By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
The saga of 3078 SW Avalon Way is not over yet.
Five years ago, the first Southwest Design Review Board meeting for the 100+-apartment proposal packed the Senior Center second story with a room full of neighbors. Their concerns eventually resulted in an appeal that overturned the board’s final decision, and set up a fourth meeting last night, the first of two projects on the board’s agenda (we’ll report separately on the other).
The review drew only a single-digit turnout – not because of apathy or resignation, one neighbor contended – but because the city scheduled it during a holiday week when many people were traveling.
They have another chance to show up, because last night’s decision was to require one more meeting, as the current board members felt they were not provided enough information to make a final decision on the project.
The three board members present were chair Matt Zinski, Don Caffrey, and newly appointed member Crystal Loya. City planner Holly Godard was there for the Department of Construction and Inspections.
None of them were there when the project was reviewed for the first time in September 2012 (WSB coverage here); Godard was not the original planner, either. Even the architect has changed.
The project’s second review was in 2013, and its third in 2014. That would have been the final review except for the neighbors winning their appeal with a ruling in December 2014 (WSB coverage here), and that’s what led to this fourth meeting. Components of the appeal included whether the board had been appropriately apprised of what it had authority over – the building’s height, in particular. Godard read a lengthy summary of the appeal results to the board at the beginning of last night’s meeting, specifically guidelines involving height, bulk, and scale, and how those aspects of the project fit into its surroundings (a key point of contention for residents in the single-family neighborhood immediately north of the project as well as some neighbors in multi-family buildings).
What happened from there followed the framework of a standard design-review meeting, but because of its origins, the first part was relatively sparse, and that is part of why the board requested a return:
ARCHITECT PRESENTATION: This was given by Steve Fischer, a principal with Nicholson Kovalchick, which took over the project sometime after the 2014 meeting. He pointed out that approval of many components of the project had not been reversed and were not subject to discussion. Fischer said he believes it’s the only spot in the city where the midrise zone – enabling this project – abuts a single-family-zoned neighborhood.
(Here’s the “design packet” assembled for the meeting.)
He referred to one key issue of the appeal, improper calculations of the floor-to-area ratio (FAR), and changes that had led to “window impacts,” and walked the board through a rendering that showed some of the changes. He also showed a graphic that compared the building’s originally proposed massing and how it had changed during the 2012-2013-2014 process as a result of board and public comments.
BOARD QUESTIONS: Zinski got to the heart of the issue first, by noting that since the board now has been informed that it could reduce the height/bulk/scale – which the previous board had been told it could not – he wanted to hear why Fischer thought those aspects of the project were appropriate in their existing form. Fischer acknowledged that it’s a “conflicting-zone transition” but said the project is “well below” where it could be, saying he didn’t see a reason to “just take a floor off” because that could be done. “Even removing a floor from this building … isn’t going to buy (the neighbors) (much) daylight.” He contended that the building has “nice proportion(s)” in several ways that would be “(torn) apart” if a floor was taken from its top.
Caffrey asked for clarification on materials (some of the siding is metal) and whether the building had roof access as an amenity, given the height of the stair towers. Yes, there is, Fischer replied. Loya wondered about the trash access; documents indicate it’s from the alley. She also asked for confirmation that some of the windows are recessed. Zinski asked about the “large-caliper oak trees” that were included in conditions of approval.
PUBLIC COMMENTS: Four members of the public were present, and each had something to say.
First a nearby resident, from the 3100 block of SW Avalon Way: He said he was surprised to learn that this project was back in play – “I thought it had gone away for good.” He was concerned that there was no reduction in the number of floors, just a three-foot height reduction – “that’s half of me.” He expressed regret that the turnout was so light. He said he and his neighbors felt the project “in its current proposed size does not fit with the neighborhood – whether you’re talking about the single-family residents behind it” or the other multi-family-building residents (himself included) nearby. “It’s too big. … If you can’t reduce it from at least an elephant-size footprint, then at least reduce the height.” He continued, “Instead of melding into (the existing building),” it will be standing out, and not in a good way. He also referred back to the earlier meeting that led to the appeal, saying that attendees were told repeatedly then that their concerns could not be addressed. “Those board members … treated us like crap. They didn’t want to be bothered.” He also noted that while parking is not in the purview of the board, it’s gotten worse in the area because of the two microhousing buildings – neither with any offstreet parking – that have added more than 150 units next to the 7-11 at Avalon/35th. He concluded that “lowering one floor … would make a big difference” because the building would fit in: “You have the opportunity to get this back to scale so Avalon looks natural as it develops.”
Second person said she was addressing the aspect of how the site refers to views and slopes: “It’s going to block my view and everybody’s view” nearby. She said that while the street is densely developed, the slopes keep it functional.
Third to speak was Paul Haury, involved in the process since the start, as well as the appeal, via the neighborhood group SeattleNERD (Neighbors Encouraging Reasonable Development). “The reality is, it doesn’t follow the slope,” but it should, in relation to condos to the south. He also said that 20 people who would have been here are absent because of the scheduling – 4th of July week – “and they believe it was done on purpose.” He also recalled that a previous board had said that the Avalon side of the zoning had been given much more weight than the single-family side to the north. While previous board approval had been unanimous, it was because the board felt it had no choice, Haury noted. He said he hopes the input matters this time, but his “faith in city government” is pretty low because of how this has all gone over the past few years. He and his neighbors had spent at least $120,000 in their challenge, “just to get the rules to be applied.” He echoed the previous speaker: “The building is too big, by at least a floor.” And the area is already overparked, Haury affirmed – “at 136 percent.” He summarized, “We encourage you to either (take) a story off the top – which also helps with parking – or bury both layers of parking in the ground, which lowers the building” and increases nearby sunlight, “which is a SEPA requirement.”
Fourth speaker said she just wanted to “echo the sentiments,” and that the building “does not fit – it just does not fit. It could be cut by a third in bulk and scale.”
BOARD DELIBERATIONS: It was clear that the board members were struggling with what would be a weightier decision than most made in board meetings – since they had found themselves the final say on a long, contentious, more-than-design-review process. (Added: Paul Haury’s video of the deliberations:)
Board chair Zinski started by asking planning staffer Godard about considering height/bulk/scale at this stage of a project – usually it’s addressed at the first meeting (Early Design Guidance) about a project. He said that a lot of analysis is lacking in what was presented to the board for this meeting, given the unusual circumstances, so it is difficult to figure out how to review those aspects. Godard said, “It’s true we’re not going back to (EDG) – there’s a lot of past analysis to digest -” Zinski said the question is whether past analyses were done correctly, since generally they would assume that the review was thorough, absent these circumstances. The question came up abaout when the board had said it was under the impression it couldn’t do anything about the height (editor’s note: that’s detailed in our report on the 2013 meeting). Godard said she was mostly tasked with making sure that the board members understood they could address height/bulk/scale and were not constrained by what was done before.
Zinski said, “I’m struggling with feeling we have been presented with a compelling argument as to why this project should be moved forward.” He said he saw some signs of change in the project, but nothing that would help him totally grasp.
Caffrey said the neighbors’ points about how this building would relate to others nearby stood out to him. “It’s our job to decide if that’s an acceptable transition … I’m worried about (it) because it will set a precedent.”
Loya noted that this appears to be the largest parcel on that side of the street, and that would seem to affect the building’s perceived bulk.
Zinski then sought to guide the discussion into whether some design aspects had addressed some of the bulk concerns, and “is that enough for this building – is it breaking down the mass by using these secondary elements to make the perceptible mass less?”
Loya said she thought that the brick podium could be “more modulated” but some other material changes did help break up the building’s appearance.
Caffrey said he still wasn’t convinced that the building isn’t “too much. … It’s a concise, neat package of a building at this size,” but as for whether it’s appropriate for the site … that’s not clear
Zinski went back to the question of whether “techniques” would be enough to break down the height/bulk/scale, given what the architects had tried to do. He says he sees “some of that,” but is it enough – are the color and material contrasts enough?
Maybe on the south end, said Caffrey, but not the north end.
Zinski said a “step” in the building is “too subtle,” in his view. He then summarized again that the board members seemed to be struggling with not only a concern about basic height/bulk/scale but also that the “secondary elements” weren’t reinforcing it either. To be specific, the “large white (expanses) of Hardie board siding” is exaggerating the massing. (At this point in the discussion, Godard – new on the project – was asking for clarification on what one aspect of the appearance was, and it was provided by Haury.)
Godard asked, “So if there’s another meeting, what do you want to see?”
“How this building fits in with the context along Avalon, how it relates to the neighbors – street elevations, scaled, showing the neighboring context along the street so we can see how this building fits.” He asked for qualitiative and quantitative ways that building mass would make a zone transition – “more clear dimensions of the setback. … more elaborate dimensions … clear narrative points shown to us that say, ‘we have done x and this reduces the height/bulk/scale by x’,” Zinski elaborated. “More information to understand what (the architects) have done.” In the end, it would be a reference to “the big picture,” he summarized.
As for “departures” – exceptions to zoning rules – board members wanted to see more information before agreeing to support parking access from the street; they’d prefer alley access but would want to know how that would change the building. “I don’t want to see a throwaway example of why that doesn’t work,” warned Zinski.
In the end, Godard summarized that the board is asking for more information to make an informed judgment “to move this building forward.”
And that means there’ll be another meeting. We’ll be watching for the date to be set and will update when it is. (You can also watch this page on the city website.)
P.S. If you have comments about the project – its design or other aspects – you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
P.P.S. The Design Review process itself is up for major changes, and comments on those are being taken through Monday – details here.