By Meghan Hall
“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. His opinion summarized the broader board sentiment after about an hour of review and mostly critical feedback the board gave to San Francisco-based Carmel Partners and their designers, Encore Architects, as they presented a vision for the 226-unit 1100 Boylston Ave. residential development.
The First Hill neighborhood is one of Seattle’s oldest and given its proximity to downtown retail, the Central Business District and entertainment, it is also becoming one of the most populous. It is going through an unprecedented transformation, with a number of towers already developed and more on the way.
Yet, as the cost of construction continues to rise rapidly across the Puget Sound region, developers are finding it increasingly difficult to make projects pencil. For Carmel Partners and Encore Architects, the economics of construction became a fundamental issue at the early design review meeting for the team’s proposed development.
The eight-story residential building that would be located on a block along Boylston Ave. between Seneca and Spring Streets would stand in contrast to the other neighboring projects. While the site is zoned to accommodate a high-rise development, the project team decided to move forward with a mid-rise building, stating in development documents that the project will allow for a more graceful transition from adjacent high-rise buildings to nearby zones with lower height limits. The scale of the building was also intended to defer to the adjacent First Baptist Church, and community feedback gathered during the developer’s public outreach period specifically pointed to a mid-rise project.
“The site is in a highrise zone. The base highrise limit is 160 feet, and we could go up to 300 feet with bonus incentives,” said Andrew Stewart, associate with Encore Architects, who along with Principal Derrick Overbay presented the vision of the project. “Given the location of the church here next to our site, [and] given the ornate nature and character of it, we felt as though the correct response for us that we back up to that building [and] allow that building to shine,” Stewart added.
The massing options reflected that, and they provided a mid-level scale that would accommodate a step between the old church structure and the new developments adjacent to it. “We have an opportunity to create a nice transition from the higher buildings,” said Stewart.
The team presented three massing options, all of which were code-compliant; while the first two massing options were similar in that they anchored the block through the use of strong corners and symmetrically-composed facades comprised of recessed courtyards, the development team’s third, preferred option was slightly different, utilizing asymmetrical massing.
The preferred option pushed the design the most and tried to provide a vision of an urban project that reflects the neighborhood context, pays homage to the scale and shape of the church and fits within the narrative of First Hill. “The preferred scheme uses the massing to respond to the neighborhood context, as well as the program, to provide open spaces and landscape,” said Overbay.
The masses on the northwest and southeast corners of the building would be vertically-oriented to respond to existing high-rise structures across the street. The northeast and southwest corners would be oriented horizontally to respond to lower-scale buildings in the neighborhood. Additionally, the preferred option would combine the lower two levels and pull them outward to differentiate the pedestrian realm from the upper levels of the development. Amenity spaces for the building would be located on the corner of the site closest to the adjacent church to encourage activity.
There was very little, however, that the Design Review Board found appealing with any of the options.
The first sign of a difficult meeting started after the design presentation, during the period when the board was asking follow up, clarifying questions. The board members wanted to understand why the project did not go taller and instead opted for the eight-story height. The answer was economics; highrise development is certainly more expensive, and it would make the development uneconomical, stated representatives from Carmel Partners. They even offered that their eight-story project would have more units than the adjacent Luma Condominium tower.
The board’s analysis made it clear fairly early on in the meeting that a second Early Design Guidance meeting will be needed. The board rejected all three massing options, and more specifically, the members felt that the project needed to evolve more. One of the other issues it raised with the development team focused on the activity along the alley that would separate this project and the church. It was this alley that the development team designated for building services, such as trash collection, but also as the entrance to the underground garage. The board wanted the team to return with a site plan that would outline this activity in greater detail.
The board also found the design to be too literal in its response to the church next door. They wanted the development team to provide a more sophisticated language with high-end materials that would complement those of the church. They also asked the designers to further develop the streetscape and provide a detailed landscape plan with a response to the street frontages and the neighborhood context. If outdoor space was going to be provided on the sidewalk, the board wanted those to be set back with landscaped thresholds to ensure more safety for the ground-floor units. The board also wanted wanted to see views of prominent locations, a shadow study impacting the church and gave a recommendation to activate streetscape with ground floor uses, such as a cafe space.
The only thing that the board seemed to appreciate was the glazing of the building. The members of the board liked the large windows as outlined in one visual at the end of the presentation, which gave the project a decidedly urban feel. They encouraged the design team to keep that look, because they wanted the project to appear urban and unique.
In some ways this was a major setback for the developer, and the board was somewhat ambiguous in what it wanted to see in the follow-up meeting. The city’s planner assigned to the development had to remind the board where the boundaries of its recommendations are, especially as the board members wanted the developer to explore a high-rise structure, which the developer clearly stated it was not ready to entertain.
The development team does have a more detailed perspective on what the board would like to see in the next meeting, and it will likely work toward a solution that works for both sides in order to advance the project further.