By Jack Stubbs
“We’re going to look at what we can achieve in that particular location … I think we can do something to make contributions to the community,” said Colin Morgan-Cross, project developer at Mercy Housing Northwest, a nonprofit housing organization committed to developing affordable housing in Seattle for homeless and low-income families.
On September 12th, an Early Design Guidance Meeting was held concerning the proposed development of a project at 2870 S Hanford St in The Mount Baker Town Center. Currently, the site is occupied by National Pride Car Wash at 3151 Rainier Avenue South. If the project is approved by the city, though, the car wash would be demolished. Mercy Housing hopes to begin construction sometime in the summer of 2018.
Mercy Housing aims to “create stable, vibrant and healthy communities by developing, financing and operating affordable program-enriched housing for families, seniors and people with special needs who lack the economic resources to access quality, safe housing opportunities,” according to their mission statement. Mercy also developed Othello Plaza, completed earlier this Spring, and the Columbia City Station Apartments, completed in 2012.
Runberg Architecture Group, along with Mercy Housing Northwest, presented the preliminary designs for the project.
At the meeting, the Design Review Board—comprised of volunteers from Beacon Hill and Mt. Baker as well as members from the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection—invited the applicant to describe central elements of the project, such as the urban form; the architectural character of the project vicinity; project uses and activities and any central opportunities and constraints of the project.
The Mount Baker Family Housing development will be operated by Mercy Housing Northwest in partnership with the Paul G. Allen Foundation and the City of Seattle. The 8-story mixed-use multifamily project will be comprised of 95 residential units, a roughly 8,500 square foot family resource and education center, and five parking stalls.
One of the noteworthy elements of the project is the education center, which will be designated as a general services and commercial space. Some of the activities being considered for the education center might include training and classroom space for childcare providers, resources for low wage families and after school programming for children.
One of the central design guidelines considered at the EDG meeting was the open space concept for the project, which involves an examination of the relationship between the building and the open space surrounding it. As described in the project proposal, the Family Resource and Education Center in its final design will “help activate the streetscape and create a comfortable, safe and inviting pedestrian experience, with both public and private amenities.”
The proposed site for the project is located roughly four miles south of downtown Seattle, within the Mount Baker Town Center and North Rainier Hub Urban Village in South Seattle. Since development is geared toward homeless and low-income families, geographical setting and proximity to amenities is a key concern. According to Morgan-Cross, the location of the project satisfies that criteria. “[The site] provides great access to a lot of opportunities for families … with the fantastic access to light rail and other transit terminals [nearby],” he said, adding that the site also allows access to key amenities. “There are a few schools right in that vicinity, [as well as] grocery stores and pharmacies.”
The Site Context and Urban Design section of the submitted proposal argues the further viability of the project, since it is well-served by transit. The proposed site is less than a quarter mile from the Mt. Baker Light Rail Station, and five bus routes as within a quarter mile of the site. The site is also intersected by two main transit thoroughfares, Rainier Ave. S. and Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. However, the project applicant also recognized one of the development’s potential constraints, the noise from the nearby often-traveled streets.
Given the proposed project’s central location, one key concern moving forward is the degree to which the development can be successfully integrated into the fabric of its geographical locale. Since announcing conceptual plans for the project, the development team has met with various local residents and organizations such as Mt. Baker Housing Association, Beacon Development Group, Rainier Chamber of Commerce and the Mt. Baker Community Club to conduct outreach. On August 28th, the team held a Design Concept Open House to discuss the potential that the project might have on the community. Because of this outreach, Mercy Housing and its project has become more integrated within the community, according to Morgan-Cross. “We’ve done a lot of work in the community and we certainly view ourselves as participants in the community efforts, so we’re really pleased with that support as well,” he said.
Due to the demographic Mercy Housing aims to aid—low-income and homeless families—the project addresses a critical issue, according to Morgan-Cross: a distinct lack of affordable family housing in Seattle. Addressing this element of the project, The Review Board asked the developer how they would reconcile the issue of affordability for those currently or formerly homeless. Along these lines, about 50 percent of the 94 units will be allocated to families with a history of homelessness through a Coordinated Entry Program.
The developer and architect presented three different Massing Options, and the preferred one featured a Family Center that opens up to ground level open space, providing opportunity for synergy between the project and the surrounding community and units and courtyards that sufficient exposure to sunlight. One of the most important aspects of the project, according to one of the members, is an activation of the open space, achieved by this project, which “[peels] back a layer … and connects to the neighborhood context.” Both of the departures for the project were approved.
Although the Review Board permitted the project to proceed, a couple of neighbors addressed pressing concerns moving forward during the public comment section of the design guidance meeting. Two neighbors, one a member of the Net Zero Carbon Alliance Group, inquired about the energy assets and goals of the project and expressed their hope that the project would achieve zero net carbon emissions.
Asked after the meeting how Mercy Housing might address these concerns, Morgan-Cross suggested that the organization would be proactive in its approach. “We’re excited for what the project can bring in terms of a reduced energy footprint for the building. All of our buildings include intentional efforts to include a lot of sustainability measures like solar panels, low water fixtures and things like that … which help the building operate, but also the environment as well. We’re going to look at what we can achieve in that particular location as far as energy sustainability,” he said.
Along with the comments provided during the meeting, Mercy Housing also received seven letters of support from other members of the community hoping to make their voices heard.
And although environmental sustainability will remain a key concern in the months ahead, Morgan-Cross sounded optimistic about plans moving forward. “We’re very excited to be able to continue with the design [process]. With the feedback from the board and the community, we’ll take the design to the next level and start looking at more detailed designs [for the project] … such as the environmental sustainability goals that we can include,” he said.
Since it is still early days in the project’s review process, the applicant does not plan to rest on its laurels after this recent step forward; it will be a continually unfolding process, according to Morgan-Cross. “We plan to continue our engagement with the community to keep them up to speed on what we are planning and … continue to get their feedback as well,” he said.