That’s a “design concept” Baylis Architects showed last night on behalf of Harbor Properties, for the site at 38th/Alaska where Harbor wants to build what its presentation noted would be the first mixed-use building in the “Fauntleroy Triangle” area. (See updated clickable WSB map of Triangle/Junction development and real-estate offerings.) The presentation spent more time discussing the characteristics and future of that area than of the proposed building itself, but Southwest Design Review Board members were impressed enough to advance the project to the next stage. Different results, though, for the other project on last night’s SWDRB agenda in the Chief Sealth High School library, the Conner Homes proposal for California/Alaska/42nd. Here’s what happened on both:
If you had to guess which building would draw a bigger crowd to the two-part meeting — the Harbor 38th/Alaska project was up for presentation, review, public comment, and board discussion a 6:30, the Conner California/Alaska/42nd project at 8 pm — you might have guessed the latter.
Not so. 38th/Alaska outdrew the other one, in large part because it is displacing most of the longtime home of West Seattle Montessori School (which is the reason we had first public word of the project two months ago), and might include space for the school in the project.
That’s what drew most of the public comments, from a crowd including WSMS administrators, teachers, and parents – they expressed concern that the plan included no playground space for the potential school, and that the alley dropoff area would be much closer to Fauntleroy than it is now. “I’m not sure this building takes the school seriously,” said WSMS parent Ian Lurie.
Terry Williams, a West Seattle architect, wondered how accommodating the developers should be given that the school might not be there forever; it was subsequently pointed out that WSMS has been at its current location for 28 years and is seeking a “10-to-20-year lease” for its new one.
The board members struggled a bit with the question of how to provide feedback to developers regarding a school as a potential tenant, even asking Harbor Properties for some help with context — development director Denny Onslow said simply, “We’re trying to make it (the school proposal) work.”
But first, let’s back up to the discussion of the “Fauntleroy Triangle” — as it was labeled on maps and drawings like this one — bordered by Fauntleroy, 35th, and Alaska:
Printed on one of the drawings was the explanation, “The Fauntleroy Triangle is a neighborhood in transition, from the auto sales and service culture of the past, to the high-density urban village foreseen by the city’s Neighborhood Plan … As the first mixed-use building in the district, 38th/Alaska will set a precedent.”
Onslow began Harbor’s presentation by saying his company was trying to help “create a vision for the neighborhood.” (During public comment, West Seattle Chamber of Commerce executive director Patti Mullen lauded that, saying, “We acknowledge the challenge in this (Triangle) area and commend SOMEBODY for taking it on!”) That vision could include tree-lined streets and angled parking, a neighborhood Susan Busch from Baylis subsequently said would be perfect for “walkable, affordable housing” and described as “quieter” than surrounding areas (despite the traffic of Fauntleroy and Alaska and the presence of Fire Station 32 across Alaska from the project site).
As is usually the case at “early design guidance” hearings, the architect presented three options for how the building could be oriented on its site, and described one as the development team’s preferred option. That in this case is what they had labeled “Option C.” Here’s Busch with the “massing sketches”:
Since the space for this project is long and somewhat narrow — 318 feet by 115 feet — they chose to have this configuration be “delineated” as “two buildings, angular and active on the north, rectilinear and composed on the south,” as Busch described it. Most of the 200-ish units are proposed as apartments, but this would include some units described as “live/work townhouses” in the middle. The vehicle entry for the 1 1/2 levels of underground parking would be on the alley behind the building, which is more or less SOP for these types of buildings in Seattle now, to address city expectations.
In discussion of the presentation before deciding to advance it to the next phase, board members did have a few points of criticism, including the proposal for a “below grade” — stepdown — entry to the retail area at 38th/Alaska. “Alaska is too important, and that corner is too important, to be even two INCHES below grade,” said board chair Deb Barker. But overall, they gave this early stage of the plan good reviews; “a very thoughtful presentation,” said board member David Foster.
Now, to the first building on the night’s agenda, Conner Homes‘ revived and revised plan for neighboring mixed-use buildings — joined underground by a shared parking garage — at California/Alaska/42nd. Weber Thompson‘s design principal Peter Greaves showed three options that board members later suggested weren’t different enough to be considered as three options, part of the reason why they would like to see the project return for a second round of “early design guidance.” Here’s Greaves during his presentation, followed by a closer look at the sketch you see in the background (keep in mind, this is the “early design” phase, so that is more of a “massing” sketch than anything else, without design details):
As reported here previously, the west building in the Conner project would run from (the current sites of) Super Supplements to Rubato Records, with a pedestrian corridor between the south end and the existing Junction buildings that begin there; the east building would start with the city, Rocksport, and travel-agency storefront area on Alaska/42nd and run all the way south to another pedestrian corridor that would buffer it from what’s under construction on the block now, Harbor Properties’ Mural building. A key component in their proposal is to turn the alley between the two buildings into a more pedestrian-friendly space including retail storefronts; the alley would still remain open to building traffic, however.
Their preferred option, “C,” proposed configurations for buildings that can best be described as modified T-shapes, with the tops of the T’s along Alaska, and the buildings narrowing a bit as they run southward from there.
Greaves showed what were described as “inspirational” photos — projects with some similarities, such as the Greenlake building developed by Conner, and alleys with the “vibrant pedestrian environment” he said they’re seeing here, such as Post Alley downtown, and Alley 24 at South Lake Union.
The configuration of the retail spaces — two fronting California in the western building (each about 2,000 square feet), two on Alaska and the alley in that building, then a much greater number in the eastern building — would offer a “greater variety of retail options,” Greaves said. That would set up both corner of the project, California/Alaska and Alaska/42nd, as retail entries; California also would have a residential entry for the western building, which drew some concern that it might be a “dead space” in the middle of the bustling Junction retail district.
Vehicle access is proposed from 42nd, which would require special city approval, since it would be a “departure” from the alley access that (as mentioned above) is standard these days.
Though the crowd for this section of the hearing was slightly smaller than for the Harbor Properties presentation later, the public comments covered more facets of the project and revealed deep-lying concerns. One theme that emerged repeatedly was concern about the height; the site is zoned for 85 feet, with the western building proposed at 5 stories of residential over 1 of retail, the eastern building 1 story taller. “I’ve talked to dozens of people and everybody’s horrified by this height,” said Sue Scharff. Later, Bill Leaming worried that the height would lead to an effect similar to what he called a “monstrosity” at California/Edmunds (south of the 7-11), a building he called “just butt ugly … not just height, but bad materials.”
“I see a very monolithic (building) sitting on the corner,” said Junction-area resident Patrick Manley. “Why did you spend so much time on the courtyard of the building – is there some assumption that the California Ave side isn’t worth (attention)?” He and others also worried about the building front jutting straight up from the California/Alaska corner.
Several other comments centered on concerns that the project also paid more attention to the alley between the buildings than to the street frontage. Admiral Neighborhood Association president Mark Wainwright said, “I’m seeing an obsessive focus on the alley. Activity is going to happen on California and Alaska and you have to focus on the pedestrian experience there, since The Junction is a lounge for West Seattle and all its residents.” He suggested that the building present its first two or three stories against the corner at California/Alaska but set back its higher stories at that spot, so that its height is not so imposing.
Junction Neighborhood Organization president Erica Karlovits also suggested “more setback” for parts of the project, “so it’s not so overwhelming to pedestrians on the street.” (Her organization is likely to focus on these and other area developments at its next meeting; keep watch on the JuNO website for more.)
Many of the above concerns were echoed when the board members got to their deliberations. Foster, a West Seattle-based architect, said, “I’m not convinced that tall buildings are inherently evil, but (in this area) there is an existing context (to consider).”
That context, said new board member Brandon Nicholson, also a West Seattle architect/developer (whose firm is based in the building that’s kitty-corner from the proposed project), can’t be underestimated: “Alaska/California is the most important corner in West Seattle.” He added that he is usually opposed to the idea of sending projects back for a second round of “early design guidance,” but, “this is too important.”
Chair Barker, who works in another city as a land-use planner, summed up the concerns about that corner and Alaska/42nd by declaring the buildings should “step back and not appear as tall as they can.” Perhaps four stories visible at the corner, she suggested.
Next step for the two projects on last night’s agenda: Michael Dorcy is the city planner for both, and your first stop for feedback and concerns, not just regarding Design Review, but regarding other decisions the city would have to make in reviewing them. His contact information is here. His department will decide whether to go with the Design Review Board’s recommendation of a second “early design guidance” hearing for the California/Alaska/42nd project, which then would be followed by the board’s official “recommendations” meeting on the project, the phase that the 38th/Alaska proposal will move to now. Once projects like these make it through city Design Review, the next step is decisionmaking regarding the permits they need before they can demolish what’s on the sites now, and move on to construction, a process that often takes a year or more to play out.