By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Madison Development Group‘s mixed-use project at 2749 California SW in Admiral has the go-ahead to move to the second and final phase of Design Review.
That approval came last night from the Southwest Design Review Board after the second Early Design Guidance session for the project, which proposes 112 apartments and a new 25,000-square-foot PCC Natural Markets (WSB sponsor) store at the site that’s been home to the current one for more than a quarter-century.
Two SWDRB members – Matt Zinski, chairing, and T. Frick McNamara – and one substitute, former board member Robin Murphy, were in attendance, along with planner Josh Johnson from the Department of Construction and Inspections, filling in for the project’s assigned planner Crystal Torres. The gallery, including neighbors, observers, and project-team members, peaked at about 20.
Here’s how the meeting unfolded along the way:
ARCHITECT’S OPENING PRESENTATION
Julia Nagele from architecture firm Hewitt began her presentation (see the “packet” here) with a few reminders about the project’s size and toplines – four stories, 112 apartments, 152 underground parking spaces, new store. She noted that this area of California is a “transitional zone” from commercial/institutional to single-family neighborhoods. She reminded the board that the two “headlines” from the first EDG meeting (WSB coverage here) – the two reasons this project was sent back to the drawing board – were “street-level development” and “alley/truck service/access and loading.”
A midblock store entry and “associated setback” were changes from the first meeting, to address that first “headline.”
Nagele said the team met with SDOT as requested at the first meeting, though transportation issues aren’t a mandatory part of this review. They presented several options for truck access, which was a major community concern at the previous meeting, given the west-side alley’s proximity to the south side of Lafayette Elementary School. Nagele said SDOT felt truck drivers could be “educated” not to head north, and showed a different pull-in off the alley with entrance and exit off SW Stevens, with a perpendicular bay for the truck:
She said SDOT felt the California/Stevens intersection could work properly that way and wouldn’t require modification.
Regarding the street-level development feedback from the first meeting, she recapped that they were asked for more “activation” given that the ground floor would be almost entirely taken up by the grocery store, which usually brings the risk of dead zones, as has happened with part of the nearby Admiral Safeway redevelopment, despite much discussion in its Design Review process.
Nagele showed more detail on how the preferred alternative, C, breaks into five sections (dubbed “blocks”):
She pointed to elements including green buffers, public bike parking next to the store-entry lobby on the southeast corner of the building, and a bus stop set into the building next to that, plus a seating area that she said would be similar to PCC’s Fremont store.
Two seating areas also are proposed along the south (SW Stevens) side of the building.
They’re requesting two zoning exceptions (“departures”) – there would be a small divergence in the amount of weather protection, with more than required on the Stevens side and less than required on the California side; and a bit of difference in the setback on the southwest corner of the building.
Zinski wondered how the “five different masses” are being reinforced at street-level – the breaks are evident on the higher floors, but not so much on the first floor, he observed. Nagele pointed out “slight setbacks” related to bioretention features. He followed up by asking about materials; she promised they would be “simple and durable.” Another question led her to point out the variation they’re proposing in the California-fronting sidewalk path along the project, and another brought attention to the section of the front of the building that will “respond” to the fact that the entrance to West Seattle High School is across the street.
McNamara asked about the store entries.
PCC, said Nagele, expects that the Stevens entry will be well used, though the central California entry will be the “architectural main entry,” and now there’s an added California entry. The store would be entered at street level, but shoppers will then step down, and that also caught McNamara’s attention. There’s a two-foot grade difference between the south and north ends of the building, said Nagele.
Murphy asked how shoppers are supposed to get carts back to the surface lot. Nagele began her response by saying most people would likely remove their bags from the carts and go to the lot; if they need to take the carts to their car, an elevator would be available. He also asked about the truck size that could be accommodated in the current version of the truck bay; 62 feet, Nagele replied. Also revealed here, a 30′ door would be rolled down when trucks aren’t present.
Murphy also asked about the heights; the project is at limit, 47 feet – the 7 feet beyond 40 are allowed because of the grocery store – Nagele said. Asked about the residential units, she said they want to “get beyond the shoebox(es)” that they see as predominant in projects like this.
“It’s a great design because it evolves from the conditions all around it,” replied Nagele, asked to wrap up by explaining why the building is a “great design.” Those conditions include Hiawatha Playfield nearby. “It’s a unique place for people who want to be there … making this something that’s different from what you find in places in the neighborhood.”
Deb Barker, a former Design Review Board chair, said she supports “the breaking up of the masses” into “five buildings,” but is concerned that the breakup isn’t perceptible at street level; she referred to the Springline Apartments (WSB sponsor) project, though not by name, as having similar conditions – a massing breakup that is not so visible at street level.
Her next criticism: Having a step-down store entrance at a lower level on California “is unacceptable,” she said. She expressed concern that the historic park and high school will not be visible from below-grade entrances on California. She also voiced support for keeping curb cuts off California; “Safeway ruined it with their cut-through” to the northeast, she said. And Barker voiced opposition to the “green screen” concept that didn’t work at Safeway (among other places) – the Admiral District “doesn’t need one more dead vine,” she declared. She said she supports the “departure” regarding the weather protection if the entries are, as she had said earlier, at grade. But she considers the building bulky enough that reducing the setback on the alley is not something she can support.
Gary Williamson, a neighborhood resident, said he would like to see windows along the California side of the grocery store. He also voiced concern about traffic in the “narrow alley” and thinks it should be widened to something more like 20′. Zinski pointed out that those concerns can be brought to the planner – Johnson, at this meeting –
The next person to speak, identifying herself as a resident and shopper, said she loves the current windows in the existing PCC store and is concerned about a “pillar” shown in the new store, potentially interfering with sightlines.
A neighbor said he’s glad to see the improvements made by the architects, and wants to voice support for two points: A wider sidewalk, 8′, so people with kids and dogs have more room to walk, and a wider alleyway – he said he travels that alleyway daily and trucks currently block his access sometimes.
The next speaker, identified as the neighbor’s wife, voiced concern about access to the store requiring steps, posing a problem to people with physical challenges: “You too will one day become our age and wanting to remain in your home in West Seattle.”
Another neighborhood resident echoed that she appreciates the alley changes in the plan but also would like to see it wider. She said she is also concerned about utility lines and wants to know who to talk to about them and their potential vulnerability, perhaps even requesting that they be undergrounded. They’re not on the project property, noted architect Nagele. The March 2015 incident involving a truck hitting a pole on the alley (WSB coverage here) was pointed out.
Zinski reiterated that since the board had settled on Option C at the first Early Design Guidance meeting, this one would focus on the two aspects of prior concern, as had much of the meeting to this point – the alley and the street-level activation.
Murphy, the fill-in board member, noted that the building is “fairly evolved” for this phase of EDG. (He also later observed that breaking the project into five separate buildings “above the podium” seemed unnecessary and raised privacy issues.)
First, they tackled the alley concerns. McNamara said she is surprised that SDOT is not requiring it to be wider than 16 feet; Murphy said he agrees that widening the alley would “take pressure off” many of the concerns that are being voiced.
The parking setup came up; it’s a two-level garage with commercial parking on the first level, residential on the second (1 space for each apartment), Nagele clarified.
Next, when discussing the street level, Zinski reiterated that they wanted to avoid what happened to the Admiral Safeway, with a long stretch without anything happening, right along the California SW sidewalk, and noted that the architects “put a lot of effort into helping to activate” the streetscape with the changes made, but the remaining issue is the “at-grade entrances.”
McNamara noted that California “is our main street” and that “other solutions” should be studied. She also expressed appreciation for the comment about aging residents/shoppers and considering how it can be accessible for them. She wanted to see an at-grade entrance on California, not just at Stevens, because without one, “we’re ignoring the historic street.”
Nagele said at that point that they feel the Stevens mid-block at-grade entrance “splits the difference” for people who might be arriving by bus, among other transportation alternatives.
Murphy said that the project is a big improvement over the “sixties-era store” that’s there now so he’s “willing to give more flexibility on height” since the store is making more concessions regarding transparency along the street.
Discussion ensued about what happens once a project like this is built and the intended use of the sidewalk-facing side doesn’t work for the business any more. That segued into architect Nagele asking whether board members thought it was better for the store to be higher than sidewalk level rather than lower.
Zinski suggested that it would be up to the architect to “demonstrate” that its plan is the best solution for the community concerns – accessibility and visibility. McNamara’s concern remained that an “activated, at-grade entry” be included along California. “But ‘at-grade’does not mean you come in on a 20-foot landing” (and then drop into the store), she added.
Taking up the requested “departures,” Zinski said he supported the weather-protection exception. They voiced conditional support for the departure on the alley if there is action to “ease the friction” at that corner by widening the alley: “We would support it if the applicant set back the first level of the building two more feet (to 18’) to accommodate vehicular circulation.”
After that, all three members voted to send the project to the next phase of Design Review.
Their guidance also asks the architects to work with “quality materials” for the exterior; Murphy suggested “wood tones.”
WHAT’S NEXT: While awaiting a date to be set for the next Design Review meeting, you can send comments on the project to the assigned planner at firstname.lastname@example.org.