Home AEC Design Review Board Recommends Seattle-based 365-Unit Yesler Towers Project Move Forward to...

Design Review Board Recommends Seattle-based 365-Unit Yesler Towers Project Move Forward to MUP Application

Yesler Towers, Yesler Terrace, Seattle, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Su Development, Seattle Housing Authority, Studio SKH
Rendering Courtesy of Studio SKH

By Bekka Wiedenmeyer

Seattle’s Yesler community, one of the first public affordable housing developments in Seattle and the first racially integrated public housing development in the United States, has rapidly changed in character since the early 1940s. Many of the early and mid-20th century buildings that have called the neighborhood home are in the process of demolition to pave the way for new projects intended to extend the vision of Yesler as a gateway for the city and a visual expression of Seattle’s diversity. Despite the changes, the overall goal of the community has been to preserve its history and cultural identity through art and architectural features, acting as a community porch for the city. In August, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and Su Development presented an amended proposal to the East Design Review Board for two 23-story apartment towers with below-grade parking in the Yesler community during a second early design guide meeting. At the conclusion of the meeting, the Board unanimously recommended the project move forward to MUP application.

Seattle-based Studio SKH is the architect of record for the project.

The site, which is still not addressed but located at the southeast corner of Yesler Way and S Washington Street/Yesler Terrace, is currently vacant and owned by the Seattle Housing Authority with LOI and authorization to Su Development. The lot, which is situated in Yesler’s historic district, is flanked by Interstate 5 and Yesler Community Park to the east and the west, respectively, with mixed-use residential buildings to the north and green space to the south. Based on the amended proposal, Yesler Towers will still have both vehicular and pedestrian access to Yesler Way and Washington Street.

According to project documents, the 360,000-square foot project will be comprised of 365 residential units, of which 10,000 gross square feet will be purposed for commercial retail. During the second EDG meeting, the boundary line was revised to include 20 additional feet to the south to allow for the separation between the towers to increase while adding square footage to the south tower. This space will be landscaped. According to the documents, the revised project will still feature 248 parking stalls in a partially below grade garage, a community “front porch” at the podium to provide outdoor gathering space, retail at Level 1 to activate Yesler Way and Yesler Terrace Park and a highly visible community room at Level 3 as a focal point. Private residential amenities include balconies and roof terraces.

The two towers feature a split, slender architectural form that will permit expansive views and light and air to exist between the two towers, according to Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. Park views will increase and shadows will minimize through the sawtooth bay windows design as apartments receive more daylight, a feature that was supported during the first EDG meeting. The south tower base is designed to increase light, views and air, while podium massing is folded underneath and around the towers to connect Yesler Terrace Park to the site. In addition, basic architectural materials, such as colored glass, repetitive shapes in the ground and wall, and painted flooring will be implemented to help guide pedestrian movement throughout the podium.

The massing of the building will still include multiple levels of open, accessible space to extend the park, and a sloping roof surface will create an amphitheatre available for public use, according to project documents. The park is viewable from the project’s elevated plazas, and the slender tower forms establish a gateway to the neighborhood. The project also features a  green roof, which will further connect the park and E Washington Greenway with I-5 right-of-way open space and provide additional accessibility. Furthermore, a pedestrian plaza will welcome pedestrians to the site.

During the second EDG meeting, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson proposed two new departures to the project, including a parking entrance setback less than 20 feet from the southeast structure corner and retail along more than 20 percent of the street-facing facade at S Washington Street. The refined proposal also introduced revisions to departures requested by the Board during the first EDG meeting, including an extended rooftop feature setback, a regulated sawtooth facade and a defined highrise projection.

The Board expressed general concerns over many of the features of the project presented during the first EDG meeting which were addressed during the second meeting. While the Board generally supported the slender design of the towers, they did voice concerns about how the differing elements, such as the sawtooth expression, curves and sharp angles, supported a cohesive architectural concept, and requested more illustration and clarification. 

In response, the team explained how the planar elements of the towers’ massing, including a parallelogram-shaped high rise projection, have a clarity of form from a distance, especially for cars are traveling at high speed along the freeway. Bay windows will help create a smaller scale at the long north and south facades of the North Tower and the north facade of the South Tower, and sawtooth windows will continue the language of the towers at the north podium. Careful transitions between each facade and wall composition will help unify the project, according to the revised documents. More balconies facing the park will help to reinforce the architectural concept of creating a pedestrian oriented environment at the podium by extending the scale and openness into the towers. 

The Board also echoed concerns regarding vehicular access to the site and how phasing of the podium into two phases would impact the accessibility of the elevated open space. The proposed revisions will place the parking garage entrance at the southeast corner, creating an open-space design with a large plaza at the center which will help with pedestrian circulation. In addition, a spiraling stair/ramp which will be accessible up to Level 3 and stair access from retail parking in the garage to the plaza level and beyond to the elevated terrace and Level 2 will help make this space accessible to all, with an additional ramp extending to the outlook points and a public gathering room. A public elevator will connect all levels.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and Su Development, as per the recommendation by the Board, will move the Yesler Tower project forward to MUP application, one step closer to reaching the goal of established Yesler as Seattle’s community porch, rich in diversity, history and cultural expression.