By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“Love The ‘Hood,” read the sticker worn by many of the three-dozen-plus neighbors who made Thursday night’s Southwest Design Review Board meeting the most-attended one in months.
Some even stood in the back of the room to listen, and to speak, as the board took up the 108-unit apartment project proposed for 3078 SW Avalon Way.
If you wonder, “what’s the big deal about another apartment building on Avalon?”, note that the neighbors, from 32nd SW behind the site and a few from adjacent sites on Avalon, were not there to protest or rage or weep. They said they had met four times since first word of the project exactly one month ago, and they came with clearly articulated requests and recommendations (as previewed here).
In the end, the project passed Early Design Guidance, and the architects went away with a list of recommendations to work on before the second, and possibly final, meeting.
As city planner Garry Papers explained beforehand, the process is strictly about the building’s design – not about traffic, parking, or other issues that fit into the environmental review for the process (for which you can send comments to him). He also noted that the zoned height for the area was set years ago, and is not up for discussion either – though the building’s look, shape, etc. are.
Wilbur described it as a 108-unit building (the first notice on the DPD website had suggested fewer units, but that was later amended). He noted that it’s adjacent to two apartment buildings, six- and seven stories respectively, and almost at the “elbow” of Avalon. The project site is in the “West Seattle Junction Hub Overlay,” he noted. The site has a significant drop to Avalon – 25 feet at one point. (All this was shown on photos and drawings from the online “packet” — which you can see here.)
Wilbur said they are hoping to “pull cues” from both the contemporary and historic buildings in the area. As is required at this stage of the Design Review process, he showed options for the shape/placement of the building – with “Option C” put forward as their preferred design, an L shape that would “pull the mass away from the single-family homes” behind the site, with a courtyard against the alley, so that the building “isn’t perceived as so much of a great big box,” in the architect’s words:
The residential entry would be 2 stories high, with loft units facing Avalon. Parking-garage ramps would be from Avalon on the west side and from the alley. Jeffries noted that the building can’t be pushed into the ground any further for the ramps to work.
Wilbur said a 17 percent “affordable housing component” was proposed and will bring them an extra height allowance. (Later, asked for more details, the architects said that meant 17 percent of the building’s area would be affordable housing, not 17 percent of the apartments.)
It’ll be designed with studios, 1 bedrooms, and 2 bedrooms. There’ll be a bicycle-storage area on the front “so that the activity of people coming in and out, using their bicycles, would be on the Avalon (side).” Building services are at “grade-level, off the alley” – but trash “would never be left out on the alley,” according to Wilbur.
They propose 77 parking stalls, which is about 3/4 of a stall per unit, even though, as he noted, this project is not required to have any parking at all. They’re asking for two “departures” from zoning – regarding the 2nd parking level and how far it goes into the back of the lot.
When the board’s “clarifying questions” period followed the architects’ initial presentation, board member Norma Tompkins asked for more “green factor” and landscape details than the architects were prepared to provide – they’ll have to bring that next time. Myer Harrell, acting board chair last night, asked about materials; Wilbur mentioned masonry at the ground level, and cementitious siding on the upper levels, along with “different kinds of metal.” He also wondered about the “typical tenant.” Wilbur said that since the building’s on a transit line, “we believe the target market’s going to be the young professional or the starting family.” Asked about a possible pass-through from the alley to Avalon, the architects said they’d “been kicking it around.”
In the public-comment period, the first speaker, Kevin from 32nd SW, introduced the group of “tight-knit neighbors” who he said had met four times to talk about the project. “Where most of us live is the single-family side of the block.” He said their biggest concern was that that the design is “quite stark” and “lacks the textures of almost all the other multifamily projects on the street … We believe the bulk and scale of this project is out of place in relation to” the neighborhood, and that it’s too tall. He requested the developers to use sloping roofs as he said others in the area had, to make up for the size/scale. Marcia, also from 32nd SW, “Our concern is the sheer bulk and size of this project, particlarly the height and how it juts above the adjacent condominium.” She too said its roof line would be “stark” in rising above nearby buildings. “This project covers four lots and is very large in width and larger than all the other buildings in height. We’re going from 7 units on 4 lots to 108 units on 4 lots – it’s a big change for our neighborhood.”
Brian from 32nd SW suggested this should be reviewed as a “pioneer project” going from a “mid-rise zone to single-family zone.” He emphasized they are not agaist growth, “but we want it to grow in the right way.” He noted that the zoning changes in 1999 were made “in anticipation of the monorail project that never came to fruition.” He also expressed concern of this being a “driving neighborhood” with not enough garage space; they think something closer to a 1-to-1 parking ratio would make more sense.
Diane, from outside the neighborhood, noted that she was thrilled to see the crowd present. She asked for clarification on the 17 percent affordable housing; the architect said that would be 17 percent of the area of the built units, not 17 percent of the number of units.
Rachel from 32nd SW said her concerns were focused on the alley and ingress/egress from the building. They know the code says garage access off the alley is OK, but its proximity to the Genesee and Andover intersections are worrisome, she said – particularly the alley emptying into Genesee just a few car-lengths away. She said the extra traffic would make it even more dangerous and they don’t want an alley entrance/exit. Another concern: That the courtyard be for residents only, and not open onto the alley, possibly attracting undesirable people and activity. And whatever happens, she said, they want the developers to install LED downward lighting on the alley to help reduce crime.
Rene, who has been involved in the design-review process many times before with the Junction Neighborhood Organization, then spoke. She also lives in what she described as the “city view of Luna Park” neighborhood. Commons’s concerns were the building’s footprint, which she said should move back. The black/white gray/white materials in the rendering, she said, “look cheap to me.” She recalled having gone through previous Design Reviews, saying that to be blunt, this “looks like something that could turn into an East Berlin situation within 20 years.” She said that other projects in the area, including the 3261 Avalon Way apartment building that just began construction, “are beautiful” and they have no problem with them. Softer materials, she said, would help things. Her final point – she was running over time – was transition between the project and the single-family zone behind it.
John, an Avalon resident, said he endorsed everyone who spoke before him, and also pointed out that most of the Avalon buildings now in place are “tiered” and work together well. He told the board he knew they have guidelines but he perceived flexibility to help it fit better into the neighborhood. He then implored the board members to come view the neighborhood from any of their homes – and to “put this project in your neighborhood … and I think we’ll end up with a much better project than we are starting with.”
Paul from 32nd SW reiterated how hard the neighborhood has worked on safety issues, and talked about drug users going down the alley at high speed. He then mentioned Transitional Resources, about a block away on Avalon, a housing and services provider for people with mental health issues, and how much time TR spent talking with neighbors about its newest building before putting it up. “We would like a long-term relationship with this development, so we don’t lose our neighborhood.”
Bob from Avalon Place to the south of the site asked about the fate of 20-foot-plus trees on the site. City planner Papers explained, “If the trees are above a certain (width/species/rarity) threshold – all laid out in the city guidelines – it has to be evaluated in a much more detailed way.” It might, if taken down, have to be replaced onsite or offsite. “At the moment there are some large healthy trees which the applicant has to document before we can take the next step” in the process, he said, adding that he didn’t know enough about the trees on site to know if the developer might have to pay a fine for cutting them down. Architect Wilbur said they had initiated discussion with the city arborist.
The next speaker noted the turnout and acting board chair Harrell stressed, “We really appreciate it when the public comes out.” That attendee then said, “We are a community by design – we are not just a bunch of people who happen to live on the same block … It takes a village to raise a child, and we’ve got a village here, and we built this intentionally. I’m asking -” he turned to the architects – “that you take this into consideration. … Use your heart to identify with us.”
Rebecca, a renter on the actual project site, said she moved there in March and wondered how soon she was going to have to start packing. “Could be anywhere from six months to a year” before they break ground, the architects eventually replied. The renter said her landlady hadn’t been clear on what kind of notice she’d get; there are city rules, she was told.
Ray, another neighbor, worried about Avalon traffic. “With a project this size, do you have off-duty officers managing trucks, traffic, it’s going to be a mess when this gets started?” SDOT will review the plan, it was explained. Another neighbor asked if there’s neighborhood input for the construction management plan; basically, no, planner Papers said, but traffic in general is part of the Master Use Permit comment process.
Finally, the board deliberations (with three of the SWDRB’s five members present – our photo also shows architects at the table in case they needed to answer questions):
The architects were asked to provide more visualizations next time about factors including the alley/garage area, the setbacks, and landscaping. The setbacks, board member Laird Bennion asked them to clarify, were so they could have more parking under the building – 15 additional spaces. The parking will be split level, it was clarified, with the 2nd level accessible from behind, the other accessible from Avalon.
Harrell wanted to look again at Option B, with the plaza oriented toward the northeast rather than southwest. He also brought up the character of a nearby building on Avalon and how it’s shaped. And he reiterated the importance of the “pedestrian scale on Avalon.” Much of the subsequent discussion had to do with how things would be placed along the alley. Tompkins also was concerned about the amount of potentially impervious concrete in the courtyard. Harrell said that before they granted the departure, they wanted more information on how everything would relate to the alley. At issue: how much the project covers the depth of the site. Bennion also saw merit in Option B, as opposed to the architects’ preferred option, though he also liked the preferred option’s face on Avalon, which he thinks looks like two or three different buildings, not “one huge Soviet housing bloc.”
The meeting was technically overtime when Papers said it was important to identify the massing strategy. He said that citywide design strategy is to shift the mass as much as possible away from the lower-density zone. “There’s only so much you can do to change a mass that’s that long and that tall.” That led to the question, is there any way to do that through setbacks in the upper levels, or would it have to mean the courtyard is against the alleyway?
Bennion pointed out the alleyway is only 16 feet wide, and putting the courtyard against it, as in the “preferred option,” would seem to be the best thing to do for the neighbors. Planner Papers noted it’s not “a clear either/or.”
The summary, as read aloud by Papers, which is the direction that the project team took away, to start work on revising the project – referring to numbered city guidelines listed and explained here: “The board’s summarizing their deliberations by focusing in on the following nine priority guidelines – the ones the team’s going to especially focus on: A2, streetscape compatibility along Avalon, particularly loft units and the way materials meet the street; A5, citywide priority to respect adjacent sites, especially considering the outdoor space along the alley and other proximity to neighbor issues; A8, to address the parking and vehicular access and pedestrian safety and general pedestrian enviornment; B1, the bulk and scale and height, moderated – several ideas were forwarded to the team to explore, to consider scaling down at ne corner of the building to deal with slope of the site, to scale back or step back the upper floors on all sides, perhaps, and to continue the current approach to modulation, to break up the major walls of the building with identiations and offset; C4, to emphasize quality and durable cladding materials in a variety of texture and color, to assist with that modulation; D1 is a West Seattle guideline, to explore the possibility of pass-through pedestrian movement on the site, the open space at Avalon and the courtyard including layering of courtyard for screening and privacy to the neighbors; D8, to pay attention to alley treatment for lighting security; D12, to focus on the residential entry transitions to Avalon and the main residential lobby; E2, landscaping guideline, to explore and develop the landscape palette for the courtyard, the roof decks, and along Avalon.
Harrell added that they probably don’t have major objections to the two requested “departures” but need to see more to make a decision, to “really understand graphically what the impact of that is and what the code-compliant version [without zoning exceptions] would look like.”
So the project passed Early Design Guidance, which means the developers can apply for their Master Use Permit, even before a second meeting is scheduled to review a more finalized design proposal.
You can keep an eye on the project’s official city webpage here. Comments about the project can be sent to planner Garry Papers at any point in the process – firstname.lastname@example.org.