By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Architect Radim Blazej from Caron Architecture presented the revisions made to the project, which was going before the board for a third time; the previous meetings were in September 2012 (WSB coverage here) and November 2013 (WSB coverage here).
As city planner Garry Papers explained it toward the start of the meeting at the Senior Center of West Seattle – where the SWDRB has been having all its meetings in recent months – while the project still has a building-permit process to go through after this, public meetings are not part of that process, so this was the key opportunity for in-person citizen comment.
Blazej – going through parts of the revised design packet – recapped concerns voiced by the board and public at the previous meeting, including some aspects of the building’s Avalon-facing ground level, and reducing the 7-story building’s height as part of the transition from the single-family neighborhood behind it, to the north. He noted that the project is “pulling away from the alley” to provide more separation, even though other buildings on the block are almost all the way up against it.
“By compressing the building floor-to-floor” internally, they’ve reduced the height about three feet, Blazej said. It’s the top shaded area in the following graphic:
In response to concerns about whether the big windows envisioned for the ground-level units would bring privacy concerns, he said they’d raised the units and added some green-screening.
Regarding safety concerns for pedestrians passing the Avalon-side garage door, he noted some tweaking to its design. To “soften” the north side of the building facing the 32nd SW neighborhood, a new muted-green color was introduced, and “tall trees” (crimson spire oaks, which grow to about 40′) would be featured as more of a buffer.
A courtyard on the back of the building, slightly below alley level, would have amenities including a barbecue and benches, the architecture team affirmed in response to a question by board member T. Frick McNamara.
PUBLIC COMMENT: This meeting was not as crowded as the previous two regarding the project (we don’t know if it was related, but one resident told us, entering the meeting venue, that some had received a notice with the incorrect time), but more than half a dozen did speak.
First question was about “the inadequacy of the parking” (as noted above, 60 spaces for 102 units, albeit in a zone where developers are not currently required to provide any). Papers pointed out that parking requirements are set by the City Council, and that Councilmember Mike O’Brien now leads the council committee regarding zoning, so he’s a good person to whom you could send comments.
Second, neighbor Chuck, who said “the height, bulk and scale is not compatible with the neighborhood,” on any side. He cited the West Seattle Junction Design Guidelines (Avalon is considered part of the Junction “urban village” area) and what they say about compatibility, adding that those guidelines “trump” the citywide guidelines. He said this is one of only three areas in Seattle in this situation, “where midrise immediately abuts single-family across an alley.” He said there’s “no precedent” for what’s being proposed here, and urged “reasonableness” because of the “unique area we’re faced with here.” He said documentation says decisions are to be made in reference to “existing structures.”
Third, 32nd SW resident Gary said he feels architects have done a good job addressing concerns and that the building is “getting progressively better” and would be even better at one floor shorter.
Another area resident, Wayne, asked for some clarifications, reiterating a concern that too much activity would be added to the alley (trash pickup, etc.), and then wondered if the building could go “any deeper” into the ground. “Going another story deeper doesn’t make the building any shorter at all,” since they still could go to allowable height, board chair Myer Harrell responded. Ultimately, Wayne said, “I’m not impressed with three feet off the top, I’d like to see more.”
Fifth person to offer comments/questions was Paul Haury, the area resident who also has organized SeattleNERD. He focused on counterproposals that he said would further soften the transitions between this zone and the neighborhood to the north. “This is an incompatible building flat-out,” he began. “It doesn’t mean that it’s not zoned for it, it is incompatible by definition … incompatibility was also acknowledged by city councilmembers who came out, took a look, and proposed legislation to take away the height bonus … Our request is a simple one, to meet the neighborhood objectives. The point of the meeting is not to rubberstamp a project but to mitigate the impacts on a neighborhood, that’s what the (Seattle Municipal Code) calls for, it’s that simple. … We want to apply the midrise guidelines, and (lessen) the impact.”
The proposed building as-is, he said, “would bring adverse impacts to the neighborhood. … As a general rule, we are not opposed to development of the area, we are opposed to the level at which it’s being done right now.” His requests: No alley access, just Avalon, for this project. He contends that none of the existing projects access parking from the alley, only from Avalon. Without accessing parking from the alley, Haury said, a zoning exception proposed for a steep inside ramp would “go away.” Two floors of parking from Avalon (with one added floor underground) would also enable removal of a story from the building itself, and he contended that would not affect the number of units much – perhaps a loss of five or seven. “If you do drop this building down, you minimize the effects of what it does to the neighborhood, which is what this process is supposed to be about, minimizing the effects on the neighborhood.” The changes he proposed could also make the back of the building “more like a series of back yards,” and that would make it more neighborly, he contended.
The next person said he too is concerned about parking, and wanted to hear again who on the Council he should contact (CM Mike O’Brien).
Answering another question, Papers said SDOT had reviewed the alley (and had not found it to be at the level of “safety hazard.”)
The next attendee to speak countered that, saying the alley did have safety concerns; she was referred to SDOT. “Will it be considered before the building is built?” she asked. Not necessarily, she was told – “this is separate.”
At 7:30, the board moved into its deliberation period; attendees are always invited to stay for this and listen in, following a few minutes of chair-and-table shuffling.
Did the architects mitigate what they were asked to mitigate? Board members Daniel Skaggs and Laird Bennion said, for starters, yes. Skaggs thought it had resulted in a “better building.” Board member Todd Bronk said he felt landscaping and materials choices had improved, too, as had, in his view, the street-level situation. “They’ve come a long way,” he summarized.
McNamara said she felt the project was giving “generous setbacks” on both sides, alley and Avalon, even to a point that was not necessarily required, for a “nice transition.” Bronk observed this would be different from other buildings on Avalon. “Sets a new standard… on the block,” suggested Skaggs. The alley would be a “better space for everyone,” McNamara continued.
What about the parking-entrance issue? Harrell asked. Bennion recalled that the parking was all coming in off the alley the first time they looked at the project, so its current status was an improvement for those concerned about alley traffic/safety.
Other “minor points,” as Harrell called them, were discussed too, all the way down to details of the pavers that would be part of the landscaping, and some recommendations regarding the trees and plants – sedum would not be a good choice where there’s foot traffic, noted McNamara.
The mentioned-earlier tweaks in the building’s trim won praise in the discussion. Bennion reiterated that he felt “all the changes … improved the building.”
They didn’t muster any criticism of note for the two requested “departures” (zoning exceptions) including the split access to the parking garage, and the steeper-than-usual inside ramp that would result.
Bottom line – with a few minutes left in the hour and a half allotted for this first session of a doubleheader, board members recommended approval of the project’s design, a recommendation that will be written up in a report by Papers, likely to appear online within a few weeks. You can still comment on the project – e-mail him at email@example.com. And watch the city-permit process here.