Southwest Design Review Board, report #2: Perch advances on 2nd try

(GO HERE for coverage of the first project reviewed Thursday night, 1307 Harbor SW)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

With some reservation, the Southwest Design Review Board voted last night to allow 1250 Alki SW – a ~100-unit apartment building that developer SolTerra has named “Perch” – to advance out of the Early Design Guidance phase on its second try.

Neighbors who have been closely watching and analyzing the process again voiced their concern that the project remains out of scale with the neighborhood. Here’s the “design packet” on which last night’s presentation was based:

Here’s how the review went:

ARCHITECT PRESENTATION: SolTerra is a design/build/own firm, as we noted in a preview earlier this week, so president Brian Heather led the presentation, assisted by Jeremy Thompson. Heather recapped the feedback from the first Early Design Guidance meeting, and how the project answered that feedback. “Looking at this building and the context in the neighborhood, we wanted to break up the mass as well,” and that’s why they are now proposing a courtyard in the front/center, which would “take a lot of space out of the core of the building.” They responded to comments about a desire to see some of the hill, so “we’re treating this as an extension of the hillside. … we’re almost treating it like two separate (buildings).”

Their preferred-option ground-floor plan would step the building back from the sidewalk “like many other buildings in the neighborhood.” With a bus stop across the street, they wanted to offer space that the public could use, and the courtyard would be that space. It also would include “micro-retail” – for example, people with home-based businesses who can showcase their products – or maybe flower sales, kite sales, etc. SolTerra has moved the parking gate to the back of the building, some distance down the driveway, which is on the west end of the building, and there would be short-term spaces before it is reached by residents. The roof would be green, with a garden, gas fire pit, shrubs, and solar panels. (As Heather had told us in an interview for this preview, stormwater will be collected, and it would be used to flush toilets.)

The main goal of Early Design Guidance is to settle on a configuration (size/shape) option for a project. All of the Perch configuration options presented last night include planted “living walls,” something for which SolTerra has sought a patent. One would be, again by requirement, “code-compliant” – a design that wouldn’t require any “departures,” or zoning exceptions. The two departures they are requesting for their preferred configuration are for the width – it would be 174 feet wide, 24 feet above “code” – and for depth, 106 feet, which is 16 feet past code. The packet shows their justification for it, including that the changes would allow the project its “splayed open massing,” to not look “monolithic.”

BOARD QUESTIONS: Board chair Todd Bronk asked about the unique parking concept, confirming “no door” at the street. Heather said they understand the challenges of underground parking in the area – the project reviewed earlier in the evening had changed to above-ground parking after discovering too much water beneath; Heather said they think they have a handle on what they’ll be doing. T. Frick McNamara, who has a landscape-architecture background, asked if the “living wall” was really more of a trellis wall; SolTerra explained that their proprietary system is actually planted, almost hydroponic.

PUBLIC COMMENTS: It was noted toward the start of the meeting that the Action Alki Alliance, the neighbors’ group that has been watchdogging this project, had turned in a documents outlining its comments and concerns. We obtained this copy after the meeting:

First to speak was a representative of the AAA: “It’s definitely a different (design) document up there tonight … our team has reviewed (it),” and in addition to their document, she had a few comments to highlight. “We tried very diligently on both sides to have a meeting face-to-face with SolTerra,” but key people in the AAA couldn’t do that because of the holidays and traveling, since they got word on December 15th that SolTerra was ready for its second EDG meeting. The AAA rep said the “code-compliant” option would provide views of the hillside to everyone, and that would be preferable to the “artificial ‘living wall’.”

She added that SolTerra’s use of the widths of buildings built in the 1970s to say its width would “fit in” is disingenuous because standards were different back then. And they’re concerned about an exceptional tree, as well as about a quote in our preview from earlier this week, “if you live in one SolTerra building, you live in all of them,” which she fears would mean rooftop access to people from 600 units in Seattle and Portland, where SolTerra has buildings and projects. Their bottom-line request was for the departures to be denied.

Second to speak, former Design Review Board chair Deb Barker, who noted that she had spoken at the first EDG meeting, and wasn’t happy then, and isn’t particularly happy now: “I’m still only seeing one massing option … there doesn’t seem to be any interest by this applicant to reduce the bulk of this building by any way, shape, or form.” The courtyard, she said, would likely be “in the dark for 11 months of the year,” and she said the drawings are disingenuously showing the courtyard lit. “Any green wall (in the lack of light) is going to be struggling.” She also thought the bus stop/courtyard interaction presented a CPTED – crime prevention through environmental design – challenge, especially with a lack of access from the courtyard into the building.

Also speaking, briefly, Diane Vincent, who mentioned green walls at other projects, including Admiral Safeway, that had never taken root. (SolTerra says its design is different, with the plants rooted in the wall, not climbing on a trellis or other structure against the wall.)

BOARD DELIBERATIONS: Is what the courtyard offers worth the zoning exceptions? was a key question they pondered. The idea of a north-facing courtyard drew skepticism. “What’s its benefit for the internal as well as the external design of the building?” wondered Matt Zinski. Board chair Todd Bronk said he likes the idea but “not the bulk of the building that comes with the idea.” Zinski said he likes SolTerra’s enthusiasm and thinks the courtyard can break up “the perceived length of this building” if done correctly; McNamara seconded that notion. “I don’t want to totally write off that living wall,” she said, discussing a building in another city that has such a wall and it works in the streetscape. “I think that courtyard if it truly can work, keeping the soil moist and solar access, could be a unique” feature and attribute.

Bronk says the plan has a “looming” feel and the public should have a way to see through to the greenbelt. “There’s a lot of bulk behind it to get to the hillside.” He wonders if something else could be taken away – maybe one floor, losing a few units? Or a “punch through on the sixth level and a setback on the fifth level.” Zinski added, “I think we all appreciate the courtyard and the way the applicant approaches the treatment, with as much of a gap between the masses as possible.”

McNamara clarified that she was hearing her colleagues saying the massing doesn’t go far enough to bring in some of the hillside. Bronk says the center could come down a level – “I’d be more inclined to look at and grant departures based on that if there was a gasket in the massing of the two – when it all gets built out, it looks like one large building, especially six floors up.”

Overall, McNamara said she liked the “splay,” and Bronk agreed this building is in the right spot – on Duwamish Head – for that. But the building “has to relieve itself in height, and bulk, and scale.” He didn’t think widening the courtyard would help. Zinski was worried about “bad units” such as one that appeared to be on an interior corner with just one north-facing window, that might not bring in light.

Bronk said he wanted to know more about the security and the functionality of the open entry to the driveway leading to the garage door. He also asked about the comment regarding other buildings’ residents visiting – Heather said it was true, and they hadn’t worked out the details, but they want to build a community of people who live in SolTerra projects.

Bronk suggested that they could indicate they would support width and depth departures but not at the scale currently proposed. Zinski suggested they offer the guidance that they want to see a “generous courtyard,” certainly no smaller than what’s in the new proposal, to support width/depth exceptions, but they’d want some narrowing of the “gasket” between the two “wings” of the building. And that’s how their recommendations wrapped up. Of the three massing options, they preferred C, “floating boxes,” and a back side taking advantage of the hillside views.

SOMETHING TO SAY? City planner BreAnne McConkie, who was in attendance at the meeting and will write the official report on it, will continue to accept comments on the project – including elements that weren’t part of the Design Review process – is her address. Meantime, the decision means at least one more meeting for the project; we’ll be watching the city files and will publish word of it as soon as the date’s set.

2 Replies to "Southwest Design Review Board, report #2: Perch advances on 2nd try"

  • JanS January 22, 2016 (8:25 pm)

    of course it does…has there ever been a time when a developer was told “Sorry, no go. Period” ?

  • John January 23, 2016 (10:54 am)

    If you are really interested, ask the resident former Design Review Board chair Deb Barker?   She might explain that it is a legal process that is supposed to inform development not eliminate it.

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