By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Though the city’s Design Review process is just about design, it’s often the only part of the development permit path that provides a public meeting. And that often means public comments about other aspects of the project.
Such as – in the case of two commenters on the 7-story, 75-apartment, mixed-use 4508 California SW (map)’s second Early Design Guidance review last night – whether it should be built at all.
This process isn’t built for that decision. It’s up to the property owner (in this case, longtime local entrepreneur Leon Capelouto, who has completed two other projects nearby, Capco Plaza and AJ Apartments) and you could argue it goes back to the decisions decades ago that zoned the heart of The Junction for future redevelopment up to 8 stories (9 if HALA Mandatory Housing Affordability upzoning gets final approval).
So when all was said, done, and discussed, the four Southwest Design Review Board members who were present – chair Don Caffrey, John Cheng, Crystal Loya, and Scott Rosenstock – agreed unanimously that the project could move to the second phase of Design Review, three months after their first look at it. They were joined at the front of the room by the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections planner assigned to the project, Allison Whitworth.
Here’s how the meeting unfolded along the path to that decision:
ARCHITECT PRESENTATION: Caron Architecture‘s David Reddish led the presentation. He summarized concerns voiced in the first EDG review (which we covered here) and recapped some points such as that the project is providing 17 spaces while none are required and that developer Capelouto also can and will provide additional parking in his other nearby projects as requested/needed.
They’re proposing 62 residential units and 12 lodging units as well as ground-floor commercial on the site currently housing three retail spaces, Kamei and Lee’s Asian restaurants as well as the space that previously housed West Seattle Cyclery.
Reddish said that the project would incorporate aspects that they feel would honor and preserve the historic relationship with the site to the south – the ex-JC Penney site, which is considered a potential contender for landmark status (though no proposal has been initiated) and is also owned by Capelouto.
Incorporating feedback from the first review, Reddish presented a new massing (size/shape) “Option 4” which he said would set back the residential units on levels 3-6 “as far as possible” from California SW while the 7th floor would be set back even more. The “lodging” – which he said would be “corporate suites”-type lodging – would be on the second level. The new massing includes three components and would include a streetfront facade with a “stepped” transition between the modern-style Senior Center and the ex-JC Penney building. Reddish noted that while this is “the first tall building on the block,” it’s still a “small infill” building. The on-site parking would be on one underground level, beneath the commercial area. The residential entry would be separated from the commercial area by “a set of double columns.”
They also are proposing commercial setbacks to make up for the Junction’s pre-existing narrow sidewalks.
On level 2, they addressed prior concerns about an “amenity room” by canceling one of the lodging units and repurposing that space. Reddish said it would have great street views for events such as the Grand Parade and Summer Fest.
Clara Pang from the project’s landscape-architect firm, KKLA, said landscaping/streetscaping would include a new bike rack and green roof space.
BOARD CLARIFYING QUESTIONS: How far back will the retail storefronts be from the property line? asked Loya. Answer: 3 1/2 feet. They hope to have “several small shops,” said Reddish. No other board questions.
PUBLIC COMMENT: Four people spoke. Lora Radford, executive director of the West Seattle Junction Association, said she was there to “show support” for the project and its role in revitalizing “this part of California Avenue … we feel with this new building …Leon will set the tone for future development in this part of the West Seattle Junction.”
Deb Barker, former SWDRB chair and local community advocate, was next. She noted she had worked on the “We Love The Junction” project that led to landmarking two buildings at California/Alaska. She said she believes “visual cues” for Junction projects should be taken from older buildings. She suggested the proposal has “too much going on … I feel as if they’re trying to say too much,” including elements that “just don’t line up … they don’t respond to each other.” She also expressed doubts that some elements related properly to Junction design/streetscape guidelines. “I would really encourage the architect to pick one plane and work within that plane … and try to calm down that facade with everything they’ve got going on.” And yet she suggested the project needs one more visual touch – a cornice, likely on top, “to anchor (it) to the ground.” She also noted in reference to the possible landmarking of the ex-Penney building and talk of preserving its facade with something taller added to it, observing that the city’s current Landmark Preservation Board, of which she’s a member, “does not support facadeism.”
A third speaker said he’s opposed to the project because it will chase away longtime local businesses. “A lot of these businesses … are basically being forced out by this process of densifying …”
A fourth speaker said her concerns included “why here? why now?” given that the city has so many vacant apartments. She also remains concerned about “a seven-story building plunked down next to a two-story building,” regardless of the facade plan. She noted that the first meeting on this project featured other speakers concerned that placing this building here would “destroy the heart of The Junction … and shade the Farmers’ Market … I see nothing (indicating those concerns) were heard. … It would appear you are simply checking the boxes in the city design process … and that this was a done deal.”
A fifth person then asked a question about the unit mix. “There are studios and 1-bedrooms,” said Reddish. (More the former than the latter, as shown in the packet.)
Whitworth then read a letter from “approximately 20 local businesses” in support of the project.
Caffrey acknowledged the “emotion in the room” before going on to explain what happens next in the process.
BOARD DELIBERATIONS: Rosenstock spoke first, saying he’s interested in more discussion about the Junction Design Guidelines and how they relate to this project. While some concerns from the first meeting were addressed, in his view the street-level details hadn’t changed much. And as for the amenity areas, “the images they’ve displayed are very Southern California patio,” and he wasn’t sure if that was realistic for that site. He also shared the publicly voiced concern that a “lot is going on” in the design.
Cheng said he appreciated the revisions and regarding, for example, the alley concerns that were addressed, “I don’t know what else they can do.” Loya said she agreed with Cheng that this was the best massing option of all the ones shown so far, even though she was the lone previous vote against Option 3. She was concerned about streetfront activation. If restaurant tenants are being considered, she’s not sure how that would fit into this design. Caffrey said he isn’t sure the second level, splitting the difference between the buildings bookending the project site, is entirely successful.
Then it was on to how this would interact with California SW history. Caffrey noted that “stepping” is not the only way that the project could respond to aligning with its neighbors. Rosenstock said it might be confusing if the new building entirely aligned with the old building next door. He noted that it meets the “2-story base” guideline for The Junction.
They spent a significant amount of time talking about the “amenity deck” over the street, despite its multiple facets with “three things going on next to each other” as Caffrey put it – balcony, club room, more. Rosenstock and Loya agreed that it could be a distinct, distinguishing feature; he said, providing it’s “detailed appropriately.”
Rosenstock echoed the community concern, noting that this (building) is going to be “out there,” “by itself,” so street activation is important. As for the concern that the Farmers’ Market would be shaded, Caffrey said he’s heard it said that the market can get a bit overheated in the summer. Other board members said the setback of the top stories might address that. And they consulted the “shadow study” in the packet, which indicated there wouldn’t be shade during the first two hours of the market.
Summarizing: They’re supporting Option 4; asking for a closer look at window alignments on California, and a closer look at how to activate the street, and concluded with a 4-0 vote in favor of allowing the project to move to the next level of review. Looking ahead to that second-phase review, “materials are going to be critical,” Caffrey observed.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT: When the city and applicant are ready, that next review will be scheduled, with a detailed look at what the building will look like. So there’ll be at least one more board meeting. In the meantime, planner Whitworth is the person to whom you can send comments on any aspect of the project – firstname.lastname@example.org.
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