(EDITOR’S NOTE: We reported the bottom line of this meeting briefly last Thursday night; this is the detailed report of how the Design Review Board reached the decision.)
(Above, “preferred” massing as proposed at meeting; below, project site)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Usually, a design-review meeting starts with an explanation of the process.
Thursday night, the Early Design Guidance meeting for 3211 California SW started with a relocation, as the 20-plus board members and attendees were forced out of the usual venue, the Senior Center of West Seattle, due to what was described as a “natural-gas issue.”
With a projection screen against the front window, the board behind the front counter, and attendees in folding chairs, it worked, aside from acoustics. (The air conditioning helped, too, given the unseasonably weather that night.) Behind the window covering and across the street, an under-construction project approved many board members ago, at California/Alaska/42nd.
Two more unusual points even before the change of venue: This also was the first single-project meeting in a while, and it was the last scheduled SWDRB meeting till further notice, as the flow of larger projects has slowed down, and if there’s no project scheduled to be reviewed, the all-volunteer board doesn’t meet.
On to 3211 California SW (design “packet” here):
Tiscareno Associates is designing the project for a 19,000-square-foot site on the west side of the block rezoned in the contentious process that spanned 2007-2010, across the street from the first project proposed for that block, 3210 California, which finished Design Review last month after its 5th meeting (same developer for both projects, Intracorp).
3211 California is proposed as a 63-apartment, 63-parking-space, 4-live/work-unit, four-story mixed-use building, the architects said, though early planning documents described it as five stories. East to west, the grade changes 13 feet across the site. (That would affect the retail spaces, in a way they compared somewhat to the east side of Altamira at 42nd/Alaska/41st.)
“We see a new urban node here, with projects developing on both sides of the street,” said Bob Tiscareno.
As the city Department of Planning and Development requests for Early Design Guidance, they offered three types of “massing” for the site, immediately south of The Swinery (which was mentioned repeatedly at the meeting, though it’s not part of the project): Version A is U-shaped, version B is L-shaped, and version C was the “preferred scheme” so far as the project team is concerned. It has commercial space on the north, live-work space on the south, and angling on the south half of the California-facing facade, set back “16 feet more than required” at ground level, according to the architects. There is some connection envisioned with the Swinery side, even perhaps some plaza space.
So far as landscaping goes, they’re hoping to save the street trees there now and add a few more, widening the planting strip to make it greener. Trees and permeable surface are planned along the alley side to screen some of the parking area.
BOARD QUESTIONS: This is always the second part of a design-review meeting, as dictated by format. Board members started by seeking clarification on the envisioned entries and other street-level aspects of the proposal. New board member Matt Zinski asked if the building would have enough parking without the 14 spaces at surface level; the architects said no, it would not. Todd Bronk wanted to know about a “notch” on the north side of Scheme C, which the architects said would reduce shadowing on The Swinery. How people would get into the building from the back parking area also was the subject of questions.
PUBLIC COMMENT: Deb Barker, former SWDRB member, retired land-use planner, and frequent participant in design-review meetings, was the first to comment. First, she offered what she called her “broken-record” comment, that there wasn’t enough divergence in the massing options proposed. And she said it seemed this presented too much information on non-EDG elements, considering it is just supposed to be a first look. “You need more massing studies,” she suggested. She also expressed concern about below-grade entries on California, saying that wasn’t the right street for it. She suggested reworking the western side of the project, with less massing there and more on the California side (which will face the sizable 3210 California SW project that recently completed Design Review, while the alley side faces a lower-density residential neighborhood). And she suggested the proposed north-side “joint plaza” with The Swinery felt too small.
Next, a resident who has lived on the alley for more than 20 years wondered if an entrance could be proposed off California instead. (The city generally requires projects to have alley access, as city planner Bruce Rips acknowledged.) And if the entry is kept on the alley, would it be widened? he asked. Yes – by one foot, said the project team. What about the rest of the alley? the resident asked; the project team said the alley alongside the project was all that was in their purview.
Another resident, Mark, who said he lives about half a mile east, said he considered live-work units along California to be “tenuous,” particularly with below-grade entrances. He thought the south side of the project might be more appropriate and sun-embracing than on the north side. The alley-side parking would be OK, he said, if it had a “residential street type of feel,” maybe even with some units accessible on that side.
Diane Vincent, an Admiral resident who also frequently participates in the public design-review process, said she was hoping that “really awesome” retail spaces would be coming in to replace what’s there now – but instead, she is “distressed” to see what’s proposed, and would like to see more retail instead of live-work. She is worried there won’t be enough resulting activity on the street. “And I’m shocked to hear it would be subterranean and non-ADA.”
Another neighbor of the site wondered if this project and 3210 across the street were likely to be built at the same time; planner Rips said that she would probably want to talk to the developer after the meeting. The other project, it was pointed out, is further along. She explained she was concerned about project noise, among other things, with a baby on the way.
BOARD DELIBERATIONS: As always, they were held openly, with meeting attendees invited to stay and listen. Board members said the idea of a not-fully-accessible entrance on California “is a non-starter,” and also that having three entrances from parking on the alley side was not optimal. The size of the “plaza” space on the north side was also a source of some concern – it could be a bit smaller, they suggested, to avoid an unused expanse. And a plaza on the south side could work with the live-work units, instead of having their facades set up sawtooth-style.
Board members also voiced concerns about the project meeting guidelines for sunlight and natural ventilation. Maybe an upper-level setback, suggested McNamara, which could also help trees.
The massing needs to take more cues from the neighborhood and its rhythm, suggested Zinski. Bronk said the building didn’t really seem to have a “podium,” just ‘going straight up.”
(Potential massing for west side of project, with single-family neighborhood at left)
And the need for transition to the adjacent neighborhood was reiterated by McNamara. Bronk agreed, saying it seemed to just abruptly go from single-family to four stories straight up.
How much should this project respond to the recently design-review-approved 3210 California? Board chair Laird Bennion cautioned against too much of that, since it hasn’t yet been built. He also said that the California facade could be “flatter” as proposed in schemes A and B.
For a guideline about open space, California Avenue IS that open space, Bronk opined. And that brought them shortly around to the back of the building and how parking back there should look like you’re parking at a residential site, instead of against a concrete wall. They veered off into a discussion of that area before coming back to the pedestrian experience along the street. Would it meet walkability requirements? That needs closer examination. Safety and security? That includes placement of windows, so they cautioned against something jutting out and blocking that kind of view.
Then they got to the item about entries. “We’ve already asked them to rethink what they brought us,” Bennion observed. McNamara pointed out that one guideline for live-work mandated that it be designed in a way that could be converted to pure commercial in the future, and she said currently that did not appear to be the case. After some around-the-table, the reiteration prevailed that three entries from the alley parking were too many.
“So it sounds like we’re learning toward Option C, with a lot of changes?” suggested Bennion, with one of those changes being to push more of the building toward California, “taking some of the pressure off the alley.”
Zinski said he didn’t feel any of the masses had a really “clear concept” and “needed to be more-clearly studied.” Bronk agreed: “I think I like that summary … on multiple levels.”
As they proceeded through the recently city-revised version of the checklist that boards are asked to review, they stopped along the way at points including materials. Bennion said that sandy-colored brick didn’t seem to fit in the Northwest, so he wanted to be sure the architects proceeded with well-chosen materials. “The materials, the palette, the colors, this needs to help define the context,” agreed Zinski.
The concept of a “node,” brought up by the architect earlier, resurfaced here. Planner Rips said it’s also part of a “corridor.”
In the end, they asked the architects to come back for a second Early Design Guidance meeting because they didn’t feel they had seen “successful massing.” Even with a lot of guidance, there would still be massing review to be done at the next meeting, which shouldn’t be done at the second-phase – “recommendation” – meeting, they agreed.
McNamara said “if we ask for massing changes and it doesn’t come back meeting the guidelines,” it would be harder to make serious changes in that next level meeting.
And again, the two “hot buttons,” as Bronk put it, was the California facade and the transition to the lower-density residential neighborhood behind.
WHAT’S NEXT: DPD will schedule the next Early Design Guidance meeting for this project; there’s no specific timeline – some projects go a year (or more) between design reviews, some return relatively quickly. Meantime, as noted toward the start of this story, the SW Design Review Board does not currently have another meeting scheduled; we watch the schedule daily for early word (even before the formal notice comes out on the twice-weekly Land Use Information Bulletin) so as soon as one turns up, we’ll mention it. You can follow ongoing WSB development coverage by checking this archive any time (also reachable from the CATEGORIES list at the bottom of the right sidebar on most WSB pages).