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Proposed Residential Tower Wows Seattle Design Review Board: “It’s one of the best projects we’ve reviewed to-date”

Cahill Equities, barrientosRYAN, Runberg Architecture Group, University District, Seattle
Courtesy of Runberg Architecture Group

By Meghan Hall

Seattle’s design review process provides the local community and city an opportunity to evaluate how proposed developments will shape the city while also offering a forum for design critiques and feedback. One project, however, received high praise from the Northeast Design Review Board, who remarked that its design was one of the best the board had seen—a bold statement given Seattle’s recent explosion of development. The project, proposed by a development partnership of Cahill Equities and barrientosRYAN LLC, is expected to bring 342 residential units to the University District.

The architect of record for the project is Runberg Architecture Group. Hewitt is the landscape architect for the project. Overall, the design team sought to create a development that was simple and modern in form but acknowledged the history and evolving building context of the neighborhood.

“We are enthused by the opportunity to come and present this tower,” stated Brian Runberg at Monday night’s meeting. “This is not a typical apartment building, nor is it a typical student housing; it is a bit of a hybrid of the two, one that fosters better social engagement and interaction.”

The building’s apartments will be broken down into a mix of 20 open-one-bedrooms, 20 two-bedrooms, 20 three-bedrooms and 40 four-bedrooms. In addition to the residential units, the development will also feature a 3,36 square foot food hall on the first floor. 53 parking stalls are also proposed. 

The design review meeting revolved around prior feedback given by the Board at a previous early design guidance review. Updates were made to the project’s context analysis, massing, streetscape, materiality and expression.

“These goals, among many other influences, led to this simple grid expression [where] form follows function,” added Runberg.

The proposed tower is located on the eastern side of the University District, where an array of future towers are working through entitlements. Since February of 2020 alone, three high-rise residential buildings have been proposed. While many of these towers feature vertical modulation or heavy top expressions, Runberg, Cahill and barrientosRYAN wanted to design a building that would coordinate with other development on the pedestrian scale but stand apart on its upper levels.

In addition, the development site is located just across the street from the historic Neptune Theater and a new transit station. Their presence emphasizes an additional need for the new project to tie seamlessly into the ground plane. Proposed setbacks along NE 45th Street will focus on pedestrian engagement, while the ground realm along Brooklyn Avenue NE will be more landscaped and correspond with the street’s more “residential character. A plinth will also act as a front porch for the building, while storefronts will have operable windows to connect the inddor and outdoor realms.

The base of the tower establishes a pedestrian datum comparable to other towers in the neighborhood, and structural columns are expressed on the ground level. On the upper levels, grouping of floors reveals the internal organization of the tower and establishes a façade grid. The façade grid will further serve as a screen on the upper most level of the project.

“[We took] a more restrained approach to the grid, relying less on the heroics of architecture,” said Runberg. “We’re relying more on a very simple, disciplined exercise here, one that focuses on form and scale and proportion, and the rigor of the detail—executed mindfully.”

Materials will include a mix of vision glass, aluminum curtain walls, and bronze glass spandrel, among others.

Overall, the Board was highly impressed with the design of the project and only had minor comments regarding its design. Design Review Board Member Dan Rusler noted that the building was “establishing an identity in its own right,” and along with the other members voted the project to move forward in the design review process.

The Board supported the overall architectural concept and massing, but asked the design team to add more depth to the grid, if possible, and to bring the tower bays down to the ground level to see how it impacts the design of the building at-grade.

“A little more depth would make [the design] sing,” noted Board Member Katy Haima.

The remainder of the Board’s comments were fairly minor, such as better integrating the plinth into the project’s design, and perhaps removing a planter located at the corner of the site to better open the building to the pedestrian realm. Other requests included expanding the adjacent bus stop and adding some additional wayfinding. The Board also asked the design team to look at potentially adding retail frontages on Brooklyn, if possible. However, at the end, the Board concurred it was one of the most well-designed projects it had reviewed to date and that only minor tweaks were necessary.