When we showed you images this morning from the presentation to be made at tonight’s second “early design guidance” meeting for the Admiral Safeway redevelopment proposal, we wondered aloud if there was much difference between the applicants’ “preferred alternative” from round 1, and the “preferred alternative” this time around (rendering above). Short answer: No, except for an “alley vacation” transformed into an “alley relocation.” And the lack of change did not go over well with most of the board members – though before the meeting was over, it became an interesting case of what happens when design philosophy clashes with economic reality – read on:
Design Review Board meetings are often the only chances the community gets to publicly speak out about a major development proposal. Technically, all land-use proposals have comment periods — that’s what those big white signs (and golden flyers) are all about — but those don’t get as much visibility as Design Review meetings with architect/developer presentations, public comments, and ultimately, a vote.
When tension arises in these meetings, it’s often between the public and the developers – people worried about how big projects are going to change their neighborhoods.
That wasn’t the case here. Most public comments were positive. But the Design Review Board members — all volunteers, by the way — have a job to do, and they take it very seriously. When the Admiral Safeway project came before them in September, they told the architects and developers that they wanted to see something that better maximized the site, something less “suburban,” more distinct options, and sent the project back for a second “early design guidance” meeting (only one is required).
Architects Fuller Sears did present more options – but each one was said to have flaws that didn’t work with Safeway’s “program” — project requirements — except #7, which was almost identical to #3, the “preferred alternative” from September, except for a wider drive-thru from California to 42nd in front of the store, described as an alley relocation.
In the first review, the preponderance of parking — rooftop and surface lots — came in for some criticism. This time around, architect Bill Fuller explained that Safeway still wasn’t even following suburban standards for this project — “If we were building in the suburbs, there would be five cars per thousand square feet of store, not three (as in this project).”
And they stressed something that turns out to be at the absolute top of Safeway’s shopping list for this project: The store must be closed for as short a time as possible. It’s a “very successful store” even in its current shape, Fuller said — 130 employees, 25,000 customers a week, “so we want to disrupt it as little as possible.” 16 months is the expected construction time, and even that, he said, is a “pretty compressed period.”
The new alternatives presented were #4, which would move the store further north on the lot, with 70 residential units on its south side, facing Hiawatha, with a parking-access ramp on that side too:
#5 wrapped 45 residential units around the 42nd and Lander-facing sides, but Safeway said it didn’t allow enough parking stalls:
#6 was described as the result of “what if we didn’t need a rezone, what if we didn’t need an alley vacation, what if we had no ‘code’ departures?” That one didn’t work for Safeway, Fuller said, because it only would allow for a 50,000-square-foot store:
So that brought in #7, the new applicant-referred option, with the “alley relocation,” and a residential component on the 42nd-facing side, four stories with the top floor “set back” to “respect adjacent properties.”
Pressed by board members to describe exactly what was different between the “preferred options” of last meeting and this one, the architects confirmed it was only the “alley relocation” and the change of the driving path to an “alley and pedestrian way — it would feel like driving through Pike Place.” The building “massing” — size and shape — is the same, they confirmed, “because we believe it’s viable.”
“How did you address the concern we had last time, that the store would be too ‘suburban’?” asked board member Joe Hurley, an architect.
They listed differentiating factors such as “lots of glass” compared to the “typical Safeway today with four blank walls,” plans for the produce section to “spill out into the alley,” and “garage-door” type roll-ups to open up parts of the store.
The architects said they didn’t think they had a bad plan before, but they didn’t think they’d done a good job of “communicating it … We’re doing all the things the community wanted us to do.”
“But we haven’t seen a proposal with underground parking,” interjected review board chair David Foster, a West Seattle architect.
The Safeway team said flatly that it “cannot do underground parking” — too much time, too much money. They stressed again that they have to work within the Safeway “program” — specifications: “If we deviated from the program, we could have shown you a lot of stuff, but that would have led us to a project that wouldn’t have gotten built.”
At that point, Hurley expressed frustration, saying the board can’t be constrained by a developer’s wishes when trying to work by the city guidelines. “I understand Safeway wants to only be closed 16 months, but how long is this building going to be here – 75 years? 100 years? What’s 16 months (in comparison to that)?”
Sara Corn from Safeway’s regional real-estate division broke in at that point. “This has always been a huge dilemma for us, the closing time (required by a redevelopment project). We’ve been thinking about it for the past decade. We finally said, we can’t leave this eyesore in the community any longer. If it’s not feasible for us, we can’t do the project. I’m not trying to bully you, but that’s the way it is. Safeway might be OK for the next 50 years if we just painted and did some remodeling – it’s a hugely successful store. But we’re trying to do something nice for the community.”
In the ensuing public comments, one person voiced a similar sentiment, saying they thought the community should be grateful merely for the fact that in a capital-challenged time, Safeway was choosing to spend some of its capital in this community. Other comments included Jeff Larsen supporting #7, as long as the colors are “toned down … earthier tones,” veteran Admiral commnity activist/advocate Dennis Ross also backing #7, while Diane Vincent said she’s now seen the “same thing” at three presentations (including a community meeting at which Safeway presented its plan a week before the first Design Review meeting), adding she would support underground parking in no small part because it’s more convenient and comfortable during bad weather.
One comprehensive comment came from Admiral resident and local architect Brandon Nicholson, who also happens to be on hiatus from the Design Review Board for a few months. He echoed Hurley’s comments, saying, “I think Joe is right on with the fundamental issues with the project — This is a neighborhood center, meant to have a lot higher density … a denser neighborhood core where you have restaurants, dry cleaners, floral shops, banks, all the businesses the neighbors around should be able to walk to. I like the alley but I still think there is a fundamental mis-read of the site. They could actually not close the store at all (during construction) – dig an underground parking lot on the north side (first). And there could be a lot more retail than the token 5 to 7 thousand square feet. There’s not that much land left in Admiral – this is half the development potential that’s left. What they’re designing now is a 30-year building; they should be thinking 100 to 150 years.”
KT Plett then voiced concern about too much density: “For the next 40 years, I don’t want to see huge, packed-in buildings in that area.”
Jim Del Ciello suggested to the Safeway team: “If you have to stay within the parameters of the 16-month time frame, tell us about the costs involved, what would it cost you to dig a hole, to be closed more months, and I think that would be more compelling to me as a resident to hear that … I’m not wild about these designs, but I’m keeping open ears, open mind.”
After public comments, the board had to truncate its deliberations, after learning that the meeting site — the West Seattle (Admiral) Library branch — was booting everybody out at 8 o’clock sharp; that meant 15 minutes for the board to make its decisions.
Hurley was still frustrated. “This is an unbelievably great site … and the idea we are looking at, a suburban building slid onto here that satisfies the owner … We are looking at a fantastically important site in an unbelievably important location, and I have to say, we have to see something better than this. I am disappointed to come to this meeting and be looking at the same building.”
Board member Deb Barker also pronounced herself “disappointed … We didn’t get a lot of the things we asked for.”
Board member Christie Coxley said she agreed with a remark Foster had made earlier, admiring alternative #5, which she termed “a really interesting scheme … it may not meet Safeway’s program, but, interacting with the park, I think it makes those units more salable, I think it ends up being a more interesting building.”
Foster at that point reiterated his interest in #5, acknowledging “there’s a downside to parking, but I think it’s up to the applicant to figure that out.”
Fill-in board member Jeff McCord – who by the way had earlier disclosed that the company with which he works, Nickel Brothers, may wind up saving and moving the house that’s on the southeast corner of the Admiral lot – said he was concerned the site was “clearly not built to its density,” but also impressed that it’s an “urban” type of building, especially with the expectation of some merchandise “spilling out onto the sidewalks … I do think it clearly addresses a lot of the current community desires.”
For his part, Foster said, “This is a hugely important project for the community and we need to get it right … There’s an incredible opportunity here that’s being squandered … I need to be convinced that this is the best they can do, and I’m not convinced right now.”
At that point, a bit of testiness erupted between board members and city planning staffer Michael Dorcy, who is handling the project; to the suggestion that Safeway return for a third “early design guidance” meeting, Dorcy said he didn’t think that was fair to the applicant.
In the end, board members made that recommendation — over the applicant’s objection — but Dorcy’s department, DPD, isn’t required to follow it, so some clarification is needed as to exactly what happens next. (FRIDAY MIDDAY UPDATE: We’ve confirmed the final verdict: Safeway can officially move to the next phase, applying for the “master use permit,” which requires at least one more Design Review meeting, for the “recommendations” vote, at which time they will present a further-fleshed-out design; we’ll let you know when that date is set, and also when the permit application triggers another comment period.) And even the Design Review process is only a relatively small part of a big picture — because the Safeway project could require some rezoning and an “alley vacation,” it would require other public hearings and city proceedings; if you have comments or questions at any time, Dorcy is the person to contact — firstname.lastname@example.org – you can see the project’s official page on the DPD website by going here.
Whatever stage the project is in when the Design Review Board sees it again, Foster warned, “I want to see a better proposal.”
If you missed the link earlier, you can view the full presentation from tonight’s meeting here.