(The “massing” options shown tonight for 3824 California SW, whose architects have to try again)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
3824 California has never had it easy before the Southwest Design Review Board.
Seven years ago, when a standalone Petco store was proposed on the site, the project died after its first two Early Design Guidance proposals were shot down, and the Charlestown Café stayed open three more years before closing in 2011.
Now, the first post-café development proposal for 3824 California SW – a ~30-townhome/live-work-unit project – has been ordered to come back for a third round of Early Design Guidance, meaning it will appear before the board at least four times before, if, it gains approval to move ahead..
Here’s how EDG round two unfolded tonight (here’s the design packet that was used for most of the review):
New board member Matt Zinski made his first appearance with the board, which is chaired by Laird Bennion; other members are T. Frick McNamara, Daniel Skaggs, and Todd Bronk (who was absent, but sent notes). Also at their table, Beth Hartwick, the city planner assigned to the project.
The meetings are tightly formatted. They always begin with the architect’s presentation; Scott Jeffries represented Caron Architecture this time, three months after the project’s first EDG appearance, in which a major criticism was that the firm hadn’t presented three distinct massing (size/shape/etc.) options for the project, to be developed by Intracorp (which does not yet own the site, according to our most recent conversation with a rep for the project team).
Jeffries said the firm has met with neighbors – most of whom live in a single-family-house neighborhood to the east – to discuss various concerns. First, he said, the request to see what the project might look like with “structured parking” on the site would require, for financial viability, turning the project into an apartment building of nearly 90 units, which isn’t, he said, what Intracorp wants to build. (The company is currently pursuing apartment projects to the north, on both sides of the 3200 block of California.)
Option C is the “preferred” option; the massing is in the form of eight buildings, which Jeffries said is the most expensive option, but they feel is the most respectful to other buildings in the area, and supports “a variety of unit sizes.” Parking would be along the alley, which they feel “encourages more human activity on the site.” In response to neighbors’ concerns, he said, they have reduced part of the project by 3 1/2 feet. Planters would be placed “to obscure the buildings but not hide view corridors.” The project owner would also work with adjacent property owners “to increase vegetation on their (lots).” The rear row of townhomes has units turned in “to face each other,” for a “more intimate experience.” Along California SW, benches are planned, as well as bike racks at both California SW corners.
The trash area would be broken up into spots on the edges. The site has no exceptional trees, according to Jeffries, but they plan to save two trees, to “soften the urban edge … for two live-work units” among other effects, he said. They will be adding street trees in planting strips on Charlestown and Bradford, north and south sides of the project. “We considered private garages but … we heard comments that the neighbors don’t like this because” they are used more for storages than actually for cars.
BOARD QUESTIONS: Bennion offered new member Zinski the chance to ask a question first. He asked for an explanation of a phrase mentioned earlier, “the dreaded four-pack,” which Jeffries said they were trying to avoid; the architect explained that meant the stereotypical mid-2000s townhouse design, townhouses in clusters of four along narrow car courts, etc. McNamara, next, said she was “a little bit at a loss of words” and asked first about the residential layout, then how viable commercial really might be. “Code says we have to have a commercial use on the streets – it might not be (so viable) but we don’t have a choice,” replied Jeffries. She then asked why the townhomes couldn’t be built over parking spaces; it would cost $35,000 a space, the architect replied. She asked if other changes could be made by cutting the unit number by one or two; Intracorp doesn’t think that’s viable, she was told.
Skaggs asked what improvements would be made along the alley, since neighbors “will be looking at the rear ends of cars all the time.” He also asked a question on behalf of absent member Bronk, regarding the buildings on the ends not having some sort of differentiation. “We haven’t designed the looks of the buildings yet,” said Jeffries. Skaggs continued that the corner buildings needed elements/setbacks, in Bronk’s views, to differentiate them.
Bennion pointed out that the parking-garage diagram was not in the packet that was made public a week ago, and that’s starting to be a problem with developers – “if it’s not in the packet (they had, and the public had), it didn’t happen.” He grew even more critical after Jeffries said the diagram wasn’t in the packet because the client wasn’t willing to build it, and Bennion pointed out, “we’re not obliged to approve anything … (if we don’t see anything worth approving), your project can rot.”
First to speak was Junction business owner Dave Montoure. “I’m a big proponent of commercial space,” he said, lauding the live-work units fronting on California, echoing the ones that are in the Morgan area, saying they “give you the sense you’re getting close to something of import” when you see them.
Next attendee with a question wondered about the reported lowering of a few of the units; Jeffries said they couldn’t lower all of them. The attendee said he lives on Bradford near the site and hopes that “the east-west view can be maintained by shifting the penthouses in that direction.”
Third to speak was Deb Barker, former SWDRB member. “I have lots of words and none of them are nice,” she began, saying she wished there was more variety in the massing studies. “The applicant probably DOES want a cookie-cutter because it’s cheaper … but … how does this support the zoning of this neighborhood .. live-work in my opinion is absolutely wrong for this site. This applicant has no idea how live-works are actually turning out.” She mentions one unit on page 7 of the packet saying it has a “full-floor to ceiling full coverage of its main windows,” because of its business, and that doesn’t give “the transparency” that commercial development would. She says option 1 would actually be better, with “opportunity for the residents to meet and greet each other and (mingle). … Parking along the alley is not Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design-friendly,” she added, suggesting it would be more car-prowler-friendly. “… I do recommend that California Avenue be treated consistently; do not erode brick as you go north to south (and vice versa). .. I would recommend that you require this applicant to return for another EDG because they are not listening to you and you should be listened to.”
Fourth was another former Design Review Board member, architect David Foster. He listed three things he wanted to address – “open space, live-work concept, and repetition of the units on California … I share some of the skepticism that live-work … the floor plans that were shown bear that out.” He said the ground-floor space is “so small that you wind up … very little commercial activity happening.” He mentioned a new California/Spokane project that “avoided Design Review even though it was six units … the amoutn of activity bears that out … nothing’s happening, they might as well have hung a ‘closed’ sign on the door.” He said Scheme B would be superior because it has “more space between the buildings.” He added, “The sense I get from this project is that they jammed units onto this site … I don’t see a very attractive project coming out of this … This is a really unusual situation, it’s an entire block long.” That could be mitigated with hard work on the materials and facades he said, features “that create human scale in the building,” but “I’m skeptical that we’re going to see that happen … I want to challenge the board to challenge the applicant to make this a great project.”
Next, a neighbor who said they had met often with the architects and developer Intracorp. “We all agree that the proximity of the buildings to our homes … we would any day take the parking being on the alley than the buildings abutting to the alley … just want to be super clear about the impacts on us as neighbors.” She added a request that those offering opinions consider the perspective of those living behind/next to the project.
After her, a resident said he would like to see more setbacks on California and Charlestown. And he’d like to see an option that loses a unit, because “maybe that would solve some of the problems.” He is concerned about the parking, wondering if it is configured practically and not “tandem parking,” and wondering if there would be enough parking for the types of businesses that might be housed in the live-work units. Planner Hartwick said the city requires there be enough parking for the residences/units but could not control whether the spaces would be sold or would be included in the prices.
Frequent design-review participant Diane Vincent spoke briefly, saying she supported Barker and Foster’s comments.
BOARD DISCUSSION (by the way, these are the guidelines they’re supposed to work with):
*Regarding existing trees on/along the site: If the setbacks were changed, McNamara suggested, the “language” could be changed between east and west on the north and south sides of the project. “One massing study should take an honest look at what can be done differently.”
*Regarding the project’s sense of place: Bennion pointed out that it’s a full block on the “spine of West Seattle, and architectural presence will be something we’ll pay very close attention to on this project, and I am committed to following through on that.” That means that further along the line in the process, they will be closely examining the proposed finishes and exteriors. “Townhouses tend not to age well,” said Bennion, “and I don’t want to see this be one that gets scraped in 20 years.” And if they are going to be live-works, they need to be “work live-works, not live-lives,” he said. Zinski echoed that “there needs to be a very strong connection between the street and these units.” And he added that there didn’t seem to be much if any variation in “height, bulk, scale” between the proposals.
Planner Hartwick interjected that the board cannot mandate pure commercial – if the applicant wants live-work, and the zoning allows it, they are entitled to pursue that.
“There needs to be a much greater attempt at zone transitions” between California and 42nd to the east, suggested Zinski. Skaggs said the attempt at moving the building further away from the 42nd homes was one attempt at that. Zinski said they could have some variation instead of the same unit over and over and over again.
Which brought them to whether they’re seeing three true options, a unanimous comment from last meeting. And what about that request to see structured parking? Hartwick said the board did not necessarily have the authority to demand that, so, “what is it you DON’T like about the way parking is arranged in the proposal now?” she asked. McNamara brought up the crime/safety concerns. Bennion asked, “Are they required to improve the alley, regardless?” Hartwick’s reply: “Probably.” Jeffries then said, “If we don’t take (parking) access from the alley, we are not required to improve it.” But, Hartwick then said, “when it comes in for land-use application, we’re going to take a hard look at why it wasn’t being proposed for improvement.” And, she reminded everyone, the city wants most if not all projects to have cars access from alleys rather than streets.
If a live-work unit doesn’t total at least 1,500 square feet, parking is not required for it, by the way. Could they require more tree canopy to soften the alley full of parking? wondered McNamara.
They plunged back into the 9 pages of guidelines they are supposed to review for each project. “Better quality spaces … with decent solar access, large enough for usable open space” would be important, McNamara noted. A weather-protection canopy should be required to help affirm the commercial intent of the ground-floor units, they agreed.
More points of critique/emphasis: Gathering spaces were determined to be important. … Was it OK to have two different spots for dealing with trash? Or does that just make the alley “twice as bad”? And with a site perceived to be “cramming in as many spaces as they can,” open space itself was identified as a concern.
(Many of the guidelines don’t apply at this stage of the process, which is meant to somewhat outline and shape the project rather than spell out the details.)
Overall, “townhouses can be done very well,” Bennion noted, “…we want to make sure we see a project that not only fulfills the letter of the law but also contributes to West Seattle.”
Zinski brought up the issue of alley activation, an increasing use. “If the cars are all parked there,” does that shut off future uses? he wondered.
Bennion pointed out, this is 30 units on 30,000 square feet, “one unit per thousand feet, which I think is a record,” and that was the impetus for wanting parking to be beneath units rather than taking up part of the space. “I would like to see anything we can do to take the pressure off the alleyway – 30 spaces on the alley is .. humongous.” But, he acknowledged, “the problem is, where else do you put it?”
McNamara wondered why access couldn’t be angled through the site, something that looks at a balance between alley parking and “structured parking” elsewhere on the site. “Putting 300 feet of parking on an alley doesn’t seem like it’s meeting the guidelines,” she suggested.
The architect is asking for a departure – exception – from required screening of parking.
That brought up the question of – what if they had less parking on the site?
Part of the problem, it dawned on them, is that there is more parking on the site than is required.
But it all came down to, they didn’t think they had seen three true options yet. “You want to see more variety … in the relationship of the units to the street,” for one, suggested planner Hartwick. The board said they also were interested in seeing:
*More concentrations of open space
*More quality open space
*Enough of a gap on the California site to facilitate viable commercial activity
*Penthouse orientation that respects the neighbors
*Variations in the facade/height
*Variation in California-lining facades … but – repetition might not be so bad if “it’s excellent”
So they’re asking for one more Early Design Guidance meeting, a fairly unusual step. No date yet – that will eventually appear on the city’s website, and as always, we’ll publish an update as soon as we hear about it. Once the project gets out of Early Design Guidance, it then will have at least one meeting for recommendations on a final proposed design.
Separate story to come later about the second project reviewed tonight, 4505 42nd SW. If you have comments on this project, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org