By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
So insist Chris Rossman and Matt Corsi of Urban Evolution, who spent almost an hour and a half talking with WSB this afternoon as a followup to our Thursday story breaking the news that this development is in the works – albeit in the very early stages, with the city webpages we mentioned last night little more than placeholders..
They already have been reaching out (quietly) to local groups such as the Junction Neighborhood Organization and the West Seattle Junction Association, to find out what people want to see in the development.
Ahead, what we found out, but first, who they are and how the proposal came to be:
WHO OWNS THE SITE: The property is being purchased by The Wolff Company, a Spokane-founded, family-owned firm. It’s been under contract, Rossman and Corsi say, since late last summer, but the deal will not close until they get to certain points in the process ahead – guaranteeing the project can be built. Wolff is spending its own money – no lender/partner involved – and intends to hold this “in perpetuity,” not build it and flip it. And they say a “significant amount of earnest money” already is involved, so they’re not working on spec. Wolff, they say, has been moving out of suburban projects to focus on urban projects, recognizing that “people are moving into the cities.” And since the project/prospective owner is “fully capitalized,” Rossman says, “You won’t see any stops and starts with us” (as in, no Hole II).
WHO’S URBAN EVOLUTION? Wolff actually didn’t know about the site till Corsi and Rossman, both Queen Anne residents, brought it to their attention. They say they had been working last year with a particular broker on another possible West Seattle development site that wasn’t working out, when this one came up. The broker told them it wasn’t officially for sale “but could be,” with Petco moving out last November. And things progressed from there: “We loved the location.”
Their role is to be the “boots on the ground” for the project. They met in the University of Washington‘s commercial-real-estate-development program but both had experience in the industry. Corsi said that during his 20 years of working as an engineer, he was involved with many much-bigger projects (such as the baseball and football stadiums), but they want to work on “meaningful neighborhood infill .. Our goal was to find a great piece of property, a fun project, provide some density where density will be going, where it’s zoned, so we put the project together.”
This is their firm’s first project, but they’ve known each other a while.
WHAT DO THEY PLAN TO BUILD? They say there are no renderings yet, and the outline on the city website – about 100 units, possibly up to a fifth of them live-work – is just a rough draft of their ideas, as submitted to the city in the “pre-application” process. They are not expecting the 5,000 or so square feet of retail space to be taken by one tenant. And the live-work units might not be in the traditional “first two levels” format – they might be over the street-level retail, for example, perhaps on the second story. They say they have been listening to community advocates’ requests – many familiar from the discussions involved with the Equity Residential (ex-Conner) project further north on the block, such as “don’t put the residential entrance right on California.”
As we surmised from online information yesterday, they are ONLY working with the ex-Petco building, on its existing footprint – adjacent properties are not involved. (The only one they had looked at, they said, was the dental building to the north, but in the end, it didn’t work out “timing-wise.”) They hope to “create a unique, interesting scale” that can be “sensitive to adjacent properties … it’s an opportunity to make that block unique.” Corsi said the midblock crosswalk next to the property creates “an opportunity for really cool retail” while “right now there’s no street presence (with the ex-Petco site).” Their vision for the California SW frontage could include something “really engaging, open, transparent, with high-ceilinged retail, something that will glow at night, something you can see by day.” They’re wondering if there would be any sense in a “midblock passthrough” like the one planned on the California/Alaska site.
What about recurrent concerns that new retail space will be priced too high for independent local businesses to occupy that “cool” space? While not guaranteeing low rents, they said the retail space itself isn’t meant to be its own profit center in the project – “not just another line item; we look at it as an amenity to renting the units above” – implying that rents might be more affordable than you would guess. (Speaking of affordable rents, we asked if they, like some other local developers, planned to apply for the city’s Multi-Family Tax Exemption; while not ruling it out, they didn’t expect to, since “this is going to be a perpetual hold.”)
What kind of apartments do they expect to include? They haven’t settled on the mix yet, but have heard that two-bedroom units have been very popular, with waiting lists at many other developments, since the market otherwise is “dominated by one bedrooms and studios.”
PARKING? As mentioned on the city webpages, they expect to have underground parking. Under new city rules, they point out, the development is not required to have any parking – but “people are going to drive cars, and we can’t get around that.” The ratio will likely be around .8 space for each unit – so if it’s 100 units, 80 to 85 spaces. The live-work units, for example, might be occupied by people who don’t need cars since their commute will be a matter of steps, and the neighborhood outside the building has so many businesses within walking range.
‘NO DEPARTURES’: They expect the proposal will follow city code – which means no “departures,” or variances from the code, that would have to get special approval. It also will not require a street or alley vacation; the Equity Residential/ex-Conner project did, because the planned underground garage beneath both its buildings is to veer into city right-of-way below the alley, so that means this project will not have an extra layer of SDOT/Seattle Design Commission vetting required, as that one did.
WHAT ELSE DO THEY WANT TO HEAR ABOUT? They realize many people are concerned with the “bulk and scale,” but would like to hear other “unique tidbits” about how the building could engage with the neighborhood. One local advocate, they mentioned, pointed out that under its previous ownership, Mural – immediately east of this site – had offered short-term “vacation” rental units that had been popular with people, since West Seattle remains short on lodging. We noted comment discussions about West Seattle’s lack of flex-work spaces.
WHAT’S NEXT: They hope to have their first Early Design Guidance meeting – the first of at least two Southwest Design Review Board meetings, as stipulated by city rules – as soon as late May. If everything moves as they hope, with a Master Use Permit granted by the end of this year, construction would begin about this time next year.
HOW TO SHARE YOUR OPINION: The website we mentioned last night, 4724California.com, has an e-mail form – and they’re reading what they receive (they had been reading the many comments on Thursday’s WSB story, too). They insisted, repeatedly, they want to hear it all – “I love discourse,” Corsi said – so if you have something to say, don’t hesitate. Corsi has been involved in neighborhood advocacy, as a member of the Queen Anne Community Council, so he has seen development from both sides – he recalled a “heated, intense neighborhood … process” involving a QFC store, which “wound up positive, not so adversarial … the developer got to do a great building because they understood how the neighborhood functions.”
Right now, they are seeking that kind of understanding here. While those who are mourning the impending loss of more single-level commercial space might not agree, they believe their project can be an enhancement of, not a detraction to, the “Main Street” aspect of The Junction, as the heart of the “big thriving neighborhood” that is West Seattle. They “think we can add something here that is of good quality.” Adds Rossman, “It’s one of the proudest neighborhoods in the city, with a distinct and defined identity, and people who buy into that and take pride in it, in who’s doing business, who’s supporting it.”
Even if you are skeptical, they hope to win you over. “(Development is) going to happen,” they say, but “we’re here to say ‘what works? how can we retain the character? bring in retailers you want to see, make The Junction more successful and more appealing rather than sterilized” – as they believe it would be if a national megadevelopment company were doing this, instead of a small Seattle firm like theirs.
Watch for a “fact sheet” to go public next week.