The second Seattle Design Commission review of the Conner Homes California/Alaska/42nd megaproject has just concluded. Two updates, with more details to be added after we switch locations: #1, Jim Miller from Conner confirms that the two-building project is going in the “apartment direction” instead of condos, though they will be “built to condo spec.” (We spoke with him after the commission vote, seeking clarification after we heard architect Peter Greaves repeatedly mention “apartments” and “leasing office” in the presentation.) #2, Design Commissioners voted to have the project return to them one more time. Their vote basically is needed to approve the “public benefit” a developer is offering in exchange for an alley vacation — in this one, Conner wants the space under the alley as part of a big underground parking garage — and a narrow majority (five of the nine commissioners) voted that the proposal still doesn’t offer enough public benefit. We’ll add details shortly, plus images from a CD we’ve just received of the presentation that was made. ADDED 1:59 PM: The image added above (thanks to the architects, Weber Thompson) shows the Alaska/California corner, looking southwest through a new rendering of a corner setback, with a “column.” Here’s the same spot, looking south – this would be roughly where the Super Supplements entrance is now:
And this is a rendering of the alley between the two Conner buildings, looking north (toward where the salon and jewelry/watch shop are now, across the street):
ADDED 9:57 PM: More images, and details from today’s Design Commission review:
First, to be clear, this wasn’t a review of the complete project. Part of the proposal requires an “alley vacation” – the city giving the developer the rights to use, in this case, the area immediately beneath the north part of the Alaska-to-Edmunds alley, and since even the underground section is public property, that has to go through layers of approval including, ultimately, the City Council.
Before it gets to that point, SDOT has to sign off on it, as does the Design Commission, approving the elements that will constitute “public benefit” in exchange for public property having been yielded to a developer.
Back in November, the architects brought the proposal to the commission, which meets twice monthly at City Hall with a daylong slate featuring various projects. Commissioners asked them to come back for another review.
As Greaves presented the designs, he said they’d responded to previous concerns with increased sidewalk width at the California/Alaska corner, as shown above. Various parts of the building’s street front will have “eddies” and “nodes” — chances to get off the sidewalk and tie your shoes, attend to a child in a stroller, etc. He said the building couldn’t be set back further, so to increase sidewalk space, they want to reduce street-tree wells to the city minimum, and put “permeable pavement” between them.
The Alaska/42nd building on the east side of the alley would be shifted a foot and a half south to create more sidewalk width at that corner. And they would increase the sidewalk width along 42nd SW – this is a view looking southward, down 42nd:
Here’s a different look at the eastern building, as if you were facing southeast along Alaska:
The major corners would include “columns,” in front of recessed storefronts which also will have high ceilings, 18 feet from the floor to the soffits above (which are topped with six floors of residential units), and that’ll be the same where the “midblock pedestrian connection” runs along the south side of the western building between California and the alley. People walking toward the alley from California will ultimately face the “amenity” area for the buildings, a 77-foot-long glass-sided area with an exercise room, leasing offices, and other residential-related spaces; this rendering looks in that eastward direction:
Greaves said Conner has “had conversations with Harbor Properties” to coordinate the pedestrian-walkthrough design and remove redundancies between theirs and one alongside Mural, the new Harbor building south of the eastern Conner building – at one point, both were going to have ramps.
The proposal also envisioned a public benefit from different types of paving — acid-etched concrete running west-east along the pedestrian corridor, “to expose some aggregate and look, feel a little different from the city standard,” to be “a little more playful” without being too far from the neighborhood’s character.
The design also features masonry along the 4-story facade of the western building, and a glass/steel canopy over other areas, as well as 17 four-foot benches throughout the project and bike racks.
In all, Conner is asking for a 2,900-foot subterranean alley vacation, and contends that the sidewalk and alley improvements total 6,400 square feet of public benefit, including those permeable pavers between the existing street trees on California.
After the presentation, the commission heard comments from two city employees working on the project — Beverly Barnett of SDOT, who reviews alley-vacation requests, and Michael Dorcy, the planner assigned by DPD.
Barnett said the project looked “better” but she’s still concerned about something that’s come up at Design Review as well — “that an awful lot of energy and work is going to make the midblock crossing and alley pedestrian environment better, instead of seeing that energy and your good design skills going to work on the street and particularly the (Alaska/California) corner which everyone has flagged as THE gateway to West Seattle. … Part of what we’re not seeing (in the presentation) is that this is a much longer block and you guys are minority property owners … what you’re not seeing (with Petco and Elliott Bay nearby) are the people walking through the alley with beer-delivery trucks and big bags of cat litter. With all the work you’ve done to make this more palatable to doubters like me, if you would just flip that outside, we would see more of a gateway project instead of all this work on the (inside elements).”
Dorcy echoed that Design Review Board members and “the public” who spoke at those meetings hadn’t been “overly enthusiastic” about those elements either, but he thought the project was taking “significant steps.”
When it was time for the commissioners to comment, some echoed the ongoing concerns about whether too much emphasis was placed on the alley and walkthrough; others were concerned about pedestrians being able to find their way, once they walk from California toward the alley, with the next connection, between the Conner project and Mural, some distance to the south.
One commissioner suggested that the columns on the corners could eventually feature some kind of wayfinding signs.
Chair Mary Johnston said she wasn’t so concerned about people not embracing the alley focus, or having trouble finding their way through the alley: “There is a real tradition in West Seattle of alley life, some retail entrances … the reality is, the day-to-day life of people who use these streets, 90 percent of them will know what’s going on, and I think this has the potential for a different sort of environment, maybe a little respite from the street.”
Greaves agreed: “Between retail, pedestrian, and vehicular access on an alley, it’s a very delicate balance, but it’s the reason we like walking down Post Alley, and the reason, as we make new developments, we look at concepts like Alley 24, where you can do both.”
That said, Johnston said she didn’t feel ready to “take action on this yet” — approve it. “They’re going in the right direction, but not there yet,” one of her colleagues summarized. Hammond said his major concern is that an 8-foot-wide sidewalk along California in particular “is absolutely not enough.” Here’s a rendering looking north on California, alongside the building:
Before the Conner presentation, commissioners had been shown designs for bus stops and terminals along RapidRide routes including the one coming to West Seattle in two years, and commissioner John Hammond urged the Conner team to consult with Hewitt Architects, who’s working on RapidRide, to look for harmony between the projects.
As a result of the 4-5 vote, they’ll have to bring the project back to the Design Commission at least one more time. It still has to go back to the Design Review Board in West Seattle as well.