By Meghan Hall
The earliest stages of design review are meant to give a general overview of what a new project could look like once built-out, touching upon a few general massing schemes and the themes that will drive development. For the community and Seattle’s numerous design review boards, EDG is an important opportunity to drive the direction of a project’s design, but vague schematics can be difficult to evaluate. This gray area can cause some back-and-forth as to whether or not early phase designs should be approved or re-evaluated. In an EDG meeting last week, this was the topic of debate as the Northeast Design Review Board approved preliminary designs for a 14-story hotel. The approval, however, only came after the Board altered its decision.
Located at 4236 Brooklyn Ave. NE in Seattle’s University District, the project has been pitched by a project team of Touchstone Partners and Johnson Braund, Inc. In all, the proposed hotel would include 300 guest rooms and a single level of below-grade parking.
The project site sits within a rapidly developing portion of the U District, between Brooklyn Ave. and “The Ave.,” the neighborhood’s main commercial street. Project documents describe both thoroughfares as major axes with growing importance. Future expectations surrounding increases in pedestrian activity and flows of people throughout the neighborhood helped to govern the project’s overall design.
While Touchstone and Johnson Bruand presented several different massing options at last week’s early design guidance review, the meeting primarily focused on the development team’s preferred option, called “Tower.” The design scheme for Tower presents clean and simple massing–which is entirely code compliant–and a thinner building profile on the north side. Modulation on both Brooklyn Ave. NE and the alley will be incorporated into the building, as well. A roof amenity will also add further definition to the tower’s terminus.
“Hotels can be given interest with [several strategies] such as layering and subtraction,” said Stuart Kleiger, of Johnson Bruand, who emphasized that the hotel would not appear modular in nature, as is somewhat typical for the product type.
Additionally, the podium of the tower will be separated from the tower element, and will use layering to articulate the mass further. The building’s main entry will be carved out to create additional visual interest.
“The tower option really hit our design concept of seamless duality. A duality of both street scale, sidewalk presence and larger urban scale, city presence. We felt we hit that duality here in a manner that gave us great composition, with a massing that is respectful to its neighbors…” explained Kleiger.
Overall, the Review Board appreciated the preliminary design of the project and the analysis done of the changing neighborhood. However, the Board also struggled to evaluate not just the preferred design concept, but the other two massing schemes presented at EDG. The Board noted that they felt like the applicant had not fully explored the potential for different massing options, and that all schemes presented felt somewhat similar.
However, another Board member countered, “at this stage, we are always left wanting more,” and suggested the Board give the best guidance they could given the vague nature of the design.
The Board did ask to give more identity to various aspects of the building, including its second level setback. It also commented that the North facade is blank, and that the tower has no “back” despite its visibility from the street. The Board also asked the project team to explore other secondary massing options and articulation to give the building more movement.
At the end of the meeting, the Board initially voted towards bringing the project back for a second early design guidance meeting. However, the project’s planner did remind the Board that at this stage, designs were almost always going to be very conceptual, and it might be worth it to move the project forward. With this suggestion, the two Board members flipped their votes, which allowed the project to move forward. At its next review, Touchstone and Johnson Braund will need to present much more detailed, formalized plans that will give greater clarity surrounding the vision of the project and its overall look and feel.