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Affordable Housing Developer Strives to Bring 186 Units of Family-Focused Housing to Rainier Beach

Bellwether Housing, Rainier Beach, SMR Architects, Fazio Associates Landscape Architects, Seattle Department of Transportation
Rendering Courtesy of SMR Architects

By Meghan Hall

Seattle’s unprecedented growth has caught much of its population unaware, and rapidly rising housing costs are causing displacement never before seen in a region previously dominated by its individual—but diverse—provincial ways of life. Rainier Beach, located south of Seattle, has been particularly hard hit, and is one of 4 neighborhoods identified in Seattle’s Vision 2035 as particularly vulnerable to high levels of displacement and low access to economic opportunity. Bellwether Housing, a Seattle-based non-profit corporation whose mission it is to develop renting housing for working individuals and families, is hoping to work with the city to improve accessibility to affordable housing. The group, which owns 31 buildings and over 2,100 apartments, has proposed to construct 186 units of family-focused housing at 7930 Rainier Ave. S. in an effort to combat displacement in the neighborhood.

The project team also includes SMR Architects and Fazio Associates Landscape Architects.

The designs for the development were presented to the Southeast Design Review Board on Tuesday night. The 186-unit project would include 20 studios, 56 open-bedroom units, 32 one-bedrooms, 55 two-bedrooms, 15-three bedrooms and 8 four bedrooms, as well as 8,000 square feet of childcare space and 3,5000 square feet of non-profit office space. The units would be split into a west and an east building. 

“We have taken design cues from a few of the [other projects in the area,] including façade modulation, corner treatment , materials  and color, open space between buildings,” said Rumi Takahashi, of SRM Architects. “…We really wanted to look at three main priorities here:  treatment of the ground plane and the street level, the creation of outdoor space and residential interaction…and modulation and façade use to reduce the mass of  the structure.”

The west building, which will stand five stories in height, will maintain a commercial street wall along Rainier Ave. S. The building will house the development’s smaller units and its secondary architectural elements will include a wide recess and covered entry at the center of the building in addition to two smaller recesses to highlight the building’s corners. Material changes and changes in color palette will highlight the base, middle and top of the building.

““The central mass is actually the lobby entrance as well as green spaces, and the two edges actually act a corner treatment to the development and gateway spaces into the  future development,” continued Takahashi. 

The east building will be set back from all property lines and is of a more residential scale, and will be comprised of the larger, family-style units. It will present similar secondary massing and materials to the west building, including dark red, white and light blue fiber cement, light grey lap siding and black masonry. The west building will also have an art element on the fiber cement, artist and artwork still to be determined, noted project documents.

The project team requested a single departure, one which became the center of debate between the design review board, community, project team and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT). In the departure, the project team hopes to access 8 angled parking spaces from an existing driveway, which is one-way in and will not be widened to accommodate outbound travel. While the community and review board approved of the request at a previous early design guidance meeting in the fall of 2018, and backed it a second time at Tuesday’s meeting, the proposal was rejected by SDOT both times. The solution would come in increased safety measures to ensure traffic would only progress down the alley in one direction.

The review board also discussed community concern that the larger, west building was “turning its back” to Rainier, and that street activation for the development needed energizing so that the pedestrian experience may be improved. The board also asked for further clarification as to how the public mural would function with the rest of the development’s composition, and, on a positive note, the board commended the project team on the landscaping, which it described as thoughtful, generation and well thought-out.

At the end of the meeting, the board voted unanimously to move the project forward and supported the much-debated departure as is. In the coming months, Bellwether, SMR Architects and Fazio Associates will work on refining their proposal as they obtain their remaining city approvals.