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Design Review Board Requests Second EDG Meeting for 365-Unit Yesler Towers Project in Seattle

Seattle, Yesler, Su Development, East Design Review Board, Studio SKH, Seattle Housing Authority,
Rendering Courtesy of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

By Bekka Wiedenmeyer

Seattle’s Yesler community is known for its rich history, developed post-World War II as one of the first public affordable housing development in Seattle and the first racially integrated public housing development in the United States. Over the decades, the neighborhood has rapidly changed in character, with several of the early and mid-20th century buildings in the process of demolition to make 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. In June, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and Su Development received feedback from the East Design Review Board in order to continue refining their proposal for two 23-story apartment towers with below-grade parking in the Yesler community and return for another meeting based on the response to the guidance provided. 

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

The site, 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. Nestled in the historic district of Yesler, the lot 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 current proposal, Yesler Towers will 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. The project will also 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.

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson describes the two towers as a split architectural form, with a slender design which will allow views to expand and light and air to exist between the two towers. The sawtooth bay windows design will allow park views to increase and shadows to minimize as apartments receive more daylight. The south tower base will be further eroded to increase light, views and air. Podium massing is folded underneath and around the towers with the intent to create a connection from the Yesler Terrace Park to the site. 

The massing of the building will include multiple levels of open and publicly accessible space to extend the park, and a sloping roof surface will create an amphitheatre available for public use. The shaped tower forms will create identifying elements and a gateway to the neighborhood, and a green roof will provide access by linking the park and E Washington Greenway with I-5 right-of-way open space. A pedestrian plaza will welcome pedestrians to the site, while elevated plazas will provide views toward the park.

The Board generally supported the open space podium concept and building materials, and strongly supported the landscaping concept for Yesler Towers, with requests for further clarification on stormwater flow and legibility of the podium as public. They also suggested a review on how the landscaping concept could be further integrated up the tower at balconies or other amenity spaces throughout the tower.

While the Board supported the two slender tower forms, they did echo concerns about how the differing elements, such as the sawtooth expression, curves and sharp angles, supported a cohesive architectural concept. They requested further clarification and illustration on how the design of the sawtooth and curve relate, the specific reason for the location of the angles and a demonstration of how the tower was shaped to respond to views and what architectural rules/drivers were guiding the tower shape.

One of the Board’s other major concerns was vehicular access to the site and how phasing of the podium into two phases would impact the accessibility of the elevated open space. They were also concerned with how the Phase 1 podium expression would read as a stand-alone expression. They requested the project return for a second Early Design Guidance meeting to clarify this information, and illustrate  the Phase 1 design of the podium, resolving connections to level 2 from South Washington Street.

Moving forward, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and Su Development, as per the guidance suggested by the Board and feedback gathered from public outreach, will review the project proposal and design concepts and return for a second early design review meeting to resolve the concerns proposed by the Board and move closer to the goal of solidifying historic Yesler as a gateway to the city.