(EDITOR’S NOTE: We briefly reported the decision, immediately afterward, last night; now, the meeting details)
(Click image to see larger view)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
The Southwest Design Review Board seemed to have six and a half years on its all-volunteer members’ shoulders by the time its two-project meeting hit the four-hour mark last night, before a fifth review was recommended for 3210 California SW.
No one seems to have an easy role in Seattle’s unique Design Review program. It often provides the only public meetings regarding sizable developments, and that frustrates community members who want to speak out about more than the design, considering they are the ones who ultimately will be living with the results. Architects and developers bring a project to the table without knowing what changes will be recommended and whether the process will run months or more than a year, costly in more than one way. The five volunteer board members get conflicting messages about how much authority they have to order changes, and have to make their decisions in a theater-in-the-round environment, with affected parties usually staring daggers at them from all sides. (Those aren’t even all the stakeholders.)
And then, some projects have long, controversy-pocked backstories, like this one, rooted in a block-long upzoning requested in 2007 (hence our “6 1/2-year” allusion above), contested by neighbors, finalized in 2010 (all WSB coverage is reverse-chronologically archived here), then affected by a Department of Planning and Development rule change in 2012.
That rule change, as well as the backstory, was discussed extensively last week at a community meeting outside the Design Review process, a meeting scheduled after neighbors petitioned the city for it. (Here’s our report on that meeting, held January 29th at the Senior Center of West Seattle, same location as last night’s Design Review session.)
Last week’s meeting did not involve the SWDRB, though at least one member reported attending. But it included a discussion of the board’s role/authority, and last night there was more muscle-flexing as the board told the project team to come back for a fifth review – something that hasn’t happened here since the Admiral Safeway project, which came before the board (different membership then, though the same city planner was on that project and this one, Michael Dorcy) five times between September 2008 and February 2010.
At one point during the board deliberations last night, architect Boyd Pickrell from Nicholson-Kovalchick implored the board to offer directions and conditions so the project could move ahead.
Board members, however, indicated they saw shortcomings too big to do that.
Here’s how it unfolded:
Pickrell had started his presentation asserting that “macro” issues such as height/bulk/scale had already been settled, so, he said, they were now going to review the “micro” details. (Here’s the official packet so you can follow along.)
Those details included the facade colors, which he described as more “earthy,” and the arrangement of retail along the street – originally envisioned as mostly live/work, but changed at the board’s urging, and now down to two live-work units. He also showed the images comparing where windows of the project would face windows of the neighborhood to the east:
He said the east side has less glazing (windows) than the west side. And he showed the latest version of a skybridge between the northern and central sections of the building – which brought much discussion later.
Landscape architect Andy Rasmussen talked about the landscaping and plant choices.
BOARD QUESTIONS: Todd Bronk opened by bringing back the issue of “is it 3 separate buildings?” The architect team felt it is. Bronk suggested height/bulk/scale was not necessarily the done deal Pickrell had said earlier it was.
At one point while discussing shadowing, the project team said they had reduced by 16 inches. “Out of how tall of a building?” asked Bronk. “We’re within (zoning rules),” retorted Pickrell, who contended the “perceived height” would be “close to what you can build in a single-family zone,” and repeated that contention when board member T. Frick McNamara asked what had been done “to mitigate the monolithic nature of the project” and to try to transition to the single-family zone. Asked if windows on the back of the project could be reduced further, he said, “The people who will live (in the building) need to have a nice place to live too.” He also noted the height was lower than in the Early Design Guidance phase and suggested that the building is “getting squished down to the ground” as it is “becoming more real.” He said they also responded to the scrutiny about how they were calculating height.
PUBLIC COMMENT: Chris was first to speak. He said it’s not just about the height – it’s about the length. “This thing is ludicrous and if you lived anywhere in the Admiral District, you would fight this vehemently.”
Next speaker voiced concern about the garage exit(s) and how people are going to get out of them, and how pedestrians are going to be safe – particularly the thousands of students in the area, with West Seattle High School near the north end and >Madison Middle School near the south end. She also said the traffic study was done during a school holiday and wondered how that happened.
Third commenter, Suzanne: “If a project this size is approved, it sets a precedent for other areas of West Seattle .. it’s just too big.”
Fourth commenter, identifying himself as a business owner, said he had gone through the Admiral Urban Village Design Guidelines “and I don’t see how this building fits within the Admiral District guidelines …the high school separating it from (the rest of the commercial area) … it would have to have stronger retail … it seems strange to me to have a future development used to legitimize this development when we know this same company has plans across the street. I’m more concerned as someone living in West Seattle going down California and having a 75-foot building suddenly (rising).”
Fifth commenter addressed the three distinct buildings and said that it had gone a long way since the early meetings, but still, not long enough.
Sixth commenter started, “Not going to say anything about being too tall … it’s too tall.” Laughter from the dozens of people in the room. He said the two north buildings still feel like they’re the same building; the glazed walkway in the back seemed to him like an idea that didn’t pan out.
Seventh commenter: “Personal opinion – I find that the applicant is responding to similar comments with slight modifications and frequently missing the point – we talked about three buildings and it looks like two now, we talked about homes retaining some sun .. they’ve reduced the parapets (a bit), an imperceptible change …” She said the colors changed but it’s still fiber/cement, “low quality, big panels of the stuff – it doesn’t fit in with the other buildings you’ve put in your packet” like the small brick commercial structure with Prost! (etc.) nearby.”The point is to have a transition to different neighboring zones … I feel like you’re just trying to meet the letter of the code without meeting the intent of it.”
Eighth commenter, Deb Barker, the former SWDRB member who now offers critiques of most local projects, saying she had sat where the Design Review Board members are sitting, and saw projects “come back that probably shouldn’t have,” and then shared comments from a previous project that sounded as if they could have been for this one, “it’s too tall … it’s huge… ” continuin “But do you know what happened? The developer changed the plans to address some of the comments. Actually changed the footprint. They moved the building away from the residential. They changed their project.” For this proect, she said, “This is your fourth opportunity to see the same height/bulk/scale.” She also said she hates the skybridge and thought it should just go away. She contended that the architects have not answered the concerns about height/bulk/scale, but have only tweaked it: “No wonder you are tired of seeing the same thing over and over and over. …The developer’s not going to give an inch, they have time, they’re going to wait you out, maybe wait until the board changes … They will wait you out. So what are you going to do? Maybe you’re going to have to do it for them. Do it for them. Tell them to quit wasting your time and only come back when they have it done. Or approve this project tonight with three foors of residential and one floor of commercial. … and you’ll have done the right thing.”
Next commenter said that he appreciated last week’s meeting and reiterated that DPD’s Jerry Suder had said height/bulk/scale ARE DRB’s province to govern. He said this project has a huge scale, and he can’t find anything to compare. He cited the Admiral Guidelines including solar access and privacy, also saying he was citing the rezoning documentation from 2010. Those docs said the height/bulk/scale would be addressed in Design Review for any project proposed, post-rezoning – “and now we have two additional stories, nothing mentioned about two additional stories.” He also wondered why the impact of views on streets to the east of 42nd wasn’t addressed. And he mentioned that a project called the Prescott had been mentioned, when comparing transitions to nearby neighborhoods, in earlier reviews but never brought up again.
Next commenter says he hasn’t seen this project until now and “frankly I’m stunned. … Is this the best we can expect in West Seattle? Would it be in Queen Anne? WOud it be in Wallingford? No, but we have it here in West Seattle. Are we easy? … I’m just really sad.”
The following commenter, a neighbor of the project, described the newest plan as more attractive but said the size is still the issue. He also mentioned the discussion at the previous week’s meeting suggesting the board had more authority to make decisions than it had suggested in previous meetings.
BOARD DELIBERATION: Bronk and McNamara said they didn’t feel the openings in the building were big enough and that the skybridge didn’t work. Bronk said he felt the building’s massing hadn’t evolved from the early reviews. Somewhat counter to that, Laird Bennion said he thought it would look like three distinct buildings as people walk by. Daniel Skaggs pointed out that “the retail (increase instead of live-work) is better.” Bennion said the developer is playing within the rules and would like to see their interests represented as well as the residents.
What if the skybridge was removed? McNamara: “You still have to address the solar impact to the neighbors. They haven’t done anything (toward that).” Bronk read what he considered to be supporting evidence for making this respect adjacent zoning more. “I think this … nails it. It is out of scale with the rest of the surrounding community.” He thinks taking 15 feet off the north building would be within their purview in the guidelines. … “I feel we’re at a point where we need to stop asking them to be creative and give them direction.”
Bennion: “We’re kind of in undiscovered country – we’re knd of writing a code right now. … We’ve been granted the power for a reason but we’re kind of over our skis here, we don’t have code except to say ‘we should make it sensitive to the neighbors’ … I don’t have framework to judge how responsive we have to be.”
McNamara: “We’ve given other developers similar guidance and they’ve (made changes) … Here, we get 16 inches. We’ve also asked for vertical modulation … and if you’re only going to take 16 inches off a building that is 59 feet, none of us is ever going to see that.”
Bronk: “They brought it back last time with four feet taken off … that wasn’t deemed enough by the whole board. …”
They started talking about the zoning exceptions requested in the plan – departures – but Bennion said, “We have bigger fish to fry here.” Those fish included what he subsequently called a “virtual omelet” of mixed-up colors. Bronk reiterated that the bulk had to be brought down and the materials on the east side couldn’t just be the Hardie panels. He went on to offer an analogy of his own, that the building “needs to look like three cousins with different facial features, rather than three brothers in different-color shirts.”
Pickrell shortly thereafter pleaded for more detail on what they wanted to see in terms of material, not just what they didn’t want to see. McNamara: “Higher quality of material and texture, other than colored concrete.” She also wanted to see landscaping details such as bench material. Bronk said wood-topped benches would provide some warmth.
Addressing how to break up the ~450-foot length, McNamara said that if this were two city blocks without a single building taking them up, there might be 125 feet of right of way. So, what about a 45-foot gap between buildings? Bennion thought that sounded too big.
And the issue of possibly shaving a floor of the building – which neighbors had long requested, pointing out that this was supposed to be a four-floor zone after the upzone, by all accounts, with the five-story project emerging after a city rule change about height calculation – resurfaced repeatedly.
Bronk: “When you look at height/bulk/scale … it’s within the rare purview of the board under grounds of (design guideline) B-1 that this building runs into unusual transition zones and unusual topography and I would recommend it be dropped 10-15 feet. This building hasn’t given us any options; we’ve seen the same thing last 3 meetings.”
But the board couldn’t quite concur on ordering the building to lose a floor. Upper-level setbacks were discussed as an option. In the end, they requested seeing the project brought back with both those possibilities, and without the skybridge – that spot would be a physical gap between buildings instead. Their requests also included material differentiation, featuring some brick.
WHAT’S NEXT: As always, we’ll publish an update when the next meeting date is set. And until the project receives final approvals – beyond Design Review – comments can still be sent to its planner at firstname.lastname@example.org.