy a single-family home, you know you could build to 3 stories.” Then he said, what if it became a U-shaped building with some units closer to the alley, if it were a lower building” with one story taken off? “I’m just trying to offer solutions,” he said. “I agree with you, there is not a happy line there … in other areas (there are transitional zones between high rise and single-family homes).”
Next, board member Laird Bennion, the developers-interest member of the board, spoke. “It’s important to remember that none of the people on this board are paid … and we all want to see the best building built for Seattle. 50 years we’re going to be looking at the building and … saying (either) I’m glad they built that, or what were they thinking?” He reminded the crowd that it’s not their place to determine if the area is appropriately zoned. “This is the right place to hear a lot of your concerns (but) I don’t know that we’re going to be able to address everyone’s concerns here.” He also noted that Avalon is a corridor meant to be dense, and is on a bus line that is meant to move people. Tompkins then noted that because of RapidRide and the transit corridor, this building doesn’t have to have parking spaces at all.
Board member Myer Harrell then identified himself as the residents-interest rep, and said he pays attention to public discussion outside the meetings too (such as WSB comments). He said one way to have input on design is to “talk about someplace you love.”
As the board began to deliberate, they talked first about the similarities between this building and the prior project. They talked about creating a circulation corridor involving both buildings. Papers asked them to get back to the bulk/scale issue. Harrell thought a stepback in the design would help it not seem so much, at least from ground level, like a 6-to-7-floor wall. The surface setback doesn’t address the issue, he said. Chair Murphy said the ex-Petco project has stepbacks that address the issue. “Layering,” observed Papers, who pointed out that the masses closer to the alley are the most important.
The board tossed around various ideas for lowering the building, at least in spots. A Caron Architecture rep said he had tried to lower the building but had run into problems. “There are issues that come up when you do that, we understand that,” said Murphy, while reiterating that they were “trying to soften the mass of the building.” They were zeroing in on “reducing the courtyard lid,” saying they’re willing “to give away some of the courtyard” to “reduce the volume.” Softening the edges came up too, and dealing with the building’s corners.
Then they came back around to the fact the two buildings – different owners but (as mentioned earlier) the same architecture firm – seemed too alike. “They should be cousins, not twins,” suggested Blazej. Even though the two are reviewed separately, their “context,” as Papers put it, cannot be ignored. (It was brought up at this point that while the other building passed Early Design Guidance, its developers have not applied yet for their Master Use Permit.)
The board also indicated that it would like to hear from the site’s landscape architect at the next meeting.
It’s hard to translate everything they discussed – since so much of it involved pointing at diagrams – but planner Papers said he would do his best in the report on this meeting, which should be online within a couple weeks.
During the discussion, the board expressed surprise that pedestrian/RapidRide hadn’t come up, and one of the few remaining audience members by that point (two and a half hours into the meeting) said “That’s because it’s a … joke,” and listed some of the complaints about how it affects traffic as well as the rider experience.
And in the end, after many suggestions about ways to “soften” the building’s bulk and mass, they allowed it to move out of Early Design Guidance – saying they thought it would be possible to make the neighbors happier – while warning the architect, “This may mean you lose some units.”
This means they can apply for their Master Use Permit, while working up a more complete design that will come back to the board at an as-yet-unspecified future date. You can comment on the project at any time in the meantime – traffic and other environmental comments as well as design – by e-mailing the planner at firstname.lastname@example.org. The project’s city webpage is here.