(Added 12:20 pm: Seattle Channel video of today’s meeting; Conner item begins 7 minutes in)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
After more than three years and 10 public meetings, the 200-apartment Conner Homes mixed-use project in the heart of The Junction has cleared one of its last remaining hurdles: After an hour and a half, the City Council’s Transportation Committee – represented by its chair, West Seattle-residing Councilmember Tom Rasmussen – has just decided to recommend approval of the “alley vacation” required for the project to go forward.
But not before a formidable voice of concern spoke out – Dave Montoure of Junction restaurant/bar West 5 (who also chairs the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce board but was not speaking on its behalf), one of four people to speak during the public-comment portion of the hearing.
(Image from Seattle Channel feed of today’s hearing)
Montoure (above) said he wasn’t there to oppose the alley vacation, which only involves an underground area, or to send the project back into Design Review, but was there to strongly oppose two aspects of the project that had been longstanding points of concern- its residential lobby on California SW (“Retail frontage off California Avenue is the best retail frontage in West Seattle,” Montoure argued) and its garage entrance from 42nd SW rather than the alley (“Do you want to hear, ‘caution, vehicle approaching’ over and over” each day? he asked.)
“I’m tired of going to meetings about (this project) – but let’s not let this fatigue excuse us from our duty to our community,” he summarized.
Rasmussen said Harbor Properties, developer of Mural (WSB sponsor) to the south, also had sent a letter of concern about the 42nd SW entrance. He agreed that the vehicle crossings on the sidewalk should be “minimized”; architects said they had “pulled back” the building facade to create better sight angles, in hopes of enhancing safety. Harbor’s Emi McKittrick stepped to the podium as Rasmussen mulled their letter, which requested that the entrance be further north than currently planned; she pointed out there is no crosswalk in that immediate area. But Rasmussen ultimately said he believes 42nd would provide a “better entrance” than the alley.
(Sketch of California-facing view from presentation for Conner project in The Junction)
Rasmussen also described the 13-foot residential entrance on California as a “relatively small” area that he didn’t believe would significantly reduce the area’s retail frontage, so he did not ask for any changes in that.
The lengthy briefing and hearing underscored the fact that this is a “very important project,” as Rasmussen had described it toward the hearing’s start.
Any project that requires an alley or street vacation – for the city to give up its “right of way” – ultimately requires approval from a variety of official boards/councils, concluding with a City Council vote. Today’s Transportation Committee hearing was the key prelude to that final vote, which will happen next month.
“Every street/alley vacation is a balancing act, between competing interests,” noted Beverly Barnett, who is the SDOT specialist for vacation requests. Though this was complicated, she called it ultimately “a pretty modest vacation request,” since it involves only an underground area, and did not increase the development area – all it does is facilitate the two Conner buildings’ plan to share a single underground parking garage.
There will be only one phase of construction during which the north side of the alley will be closed; there will be a detour (graphic above) so there’s still two access points for the vehicles that use the alley, either to serve businesses or reach residences.
(Image from Seattle Channel feed of today’s hearing)
For an alley or street vacation to be approved, the developer must offer “public benefit” in exchange, so that was at the crux of the hearing. It’s fully detailed in the presentation (which you can see here), but was also outlined by Conner Homes’ CEO Charlie Conner (above), leading the briefing for the committee.
“Today is the culmination of nearly four years of work on the project,” as Conner described it, opening his presentation, while later summarizing, “”I believe this project’s probably had more scrutiny than any other project in the neighborhood there,” adding he believes it’s a “much better project” because of that scrutiny. (The archive of our coverage can be browsed here, newest to oldest.)
He touted the parking that will be provided by his project, with its underground garage (facilitated in part by the “vacation” of the underground section of the alley), and said it will remove some of the traffic in the area, with people circling for street parking. (Conner said he had been out in the area last Friday “observing the traffic.”) 60 of its spaces are for retail beyond the required number of spaces for retail – paid or voucher parking, Conner clarified on a question from Rasmussen.
He also said it will include artwork – with community collaboration – “telling the history of The Junction.” Here’s how that was described on page 20 of the presentation:
The current design has incorporated 10 locations for small glass art installations and eighteen locations for larger sculptural panel installations (three to four square feet each). It is envisioned that the sculptural panels, designed by local artists, will in some way portray historic elements of the West Seattle neighborhood.
And he says they will underground the power adjacent to their project.
More details were offered by architect Jim Westcott from Weber Thompson, who led many of the briefings in other official city venues – from the maximization of retail along the street- and alley-facing parts of the project, to the “midblock walkway” that will take you along the south side to the alley (along 42nd SW, it’ll be between the Conner project and Mural, to “café seating” in areas along the street.
The “meat” of the public benefit, as Westcott termed it, is the plan for the sidewalk; he noted that there had been much concern throughout the public vetting process about the sidewalks’ width. “We have held back our storefront to the very back of the residential columns … and pulled our residential entry way back” to facilitate wider sidewalks, he said – at least 16’7″ along California, at least 15’5″ along Alaska, and at least 18’11” along 42nd. And he says there’s continuous weather protection – some glass, some canvas – “all the way around the building.”
And they will add more than 100 pieces of furnishing – bike racks, café seating, safety bollards, recycling cans – along sidewalks and the midblock walkway.
For the rationale behind the two controversial aspects that hadn’t changed since earlier stages of the project: The main entry to the garage will be from 42nd SW, instead of the alley as per city code (other developments will have to enter from the alley, the Conner team pointed out, so this in their view might eventually be a boon); a residential entrance remains on California – Westcott said the rationale included the fact that the building’s address (4700 California SW) is on California.
Before the developer/architects’ presentation, the committee heard a little about the mediation process that led to an agreement in which Conner made promises and neighborhood leaders agreed not to oppose the alley vacation.
“This was a very controversial project in the neighborhood,” acknowledged the DPD staffer who mediated the discussions, Gary Johnson (Seattle Channel image at right); in his view, that was largely because while this is within Junction 85-foot zoning, there is nothing in the area now that rises to the level, “a first step toward a significant change to the neighborhood.” He facilitated the unusual series of meetings between neighborhood representatives and Conner Homes; he explained that it began with 12 people and he asked for a smaller group, which eventually became 7. “I won’t say that it was easy. … To all of our surprise, the process lasted almost a full year. But I was pleased to see that neither side was willing to throw in the towel, and as long as (they were) willing to stay at it, I certainly was.” The end result included “significant changes to the architecture” of the project, as well as the formal agreement you can read on the final page here. (Dave Montoure’s comments toward the end of the hearing included some sharp words of criticism for that process having not been announced publicly, and involving what he said seemed to be “hand-picked” representatives.)
The Design Review Board met six times – a three-year process recapped at this morning’s meeting by planner Michael Dorcy, who was the point person on the project at (and between) those meetings – and the Design Commission three times (street and alley vacations must win their approval before being finalized).
As Dorcy noted, the final decision on the master-use permit for the project cannot be made until the City Council’s final decision on the alley-vacation proposal that was at the heart of today’s meeting.
Besides Montoure, whose comments of concern we noted earlier, three other people spoke in the public-comment portion of this morning’s meeting, all offering support – including a High Point resident who said she recently read about it here on WSB and fully supports it, and Tom Phillips, who had long been the Seattle Housing Authority manager for High Point.
As noted earlier, the permits for the Conner project have not yet been finalized, and he told WSB earlier this month that he did not expect work to begin any sooner than the end of this year.