Home AEC Q&A With Mark Johnson of the Seattle Design Commission: A Design Perspective...

Q&A With Mark Johnson of the Seattle Design Commission: A Design Perspective on Capital Improvement Projects Across the City

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Seattle, Seattle Design Commission, Signal Architecture+Research, Washington State Convention Center, Environmental Coalition of South Seattle
Seattle Aquarium. Rendering courtesy of Seattle Design Commission

By Jack Stubbs

Seattle is by all accounts a city in transition, and agencies are continually looking to give their input on projects that are underway throughout the city. The Seattle Design Commission, established in 1968 to advise the Mayor, City Council and city departments about the aesthetic, environmental and design principles and policies applied to capital improvement projects, is one agency with a pulse on the goings-on in the constantly-changing city.

In mid-May, Mark Johnson, principal of Seattle-based design firm Signal Architecture+Research, was selected and confirmed to serve on the Seattle Design Commission. We recently spoke with Johnson about his opinion on the continued importance of the collaboration between public and private entities in the design of projects; the role of architecture and design when it comes to evaluating capital improvement projects; issues around transportation, housing affordability and homelessness; and the importance of implementing collaborative and proactive design strategies in an evolving city.

Seattle, Seattle Design Commission, Signal Architecture+Research, Washington State Convention Center, Environmental Coalition of South Seattle
Mark Johnson

The Seattle Design Commission is currently working on several projects that are set to change the landscape of the city, some of which include the large-scale expansion of the Washington State Convention Center; the multi-stage revitalization of the waterfront; the transformation of the historic Yesler Terrace neighborhood; the Alaska Way Viaduct replacement; and One Center City, a plan that looks to create a long-term vision for improving circulation and public transit throughout Seattle.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how it led to your recent appointment to the Seattle Design Commission? 

Two mentors I had early in my career, Jerry Lominack (in Savannah, Georgia) and Susan Boyle in Seattle inspired me to engage with my community through their actions, where they provided design leadership in volunteer and board positions. This early influence stuck with me as I ‘took my work home’ through volunteering to support the development of Cesar Chavez Park while at Jones and Jones and developing River City Skatepark with Grindline Skateparks, Sea Mar Community Health Centers, and the South Park neighborhood Association.

I believe that design professionals have an opportunity to engage with their communities and city because they are trained to solve problems that occur at multiple scales, often simultaneously. Design has the power to create the identity of a place, whether in a home, cabin, interior, museum, park, or infrastructure. The experience we have in our cities is largely inspired by the public area between its structures and the resulting character that is revealed as we pass through space. As designers, we must think beyond the skin to engage with context.

How will you look to bring your architectural experience to the table when it comes to contributing to the goals of the Design Commission? 

I have had the opportunity to work on public, cultural, and community-based projects of multiple scales that are often integrated with the landscapes they occupy. Recent Signal A+R projects include King County CSO (Combined Sewer Overflow) facilities that require a high level of integrative design between engineers, architecture, landscape architecture, and public art.

This discipline offers an understanding of forces that might have driven a project team to a solution. We are also working on the adaptive reuse of three historic buildings at Fort Worden, requiring contextual sensitivity integrated with sustainable programming and the bottom line.

Additionally, how do you think your experience with the 4Culture Public Art Advisory Committee and Environmental Coalition of South Seattle (ECOSS) will allow you to bring a fresh perspective when it comes to the implementation of sustainable design in capital improvement projects across the city?

While they were very different organizations, both 4Culture PAAC and the ECOSS Board served diverse populations across the region while managing consistent service regardless of project scale. Many of the projects I worked on at Miller Hull, Jones and Jones and [projects that] Signal A+R continues to serve are board-led, and seeing the project from both sides of the table has informed my practice as an empathetic advisor and leader for projects. Both board positions reinforced a duty to represent what is best for the City and county, providing inquiry around assets that will become part of the public realm.

Seattle, Seattle Design Commission, Signal Architecture+Research, Washington State Convention Center, Environmental Coalition of South Seattle
Seattle Center Arena. Rendering courtesy of Seattle Design Commission

As one of two architects on the Commission, what do you think is the role of architects when it comes to evaluating public-funded architecture the role of these projects in our growing city?

The disciplines of the Commission are not necessarily divided such that architects evaluate architecture, planners evaluate planning, etc. I believe it is our role as professionals to bring our specific skillsets and experience to the table to evaluate the contribution a design proposal makes to the urban design of the city, whether from a planning, site, structures, or sustainability perspective.

By all accounts Seattle is a changing city, and many projects depend on the ability to navigate issues around sustainability, urban planning, design and art—what is the current day importance of this multi-dimensional approach to projects?

Urban design is the connective tissue of our City, and it is influenced by the multi-dimensional forces you mention above. It is important to consider project context to fully assess the potential benefit or lack of contribution to the public realm. Of significance in recent years has been the importance in evaluating projects through the lens of sustainability (energy, water, waste, materials), and equity and social justice.

The Design Commission brings together multiple perspectives from architects, urban planners, engineers and artists—what are some of the challenges involved in articulating a unified message when it comes to designing and executing capital improvement projects?

The background and supporting information provided by City staff and design teams prior to meetings prepares the Commission for informed discussion, rather than first impression responses, and Commission deliberations are given the time required to identify issues and discuss solutions. In addition, input from informed members of the public is highly valued and contributes to the outcome. Consensus is valued, but not a necessity, and the occasional civil debate between Commissioners can sometimes lead to a better and more enlightened message to the applicant.

What are some of the noteworthy projects and initiatives that the Seattle Design Commission is working on right now (e.g. One Center City, the Waterfront Redevelopment, Yesler Park redevelopment)? How are these projects, among others, contributing to the evolving fabric of Seattle?

In addition to those projects you mention, the expansion of the Seattle Center Arena is an exciting and challenging development for Seattle Center, requiring a collaborative and inventive design team to transition a Seattle icon into a modern, sustainable facility. Sound Transit 3 is a fascinating, long range project that will change the way future generations will traverse Seattle, while integration with the urban villages will require participation and collaboration from residents and engineers alike.

In the bigger picture, Seattle continues to be plagued by issues like transportation, homelessness and housing affordability. As these projects in the public realm continue to take shape, what do you think lies ahead for our city over the next 12 to 18 months? What about over the next 2 to 3 years? 

I feel that we should provide continued focus on transportation initiatives that allow people to leave their cars at home. Light rail, bus, rapid ride, bike lanes, car shares, bike shares, pedestrian pathways etc. should allow the population a host of options to navigate the city during and after the workday. Transit that serves regional hubs (Bremerton, Everett and Tacoma) is now in place; however, Eastside service cannot happen soon enough. Connectivity is one of the largest challenges to most of our transportation systems, which makes them less attractive than the control we have in our cars. Fixing that inconvenience will attract more commuters.

Homelessness and affordability are enormous issues of our time, and the solutions, which are elusive, are a separate and intertwined mesh of social, public health, and economic challenges that I feel that no single entity or dollar amount can immediately solve.

An integrated first step of social, health, and community alliances could potentially reduce the volume of undiagnosed/untreated mental health conditions, addiction, depression, and alcoholism that lead to homelessness. Organizations that provide workforce training are an avenue out of homelessness. However, they are typically underfunded, and they cannot provide solutions to the health challenges. Patience, empathy, and a long-term commitment will be the foundation for a solution.

Housing affordability is also elusive and slow-moving. While initiatives such as HALA integrate affordable housing within new development, it is only a percentage of the new housing stock introduced to market. Incentivizing developers to include more affordable housing could change the ratio. Again, an integrative solution that includes the economics perspectives from the investor, developer, social services, and communities could potentially reveal solutions that we do not yet have.

Seattle, Seattle Design Commission, Signal Architecture+Research, Washington State Convention Center, Environmental Coalition of South Seattle
ST3 Graphics. Courtesy of Seattle Design Commission

Is there anything in particular that concerns you about the rapid rate at which our city is growing? What are some of the challenges involved in ensuring that the city continues to grow and scale effectively over time?

The social topics above are certainly top of mind in the discussion around the growth of Seattle. Materials and durability, and the maximum scale of new construction are also concerning, where I fear that we are in a two-dimensional phase in Seattle’s growth, where the character that drew people here is replaced with a repetitive, bottom down formula.

There are fantastic precedents in Chop House Row, Melrose Market, and others that have merged small scale mercantile with residential, street level commercial, and public market space. A Signal project that recently completed DRB was inspired to pursue a similar through-block condition, with the building and commercial entry and garden apartments accessed along a mews in an apartment development in Beacon Hill. The breaking down of scale and introduction of public open space at grade both influenced the architectural expression and the contribution [that] the building and its new population can [provide] for the community.

I see the role of our Design Review Boards as important as ever as the growth continues. They are populated by practitioners who are in the scenes, understanding of the challenges developers and designers face. They provide invaluable critique to design proposals in support of site specific neighborhood character, [and] are figurative referees of the design community.

What in particular excites you about what lies ahead for the growing economic sectors in Seattle?

While the large economic sectors are the most visible in the city, there are integrated community, culture, and business threads that I think reinforce the character of Seattle and have the capability to build sustainable foundations for our neighborhoods. As a development, Chop House Row is a great precedent that integrates public open space, merchant, and residential functions, like what Alley 24 executed in South Lake Union.

The business districts in Beacon Hill, Columbia City, South Park, and Georgetown are thriving with one-of-a-kind small businesses and events. Rainier Avenue Radio and Black and Tan Hall have created powerful voices of culture, craft, and community, and Sawhorse Revolution is preparing the next generation of mindful design/ builders through engagement.

Is there anything else you would like to add or anything else that we should be talking about?

I would like to see more engagement between arts, industry, and economics in development. Over lunch [recently] with Michael Ellsworth from [design agency] Civilization, we talked about creativity being the fuel that inspires innovation. While we are a city that is currently rich with innovation, we questioned how long we can innovate if we continue to replace the creative space with space for innovators. Let’s talk about how we can create space for both to thrive.