Home AEC 182-Unit Residential Project Met with Vocal Opposition—and Backing—at Latest Design Review

182-Unit Residential Project Met with Vocal Opposition—and Backing—at Latest Design Review

Saratoga Capital, GGLO, Belltown, Seattle, 2616 Western
Courtesy of GGLO

By Meghan Hall

A residential project proposed for the heart of Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood has been embroiled in bitter community debate for months as the development has worked its way through the entitlements and design review processes. At a recommendation meeting Monday night—the project’s fourth design review—advocates and opponents of 2616 Western did not mince words when it came to presenting their opinions on the project. 

The building is expected to rise 18 stories above grade and total 182 units. Investor and property owner Saratoga Capital and architect GGLO stated that the project’s design and scale have been heavily influenced by two initiatives: its pursuit of the Living Building Challenge and Seattle’s three-bedroom bonus program. Participation in both programs will allow the project team to add extra height to the proposed development, influencing size and massing.

“The project is increasing the urban livability in downtown Seattle by voluntarily participating in the three-bedroom bonus program,” said GGLO’s Jeff Bates. “We are also pleased to be one of the first residential towers in Seattle, as well as Belltown’s first, to be participating in the Living Building Challenge… We are excited, as the project will set a new design standard in environmental design and be a symbol of Belltown’s vision of sustainability. These two goals—family sized homes and sustainability—are some of the key driving factors in the design of the project.”

While located in a 145-foot zone, the incorporation of the Living Building Challenge and bedroom bonus program will allow the development to reach 180 feet in height. Over the course of the design process, the project team has heard from both the Downtown Design Review Board and wide swaths of community members regarding the importance of scale mitigation. 

“We agree that relating to the scale and character of the neighborhood is a critical issue,” Bates stated as the project team pitched their revised designs to the community. 

With the hope of producing a design better suited to the community, greater legibility and contrast of the massing elements was emphasized. More texture depth and detail were added to the “mast” of the building, achieved by increasing opacity by use of solid floor spandrels at every floor. The spandrels will help to differentiate the mast from the glassier wrapper on the exterior. Additionally, GGLO and Saratoga Capital also modified the building’s wrapper so that it better relates to the adjacent Banner Building. The horizontal banding is now on a two-story module, versus its previous three- to four-story height.

Vertical piers will break up the entire façade and terminate at the roof height, while the roof’s canopy—including in previous iterations of the project—had been minimized. The building’s entry has also been accented and centered, giving it more of a presence.

The podium was also consolidated to produce a more consistent design language at the pedestrian scale. To better contrast with the wrapper, the podium on Cedar and the gasket portion next to the Banner Building will now present a more robust rhythm of vertical elements. A glassier, recessed vertical slot will articulate the podium and differentiate it from the other building elements on Western, as well.

The Board was generally receptive to the updates made to the project’s design and specifically increased the massing opacity and horizontal lines that break up the building’s scale on Western. The Board also noted that the horizontal accents and wrapping were better suited in its updated iteration to respond to the neighborhood context and the nearby Banner Building—a key point of feedback the Board had given in the past.

The Board generally supported the materials palette, but asked that the metal panels utilized on the exterior be made of a substance that would prevent oil canning. In addition, the Board requested the use of warmer tones. Greater distinction between the mast and wrapper elements through the use of window size, opacity, assembly and color was also suggested. The Board supported maintaining a small canopy form on the roof as it helped to mitigate the building’s scale.

The community’s reception of the project during the meeting, however, was heatedly mixed. The opposition doggedly focused on the project’s scope and scale—determined by zoning designations and a project element outside of the Review Board’s control—stating it failed to fit in with the Belltown neighborhood. One community member asked Saratoga Capital to “stop antagonizing so many Belltown residents with your behemoth of a building.” 

In recent months, opponents have been fueled by misguided information campaigns regarding the legality of the building’s zoning and height. Some residents have gone so far as to retain a law firm to explore their concerns.

But for as many opponents, there were just as many in support of the project who were determined to combat what was dubbed as “misinformation” spread by a “loud few.” 

“Not only is the height consistent with many other buildings in the Belltown neighborhood. But the proposed project utilizes height bonuses allowed by the zoning code,” emphasized Claire Rennhack. “…The height and massing of this building benefits families and the environment, and increases livability and affordability in our city…[We need to] put to bed the untruths being spread.”

Rennhack, an adjunct professor within the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments, is a resident of Belltown and has worked as a local architect and engineer in Seattle for more than a decade.

As public comment progressed, it quickly highlighted a fundamental issue within the Seattle’s design review process and Seattle’s entitlement process in general: an easily accessible public forum for community members to express their opinions outside of the confines of design review.

A large number of “view-oriented” comments both for and against the project were presented at Monday’s meeting.

“I have a view of the Cascades, and I will dance in the street on the day it is blocked by a deeply necessary, 21-st century project like this one, because I understand that my kingdom does not extend as far as I can see from my balcony,” stated one community member. “…We cannot bear the pointless siphoning of resources by selfish neighbors that has plagued other desperately necessary [projects] around the city.”

As comments were either read into the record or community members were called upon to speak, City staff struggled to decide how best to proceed. At first, staff considered skipping over view-related comments all together, but ultimately allowed such commenters to move forward or have their remarks read into the record. 

City of Seattle Design Review Planner Joe Hurley acknowledged that the difficulty was a “flaw” of the current system and reminded community members comments needed to be about issues specifically denoted in the design guidelines.

Despite the intensity of the public’s commentary, the Board moved forward with its decision process based on the established guidelines. The Board voted unanimously to move the project forward, provided the project team adhere to the previously-stipulated suggestions. The decision marked the end of a highly-contentious and considered design review period and will allow the project to move forward in the entitlements process.