By Meghan Hall
A veteran development team composed of Alexandria Real Estate Equities and architecture firm NBBJ received positive remarks from Seattle’s West Design Review Board upon presenting updated plans for Mercer Blocks on Wednesday night. The project, which entails building two, 13-story towers at 816 Mercer Street in downtown Seattle, was unanimously approved by the Review Board, allowing the project team to proceed with the Master Use Permit process and other entitlements.
“Since our last Recommendation Meeting, Alexandria and our project design and consultant teams…have been focused on strengthening the project based on [the Board’s] feedback and insight,” said Christian Gunter, who leads the real estate development team at Alexandria. “The Mercer Blocks project is one of the most dynamic, transformative and sustainable projects in the city. As a uniquely urban mixed-use project, the Mercer Blocks project will engage multiple communities concurrently.”
The two commercial buildings will include 485,600 square feet and 379,126 square feet, respectively, lf lab-ready space. The development also includes a 30,000 square foot recreation center that includes both a sports court and childcare. The center will be housed in the West Building. Other features of the development include a tenant meeting space, as well as retail in the East Building, 600 below-grade parking stalls and loading docks off of 9th Ave.
The project’s design revolves around the goal to create “net positive health,” that optimizes not just access to light and fresh air, but educational and sustainability opportunities. The design is also driven by the changing neighborhood context. South Lake Union, once known for its industrial warehouses and businesses, has been transformed into a mecca for high-tech companies and the life sciences in recent years. The project team draws on the neighborhood’s history as well as South Lake Union’s future development to create a design reflective of “the laboratory of the future and the warehouse of the past.”
“Our primary means to achieve these outcomes is through the introduction of what we call the ‘Slow Cut,’” explained Ryan Mullenix, design partner NBBJ and lead designer on the Mercer Blocks project. “Unlike most South Lake Union properties which keep movement to the perimeter sidewalks or alleys, this concept embraces the history of Broad street by introducing a strong diagonal connection through the property.”
The project team’s intent for the shortcut is to slow people down using active retail, the planned community recreation center, tenant lobbies and diverse landscape. The feature’s name, “Slow Cut,” arises from this intention, stated Mullenix. The design team worked to improve the functionality of the Slow Cut through the use of increased visibility, clarification of entries and wayfinding and the establishment of a landscape hierarchy. The site plan was also altered to increase the legibility of the Slow Cut when viewing the site.
The project’s iconic gateway stair, which marks the beginning of the Slow Cut was also updated. The project team noted that now the stairway, located on Mercer, will be a visible feature both day and night. A highly transparent, sky-lit glass volume houses a three-dimensional mesh sculpture. The stairway revolves around the mesh sculpture. To enhance this design, the podium massing has been further pulled back at Dexter and Mercer. A floating landing has been established and columns removed to allow the stair and mesh to further stand out.
“This is a true volume; the stair is not a simple switchback, but rather a three-dimesnional move that creates a powerful experience from below,” said Mullenix.
The facade approach of both the East and West buildings are also altered; this allows the buildings to be cohesive and similar in nature while also keeping true to their own character. The goal, said NBBJ, was to avoid an overtly “campus” feel.
“We have reconceptualized the exterior expression to better support the bold massing through a cohesive language,” stated Mullenix. “The inspiration for both buildings lies in the architectural history of South Lake Union.
In the West Building, materials are used to give weight and depth to the facade, while the East uses three scales of articulation to create movement, creating an “ethereal,” feeling expression. The facade elements are varying but become similar in size as the development progresses towards Eighth Ave.
The Board’s deliberation was relatively brief and touched upon mostly minor details. One Board member commented that the “applicant has dutifully successful in not making this campus-like,” and followed the Board’s guidance in an “exemplary” way. The Board noted that the entrance portal for the Mercer West building could be slightly more refined–while maintaining its character and materiality–and that the parapets and screening on the roof maintain their design intent while hiding rooftop equipment. However, these were not put as formal conditions for approval. Given the success of the design, the Board approved the project as rendered and described in the design packet, allowing Alexandria and NBBJ to move forward.