Design Review updates: High Point details; board member’s hiatus

October 12, 2008 3:51 pm
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 |   Development | High Point | West Seattle news | West Seattle people

Every little detail of the development process may not be your cup of tea; we chronicle it so the information’s there when you do want to find it (you never know when one of those big city signs might go up in your ‘hood). As you may know, for big projects in our city, the Design Review stage of the process is often the only time there’s a public meeting about a project (usually at least two) where you can show up and have a say. Each area of the city has its own board; the Southwest Design Review Board looks at West Seattle projects, usually the second and fourth Thursdays of the month, if there are projects requiring review (no meeting if there aren’t; this is usually decided several weeks in advance, and you can watch this page for word of upcoming meetings). Next SWDRB meeting is October 23rd at Madison Middle School, with 4106 Delridge reviewed at 6:30 pm, The Kenney‘s “reinvention” project (previous WSB coverage here and here) reviewed at 8 pm. Following up on the SWDRB’s last meeting this past Thursday, we have two things to report: first, details on a prominent board member’s hiatus; second, details on what led up to the decision to advance the 35th/Graham High Point project on to the next stage. Read on!

First — it was announced toward the start of Thursday’s meeting that ex-board member Jeff McCord is filling in for 1st-term board member and West Seattle architect Brandon Nicholson for a while. We followed up with Nicholson, who’s gained citywide prominence recently in the process of evolving “multi-family zoning” (with events including the “ugly townhouses” forum in June and the July announcement of proposed code changes), and in fact, his Design Review Board hiatus is related:

My hiatus from the Design Review Board will be for about six months. Our firm has been contracted by the Department of Planning and Development to help with designing the forthcoming process on design review for smaller projects, what has previously been called Administrative Design Review. This has been a voluntary program in the past, with around 15 projects per year participating. Now with the proposed multi-family code revision, a still to be determined review process will be mandatory for all multifamily projects under the SEPA or design review thresholds. We will be working with the City to help determine how this new process will function. In order to eliminate any possible conflicts of interest during the time we are working as a City consultant, it was decided that a temporary leave would be best. Previous design review board members will cover during my absence and then I will return to the board in the Spring when the contract is complete.

Nicholson’s firm, by the way, is Junction-based Nicholson Kovalchick Architects.

Now, to the details from Thursday’s meeting on the High Point project. This was the second round of “early design guidance” for the proposal – only one round is mandatory, but if design reviewers feel that a proposal is way off target, they can ask for another. Among other concerns voiced at the first meeting (WSB coverage here) were questions about how the 35th/Graham development would tie in to the rest of High Point (mostly to the west) as well as the much-used library and clinic properties to the north.

So on Thursday night, a contingent including reps from the architecture firm (Mithun), the overall manager of the High Point redevelopment (Seattle Housing Authority), and the project developer (Lowe Enterprises, which is in the process of purchasing the site) came back with a new proposal, including this “preferred scheme”:


(You can see the other “schemes” by downloading the full presentation from Thursday night here.)

The best way to describe the meeting is through a remark that board chair David Foster, a West Seattle-based architect, made toward the end: It was the first time he could recall a Design Review meeting morphing into a “charrette.”

The meeting began in the usual way, with architects presenting the design options; they described this project — currently set for more than 200 apartments and 16,000 square feet of retail — as meant to be the “exclamation point” on High Point itself, with its placement on the western border an intentional one, furthering the goal of connecting HP to the rest of West Seattle, as its “gateway.”

The main points of contention continue to be how cars will get into the project; the major entry is proposed on Graham between 35th and 34th, but some form of entry is being pursued on the north edge of the project, from 35th. Here’s art from the “preferred design option” in Thursday’s proposal:


The first proposal made over the summer included “live-work” units as part of the 35th frontage, but SWDRB members voiced concern about that, suggesting the building needed a strong retail face along 35th. That’s what the developers and architects are working toward now, but they say they need parking behind the retail, to support “a very good chance at making it the kind of viable first-class retail we want.” A leasing agent in attendance at the meeting echoed the need for parking, saying that with 16,000 square feet of retail space to lease, “some of the customers are going to come from (outside the immediate area)” though she later noted that it’s likely to be “daily goods and services” type retail, given the location. (The long-ago hope for a grocery store in this project has long since evaporated for reasons including the fact the West Seattle market is considered glutted with new QFC and Whole Foods stores coming into Junction/Triangle-area megaprojects in the next two years.)

Much of the public discussion focused on hopes and dreams for the retail space, with the “grocery store is no longer an option” subtext, as well as general traffic concerns about 35th (similar to the point of last week’s demonstration). There were questions about whether a light might be a possibility at 35th/Graham because of the scope of this project, as Miranda Taylor from the High Point Neighborhood Association noted, saying she had recently toured the site with SDOT reps. Parking concerns, meantime, were voiced on behalf of the nearby health clinic, with concern that inadequate parking at the 35th/Graham site could lead to retail-customer parking overflow into the busy clinic’s own lot.

Most traffic concerns, however, are outside the the scope of the Design Review Board (they do come into play with the overall consideration of the construction permit and the environmental review process; more on that at the end of this report).

Finally, after much public comment about traffic safety and retail hopes, board discussion began. Member Deb Barker opened by comparing the project to the recently reviewed Admiral Safeway proposal and said she had similar concerns about a lack of pedestrian-friendliness, and what seemed like a superficial nod to walkability while ultimately the projects appeared “about packing people in and having them drive in and out to work … I’m disappointed in the emphasis on parking” considering, as she noted, members of the public who live nearby were heard to say they would be willing to walk to the complex to shop, have a cup of coffee, etc. Bottom line, she said, “it still feels really suburban.”

Jeff McCord (past and current substitute board member, as mentioned above) suggested a midblock pass-through on 35th, later saying “to have this project be successful, to thread between vehicular and pedestrian needs, how you create the pathways through, will be absolutely critical to its success.” Underground parking was suggested as optimal, and increasingly common, but project developers/architects said flat-out that would add too much cost to the project, potentially impeding the affordability of its apartments.

Shortly afterward, the impromptu “charrette” broke out, with a whole lot of huddling over the table where the board members sat, and plenty of sketching on printouts of the existing proposal. At one point, Foster said, “Right now, I don’t see this as quite High Point,” while Tom Phillips, SHA’s HP manager, jumped in to say, “Regarding what defines High Point, I think we have a pretty good idea, and I’d like to speak to it.” However, this came during official board deliberations, and ultimately the tension passed, with Foster saying, “I don’t see that (the developers/architects’) vision and (design reviewers’) vision are that far apart”; board member Christie Coxley, a landscaper designer, said, “They did a really good job of listening to us and listening to the public” in evolving the design past what was presented at the August meeting.

So with the board’s agreement at the end of a 2-and-1/4-hour meeting, the project moves to what is likely to be the final design-review meeting, when board members would consider recommending it for final approval provided it addresses their concerns about pedestrian and vehicle access, while the developers go on to apply for their “master use permit” (MUP). You can track its progress here.

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