By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
The appeal hearing challenging key city approvals for the ~100-apartment project planned at 3078 SW Avalon Way has one more session to go, next Friday.
The original schedule for testimony before city Hearing Examiner Sue Tanner spanned three days during the week before last, with a full day on Tuesday, Sept. 30 (WSB report here), another one on Wednesday, Oct. 1st (WSB report here), then a partial day on Thursday, Oct. 2nd. But what was brought up by the teams on both sides – appellant Neighbors Encouraging Reasonable Development (NERD) and the city Department of Planning and Development plus developer Northlake Group – led to the need for one more witness, next Friday, October 17th. Tanner said she did not expect to publish her ruling, due to various scheduling challenges, until mid-November.
This is one of at least four project sites on Avalon that is in some degree of limbo, or at least waiting.
(As revealed during testimony, legal action is pending both related to this project site and to what was once a near-twin proposal next door at 3062 SW Avalon. Also within a two-block stretch of that street, the city’s recent order related to pending microhousing projects has put 3268 and 3050 Avalon on hold.)
Now, to the continued testimony in the case:
NERD, based in the single-family-home neighborhood of 32nd/Genesee to the north of the disputed project site, had presented its case first. Last week’s final testimony began with a witness for the project’s side, architect Radim Blazej, founder of Caron Architecture.
He was led through a recap of the Design Review process that led to approval for 3078 SW Avalon – one of the approvals that are being challenged in this appeal. City policy gives deference to those decisions, so an appellant has to prove conclusively that they were wrong, in order to get anything overturned.
The prospective developer’s lawyer, Richard Hill, went through the city guidelines that were identified as being important to this project, included “respect for adjacent sites.”
Blazej acknowledged “this site is very challenging for design, for several reasons,” including the abrupt zoning “edge” between midrise along Avalon and single-family behind – the neighborhood where NERD is headquartered.
He was asked to review the “massing options” – size and shape – presented when the building had its first Early Design Guidance meeting in September 2012, attended by a standing-room-only group of neighbors (from which NERD eventually sprang).
At the time of that meeting more than two years ago, the project was taller, because of a bonus for “affordable housing,” but the city’s rules have since changed, and the application was revised. Height calculation remained a focus for the site, said Blazej, because of the height variations on the site. “At the Early Design Guidance meeting, the board discussed height, bulk, scale at length, would you agree to that?” Hill asked Blazej, who concurred. He also said that, regarding privacy issues raised by the project and its window placement, “we tried to mitigate toward the (32nd/Genesee neighborhood) as well as the adjacent project to the south” – 3062 Avalon, which at one point was being designed in tandem, but has since been canceled.
Acting on the board’s recommendations from that first meeting, Blazej testified, the project’s “floor-to-floor height” was reduced by eight inches, and the total height of the building was three feet less. Some tree species were replaced, in favor of ones that might enhance the privacy. Exterior trim was changed from “dark metal” to “painted material.”
And the FAR (floor-area ratio) calculation error that had been brought up before had been corrected, Blazej testified. In fact, he said, the documents for the project still haven’t been finalized.
From there, granular details of the design and its review were recapped, especially relating to its windows. “At the end of the day, how did (they) change?” asked Hill.
Blazej listed changes including the raised height of some clerestory windows, and that a window was removed on the south side. Asked if the building would offer “a chance to look out and enjoy the neighboring building from the north window,” Blazej laughed and said “the building to the north is not of architectural merit.”
The next witness was brought in for rebuttal by the appeal side. Rachel Padgett, a 32nd SW resident, said she was involved extensively in the early stages of the neighborhood’s active participation in the process and fact-finding. She recounted talking to city planner Garry Papers in 2012 regarding “major concerns” such as the building’s size, the “parking situation,” and the use of the alley for ingress/egress. Before the Early Design Guidance meeting, she said, Papers had warned that it would be “challenging” to push for stories to be removed from the building, because the developer had zoning in their favor. She said they were advised to focus on “more cosmetic things.” She said he had made a comment that “stuck with” her, that “if this were a real city, we wouldn’t even be having this process.”
In followup questioning by NERD’s lawyer Peter Eglick, Blazej acknowledged that he had met with community members privately and that “there was a desire to lower the building significantly” and that he had told them “that is probably not what you can expect as a response from my client.” Did he say to neighbors that the building was “too tall” but that had been his client’s orders? He couldn’t recall, but did say that he didn’t think a lower building “would be financially feasible.”
While testifying, Blazej also said that while he had mentioned recollections from the EDG meeting, he hadn’t been there in person, but was basing his comments on discussions with Caron Architecture staffers who were. He also confirmed he has not been paid in full for his work on the project and is “currently involved in a legal process” for approximately $160,000 of unpaid invoices (about four times what he said he had been paid so far).
NERD’s Paul Haury, testifying in rebuttal, recalled more of a meeting with Blazej and “at least five neighbors” in November 2012, after the first Design Review Board meeting. “At that point it was an eight-story building when it was supposed to be seven,” Haury said, adding that Blazej had expressed disdain for the zoning allowing so much height, but saying that’s what his client was paying for. Haury recounted that residents had suggested the design be more like the building Transitional Resources had constructed relatively recently, further north on Avalon. “We were in a panic because our neighborhood was getting overrun.”
Local architect Vlad Oustimovitch, a past SW Design Review Board member who had served as a fill-in member for the second of the project’s three meetings, was called back that afternoon as a rebuttal witness. Among the points on which he elaborated: The planset for a project is what matters, not drawings created along the way; in the matter of the windows, he said, while the drawings changed, “the plans hadn’t changed.” And he referred to the error in FAR that wasn’t brought up during the hearing: “There are many parts of this project that were difficult to deal with from an urban design point of view. The project could have used some modifications in other areas. DPD seemed to have a position that the maximum density had to be achieved in the building and that we had to figure out a way to achieve that. There were compromises made by the Design Review Board that would not be in this plan if the FAR calculation we were given had been given to us clearly.”
Alluding to – without identifying – some already-built projects in West Seattle that went through Design Review, Oustimovitch added, “The community has been very concerned about how recommendations get translated into buildings that get approved.”
After more questioning about the window specifics, the day’s testimony wrapped up, with discussion of the logistics ahead: One last witness on October 17th at 9 am, in “a limited continuation of the hearing”; Tanner’s written decision not likely before November 17th, as she will be making a site visit as well as accepting written closing statements from both sides. You’ll be able to watch for the decision to be published on the Hearing Examiner’s website.
Separate from this appeal, the project’s permits haven’t been finalized yet; at any point in the process, you can check their status here.