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Review Board Asks 23-Story U-District Project Back for Additional Review, Cites Lack of Clear Design

700 NE 45th Street, Victory at the U, Champion Real Estate, Weber Thompson, University District, Seattle, University of Washington, Seattle Go Center
Courtesy of Weber Thompson

By Meghan Hall

After a promising start with a clear design in mind at an initial Early Design Guidance meeting, a project within Seattle’s University District has been asked to return for a second recommendation meeting. On Monday, Champion Real Estate and architecture firm Weber Thompson presented updated designs for “Victory at the U,” a 23-story residential tower. However, the Northeast Design Review Board was fairly critical of the project’s design evolution, and asked the project team to return with a clearer design in the coming months.

Located at 700 NE 45th Street, the project would include about 110 residential units. The units will be healthy in size, and a mix of three-bedroom, four-bedroom and five-bedroom units designed to cater to students at the University of Washington. A mix of retail space, including a social study, cafe with coffee window and generous plaza are planned. The building will also house the Seattle Go Center, which over the years has become a community hub for those interested in the ancient Japanese game of Go.

The project team’s vision is to take a prominent corner of the U-District and create a building that acts as a welcoming, economic gateway to the neighborhood. The tower’s main massing concept is inspired by the movement of a waterfall and is intended to feature a sophisticated, but modern design.

“During EDG, we based our massing option on the notion of a waterfall,” explained Weber Thompson’s Austin Besse. “The water really carves away from the adjacent [block]. The waterfall has movement and vibrancy and drama, and we  felt this was a very fitting parallel for this gateway corner. What this design concept does is it sets up a language that everyone can understand and a design concept that everyone can relate to.”

The project’s design is also intended to be urban, vibrant, eclectic and inclusive. The project team maintained the carved southwest corner, and the facade was broken into two slender shapes. Subtle datums were added into the design to reflect the strong mid-rise character found throughout the neighborhood. This change was further emphasized by a change of materiality from dark masonry at the lower levels to metal within the tower.

Strata were also introduced. Dark strata on a larger scale face the U-District and Interstate 5, while lighter strata incorporate smaller scale programmatic elements. According to Weber Thompson, these secondary elements range from single story to four story groupings.

“You can see that this is not a typical base-middle-top building that has ground level retail at the street,” added Besse. “This is far more interesting, far more inclusive, and more important to the neighborhood…”

[More design] Additionally, the color palette has been limited, with each design theme relying on the same colors.

The proposed design is intended to create a healthy amount of open space through deep building setbacks. The setback creates a two-story gateway element and is complete with landscaping–including the maintenance of an existing Cork Oak– and art elements in an effort to create a welcoming urban plaza. To connect the plaza to the building, a curved wall creates better sight lines and visualizes the connection between inside and out.

“There is a really good balance between public, extroverted spaces and private, introverted spaces,” Besse noted. “The architecture becomes a backdrop for this urban space…We do not want plaza and building architecture to compete…”

However, the Design Review Board had a number of questions regarding the project’s evolving design. Ultimately, they felt that the modifications made since the previous Early Design Guidance meeting muddled the overall concept, and that the updated schemes lacked a clear and cohesive design to tie the building together. The Board also debated the use of spandrel glass versus vision glass, and noted that the massing was beginning to disappear beneath the mix of secondary elements and materials used.

The Board suggested utilizing horizontal strata to clarify the design. The Board also deliberated the public nature of the ground plane, and asked the design team to make the space more permeable and accessible to the public. The Board noted it would approve of less landscaping and more hardscape to make certain areas, particularly those adjacent to the sidewalk, more useable.

At the end of the meeting, the Review Board unanimously recommended the project return for further review. In the coming months, Champion and Weber Thompson will have the opportunity to refine their design based on the recommendations of the Review Board.