Southwest Design Review Board doubleheader, report #2: 44th SW Studios advances to 2nd round

March 20, 2015 2:11 am
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(‘Character rendering’ of design option 3 – in the full-size version, the red lines point to text boxes)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

The first West Seattle microhousing project to go through Design Review made it out of the first stage of the process in its first try on Thursday night.

Most of the concerns voiced about the 44th SW Studios project at 4528 44th SW in The Junction had to do with whether the building could be shrunk a bit in order to more creatively inhabit its site. (See the design “packet” here.)

In the end, the board voted unanimously to let it advance out of the Early Design Guidance stage:

Tim Carter from the architecture firm, Alloy Design Group, led the presentation.

The project is proposed as six stories with about 60 SEDUs (small efficiency dwelling units, aka microhousing) – no offstreet-parking spaces (none required because of what the city considers “frequent transit” nearby), but they’re planning triple the required bicycle parking (enough to accommodate 45). The site is zoned for 65′, though Carter noted the zoning changes six times in the vicinity. The upper stories will have “pretty good views,” he noted. Infill on 44th, he said, is seen as “filling in the missing teeth” (the gaps, ostensibly, are the current parking lots).

The project team’s preferred option, #3 (at right, above), would include “three distinct pods of dwelling units per floor,” most facing either 44th or the alley – which would make a difference when the parking lots to the north and south are inevitably developed someday – “more than a third of them corner units.” It would include 58 dwelling units and would “treat the sidewalk edge as an active space.”

The landscaping would use existing trees on the street and on the south side of the site, and would seek to “soften up” the project’s south edge. (One tree, a tall birch tree, IS proposed for removal.) It also would have a rooftop “amenity” with plants and seating. And they envision a mural or some other kind of “public art” on the alley side of the building.

BOARD QUESTIONS: Daniel Skaggs asked how this would affect the accessibility of the apartment building to the north. It has no entrances/exits on the side that would face this building, Carter said, though it does have a business on its southwest side. T. Frick McNamara wondered why the north side of this building is where the pedestrian access would be (doors from the stairways, for example). The ground floor does have a few units – the building’s largest units, though “still under 300 square feet,” per Carter – but aren’t currently designed with access. McNamara thought moving the building’s laundry room might fix that. Matthew Zinski, filling in for absent chair Todd Bronk, wanted to know more about the massing articulation. Carter said they had to deal with the challenge of “the number of units we’d been asked to fit in.”

PUBLIC COMMENT: Brian Kenney, a Junction resident, was the first of two speakers. “The two fundamental truths that people notice about a project like this is the lack of parking and how small the units are, so I appreciate the big move, to go big, on bikes. So – how could that be really celebrated?” He said that he understood “the instinct to put bike storage on the alley,” but what if it was “a major activation feature on the (44th SW) side?” That might be a “statement by the building to strongly express that bike storage is a response to a lack of parking” as well as a way to dissuade theft. He also wondered if there could be some sort of “light-shaft feature” for the interior units that are light-challenged and will be even more so when adjacent development happens in the future. “If it’s higher quality, they might stay longer and become part of the community.”

Frequent Design Review attendee/critiquer Deb Barker (a former board chair) suggested there might be more opportunities for massing and utilizing the site if it wasn’t planned as a property-line-to-property-line project. “You might be challenged by the applicant using terms like ‘hemmed in’ or ‘we’re going to be blocked’ … but … because they’re designing this project, they do have a choice on how they respond to this site.” She said some aspects were admirable, but “I’m sure this project would still be profitable if it had less of itself,” including fewer units. Her message: “You are designing this, you are not as challenged as you think you are.” She thinks it might be relying too heavily on “offsite amenities” … “The building needs to stand on its own and represent the massing opportunities from inside.” She had words of praise for the building’s amenity space at street level, but not for the fact this building would fully shades the building to the north (older and shorter) in winter – she thought there should be some consideration for the existing building. As for the bicycle storage/parking area, she thought that actually should be somewhere else, maybe even in a basement, and open up space for perhaps a bicycle shop at street level.

BOARD DELIBERATIONS: Skaggs said he would like to see more happening on the south side and the alley side. “You’re going to be able to see this building from California,” he pointed out. McNamara talked about the “ton of foot traffic” that goes through the area, especially because of the alley behind a full block of Junction businesses to the east. She voiced concern about protecting the trees on site and thought activation of the ground-level units in this building might help – suggesting patios, if the building could be set back – and she advocated moving the pedestrian connection from the north side to the south side. She also mentioned the modulation of the under-construction Equity Residential project, Junction 47, at California/Alaska, and how it feels good at that corner because of the “stepping” of floors above the facade, but not so much at its 42nd corner because it lacks stepping. Zinski said it seems to him that the west facade of the building is critical – a vertical change, perhaps, something like contorting the shell, or putting in a light shaft. They discussed the north wall, which on one side has a lot of blankness but on the other side does have privacy issues in relation to the neighboring building. Alexandra Moravec spoke in favor of the bicycle area on the alley side.

Recommendations as the board worked through the checklist included more attention to the “human scale,” including the entries, and the materials – “I hope this doesn’t turn into a cement-board building,” said Zinski – durable, simple materials. They want to make sure attention is paid to all four sides, and to the organization of the ground floor, activating both the alley and the front facade, and making a safe east-west pedestrian access, preferably on the south side. They are “on board with Option 3” in general.

WHAT’S NEXT: The project will have at least one more Design Review meeting, for final recommendations, date TBA. You can comment on the project in the meantime by e-mailing city planner BreAnne McConkie,

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