By Meghan Hall
When San Francisco-based Carmel Partners and Encore Architects originally presented their plans for a modern mid-rise in Seattle’s rapidly evolving First Hill in March, the design team faced a round of tough comments from the community and the East Design Review Board. The design of the 226-unit project with 90 below-grade parking stalls, located at 1100 Boylston Ave., was meant to ease the transition between the neighborhood’s high-rises and nearby zones with lower building height limits, including the Seattle First Baptist Church next door. However, the three symmetrically-scaled massing options initially presented to the city were rejected by the Board, which felt that they were too similar to one another and that little was done to explore alternatives, a major setback for Carmel and Encore. This week, the project team returned for a second Early Design Meeting, one which saw a marked improvement, albeit one that still didn’t seem to pass the Board’s muster. However, the project advanced to the recommendation phase due to a procedural rule that limits review of projects to three meetings if the developer does not seek departures, which this project does not.
At the team’s previous design review meeting, the Board pushed back on the initial design. “We’ve got some really interesting buildings coming up [in First Hill]…it’s going to completely change the skyline for the better. We’re becoming a more global city, [and] this scheme does not help push us in that direction, at all,” said Alastair Townsend, a member of Seattle’s East District Design Review Board, at the first meeting. His opinion summarized the broader Board sentiment after about an hour of review and mostly critical feedback.
Although the project site is zoned for high-rise use, Carmel Partners and Encore maintained its decision to move forward with a mid-rise project, which the developer stated was driven by the lower cost of building a mid-rise structure. Another benefit of a lower structure, according to the design team, is that it tempers the scale of new development in the neighborhood, especially in relation to the First Baptist Church, which sits adjacent to the site.
The Board’s initial feedback pushed the project team to explore massing options including courtyards, setbacks and significant modulation in its design. In response, the massing was revised to create a much more significant vertical setback of twenty feet along Boylston Ave., instead of the originally proposed six feet. Those additional feet with the sidewalk make up almost 40 feet of clearance from the front door to the street, which provides a deeper entryway into the property that would feature trees, benches and a welcoming landscaped area.
“This gives us several benefits,” said Andrew Stewart, associate with Encore Architects who, along with Principal Derrick Overbay presented the updated vision of the development. “This addressed the concerns of our entrance being too close to the church’s entrance, also there was some concern about pick-up and drop-off congestion.”
The development team also explored moving amenities inside the building to achieve a better layout and space allocation for tenants and adding a rooftop amenity that would also feature a garden, a small dog park with spanning views of the city.
The public was generally receptive of the project, but persistent worries were expressed around the lack of parking and impact from the new high-rises developed and under way in the neighborhood. Some suggestions, which the Board found useful, included making ground floor unit windows smaller to afford more privacy to the people living in those units. Others urged the Board to consider how the technical equipment will be displayed on the roof, limiting the visibility of the technical equipment from the taller buildings surrounding the project.
Since this was an Early Design Guidance meeting, the renderingings did not provide a very detailed representation of the building, which made the work somewhat challenging for the Board. The limit of three meetings also gave the Board little wiggle room to request alternative designs, and because of that the Board urged the developer to take the recommendations seriously, since the final meeting could include many conditions.
Overall, the Board was pleased with the progress, however it was expecting to see more treatments of the upper level of the building and more exploration of streetscape in terms of privacy and stoop interactions, for instance. Also, the Board was not able to see the full display of the material quality and urged the applicant to consider that in proportion to the church. “Ultimately, the presence of the church demands higher quality materials,” stated Carson Hartmann, one of the Board members.
The renderings did not provide many of the detail that the Board would have liked to consider, such secondary architectural features as the venting on the building, facade materials that react more sensitively to the church, further breakdown of the massing and reduction of the bulk of the building. The Board strongly urged the development team to create more resolution around the streetscape, minimizing uses along the alley and resolving the trash collection issue that was brought up during the review. The facade treatment in the courtyard was not clear at this point, so that needed more evaluation, and more needed to be done to ensure privacy and security in public and private spaces, including treatment of residential units at the street edges, which has improved but not quite resolved, according to the Board.
While Carmel Partners is moving the project along through the process, the upcoming reviews will likely continue to be challenging. It was evident that the next iteration of the building will need to make great strides to ensure a green light from the Board, and where that design will land should be revealed soon enough.