Design Review play-by-play: Why 3210 California SW wasn’t approved at meeting #4

February 7, 2014 at 12:34 pm | In Development, West Seattle news | 19 Comments

(EDITOR’S NOTE: We briefly reported the decision, immediately afterward, last night; now, the meeting details)

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By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

The Southwest Design Review Board seemed to have six and a half years on its all-volunteer members’ shoulders by the time its two-project meeting hit the four-hour mark last night, before a fifth review was recommended for 3210 California SW.

No one seems to have an easy role in Seattle’s unique Design Review program. It often provides the only public meetings regarding sizable developments, and that frustrates community members who want to speak out about more than the design, considering they are the ones who ultimately will be living with the results. Architects and developers bring a project to the table without knowing what changes will be recommended and whether the process will run months or more than a year, costly in more than one way. The five volunteer board members get conflicting messages about how much authority they have to order changes, and have to make their decisions in a theater-in-the-round environment, with affected parties usually staring daggers at them from all sides. (Those aren’t even all the stakeholders.)

And then, some projects have long, controversy-pocked backstories, like this one, rooted in a block-long upzoning requested in 2007 (hence our “6 1/2-year” allusion above), contested by neighbors, finalized in 2010 (all WSB coverage is reverse-chronologically archived here), then affected by a Department of Planning and Development rule change in 2012.

That rule change, as well as the backstory, was discussed extensively last week at a community meeting outside the Design Review process, a meeting scheduled after neighbors petitioned the city for it. (Here’s our report on that meeting, held January 29th at the Senior Center of West Seattle, same location as last night’s Design Review session.)

Last week’s meeting did not involve the SWDRB, though at least one member reported attending. But it included a discussion of the board’s role/authority, and last night there was more muscle-flexing as the board told the project team to come back for a fifth review – something that hasn’t happened here since the Admiral Safeway project, which came before the board (different membership then, though the same city planner was on that project and this one, Michael Dorcy) five times between September 2008 and February 2010.

At one point during the board deliberations last night, architect Boyd Pickrell from Nicholson-Kovalchick implored the board to offer directions and conditions so the project could move ahead.

Board members, however, indicated they saw shortcomings too big to do that.

Here’s how it unfolded:

Pickrell had started his presentation asserting that “macro” issues such as height/bulk/scale had already been settled, so, he said, they were now going to review the “micro” details. (Here’s the official packet so you can follow along.)

Those details included the facade colors, which he described as more “earthy,” and the arrangement of retail along the street – originally envisioned as mostly live/work, but changed at the board’s urging, and now down to two live-work units. He also showed the images comparing where windows of the project would face windows of the neighborhood to the east:

He said the east side has less glazing (windows) than the west side. And he showed the latest version of a skybridge between the northern and central sections of the building – which brought much discussion later.

Landscape architect Andy Rasmussen talked about the landscaping and plant choices.

BOARD QUESTIONS: Todd Bronk opened by bringing back the issue of “is it 3 separate buildings?” The architect team felt it is. Bronk suggested height/bulk/scale was not necessarily the done deal Pickrell had said earlier it was.

At one point while discussing shadowing, the project team said they had reduced by 16 inches. “Out of how tall of a building?” asked Bronk. “We’re within (zoning rules),” retorted Pickrell, who contended the “perceived height” would be “close to what you can build in a single-family zone,” and repeated that contention when board member T. Frick McNamara asked what had been done “to mitigate the monolithic nature of the project” and to try to transition to the single-family zone. Asked if windows on the back of the project could be reduced further, he said, “The people who will live (in the building) need to have a nice place to live too.” He also noted the height was lower than in the Early Design Guidance phase and suggested that the building is “getting squished down to the ground” as it is “becoming more real.” He said they also responded to the scrutiny about how they were calculating height.

PUBLIC COMMENT: Chris was first to speak. He said it’s not just about the height – it’s about the length. “This thing is ludicrous and if you lived anywhere in the Admiral District, you would fight this vehemently.”

Next speaker voiced concern about the garage exit(s) and how people are going to get out of them, and how pedestrians are going to be safe – particularly the thousands of students in the area, with West Seattle High School near the north end and >Madison Middle School near the south end. She also said the traffic study was done during a school holiday and wondered how that happened.

Third commenter, Suzanne: “If a project this size is approved, it sets a precedent for other areas of West Seattle .. it’s just too big.”

Fourth commenter, identifying himself as a business owner, said he had gone through the Admiral Urban Village Design Guidelines “and I don’t see how this building fits within the Admiral District guidelines …the high school separating it from (the rest of the commercial area) … it would have to have stronger retail … it seems strange to me to have a future development used to legitimize this development when we know this same company has plans across the street. I’m more concerned as someone living in West Seattle going down California and having a 75-foot building suddenly (rising).”

Fifth commenter addressed the three distinct buildings and said that it had gone a long way since the early meetings, but still, not long enough.

Sixth commenter started, “Not going to say anything about being too tall … it’s too tall.” Laughter from the dozens of people in the room. He said the two north buildings still feel like they’re the same building; the glazed walkway in the back seemed to him like an idea that didn’t pan out.

Seventh commenter: “Personal opinion – I find that the applicant is responding to similar comments with slight modifications and frequently missing the point – we talked about three buildings and it looks like two now, we talked about homes retaining some sun .. they’ve reduced the parapets (a bit), an imperceptible change …” She said the colors changed but it’s still fiber/cement, “low quality, big panels of the stuff – it doesn’t fit in with the other buildings you’ve put in your packet” like the small brick commercial structure with Prost! (etc.) nearby.”The point is to have a transition to different neighboring zones … I feel like you’re just trying to meet the letter of the code without meeting the intent of it.”

Eighth commenter, Deb Barker, the former SWDRB member who now offers critiques of most local projects, saying she had sat where the Design Review Board members are sitting, and saw projects “come back that probably shouldn’t have,” and then shared comments from a previous project that sounded as if they could have been for this one, “it’s too tall … it’s huge… ” continuin “But do you know what happened? The developer changed the plans to address some of the comments. Actually changed the footprint. They moved the building away from the residential. They changed their project.” For this proect, she said, “This is your fourth opportunity to see the same height/bulk/scale.” She also said she hates the skybridge and thought it should just go away. She contended that the architects have not answered the concerns about height/bulk/scale, but have only tweaked it: “No wonder you are tired of seeing the same thing over and over and over. …The developer’s not going to give an inch, they have time, they’re going to wait you out, maybe wait until the board changes … They will wait you out. So what are you going to do? Maybe you’re going to have to do it for them. Do it for them. Tell them to quit wasting your time and only come back when they have it done. Or approve this project tonight with three foors of residential and one floor of commercial. … and you’ll have done the right thing.”

Next commenter said that he appreciated last week’s meeting and reiterated that DPD’s Jerry Suder had said height/bulk/scale ARE DRB’s province to govern. He said this project has a huge scale, and he can’t find anything to compare. He cited the Admiral Guidelines including solar access and privacy, also saying he was citing the rezoning documentation from 2010. Those docs said the height/bulk/scale would be addressed in Design Review for any project proposed, post-rezoning – “and now we have two additional stories, nothing mentioned about two additional stories.” He also wondered why the impact of views on streets to the east of 42nd wasn’t addressed. And he mentioned that a project called the Prescott had been mentioned, when comparing transitions to nearby neighborhoods, in earlier reviews but never brought up again.

Next commenter says he hasn’t seen this project until now and “frankly I’m stunned. … Is this the best we can expect in West Seattle? Would it be in Queen Anne? WOud it be in Wallingford? No, but we have it here in West Seattle. Are we easy? … I’m just really sad.”

The following commenter, a neighbor of the project, described the newest plan as more attractive but said the size is still the issue. He also mentioned the discussion at the previous week’s meeting suggesting the board had more authority to make decisions than it had suggested in previous meetings.

BOARD DELIBERATION: Bronk and McNamara said they didn’t feel the openings in the building were big enough and that the skybridge didn’t work. Bronk said he felt the building’s massing hadn’t evolved from the early reviews. Somewhat counter to that, Laird Bennion said he thought it would look like three distinct buildings as people walk by. Daniel Skaggs pointed out that “the retail (increase instead of live-work) is better.” Bennion said the developer is playing within the rules and would like to see their interests represented as well as the residents.

What if the skybridge was removed? McNamara: “You still have to address the solar impact to the neighbors. They haven’t done anything (toward that).” Bronk read what he considered to be supporting evidence for making this respect adjacent zoning more. “I think this … nails it. It is out of scale with the rest of the surrounding community.” He thinks taking 15 feet off the north building would be within their purview in the guidelines. … “I feel we’re at a point where we need to stop asking them to be creative and give them direction.”

Bennion: “We’re kind of in undiscovered country – we’re knd of writing a code right now. … We’ve been granted the power for a reason but we’re kind of over our skis here, we don’t have code except to say ‘we should make it sensitive to the neighbors’ … I don’t have framework to judge how responsive we have to be.”

McNamara: “We’ve given other developers similar guidance and they’ve (made changes) … Here, we get 16 inches. We’ve also asked for vertical modulation … and if you’re only going to take 16 inches off a building that is 59 feet, none of us is ever going to see that.”

Bronk: “They brought it back last time with four feet taken off … that wasn’t deemed enough by the whole board. …”

They started talking about the zoning exceptions requested in the plan – departures – but Bennion said, “We have bigger fish to fry here.” Those fish included what he subsequently called a “virtual omelet” of mixed-up colors. Bronk reiterated that the bulk had to be brought down and the materials on the east side couldn’t just be the Hardie panels. He went on to offer an analogy of his own, that the building “needs to look like three cousins with different facial features, rather than three brothers in different-color shirts.”

Pickrell shortly thereafter pleaded for more detail on what they wanted to see in terms of material, not just what they didn’t want to see. McNamara: “Higher quality of material and texture, other than colored concrete.” She also wanted to see landscaping details such as bench material. Bronk said wood-topped benches would provide some warmth.

Addressing how to break up the ~450-foot length, McNamara said that if this were two city blocks without a single building taking them up, there might be 125 feet of right of way. So, what about a 45-foot gap between buildings? Bennion thought that sounded too big.

And the issue of possibly shaving a floor of the building – which neighbors had long requested, pointing out that this was supposed to be a four-floor zone after the upzone, by all accounts, with the five-story project emerging after a city rule change about height calculation – resurfaced repeatedly.

Bronk: “When you look at height/bulk/scale … it’s within the rare purview of the board under grounds of (design guideline) B-1 that this building runs into unusual transition zones and unusual topography and I would recommend it be dropped 10-15 feet. This building hasn’t given us any options; we’ve seen the same thing last 3 meetings.”

But the board couldn’t quite concur on ordering the building to lose a floor. Upper-level setbacks were discussed as an option. In the end, they requested seeing the project brought back with both those possibilities, and without the skybridge – that spot would be a physical gap between buildings instead. Their requests also included material differentiation, featuring some brick.

WHAT’S NEXT: As always, we’ll publish an update when the next meeting date is set. And until the project receives final approvals – beyond Design Review – comments can still be sent to its planner at michael.dorcy@seattle.gov.

19 Comments

  1. this meeting last night was so refreshing and heartening; thanks to Deb Barker for stepping up with a fantastic speech encouraging the board to be bold in their requests/demands of this development; I was so inspired by and proud of our DRB who articulated in great detail the critical issues that are the real reasons this project needs to come back for a 5th design review; thank you
    ~
    a 5th DRB is not too much for this enormous project; this is a massive, too tall, insanely long project that will hugely impact our neighborhood for decades (unless it’s so damn crappy that another developer will tear it down in 10 yrs and rebuild something else)
    ~
    it’s hard to tell during a meeting who are the neighbors and who are part of the team; and the room was packed last night; but after the meeting was over, I saw a huddle of 10+ people in back of room; that was the team of architects, attorneys, developers, etc, strategizing; all of these folks, with high salaries; the project will produce millions in profit; on the other hand, the room was filled with neighbors who volunteered their unpaid time to be at the meeting and advocate for the betterment of our community; and the DRB is all volunteer/unpaid
    ~
    YAY SW Design Review Board; YAY neighbors

    Comment by Diane — 1:03 pm February 7, 2014 #

  2. I was at the meeting last night and it was obvious that the architects/developers aren’t committed to making any real changes on this project – clearly, since they just made tweaks (16″ off a 75′ building doesn’t really address the solar issue, for instance)

    But the real issue with this project is that this thing is just SO out of scale with anything around it. I live a block away from the proposed project and I just don’t feel that this development adds anything to the Admiral neighborhood. Not one of my neighbors opposes development, it’s just the scale + quality of this thing. AND the lack of consideration for parking, ingress/egress, people’s views and the character of the neighborhood. It is just depressing. I agree with those concerned about precedent, too. This same developer has plans for the other side of California – right across the street. If these projects get approved, the Admiral neighborhood + California will look just like Avalon Way. I would encourage anyone from the neighborhood or really anyone in West Seattle to attend the next meeting. It was so great to have such a great turnout last night of residents, and clearly our pushback is already helping to affect this project in a positive way. We’re just not there yet.

    Comment by E — 1:46 pm February 7, 2014 #

  3. And, what’s wrong with Avalon?
    Got an attitude going there?
    The money guys should just give up.
    Put in three levels, and stuff the project with apodments or no parking studios.
    The town is crying for affordable housing – why not here?

    Comment by old timer — 3:03 pm February 7, 2014 #

  4. Old Timer – the problem with Avalon is that it’s quickly becoming a soulless canyon of low quality big/tall buildings. Is that what we want for Admiral or really West Seattle in general? The issues with this project are multi-fold, but the two biggest issues are size + quality.

    BTW, this project has never been billed as affordable housing. And while I totally agree with you that we need more affordable options in Seattle, that’s just not what this discussion is all about. The “money” guys on this project are all about maxing out profit + I can assure you, they will charge as much as they can for these units. They aren’t going to reduce the size to 3 levels unless forced to, because that isn’t profitable for them. That’s why so many residents took time out of their busy schedules last night. These guys aren’t going to give an inch unless forced to.

    Comment by E — 3:16 pm February 7, 2014 #

  5. Gray Soviet-style block housing. Cheap and depressing.

    Comment by trying! — 3:19 pm February 7, 2014 #

  6. I “personally” think the whole thing is too big (long). Don’t care about the height. California SHOULD be developed…it’s the MAIN commercial strip. Where else should we grow? But Soviet? Really? Clearly never been. And quality? Half the buildings this replaces aren’t “gems”…and probably not a fraction of the quality (more leaky, inefficient, etc). And speaking of Soviet..I love the attitude that everyone thinks they DESERVE to have a say. This isn’t your property. If you care so much, buy the land. But we have private property in the United States, not “collective” socialist group owned property. You don’t own this land. It’s not yours. As long as they meet the zoning (which you CAN complain about and work to change) it’s none of your business. You might not LIKE it, but so what. Your neighbor might not like the look or color you painted YOUR house, or your landscaping. But it’s none of their business. If you think this violates zoning laws, work to change those. Otherwise, what gives everyone the right to tell everyone ELSE how they can build on land they own (but don’t want to be told by anyone else what to do with THEIR property).

    Seriously though. I understand we have this socialist community “design” committee where everyone gets to complain about the color of the balconies and how the building should “look”. That’s just what we implemented, so property owners have to deal with it. I wish that applied to EVERYONE. I wish no one could build a single house or shed in their backyard without having to spend 4 years in front of a half dozen or more community meetings where their neighbors get to tell them where they’d like the shed to be allowed on your property, what color it can be, how tall the doors can be to “fit into the neighborhood look & feel”, etc. Wouldn’t that be funny! :)

    Comment by DevilsAdvocate — 5:11 pm February 7, 2014 #

  7. Finally, a voice of reason!! Hear, hear, DevilsAdvocate!!

    Comment by WestSeattleite — 7:19 pm February 7, 2014 #

  8. Devil,

    Exactly. For myself, the West Seattle I grew up in (70′s and 80′s) is such a distant memory that I’m not sure what I’d be preserving – or be fighting for at this point. Exactly what “West Seattle” are people hanging on to? A few remaining aging brick buildings or run-down homes? West Seattle is already a very, very different place in so many aspects.

    Comment by G — 8:18 pm February 7, 2014 #

  9. I love West Seattle. My family’s been here since the 1880’s (yes, that’s the 1800’s), and I do not want it to be destroyed by oversized, cheaply built, boxy buildings that add little if any architectural value. They profoundly detract from the beauty of the Admiral area and all of West Seattle. We live in a very special place, which can easily be destroyed through ill-conceived developments such as this one.

    Fortunately we DO have a say in large projects that will profoundly affect our neighborhoods.

    Last night’s meeting was the first Design Review meeting I have attended here in WS. I was very glad I was attended. It gave me real hope that those on the Board are genuinely committed to doing what they can to maintain our slice of paradise.

    I will be attending more of these meetings, as I want to do what I can to make sure that West Seattle continues to be a very special place to live.

    Comment by wssz — 9:27 pm February 7, 2014 #

  10. Devil’s Advocate and G, what people in the neighborhood are fighting against is the project DOES NOT CONFORM to the building guidelines for the area.
    .
    By twists and turns of DPD developments in the last 7 years, there is an interpretation that could allow the development to be as tall as they are trying for. But that was not the intent or spirit of the Admiral building guidelines nor the exemption they (unwisely) were granted.
    .
    This unintentional development loophole that has been opened (and numerous development officials have now stated in public meeting the current situation *is* unintended) is being argued about in neighborhoods across Seattle.
    .
    Capitol Hill has been very proactive with the recent meeting on Jan 14 where DPD has said they are now re-reviewing their decisions. See the Ballard News blog comments and read how Ballard is also unhappy with their proposed developments
    .
    This is hardly a West Settle specific complaint. Stop trying to make out your fellow neighbors as no-progress bumpkins living in the past.
    .
    It is just as easy to ask why then do you live in West Seattle in the first place given you desire for a tall building urban experience. Perhaps you need to look into Belltown. Lots of condos to enjoy there.
    .
    I believe that everyone concerned DOES want density and infill but in ways that are reasonable, measured, and attractive, even if not generating absolute maximum profit for the corporate sponsor.

    Comment by MellyMel — 11:24 pm February 7, 2014 #

  11. On a different tack, when board-member Laird Bennion is quoted as saying “the developer is playing within the rules and would like to see their interests represented as well as the residents” I am incredulous.
    .
    Laird *IS* the development representative on the SWDRB as listed on his bio on city website. His background is as a real estate “development analyst” and he “current[ly] lives in the Queen Anne neighborhood, but previously lived in West Seattle.”
    .
    See the reps positions and bios here: http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/aboutus/whoweare/designreview/boards/default.htm
    .
    Laird Bennion — Position: Development Representative
    Todd Bronk — Position: Design Professional Representative
    T. Frick McNamara — Position: Local Residential Representative
    Myer Harrell — Position: Community Representative
    Daniel Skaggs — Position: Local Business Representative
    .
    So ostensibly the answer to the neighbor to the east who asked “Who is our advocate?” lies between T. Frick McNamara and Myer Harrell.
    .
    All members term’s expire this April 3rd.

    Comment by MellyMel — 11:30 pm February 7, 2014 #

  12. and, Todd Bronk stepped up big time to advocate for our community; he also lives very close to this project

    Comment by Diane — 1:20 pm February 8, 2014 #

  13. This was my first time to a design review meeting and it was a very interesting process to watch. I thank the volunteer board for their time and expertise, whatever their position, and for asking the right questions. I was more interested in the Alaska project and think that they evaluated the design not in a pro- or anti- development, but with the neighborhood impact in mind. GREAT JOB.

    Comment by sgs — 2:52 pm February 8, 2014 #

  14. MellyMel, the positions listed above represent the open position that the individual qualified for. Each position has a criteria DPD looks to fill for ensuring the board has a diverse background. But it does not mean that the individual only represents that particular ‘interest group’. All board members are volunteer, all of them care about the neighborhood and share a common goal of ensuring proposed development(s) meet the intent of the design guidelines to the best of their ability.
    -
    There were multiple board members on Thursday that noted the applicant was not meeting the intent of the guidelines including the Admiral Neighborhood guidelines. The board may not always agree with everyone, be it the developer, design team or community 100%. They volunteer a significant amount of time and do their best to ensure all viewpoints are heard and assess the design proposals relative to meeting the intent of the design guidelines. Sometimes things are less prescriptive and sometimes things are simply not in the review authority of the board. This can be frustrating for all involved including the community, developer, and designers and it often puts these board members in a very difficult position as there is no way they can make everyone 100% happy.
    -
    To ensure your voice is heard as a community member, you need to show up to these meetings and provide public input. But also, you need to write to the assigned DPD planner on the project, to the head of DPD, to the Mayor and to your elected Council Members. The more that is documented in writing, the more you will be heard.
    -
    Also note the year each members’ term expires. Only 1 position expires in April. Three board members don’t expire until April 2015 (Todd, Daniel and T. Frick). Laird Bennion’s term expires in April 2014, but note that it states it is his first term. So if he chooses to continue, his term second term would go until April 2016.

    Comment by Res — 3:09 pm February 8, 2014 #

  15. Res — You mention that we need to send our written comments to the head of DPD, mayor, and City Council member. If we spoke during the meeting, would you recommend that we follow up in writing, as well.

    Comment by wssz — 7:59 pm February 8, 2014 #

  16. sigh.lets all join the colony on mars…they are building something there right?

    Comment by cmon — 8:38 pm February 8, 2014 #

  17. wssz – yes, DPD is still reviewing the project including the request for the 4 foot additional height bonus. If you want to ensure your comments are noted, send in a letter to those listed above.

    Comment by Res — 12:53 pm February 9, 2014 #

  18. Keep fighting. That thing is atrocious.

    Comment by I'mcoveredinbees — 9:59 pm February 9, 2014 #

  19. Res — Thank you for letting me know. I’ll follow up in writing to all of them.

    Comment by wssz — 11:33 pm February 9, 2014 #

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