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Design Review Board Recommends 6-Story Apartment Building in Seattle Return for Second Early Design Guidance Meeting

Caron Architecture, Onelin Capital Corporation, Seattle, 4709 Roosevelt Way
Courtesy of Caron Architecture

By Bekka Wiedenmeyer

Seattle’s University District Northwest Urban Center Village neighborhood has long been a combination of older single-family homes, low-rise commercial buildings, mid-size multifamily and office buildings, plus a growing number of high-rise projects to accent the neighborhood context. A variety of multifamily projects, townhouses and mixed-use developments have been added to meet the growing needs for housing in the neighborhood, which over the years has been quickly densifying in response to need. Within that context, Seattle-based architecture firm Caron Architecture presented a proposal for a six-story apartment building with parking and ground-floor amenity space during an early design guidance (EDG) meeting to the Northeast Design Review Board last week. At the conclusion of the meeting, the Board unanimously voted the project return for a second EDG meeting to address concerns regarding dimensions and relationships to surrounding structures.

The site, which is owned by Onelin Capital Corporation and located at 4709 Roosevelt Way NE, is zoned to allow for both multifamily and commercial uses. The mid-block parcel, which faces and can only be accessed by Roosevelt Way to the east, is currently occupied by a vacant two-story commercial building and existing parking lot. Single-family residential buildings frame the site to the west and to the north, and a one-story commercial building borders the site’s southern edge. A concrete retaining wall stretches along the west and north property lines to account for the higher elevation of the adjacent grade. The site is located three blocks from the new light rail station, and is also in close proximity to bus service and bicycle lanes. Caron Architecture is both the architect of record and landscape architect for the project.

According to project documents, the 11,313 square foot site will feature a six-story apartment building with 75 residential units, 11 parking spaces and 76 bicycle stalls. Proposed amenities include a first-floor lobby with additional amenity space, bioretention planters on the building’s second level and a green roof area with space for solar panels, seating and fire pits. The team’s goal is to create an environmentally sustainable building that not only incorporates design elements like massing and materials that successfully respond to surrounding neighborhood context, but also focuses on pedestrian experience by reducing the perceived bulk and scale of the building.

“From an urban point of view, because the site is going to be midblock we felt that this project wants to be a background building, wants to be a nicely detailed, but relatively simple structure, which doesn’t shout out and enforces the urban pattern which has been developed by [surrounding apartment buildings] with a strong commercial or public base,” said Radim Blazej, CEO and founder at Caron Architecture. “And then a very simple pattern, either by alternating or reinforcing a pattern on the upper residential floors.”

During the EDG meeting, the team proposed three massing schemes to the Board for their consideration. All of the schemes take some design cues from recently developed buildings in the area, with distinct modulations and materials to differentiate the new project, and none of the schemes require design departures.

The first scheme, “Modular,” proposes a 52,750 square foot building with 1,330 square feet of interior amenity space. The north property line is set back by four feet to help continue the datum line from adjacent buildings, and the building’s entrance is expressed. The building is pulled back from the single-family homes at the northeast corner of the site. This recess, along with balconies, aid in reducing the scale of the building, and additional balconies on the west facade help protect the privacy of tenants from views across shared lot lines. Fenestration patterns and material and secondary element locations are used repetitively throughout the design to reinforce the visual and program cues that have been taken from other modular facades that exist in the U-District. The west and east facade will be a two-tone combination that relates the west facade elements to adjacent single family housing, and the east facade elements to the urban character of Roosevelt Way. While this option provides a firm urban edge along the street and contrasting material that reduces the bulk of the building, the applicant noted possible constraints include the lower overhang not translating well in the design, as well as a building mass that could be considered too simplistic.

The second scheme, “Split,” proposes a 52,137 square foot building with 1,297 square feet of interior amenity space. Also taking cues from adjacent projects, this option focuses on visual and massing breakup. The building mass is separated by the circulation core, which anchors the project, with an expressed building entrance and north property line that is also set back by four feet to help continue the datum line from adjacent buildings. The building is pulled back from adjacent single-family residences, and consistent material application and fenestration patterns give the building a definitive parti. Secondary design elements on the west facade, including balconies, and a planted terrace on the west side relate the building to the residences of the adjacent property. As with the previous scheme, the balconies help maintain the privacy of the tenants. As with “Modular,” this scheme provides a firm urban edge along the street. The terrace provides a buffer to other properties, and the split of the building’s mass helps to reduce the scale. The applicant acknowledged, however, that this option could also be viewed as too simplistic, and doesn’t include efforts to reduce the bulk of the development.

The third and preferred scheme, “Tie,” proposes a 52,862 square foot building with 1,397 square feet of interior amenity space. Elements of historic U-District are combined with modern design cues to form a structure that uses material selection, fenestration pattern and secondary elements to relate the project to the context of the neighborhood. Similar to the first two schemes, this option has a four-foot setback at the north property line to help continue the datum line from adjacent buildings, and the building is pulled back from adjacent single-family residences. Recessed corners soften the bulk and scale of the building, creating a central mass that is representative of historic U-District architecture. The northeast and southeast corners feature balconies. The north and south masses have a contemporary design, using modern materials like brick and fenestration patterns, and horizontal bands run along the building’s facade to tie together the central historic mass and north and south contemporary masses. This scheme also introduces west-facing balconies, along with a planted terrace on the west side. This scheme also forms a firm urban edge along the street and creates a buffer via the west terrace, as well as reduces the scale and bulk of the mass through the building’s recessed corners. The applicant noted the building, however, is potentially too tall.

During deliberation, the Board appreciated the applicant’s intentions to align the building to adjacent structures, with consideration to the step down to the west. The Board questioned some of the design’s blank facades and requested a better understanding of where those conditions will exist, and how the applicant will create something visually interesting for the facades they intend to be blank. 

The Board was inclined to support Option 2, “Split,” and appreciated how this scheme provided a vertical break in the facade with its simple overall form, as well as its relationship to interior uses. The Board requested the applicant conduct a study to further incorporate balconies, which could help with modulation and a softer transition to the west. The Board also requested the applicant conduct a study that would provide less of a blank wall condition along the street facade, as well as a study that could potentially incorporate 20-30 foot modules into the massing option. 

There was unanimous support from the Board for pushing the building back toward Roosevelt Way, providing a greater than required setback along the transition to the west. The Board was concerned that there weren’t enough active uses provided for the ground plane sidewalk, and requested more information on the function of the space. The Board ideally wanted to see more studies that could include future commercial plans for the space, as well as studies that portray different entrance options to group pedestrian functions together, such as tenants and bikes entering the building. 

The Board supported the overall landscaping strategy of the project, though they agreed there could be opportunity for more landscaping at the right of way. The Board requested more clarity on trash staging as it relates to the landscaping, as well as more details on short-term bicycle parking.

Finally, the Board requested 2D elevations in the next iteration of the project so the relationship of the upper residential unit to the lower amenity level and parking space could be better understood.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the Board unanimously voted the project return for a second EDG meeting to address their suggestions, requests and concerns.