By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
This week, we’re likely to learn a lot more about what’s envisioned for the 4724 California development on the ex-Petco site in The Junction.
Most significantly, the development/ownership team continues to circulate for conversations with community leaders, as they were doing before we even found out about the proposal. West Seattle business-community members met with the development team last week. This time in addition to the “on the ground” Seattle team members from Urban Evolution (who talked with us for an April 20th followup), the group included Peter Wolff of The Wolff Company, the privately held firm that’s buying the site and funding the development.
The morning after that meeting, he sat down for an interview with WSB, in which he explained, among other things, why he believes his company is “the right firm to do this”:
Peter Wolff is a member of the third generation to run the company, founded by his grandfather Alvin J. Wolff in Spokane in 1949. The company – which just relaunched its website – still has a Spokane office, but is headquartered in Arizona, which is where Peter Wolff lives now, though he has ties here: He’s a former Seattleite and has an architecture degree from Washington State University.
“It’s important that people know our company is behind this 100 percent – it’s not just another project,” Wolff says. “We care deeply about how we’re perceived; ultimately that perception will arise out of what we do.”
What they’re doing right now is getting ready for the first Southwest Design Review Board meeting for the project; Chris Rossman from Urban Evolution, who accompanied Wolff to his interview with us in The Junction last Wednesday, said they are hoping for May 24th (as of this writing Monday at midday, nothing is on the Department of Planning and Development’s online schedule). The project is being designed by Weber Thompson (which also designed the forthcoming California/Alaska project up the block).
The new FAQ outlines the plan with language similar to what we had originally found on the DPD site and what the Urban Evolution partners had described in our first interview:
The plan is for a mixed-use residential building with approximately 100 total units plus ground-floor retail along the full front of California Avenue SW. The property is zoned NC3P-85, which allows 85 feet in height. The current plan is to build 7 stories, with five floors of residential, one floor of live/work, and one floor of retail at the ground floor.
But back to “perception.” Wolff says he understands that some will be suspicious of, or at least skeptical about, developers. (Particularly, we note, in a community with a four-years-stalled development excavation, just blocks from the 4724 California site.) So why should you trust they’ll be different? One factor cited: The family ownership, for one. “It’s rare that you have four brothers and a father who work together, and we do it well. That’s extremely rare – there are five of us running around who are principals. We love it, we breathe it, it’s in our blood. We’ve been a very intense real-estate family for a long time.”
And the company has “deep bench strength,” says Wolff, ticking off other attributes, from “well-capitalized” to “can get the job done.”
He says they strive to leave a site “better than we found it” and hope that their projects will help “stitch together and enhance the community in a way that only we have done. … We want to be part of making this a great place.” And he says they have a longterm stake in that, since “the better the place becomes, the better the investment becomes – not altruistically, but from a personal-gratification standpoint: We want to look back and say we were part of that.” And he repeats what the Urban Evolution team had said in our interview with them: “We do intend on holding this one forever.”
The Wolff Company has not built in Seattle before – and now they are embarking on not only this project, but also another one on Capitol Hill. Overall, Wolff says, the company is moving toward more in-city development (other projects are mapped here). “We’ve tried to get into Seattle for a long, long time. The economic environment hasn’t been right for a long, long time.” His family’s company does a lot of research in deciding on its “target” markets, evaluating a variety of factors. “In Seattle right now, the conditions are perfect,” he says, noting that in addition to starting development projects like this one and Capitol Hill, they also “have been buying,” usually apartment buildings.
We point out that West Seattle has more than a few apartment projects under development – Youngstown Flats in North Delridge, Nova in The Triangle – and on the drawing board, and that some are warning of the possibility of overbuilding (including economist Matthew Gardner, speaking to the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce‘s awards breakfast earlier this month).
Wolff acknowledges there’s “a lot of news about overbuilding and (what’s in the) pipeline; it’s also true that there continues to be a lot of great news on the demand side as well. We’re very encouraged by the general demographics of the region, this being a gateway city – people are generally tending to choose lifestyle locations … We’re very bullish on Seattle for that region.” As they are, he adds, on Colorado and the San Francisco Bay Area, to name two other locations where they are focused right now. “There probably will be some overbuilding, but we’ll hold this for a long period of time, and it tends not to be a problem for us. We’ll be there when times are good and when times are bad.”
Trends and overviews are one thing. But what about the people whose only concern is the face of change – a low-rise business district, long zoned for higher development but only now seeing it starting to arrive, with both this proposal and the two-building Equity Residential (ex-Conner) project planned at California/Alaska? We ask Wolff what he would say if a local resident asked him about it face to face.
“I get why people like the single-story (buildings),” he begins. “It’s romantic. It harkens to the past. Sweet little streets. The reality is, it speaks to a time when there was less density, many fewer people in the city. The most sustainable urbanism can be very, very good if done right, especially in something like this. The key there is, it needs to be done carefully. Indeed, tall buildings jammed together can be done poorly, can ruin an area. I acknowledge that. But done well, this kind of density can magnify the positive effects, including having a better street front. More engagement, more people to bring up the shops, better shops and sidewalks and better street furniture, better transit …”
Bottom line: “The small street like this in the middle of a city is not practical, not sustainable, not environmentally or economically sustainable. The demand (will come in), the supplies aren’t able to meet it, and people will go somewhere else, the dollars will go somewhere else. It has to grow. You can’t fight urbanization – it’s happening, no matter what.”
Here’s what else he would say to someone who’s worried:
“We are the firm you want to do this. You can’t fight urbanization – it is happening – but you can fight who does that. We need to convince everybody that we are the right firm to do this. It’s not the building itself, it’s who’s doing the building. We ‘get it’.”
Is there a particular Wolff Company project to which he can point, we ask, as evidence that they “get it”?
Since their company’s “move to urbanization has been relatively recent,” he says the most comparable example is a project in Boulder, Colorado (Gunbarrel Center), but it too is in design right now. In Boulder, too, he explains, people are passionate about their community, as in West Seattle, and how it’s changing and growing.
What about the traffic – building in an area that has a rush-hour bottleneck, aka the West Seattle Bridge? “We acknowledge the traffic, for sure,” he says, but doesn’t see it as a dealbreaker. He also points out that they are planning to build parking into the project – “we would have an issue with our residents if there is none” – even though the newest city rules do not require a development like theirs to offer ANY parking. (While the Urban Evolution team had mentioned .8 spaces or so per unit during our previous conversation, the new fact sheet says they’re looking at .7-.8 – that would mean, if they build 100 units, 70 to 80 spaces.)
Acknowledging that it might “feel like we’re playing into a bad situation” regarding outbound traffic jams, Wolff has a glass-half-full view, hoping that as the population increases, transportation authorities “will allocate funding to solve the transportation problem. … Urbanization is a series of iterative steps; there’s more incentive to build the right kind of transportation infrastructure if it serves more and more population density.”
And the conversation comes back to our question of, what would you say to someone who feels that new development is costing them a place, a feeling that they love? “We do hear that and we understand it. We’re not blind to it. All we can do is acknowledge that fully, and the reasons why (people feel that way). Don’t just say, ‘big buildings are bad.’ What are the aspects (of the area) that you love currently? What are the pieces that you love? How can we preserve that as best we can, (knowing that) nobody can stand there and hold back the tide of growth? How do we take the best of what we have and make sure we do the best we can, in a big building, to preserve that? That’s all we can do. Simply not acting is not an option, for us or for the next guy who comes along, so let’s do the best we can.”
For starters, if you haven’t already, send your thoughts to them via the contact form/address on the 4724California.com website. Wolff and Rossman say they are all being read: “We will do our best to try to balance the neighborhood concerns, the urban planning and architectural considerations – it’s a complicated puzzle to put together. Our pledge is not that we’re going to do everything that everyone asks; we’ll do the best we can. That’s the most we can do. The location demands it – it is a core location in the neighborhood, and it needs to be manifested … that great care was taken.”
Second, participate in the Design Review process, and the rest of the feedback process (we’ll have city contacts on those as soon as they are formally posted) – follow that through the city website, by watching this page (which is where we got the original details).
If the process moves at the expected pace, it will be about a year before construction at 4724 California begins.