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Design Review Board Moves 23-Story Apartment Building in U District to MUP Application

Victory At The U, Seattle, University of Washington, Champion Real Estate Company, Weber Thompson
Image Courtesy of Weber Thompson

By Bekka Wiedenmeyer

One of the most dense populations in the city for housing and employment, Seattle’s University District thrives as a designated Urban Center. Public transportation and amenities have been redeveloped to be inclusive of the community while also encouraging contribution back into the buildings and design that make up the space. University of Washington, one of the U District’s most prominent tenants, has shaped much of the personality of the neighborhood, and with the introduction of high-capacity light rail slated to begin operation in 2021, new zoning has allowed higher densities to develop in surrounding areas. Earlier this week, a project was introduced that will be a part of that redevelopment initiative. Weber Thompson and Champion Real Estate Company proposed Victory at the U, a 23-story apartment building with below grade parking during an early design guidance meeting to the Northeast Design Review Board. The tower is designed to be a landing space for students and an elegant incorporation to the U District skyline, with increased pedestrian accessibility. In response, the Board recommended the project move forward to MUP application.

The site, located at 700 NE 45th Street, is currently occupied by an existing structure and surface parking, which will be demolished to make way for the new building. Two trees also exist on the site, a heritage cork oak tree and a large strawberry shrub. The intersection of NE 45th Street and 7th Ave NE serves as a major entry point to the U District, through which the I-5 freeway can be accessed. A handful of buildings in the neighborhood inform the architecture design of the project, including Paccar Hall with its articulated building shape and the UW Tower with its inset base. 

“We really aim to improve upon the setup,” said Austin Besse, a designer and project team member from Weber Thompson.

According to project documents, the 14,400 square foot site will be home to a 23-story apartment building with approximately 160-165 residential units and an office. The 256-foot tower will include a combination of studio, three-bedroom and four-bedroom spaces, totalling a gross amount of 212,000 square feet, which will also include 33 stalls of below grade parking. The team aims to create a neighborhood open plaza to comply with SM-U zone requirements, with vibrant areas for community gathering and a minimal design that is both unique while complementary to the structure as a whole. Landscape design will help shape pedestrian entry ways, along with wider sidewalks and proposed artwork in the open spaces.

“We want the building to be a gateway,” Besse said. “We want the building to be modern, rational, minimal, simple, vibrant, exciting and timeless.”

During the meeting, the team presented three different massing options: the lighthouse, the ripple and the waterfall. Weber Thompson explained the rationale behind the preferred massing option, the waterfall design, as emulating water cascading down a rock. The plaza at grade is designed to be the pool at the waterfall’s base.

“We feel that this type of shape is the most balanced, legible, and elegant of the three schemes,” Besse said. “This tower will have a timeless feel that really suits the gateway in a variety of scales.”

The carved southwest corner of the tower will have a facade designed to act as the cascading water, and each side will have an inset corner to create a cohesive massing approach and more visibility into the lobby and amenities of the first two floors. Each facade will break into two slender shapes, with intermittent elevation from the ground plane to enhance the idea of natural erosion. The eroded corners will help provide a contrast between the “water” and the “stone” of the building, and the eroded base will provide more space for the plaza, which will include art and landscaping features that improve the pedestrian areas. The deepest setback will be at the north facade of the tower. This massing option will also give more space for the heritage cork oak tree along NE 45th Street.

The Board agreed that the project team had a good start on their site analysis and design but requested they continue to consider how the design concept would be influenced by the character of the U District. They unanimously supported the waterfall massing option and felt the form was headed in the right direction, but asked the project team to focus their “water” concept on the entirety of each facade, not just the corners. The Board also requested to see more detailed studies of the ground-level arrangement and amenities of the public plaza. As a side note, the Board appreciated and supported the art inclusion of the plaza detailed in the project documents.

During the meeting, the project team requested two departures, the first of which involved a 10 foot setback above the height of 14 feet along the northern property line. The team also requested a departure with the elimination of overhead weather protection in favor of stormwater planters and the building’s massing acting as buffers along 7th Ave NE. The team asked for the Board’s support in a potential departure with the retention of the heritage cork oak tree, which restricts the amount of usable site area. None of the massing schemes proposed reach the maximum floorplate size for residential towers. If granted, the team may use an additional 7,200 square feet to offset the smaller floorplate. Without the departure, the building will terminate at 22 stories. In both scenarios, the tower terminus design pulls in different white water and blue stone elements. Lastly, the team requested the Board’s support in a director’s decision in covering 33 percent of the neighborhood open space, as opposed to the 20 percent maximum that is permitted. 

The Board supported the setback departure, with a request for more details, and supported the retention of the heritage cork oak tree and additional 0.5 FAR with a request to see more details on how the tree can contribute as a design element for the building. The Board also said they preferred the tower terminus design shown in the proposal without the blue stone wrap. They also supported the director’s decision to cover more than 20 percent of open space. Approval will be discussed during MUP application. The Board was split on the decision to support the elimination of overhead weather protection and asked to see a more evolved design in the future. 

At the conclusion of the early design guidance meeting, the Board recommended the project move forward to MUP application, suggesting the team use the comments made during the meeting as guidelines moving forward. With this decision, Victory at the U continues along the path to achieving its “simple and timeless” vision, representing a modern gateway building for the U District and embracing the pedestrian nature of the prominent urban community.