By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
A change in architects meant a big change in fortune for 3824 California SW, the townhome/live-work project proposed on the three-years-vacant ex-Charlestown Café site. On the third try – first one since the changes – the proposal passed Early Design Guidance and moved on to the second and final phase of Design Review.
In contrast with the evening’s first meeting, which was sparsely attended, dozens of neighbors and community members turned out for this one – they have long been working hard to make sure their voices would be heard in plans for the ex-cafe site, and this time, according to those who commented, they were, even though its basic composition hasn’t changed – a mix of townhomes and live-work units.
Johnston Architects is the firm now leading the project; Ray Johnston briefly described the site, saying that they hope to bring a “diverse mix” of uses into the property, with its status between the Admiral and Alaska Junctions.
Johnston’s Megan McKay led the presentation.
As mentioned here in a recent preview, they are now proposing 28 units and 26 parking spaces for the site, which has a 34-foot height limit by zoning and requires one parking space per residential unit. She said they hope to create “a contextually appropriate node of small businesses.” The live-works would be residential on the top two floors of each unit, with the retail at ground level, and a separate residential area on the back side.
Briefly showing what the previous architect had presented, McKay said the six points they’re addressing include:
*Using existing trees to inform massing
*Respect tradition to single-family zone
*More variation and variability (the townhouses will be a few feet shorter than live-work units)
*Reduce visual impact of parking and trash (a five-foot landscape buffer between the alley and the parking is enabled by turning some of the parking parallel to the alley)
*Promote interaction at open space (a “large central gathering space in the middle” – dubbed the “piazza” – will facilitate this, McKay said, and will be faced by the living rooms of the townhouses east of that space)
They offered three options – “Corner Open Space” (A), “Woonerf” (B), and “Courtyard” (C, preferred by the project team) – see them all in the design packet, here.
The preferred option, C, would be broken up in two places along California SW; at the Charlestown/California corner, there would be a “heavily glazed” (window-enhanced) commercial area. The alley would be improved.
The new landscape architect, Karen Kiest, talked about the preferred design facilitating preservation of the street trees – it’s a “big site,” as she put it, so there are a lot of them. Landscaping would be key in “breaking up the block,” as would the breaks in the massing along California. And the parking area now will feel like it’s “broken into five different lots,” with landscaping buffers, giving “a lot more character to the space,” she said. (Trees will be larger near the parking area, while further into the site, some of the new trees will be more like “treelets,” as Kiest described them.)
The central “piazza” with two live-work units fronting onto it also would be an enhancement. It would start as a public space off California and then transition into a more private zone for the residents, the further east into the site you go. In board questions, that was elaborated on – it will face west, which means dinnertime sunshine during parts of the year, and that would also be the case for rooftop decks on the townhomes.
Responding to another board question – trash would be picked up at the Charlestown and Bradford ends of the alley. The “steepness” will likely be reduced there, noted architect Johnston.
He was also asked about materials, though those don’t usually come into play until the next phase of the Design Review process; he said they are looking for places where brick “might be appropriate.” Johnston also said they use cedar when it works, but promised they wouldn’t be turning to “hardie planks.” “Good answer,” said multiple board members.
Board chair Laird Bennion said the retail elements are vital, since the zoning is NC-1 (neighborhood commercial). They don’t want to see the “live-work” units become “live-live.” Johnston said that’s why they are working to have residential entries at the back of those units and commercial in front – that solves one of the problems that can lead to a conflict between the units’ two uses.
The architects pointed out the proposals all are technically “underdevelopment” – half the floor-area ratio they could have on the site. But Johnston said there was an argument for little spots of character here and there rather than making everything “as big as you can within the context of the zoning. … I think (this) is the right thing for this site.”
Deb Barker, a former SWDRB member, was first to speak. She said she remains “very very dubious about the live-work situation,” though she’s glad to see the sketch of California/Charlestown suggesting a restaurant/café – and yet she’s not sure how that would be accomplished in a live-work setup. She called attention to what she called a “terrible example of live-work” at 3442 California SW, with the windows “completely covered,” and the Caffé Fiore space in the 2200 block of California SW, which has a two-story commercial space and a residential floor above, “strong” in her view. And she had landscaping concerns – “are the lindens/large trees in good-enough shape to build this whole project off of?” She considered the “five parking lots” a good idea and thought the garbage/recycling setup seemed to work.
Second, Deb Iveans, a neighbor, said she “really appreciated” all the work that the developer has done with those living nearby. She also voiced support for the “preferred option,” especially the reconfiguration of the parking. Since the new buildings will block light to many homes, pushing them further away would be a plus. While it would be a zoning exception to allow townhomes to front on part of the Bradford side, she said that would seem to work, especially because there’s no side-street retail in the area and it likely wouldn’t work there anyway. The landscaped inside courtyard also appealed to her rather than parking areas in the center of the space.
Third, another neighbor, Scott Kratz, said he’s concerned that “while three options were presented,” two of them were “throwaway” meant to emphasize the preferred option – though he said he liked the latter too. He also worries that the corner of California/Charlestown doesn’t have “much weight.”
Fourth, Steve Engles, another neighbor, read a letter from other neighbors who couldn’t be at the meeting. They expressed opposition to option A, which “would result in structures towering over our backyard with no setback at all.” They reiterated the neighbors’ preference for parking facing the alley, even though that had met with some opposition from the board last time around. The letter voiced support for components of Option C including the interior courtyard. Engels said he echoed what they and other neighbors had said, hoping the board would “hear our collective voices for the third meeting in a row.”
Five, Brooke Engles, who said that she wanted to be here even though she had just gotten out of the hospital. “I can’t express enough that the third option seems to meet the … feedback given by neighbors” and others. She said that this new option was almost “exciting,” especially the idea of something they might participate in, with corner retail, bringing “an anchor to the space” if that kind of business can be found.
Six, Connie Wicklund, who lives on the alley east of the project site. “I really feel like our concerns and questions have been heard” with the development of Option C. The neighbors have met repeatedly, she said, and “Project C says to me, we’ve been heard, and I appreciate that.” As a lifelong West Seattleite, she said, it’s difficult to see the changes, but if it’s inevitable, at least this had some promise.
The man who spoke seventh (forgive us for not getting his name!) said he also appreciated the possibility of some sort of food business, since it’s been missing since the café’s closure three years ago.
Eighth was Diane Vincent, who said she lives just a few blocks away. She said “it’s ironic that a few years ago we couldn’t get live-work and now we’ve been inundated with it. … We need the retail to create the activity to have people walking and gathering on the streets.” She said the evolution in the project is “like Design Review 101 .. of what you can get when the developer hires a really, really awesome architect … award-winning, fabulous, people who really get it and give us what we wanted.” She also gave kudos to the neighbors for their persistence and to the board for having the fortitude to push for a third Early Design Guidance meeting.
As the board deliberated, chair Bennion said he was pleased to see some of the changes, including separate entrances for the live and work aspects of live-work units.
Todd Bronk offered kudos to the project team for dropping two units, resulting in a major difference in what could be done with the site.
They talked about the conundrum of having aspirations for the retail space but, since it will be owned space, not being able to dictate what it will be. (The kitty-corner Charlestown Center building – where there was hope of a ground-floor café that never materialized – came up again.) And they also reiterated what community members had said – that the California/Charlestown corner needed to be even stronger. They also talked about entrances onto the piazza for more of the units bordering it.
While the parking configuration proved popular, board members said it’ll be important for there to be sightlines, so those areas toward the back of the site don’t turn into optimal car-prowl zones. They also noted that access to the parking area – including ADA-compliant access – will be important.
With the general configuration and intent not at issue, they closed out discussing fine points including how the signage might work. They also indicated they’re leaning toward approving the zoning exception allowing some townhomes to face onto Bradford.
What’s next: The project will have at least one more meeting. In the meantime, you can send comments to planner Beth Hartwick, who is assigned to the project, and who was at the meeting – email@example.com.