By Jack Stubbs
As densification continues to occur throughout the city of Seattle and in the surrounding Puget Sound region, organizations are consistently looking for ways to adaptively repurpose underutilized spaces.
The Mini Mart City Park, a new community-focused undertaking in Georgetown, owned and initiated by artist collaborative SuttonBeresCuller and designed by architect goCstudio, is one such project that involves the transformation of a former brownfield site (a derelict gas station) into a public park and cultural arts center for use by the surrounding community. With over 700 similar gas stations in the Puget Sound region and over 200,000 nationwide, SuttonBerresCuller and goCstudio hope to explore the potential of art as a way to heal an urban problem while also creating a shared mixed-use community space.
The 1,100 square foot development, which is officially ready for construction, is located at 6525 Ellis Ave. South and sits on a vacant corner lot in Georgetown across the street from Boeing field and five blocks from the Duwamish River. Method Construction is the contractor for the project, Josh Legett is the lighting specialist and J Welch Engineering is also on the project team.
The Mini Mart City Park project, which is expected to break ground over the coming months in spring of 2018, has been a long time in the works. Artist collaborative SuttonBeresCuller had a vision in 2005 to identify and purchase a property in King County and rehabilitate the former gas station; in 2008, the organization identified the Mini Mart City Park site and began environmental assessment work. In 2013, SuttonBeresCuller formed the Mini Mart City Park 501(c)3, which purchased the site, and began working with architect goCstudio in 2014.
During the initial years that SuttonBeresCuller owned the site, activity was focused on environmental remediation and working with the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle and the King County Brownfields Program to assess and treat the existing on-site conditions.
According to Aimée O’Carroll, partner at goCstudio, the unique characteristics of the property site presented a challenge since the beginning of the design process. “SuttonBeresCuller had the vision of using this old brownfield site as a prototype for how one could develop these abandoned destinations. The environmental impacts on the land present a bit of a challenge in terms of what could be developed there,” she said.
And while ultimately the old 450-square-foot gas station on the site—which was originally used as a laundromat and then as an office space—was demolished to make way for the new 1,100 square foot structure, one of the goals of the Mini Mart project is to preserve the history of the structure, according to O’Carroll. “Originally, SuttonBeresCuller had wanted to save the structure, but it just became untenable, and we decided that it had to go. [But] we wanted to tie the design [of the Mini Mart] into the spirit of the old gas station with the language and architecture. Even though we’re getting rid of the building, we still wanted to allude to its history, because it’s such an important part of the site,” she said.
As part of the remediation process for the site, goCstudio worked in tandem withe with the artist collaborative on the design of the flexible space, which can be used for both community meetings and as an art gallery. The development features a gallery/community center at the front of the building and a storage/mechanical box at the rear of the building, as well as a courtyard space in the middle, which will be used as a working space for large-scale art installations and community gatherings. The project will also feature an exterior porch area, sliding walls to create a porous space between indoor and outdoor space and a green roof with solar panels.
According to O’Carroll, one of the overarching goals of the project—which has a modular, flexible design—was to emphasize the open space elements and create a building that was appropriate for the surrounding neighborhood context in Georgetown. “From the outset, [SuttonBeresCuller] had a strong emphasis on not taking the whole of the site and building up on it. They wanted to create green space for Georgetown and create a pocket park, [so] we’ve tried to retain as much of the green space as possible,” she said.
From a design and programming perspective, SuttonBeresCuller worked closely with the Georgetown community to create a multifunctional space that met the needs of the neighborhood, according to O’Carroll. “It was important for us to be able to create a space that could be loved and enjoyed by everyone [in Georgetown],” she said. “SuttonBeres has been involved in the local community meetings in Georgetown for quite some time. Far beyond when we came on board, they floated this idea to the community in terms of what they wanted to propose and see on the site through the permitting process.”
In the broader context, the Mini Mart project represented a unique redevelopment opportunity in terms of the trajectory of Georgetown, according to O’Carroll. “It definitely seems like there’s a shift happening there. I think sites like this get overlooked even though there’s a real lack of free space in Seattle to do construction projects like this,” she said.
Indeed, since the project’s initial conception in 2005, the transformation of the gas station represented a unique redevelopment opportunity, given the existing infrastructure on the site, according to John Sutton, partner at SuttonBeresCuller. “The site was an old Ma and Pa gas station, there was no big oil or insurance policy and there was nothing to pay for the cleanup of the site…there was never going to be an economic incentive for a developer to build condos…that would outweigh the cost of cleaning up the property,” he said.
From 2008 to 2014, the artist collaborative went through a drawn out process of applying for grants for environmental assessments from the King County, the state of Washington and the Environmental Protection Agency. Locally, SuttonBeresCuller was sponsored by the Georgetown Community Council—who are still involved with the project—until the organization formed its own non-profit. “It’s still a very community-driven project,” Sutton said, adding that “it was important for us to rebuild something that was iconic to its historic use and neighborhood characteristics.”
The trajectory of the Mini Mart was heavily informed by the character of the Georgetown neighborhood ever since the project kicked off more than a decade ago. “Ten years ago, we were in the other end of the real estate bubble. So, all of the development kind of started [but] hadn’t hit Georgetown that badly [yet]; so we were trying to build something that was harkening back to the neighborhood history and the site,” Sutton said.
The groundbreaking for the project, which will take place in a matter of months, marks the latest chapter in a challenging process. And while the project has been evolving all the while, so, too, has the neighborhood in which it sits, according to Sutton. “In the ten years that it’s taken us to get permits and construction documents, we’re in a new housing boom, and things have changed drastically,” he said. “The neighborhood is growing very quickly, and there are lots of townhomes being developed. Georgetown just sold its first $1 million condo, which is insane in many people’s perspective,” he said.
Even though the Mini Mart sits in a rapidly-evolving neighborhood, Sutton hopes that it will still harken back to its original beginnings. “In some ways, we are part of this new development that is happening, but [the project] had been planned for much longer than that. The project is much more in line with the original character of the neighborhood,” he said. “We’re not maxing it out or building it to be four stories tall.”
At a time when there is so much construction and development occurring—in Seattle and the greater Puget Sound region—the hope is that up-and-coming neighborhoods like Georgetown will not lose the character that made it special to begin with. And the Mini Mart City Park is programmed accordingly. “We’re trying to keep that identity: Georgetown is an affordable neighborhood and an artist’s hub and has lots of great art events like the Art Attack, art walks and lots of galleries. Our space is focused on how arts and culture intersect with environmental and social responsibility,” Sutton said.