(from left, DPD’s Michael Dorcy, board members Vlad Oustimovitch, Christie Coxley, Deb Barker, Joe Hurley, David Foster [standing])
Thursday night, after a 3 1/2-hour meeting of the Southwest Design Review Board — the fourth on the Conner Homes two-building California/Alaska/42nd project — ended with a decision to have a fifth meeting, we published a quick summary. What follows here is the long version — who said what and why, and what that fifth meeting is for.
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
That mockup from one of the previous meetings on the Conner project — in which participants took the basic mass of the western building and imagined some different form and flair — is part of the reason why Design Review Board members want architects to come back one more time: This building, particularly its uppermost section, still doesn’t resemble what they’re hoping to see at the most prominent corner of the business district that is the heart of West Seattle.
Thursday night’s three-and-a-half-hour meeting settled the other remaining major issues, including whether that building would keep its residential entry on California as proposed and would keep its parking-garage entry/exit on 42nd as proposed (answer to both: yes).
By Thursday night, as project lawyer Jessie Clawson (of McCullough Hill) noted in brief opening remarks (she addressed the gathering on behalf of the developers instead of company owner Charlie Conner, who wasn’t in attendance this time), the project was in its seventh public meeting. We’ve covered all of them. So in case you want to review before we proceed, here are links to our coverage of the six other meetings:
So you’re clear on who is accountable for what in reviewing this project: The citywide Design Commission‘s role was fairly narrow — since this project included an “alley vacation,” its members needed to sign off on a “public-benefits package,” what the developer was offering the community in exchange for getting the right to use what is technically city-owned land, in this case the space beneath the alley between its future buildings, since the project includes one big underground garage for both.
Those meetings focused on related details such as sidewalks and the pedestrian passthrough that’s planned along the south side of the western building.
The Design Review Board, meantime, has a bigger task: Its members are accountable for signing off on the design of the entire project, as well as any proposed “departures” from city code, in this case the 42nd SW garage entrance/exit.
Last night, though, it was clear the DRB members, who are specifically appointed by district – this is the board for West Seattle only – had issue with some of the touches that, as the Conner team put it, the Design Commission “loved,” like bollards in front of the buildings’ major corners. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
“This is a special meeting,” as board chair David Foster described it toward the start of the evening. It was set for a night when the board doesn’t usually meet; he and Deb Barker, whose DRB terms are ending, stayed on for continuity’s sake; and it was scheduled relatively quickly after the previous one, which might have resolved more except for a major scheduling error by the city planning department: It was booked for High Point Library, where the meeting room was too small and the library staff had to kick everybody out by 8 pm closing time.
No such contraints last night. With pounding rain just outside the meeting room at West Seattle Christian Church in The Junction, turnout was a little lower than the project’s three previous reviews – counting board members and project team reps, there were maybe 30 people in the room when the meeting began, perhaps half that by the time it was over.
As Foster reminded those who did brave the elements: “Keep in mind, we are here to discuss the design of the proposal, not the appropriateness of whether this project should be built.”
One of the points of contention wasn’t new to the proposal last night, but had escaped much scrutiny amid the rushed, tense atmosphere of the previous meeting: The fact that the Conner team had added a seventh story to the western building. As architect Jim Westcott (photo below) explained, that was because of “the amount of space we lost by setting (the upper stories) back” — a request earlier in the process, to keep the building from presenting one huge facade at this critical corner.
But the renderings shown last time still lacked “architectural detail,” as the board and members of the public put it, so that was the central task with which architects grappled, Westcott said.
Then he unveiled what they suggested could be the solution. It started with this image, a filtered look at existing businesses on the west side of California, across from the Conner project site, which they had been using as the cover page for the printouts of their city presentations:
“We saw colors, shapes, textures, three-dimensionality … and thought it could be a conceptual base to modulate the upper part of the building, that actually resonates with West Seattle, and The Junction specifically.”
The result: Adding colors, shapes, and textures, to the balconies on the west building, as shown in these renderings:
“That breaks down the mass of the facade,” Westcott suggested, also envisioning a “fun” look at sunset, with “rich red light coming from the west and hitting the facade.”
Board members ultimately disagreed, but we’ll get to that. First, here are a few of the other architectural details, not disputed, that were shown – the west building’s Alaska-facing retail:
Colorful cloth awnings were suggested for the California SW side and part of the 42nd SW side (this image shows the former):
Both buildings feature a lot of what is known as “cementitious” siding. And on the east side, metal and glass awnings will be predominant, along with vinyl windows on the upper floors, and anodized aluminum at the storefront level:
Once the design presentation was done, it was time to get down to specific sticking points. In making his starting pitch for a decision moving the garage entry from the alley, he noted, “We know how busy the alley is … we also have to look forward to development in the future,” contending it will just be too busy for cars to be exiting at the north end of the alley, onto Alaska. He also reminded the board that developers had responded to the concerns about a potential alley closure during development — “we got more than 750 comments” (you may recall the petition drive we covered here) … “about how important it is to keep this alley open during construction, which we are going to do.” But the alley faces future pressures, Westcott said, with any future development on the south two-thirds of the California-facing block “having no option but to enter (a) garage from the alley.”
He showed rough calculations suggesting that, at the same density of what’s going into the area now, 355 more cars could come along with any such development along the east side of the south part of the California-facing block, added to 100 cars for Mural, maybe 100 for any future development on the US Bank parcel, and 307 cars for the Conner project’s own garage, with more than 100 of them designated as “free” spots for retail customers.
The parking-entry issue was truly vexing to the board members, noting that they would be setting a precedent by allowing the “departure.” Substitute (and longtime former) board member Vlad Oustimovitch recalled a tussle over the apartment building next to Junction TrueValue, which asked for a 44th SW entry instead of the proscribed alley opening, and fought it all the way to the city Hearing Examiner, who backed the board’s decision aligned with the city’s alley-favoring code.
“So what are you giving back in response to this key departure?” Barker asked.
Response: The 100-plus free parking spots. “I’m not saying it’s a bribe,” said Westcott, “but it IS a benefit to the neighborhood. From all the comments I’ve heard from the public, parking is HUGE.”
“Are they free for the life of the project,” asked Barker, “or free till a new owner decides they’re going to charge for it?”
“Not determined,” said Conner rep Jim Miller, from the audience.
Later in the debate, board chair Foster reminded his colleagues that they weren’t charged with deciding whether the developer was offering public benefit in exchange for the “departure,” but instead, with deciding whether the project’s design worked, overall.
Discussion then turned to that extra story on the west building. The setbacks for which it’s supposed to compensate are 16 feet from the one-story retail facade along California. “We were trying to break down the mass in a way that’s more related to the place,” Westcott explained. “West Seattle is a less formal part of town; we tried to reflect some of the values in West Seattle in how we break up the building.”
Foster inquired why the ground-floor retail level is 18 feet high, almost the height of two stories, five feet higher than the city requires. Westcott contended that it’s typical for the area, and said “the next building over, which is only one story, is a little higher than us. … I think it fits in.”
After an hour of architect presentation and board members’ questions, it was on to public comments.
Susan Melrose of the West Seattle Junction Association, representing the business community, explained why they oppose having the residential entry on California: “We see California as a business corridor, and to have a continuous storefront, is what we’d like to see. … (Also) the (residential) dropoff zone would take some parking spots off California, and we want to keep all the parking spots on California, especially since we’re likely losing some on Alaska.”
Oustimovitch asked if the merchants had taken a position on the parking-garage entrance; Melrose said, no, “we see benefits to both (alternatives).”
Another attendee had harsh words for the design: “What they are proposing is not consistent with design guidelines.” He thought the sidewalks should be wider, at least 18 feet, and didn’t find much to like about the project design in general: “I think West Seattle deserves better design than this … It’s insulting, I think, to say that all these things they had to do, with or without the alley vacation, is part of ‘public benefit’.”
At that, planner Dorcy — who is often quiet during this meetings until his advice is sought — interrupted, forcefully, “The alley vacation has nothing to do with this – this board has nothing to do with that.” The attendee was clearly taken aback; Dorcy concluded by saying that any non-design-related comments could be directed to him, any time (we’ve included his contact info at the end of this article, by the way).
Junction Neighborhood Organization president Erica Karlovits said: “Moving the lobby entrance from California to Alaska is incredibly important. There already are (other residential) entries across the street on Alaska. And what’s better than to exit your residential unit and look at a park?” (She was referring to Junction Plaza Park, for which she and others are currently collecting pledges to get it to the next stage of development, at 42nd/Alaska.) She supported the 42nd SW parking entrance/exit, but then went on to say: “I think the balconies are awful – pastel coloring, green and pink … I think we’ve gone backward. Last time, we said, blend the building more with the old (development) that exists. I think this balcony design moves so much further to the modern end, instead of combining with a traditional feel, that it went in the wrong direction. Also, balconies add more mass when you are a pedestrian. … I’d still like to see more detail. What’s at Alaska/42nd still looks like the back of the building. … I see a lot of glass, I don’t see a lot of interaction with the pedestrian – I’d like to see more rollup (windows/doors), so it won’t be like what we have now – Super Supplements came along and put a big sticker on the window. Even though it’s glass, it can be made into ‘walls’. Maybe something like the Metropolitan Market floral area, coming out onto the sidewalk.”
West Seattle-based architect Brandon Nicholson, on hiatus from the Design Review Board while working on a city project, observed, “Since it’s a prominent project, it’s getting more scrutiny. We don’t hear the good as much as the criticism. Going with higher 18-foot ceilings is a strong, good precedent … Easy Street is actually 2 1/2 stories tall, and that feels great when you are in the cafe or the store.” (His company is headquartered over Easy Street Records.)
Some of Nicholson’s concerns: He too favored the residential entry going to Alaska, and wished that the architects would have gone into detail about a landscaping plan.
The balconies were a concern for Junction-area resident Brian Tucker, not just the design, but the possibility they could become “ad-hoc storage spaces … It could start looking tacky in a central part of The Junction.”
Another area resident, David Whiting: “One thing I’d like to point out, the key thing I keep hearing from the public, it does not blend in architecturally with the older style that exists there. (At the last meeting, Rene Commons) brought friezes, moldings … Even if it was just done on the first level, at pedestrian-eye view, that would go a long way to making this thing not look like it was plopped in from Ballard or Redmond Town Center. This is arguably the most prominent intersection in West Seattle.”
Not arguably, interjected Foster — it IS.
“Please tie this back to what currently exists,” Whiting continued. “Even if you just throw a bone and do it on the first floor of the building, and please talk to the folks working on that park.”
From Diane Vincent, who noted she had been to all four Design Review meetings: “I guess I’m feeling a sense of us, the public, not being heard. It’s been said over and over again … we had a visual example at the last design meeting of some of the more interesting details that would be nice to interact with, the 100-year-old buildings across the street. Even the architect described this as ‘warehouse-like,’ and that’s what it looks like to me.”
In other comments, the word “monolithic” re-emerged.
Public comments only totaled half an hour, and then the board dug in to decisionmaking regarding what Foster again said was “arguably the most important project” in West Seattle, at least right now.
First, members went around the table to identify the issues they were interested in discussing. Foster said he’d hoped to engage in discussion about the 18-foot-high ceilings for street-level retail, “but hearing an overwhelming support for it … I will note, however, the building is five feet taller, and we’ve had a lot of complaints about its height, and five feet is closer to a story than it isn’t.”
Barker’s top issues included the residential-entry location – she favored Alaska; she and Coxley, a landscape architect, wanted to ask the developers to “respond to the park” (Junction Plaza).
Oustimovitch also worried aloud about the aesthetics of the retail level, fearing they don’t express “enough life.” If the architects were going to take inspiration from the west side of California, he suggested, the retail level would be the place, not the upper stories.
Foster: “The west facade is the sticker issue … I tend to agree with the concern about the balcony detailing, though I appreciate the ephemeral modern approach to balconies, but placed on top of what is a very severely flat facade …”
Barker then added that while she found the balcony touches “fun and festive,” she could see those elements being the first thing to go if the project had to start cutting costs, aka “value engineering.”
Foster then returned to the matter of the added story on the west building: “When I put a piece of paper over the seventh story, it’s suddenly working a lot better for me … I’m struck by the lack of articulation on that mass.”
Hurley concurred: “That piece of the building doesn’t work very well right now. If (the added touches aren’t) connected in a significant way to the function of the building, it looks like an applique — a flat, inexpensively clad building with an idea superglued to it. … Whether or not you want to see terra-cotta gargoyles, and I don’t, you’re talking about the way light falls on the building … it’s too flat.”
Foster: “I feel like a curveball’s been thrown at us; we didn’t really get to discuss the extra story at the last meeting. I have to say, personally, I would rather see less of a setback and not put that seventh story on there.”
But any thought of cancelling the setbacks was quickly laid to rest, as members reminded each other that an early version of the building was basically six stories straight up from West Seattle’s iconic corner.
They moved on into another round of starting to envision what could be done with those upper floors; Oustimovitch said, “I hate designing projects at the table” — which drew laughter — “but want something to make it less monolithic. … (But) if you start redesigning everything from scratch again, I don’t know where this is going to end, where it’s ever going to end.”
As part of their discussion focused on the street-level retail space along California, Hurley said, “I think about the character that individual retailers might bring to it, and that might be the key piece.”
Foster agreed: “I’m not sure it’s right to expect architecture to achieve EVERYTHING.”
Westcott suggested rollup doors could be “tenant generated … If you design them into the project, you’re limiting your options.”
They couldn’t reach clear consensus on what to request re: those architectural touches, so they moved on to the other major issues. First, agreeing to keep the residential entrance on California; Coxley said she liked the idea of the entrance saying, hey, a bunch of people live here, and here’s where they go in.”
Westcott made what seemed to be a key point: While the residential entrance may seem out of character for California now, “as the rest of (the street) becomes developed, you’re going to have entrances to (more) buildings here.”
On the parking-entry/exit issue, the “departure” for 42nd SW instead of the alley was agreed to by three of the five members (Barker and Oustimovitch remained firm that they didn’t want to set a “precedent on something that could come back to bite any Design Review Board,” as she put it).
After resolving those issues, they came back one more time to the “massing” question regarding the west building. As the board finally approached the point of consensus that one more meeting is needed, specifically to address that issue, Clawson complained, “We’ve had 15 hours of public meetings on this project.”
Foster snapped back, “Do you know how important this project is? 15 hours for a project of this size isn’t that much.”
Barker added for emphasis – “This is the California-Alaska Junction,” the most important intersection in the area.
Clawson elaborated, “I’m just hoping we don’t have to go through another meeting where we have to talk about everything else again.”
Board members reiterated that this next meeting would be focused on the one remaining issue, but Foster added, pointedly, “You could have done a better job. … If you had, you’d be coming away with a recommendation tonight. I think it needs more work.”
Oustimovitch summed it up: “I feel the pain on both sides – but putting the bling on the building just isn’t it.”
It was suggested that the next meeting be held April 23rd; we’ll let you know as soon as that’s confirmed. In the meantime, any comment regarding the project — including non-design areas such as traffic and environmental impacts — can be addressed to planner Michael Dorcy; all his contact info is here.