Home AEC 182-Unit Living Building Project in Seattle’s Belltown Fails City Review

182-Unit Living Building Project in Seattle’s Belltown Fails City Review

Seattle, Belltown, GGLO, Saratoga Capital, 2616 Western Ave., Elliott Bay

By Vladimir Bosanac

At times, even the most progressive plans can get stymied by details largely irrelevant to its core mission. One such project, the 18-story, 182-unit residential proposal located at 2616 Western Ave. in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, which promised to bring a top standard in sustainable design, failed to pass design review muster at its recommendation meeting in Seattle this week. The Design Review Board wanted the Saratoga Capital development to come back for additional consideration after it found that a number of the building’s proposals could not be resolved. Even its Living Building Challenge features mattered little, because the board felt that the project delivered subpar architectural language, and it wanted the GGLO design team to refine the building’s scale and entrance expression.

For Belltown, the project’s team is proposing to deliver a somewhat larger-than-normal structure. At 18 stories, it would easily surpass in height most of its neighboring buildings. It would, however, compensate for that elevation by delivering strong design features that will undoubtedly be more aligned with Seattle’s future projects in the area than those of the past. It would also deliver a Living Building Challenge project, which promotes the most advanced measurement of sustainability in the built environment. This innovative characteristic allows the project to physically grow, and the city would be within its zoning requirements to grant it the desired floors because of that.

The project’s site is also located just three blocks from the waterline, allowing the taller portion of the building a clear view of Elliott Bay.

This part of the city has seen a good amount of growth over the last couple of decades, and other residential projects have added to Belltown’s high density neighborhood. “This is one of the more dense residential neighborhoods in Seattle. Many of the adjacent buildings are constructed to the property line,” said Jeff Bates, associate at GGLO who presented the project to the board.

The project’s initial proposal took a similar approach, and it looked at ways in which it may be able to maximize its relatively small footprint of approximately 14,400 square feet. Additional 25 feet of height were provided to the developer as a function of the building’s Living Building Challenge features, and an extra 10 feet were added on top of that if the project was able to add family-oriented units in the structure, as well. These are defined by the city as three-bedroom, minimum 900-square-foot apartments.

Facing a scenario where other structures already maximized the area of their land, this proposed structure seemed like an awkwardly tall middle-schooler in a group of peers who have not caught up to him physically. But unfortunately, it was judged more by the way it stands out today than the way it would fit into the landscape of a city in the future.

To their credit, the design team and the developer, took the opportunity to create something that visually stood out. The board appreciated the proposal’s three-part massing scheme, so GGLO refined that to match the shape and scale of the neighborhood both functionally and aesthetically. For instance, it angled the south facade of the building in response to the angled roofline of the building next door, it presented a narrower profile of the building along Western Ave., the main thoroughfare in the neighborhood, and it sculpted the podium by stepping the façade back from Cedar St. and creating a bio-retention feature along the same street. Most importantly, the team reduced the building mass at the corner of Western and Cedar to improve access to direct sunlight and created a transparent ground floor experience that brought the flow of the bio-retention structure inside the building’s lobby. 

The team’s ambitions with the Living Building Challenge brought on additional features by going after the beauty, health and happiness and energy petals (the Living Building Challenges employs the use of a flower metaphor for its sustainability framework). It also increased the three-bedroom family units to 1,500 square feet and put its best foot forward in mitigating the challenges that the Design Review Board identified in previous meetings.

The public objections were notable in their similarity. Most of the people who challenged the design focused on its size. The feedback was centered on the character of the neighborhood and how a structure of this size was not aligned with the projects of the past. Few took the Living Building Challenge features seriously and in some cases characterized it as ostentatious. 

The board’s objections were more subtle. They focused on intricate details of the building’s skin materiality and criticized the composition of the building entry and the arrangement of a canopy and a column, which was added because a bigger setback was provided on the street. The fact that the neighboring building was very close to its site line and provided little space in the alley between the two structures became a hurdle for this project. 

The project’s six departures were mostly responding to the neighborhood character, and they were requested in order to balance some of the additional benefits provided by the project in other places. They were not substantial, yet the Design Review Board provided no clear reason not to accept them other than it wanted to see the final version of the project. In other words, none were rejected, and only two of the six seemed suitable for approval at this point in time.

The board issued no conditions, but it also elected to deny further approval until the proposal’s purveyors revised the design. The final feedback came to three areas: architectural expression, scale mitigation and entrance redefinition.