Design Review details for 3078 SW Avalon Way: ‘What about the neighborhood?’

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Before the Southwest Design Review Board meets again tomorrow, we have one loose end from its last meeting, details of what led to the decision to send 3078 SW Avalon Way back for one more try.)

(Site aerial, from meeting packet)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

The city Department of Planning and Development has tentatively scheduled January 16 for 3078 Avalon Way’s next appearance before the Southwest Design Review Board.

That would be two months following the 102-apartment, 60-parking-space project‘s second appearance before the board, which didn’t happen until fourteen months after its first review.

During that gap, the project changed, city codes changed, and the plan for an adjacent site changed.

One thing that did not change: The dedication of neighbors intent on raising big-picture questions while being an integral part of the process, a process that dates back to early word of the proposal 15 months ago, after which they met four times in the few ensuing weeks before the project’s September 2012 Design Review debut.

That process got emotional and contentious as this most recent meeting neared its end – four and a half hours after the board’s night began with another project that, like this one, involves a 100-plus-unit building to be built adjacent to a single-family neighborhood. As we reported right after the meeting, both were sent back for at least one more meeting.

The emotion and frustration, suggested the city planner assigned to 3078 Avalon Way, seemed to be about the zoning, something neither he nor board members could change – the zoning that potentially would allow a building rising seven stories from Avalon on this site.

Neighbors did not appear to be cheered by the news that the revised plan called for a slightly shorter building than originally proposed.

Planner Garry Papers explained that since the first review of this building, a zoning provision changed, removing an incentive for builders to add up to 15 extra feet in height if the project included “affordable housing.” Complying with the change, however, did not shorten the building by 15 feet; instead, it’s about nine feet lower, since it hadn’t maxed out the previous allowance. Papers said there were also many questions about how height was calculated by the applicants – “it was confirmed to be correct … this is the city’s adopted way for measuring height” on a sloped site. What’s visible is actually less than a true 60 foot on the alley side, Papers contended.

He also recapped earlier news that the project originally proposed next to this one “is permanently canceled as of right now.” A few who apparently hadn’t heard applauded, and he warned that doesn’t mean someone won’t buy the site (which was for sale in August but is no longer listed) and propose something else.

Then he mentioned parking is outside the purview of this code – reiterating that NO parking is required for this project. “Talking about the quantity of parking is not on the table tonight,” though where it’s accessed is.

Radim Blazej, CEO of Caron Architecture, led the presentation. He explained what had happened as the project was redesigned following those changes and following input from last year’s Early Design Guidance meeting. This site, too, has “substantial slope” and has two levels of parking. One level was to be accessed from the alley behind, the other from Avalon. He says the only zoning “departures” requested now relate to the parking access. The building has been “pushed into the ground” so its parking ramp from the alley is steeper – a 20 percent grade – than the code allows. It’s a 7-floor building on Avalon, 5 up from the alley, describing it as “substantially scaled down” from the previous proposal:

He talked about changes on the side facing the single-family neighborhood behind – shown above – both in windows and in ramp. Landscaping privacy features also are envisioned.

They showed the materials, “the base facade of the two stories is beige brick,” with some wood and metal siding accents, painted fiber-cement panels with aluminum reveals for the rest. The units on Avalon have “private yards.”

On the alley, they have added wall-mounted lights and bollards to answer some concerns.

BOARD QUESTIONS: Acting board chair Laird Bennion laments the loss of a staircase that was in last year’s plan. He also has concern about a “blank wall” in a spot along Avalon (left side of the image below), though the architecture team says that’s where the gas meter likely will go.

And he wondered about a transformer nearby, that might raise aesthetic concerns. Fill-in/past board member Robin Murphy wondered if the residential units should be raised a couple feet, with stoops, so they wouldn’t have the sense you could just “walk right in.” Blazej pointed out the “privacy yard” and fence blocking people from walking right in. Fill-in/past board member Vlad Oustimovitch also wondered about people actually living “behind all that glass” on the street level. Much attention was given to street-level design elements on Avalon and the materials.

PUBLIC COMMENTS: First up is Chuck, who refers to the West Seattle Junction plans crafted in the past and says, “I’d like to see a calculation of the average grade – I’d like to see the formula; it is math, so I’d like to see it,” referring to Director’s Rule 4-2012, in which height is calculated from a site’s “average grade level”; the design packet for this meeting noted a 32-foot grade change from this site’s highest point to lowest point. “One of the slides shows the building frame; I think we should ignore the old outline, it’s no longer relevant,” and pointed out that while single-family homes could be 30 feet tall, most are not, “so it’s in no way compatible with the existing neighborhood. … I’m curious how any of the design as it stands, height, bulk, and scale, is compatible …” He then refers to the 1999 Junction-and-vicinity plan referring to “protect the character and integrity of the existing single-family areas” including 32nd SW, from which many of these neighbors hail. He reads more passages from the documents that he says “are meant to interpret the law and provide guidelines for enforcing the law. … I ask that you consider the entire design to be reduced in term of height, bulk and scale …” He is applauded.

Paul Haury, who organized Seattle NERD (Neighbors Encouraging Reasonable Development) after this proposal emerged, said that there’s been improvement, but still “it simply is too big, as it abuts a single-family neighborhood.” He also posits that Design Review is to consider SEPA elements such as parking, traffic, and “loss of neighborhood character. … This project is incompatible according to neighborhood guidelines .. You are not allowed to put a single-family next to MR unless you get these huge land tracts … so you can have a buffer. There is no buffer. … It’s a joke when you have a single-family neighborhood with kids and everything else; that’s what this is abutting.” What is compatible? Four stories above an alley, Haury says. “Drop the parking down, make it deeper if you’re trying to protect the unit count, get that building lower so it fits in … The people who live there have to deal with it every day. You’re going to have a bunch of unhappy people. That’s why we’re here ..fighting for this.”

Next, Amanda voiced concern about white concrete in the design getting “dingy” like another development nearby. “I really encourage you guys to think about that color palate … We live in a very damp climate, it’s going to get wet and gross-looking.” She also had safety concerns and whether the proposed lights would be enough. And she suggested an alley-Avalon connection so fewer people are driving by ‘all the houses’ to the north.

Diane says she lives in a West Seattle apartment with lots of glass and is concerned about this concept for this building. “I’m thinking the people who live there are either going to be weird and like everybody looking in at them, or their blinds are going to be pulled all the time.”

Another resident stands up with an observation regarding the proceedings, rather than the project, saying he perceived a lot of friendly/supportive remarks from the board members to the architecture team, but didn’t see any of that happening with attendee commenters. That drew applause.

Former Design Review Board chair Deb Barker voiced concern about the zoning “departures” (exceptions) being approved in the “adjacency between (these two types of) zones” without significant giveback from the developers. She also thinks the brick base of the building “feels tentative” and might feel “cheap to walk by.” Overall, she thinks the building “needs some sophistication, probably needs some more money thrown at it – this site deserves better.”

Neighbor Stu mentioned Chuck and Paul’s nod to the Junction documents and asked if the board and planner are familiar with them. “We’re very familiar with them, and work with them all the time,” said planner Papers. However, he said, the Design Review process is the height, bulk, and scale review, and deals with anticipated development on proposal sites and what’s around them, not existing development. The city has an obligation to contribute buildout, he said, and it’s vital to understand that this process is meant to deal with that – with what it’s zoned for, what it could be built to (like 30 feet in the single-family zone), not what exists. Further, contended Papers, the neighborhood plans are not binding documents – “the zoning is key, the zoning envelope that is allowed, there’s a whole process that was gone through to establish the zoning – maybe you weren’t here when that was approved, but that’s what council approved.”

That was disputed by attendees, including one who said he considers it important to consider the 30-foot homes will not likely turn up in the neighborhood any time soon: “You have established neighborhoods that you are trying to maintain the character of.”

Then, back to more commenters. Jennifer, also from the adjacent single-family neighborhood along 32nd SW, said, “The building is turning out nicely and I appreciate a lot of pushes and pulls in the general massing of it, but my general concern remains the height of it and the alley and how that influences our neighborhood … you’re doing an extensive excavation anyway, is there any way to go down further and have all the parking entered from Avalon?” – they are concerned about the alley entrance for one level of parking, in what is now “a peaceful alley.”

René Commons, leader of the relaunched Junction Neighborhood Organization, said five stories is the precedent in the area, on Avalon and Genesee, with “a very townhome effect, transitioning to the single-family neighborhoods,” and that this developer “should think how to blend their project with this neighborhood.” She also voiced concerns about the big windows right on the street affecting the pedestrian experience as people in the neighborhood walk down to the Luna Park shopping/dining district.

After her comment, Papers spoke to the previously voiced garage-access issue, that the city actually thinks the alley is where ALL the access should be – alleys are “working roads” for those purposes. “The alleys in this city are the designated access point. The streets are secondary if necessary.” So then, he is asked, was the code wwritten that way considering that multifamily development would be around many alleys? No, it was not, said Papers – there is no customization, alleys are supposed to be used, whatever the nature of nearby housing is.

What about trash day, when the trucks block the alley? asked one woman. Can the alley be widened? someone asked. Bennion finally says, “These are SDOT considerations – not germane to this discussion here tonight. These are issues that really should be directed toward (the city) council – that is the venue to bring up really large and frankly citywide land-use issues. … We trim off split ends; we don’t do buzz cuts. … What we’re here tonight is to try to make the building functional.”

“What about the neighborhood?” asks a woman in the audience. “Aren’t you supposed to work with the community?”

Oustimovitch then steps in and says that he participated in the zoning and neighborhood plan discussion in the ’90s.”There’ve been three different mayors in that time and now a fourth is coming in. And lots of different city councilmembers. They are the ones who passed all the ordinances (that concern you) … what the board can work with is very limited.” He pointed out neighbors do have an “entirely different legal venue” if need be, through the Hearing Examiner. “(This) is about the smaller issues.”

Paul Haury tries again to read from documents.

Board member Todd Bronk speaks up and says that they are volunteers. “I feel like a lot of you are trying to direct comments to us as if we’re not trying to help the neighborhood. We are. But what we can do is very limited.”

Haury is reading Guideline D-1 height/bulk/scale from Design Review. “Development projects may consider …” He contends that the document says Design Review board members “have the authority” to make changes and they contend they do not.

“Do you guys have the authority to lower the building?”

“No,” says Bennion, while also explaining that developers are taking a risk.

“They’re taking the risk, but they’re affecting our lives for the rest of our lives living there,” exclaims a woman.

Papers speaks up to try to “take the edge off.” He says, again, Design Review might be able to effect change in terms of “feet, not floors.” But, he says, the site is zoned for this. “A lot of this tonight is about you’re not happy about that zoning. (But changing it …) is not authority this board has. Lopping off two stories is not a reasonable expectation of what the Design Review Board can do.”

Confrontation continues.

Oustimovitch says they should look at the ordinance that created Design Review in the ’90s, with a guideline that height and parking are not in the DR purview. And, he says, this is a “top down” issue – they need to deal with political action, or legal action.

One man says that the comments have not had to do with height so much as with the building being “compatible.”

One woman tells Papers it’s his job to work with the community. “This is the venue for that,” says Papers. The woman then says that she went to DPD and got a “laundry list” of what planners are supposed to be doing.

“Ma’am,” interjects Bennion, “Garry is here as a representative of DPD and is doing his best … you do not have veto power over all the developments near your house. There are all avenues, you don’t pin it on Garry, who’s a public servant, doing his job, please show some respect for the institution. … I advise you to take all the appeal avenues available to you … the process is in place by rule of law. I live in a transitional zone [outside West Seattle]. It will be a matter of time before someone tries to develop.”

BOARD DELIBERATIONS: They finally began at 10:24 pm, four hours after the board’s first review of the night (3210 California) had begun. Murphy says he thinks there’s a way to lower a bit, step the upper parking area, drop down the lower parking area, drop the lower apartment area accordingly, and that might cost one level of apartments. The ramp would be internal, he suggests.

Murphy thinks the facade needs more study, feels “cold” and “austere” rather than residential.

Bronk said, “As it gets shorter, I like it a lot better.”

Board member Daniel Skaggs expressed concern about the materials, including the side facing neighbors in the single-family zone. If the color palette changed, that might help.

Murphy said, “There are two neighborhoods we are dealing with (adjacent to the project) – there’s a multi-family neighborhood too, which is not pitched roofs, clapboard siding, little picture windows. Maybe this building has to live in two worlds.”

“It’s OK for it to have that kind of two-faced nature,” said planner Papers.

Said Oustimovitch, “There’s no question it looks a little like the Google building.”

A discussion of landscaping ensued, including removing slow-growing ginkgos from the site (which is currently configured, pre-development, this way):.

Bronk thought the concrete planters envisioned from the site should incorporate some warmer materials, maybe wood.

On to the street front – “These windows are massive,” exclaimed Murphy. He suggested raising the sill so they aren’t quite so massive – on the back, at least.

Bronk expressed concern about some blank walls, including the courtyard, which might be less “stark” if some brick, for example, was added.

At 10:50 pm, Papers took the temperature of the board regarding whether the project would need to come back.

Said Bronk, “I think there was enough community comment here that we owe it to them.”

And with that and some other sentiments, a majority of board members recommended another meeting. As mentioned at the start of this story, the city has tentatively scheduled that meeting for January 16th; formal notice might not come out until mid-December; watch the Land Use Information Bulletin, to which you can subscribe by e-mail. In the meantime, planner Papers is your point person for comments –

5 Replies to "Design Review details for 3078 SW Avalon Way: 'What about the neighborhood?'"

  • Diane December 4, 2013 (4:31 pm)

    point of clarification; my comment was only in regards to the ground level apartments, that have VERY tall/huge windows at street level, with no view, except traffic on Avalon (and that my apt full of big windows feels like being in a fish bowl; so most of my blinds are pulled; I like my privacy; I only open my blinds at my desk that gives me full view of downtown skyline) I don’t see the value to anyone of having first level apts surrounded by HUGE glass windows, on Avalon

  • Dan December 4, 2013 (4:51 pm)

    Good lord, what a bunch of whiners. Move to one of Detroit’s many available $100 houses – no one will ever build an “out of context” new building next to you. Watch out for wolves when you let your kids play in those quiet alleys, though.

  • NW December 4, 2013 (5:44 pm)

    I get the idea these design review meetings are nit picking bs and los who attend it are obviously upset their neighborhood and manner of living is being destoyed. It’s too late and this area seems doomed to be over built to capacity. Time to move away from here. I thinking El Paso Tx

  • buckwheat December 4, 2013 (8:03 pm)

    They should just tear down every housing unit on Avalon and create one giagantic apartment complex. Let DPD show the rest of the U.S. how progressive Seattle is with their development! This again shows how important is voting regarding the city council and the mayor’s office. Quit electing crap to office.

  • pdh December 10, 2013 (9:31 pm)

    Thanks for coverage Tracy.

    Many West Seattle neighborhoods really appreciate you time and effort.

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