Seattle’s Othello Residential Urban Village’s commercial core runs along Martin Luther King Jr. Way S, featuring a blend of older, low-rise buildings for small business retail and newer, high-rise buildings of mixed use. Much of the newer housing in the neighborhood is income-restricted and focuses on residential opportunities for housing projects, and on a larger scale, the area is centralized due to easy access to the Othello light rail station, pedestrian walkways and biking paths. Thus, these factors in mind, Seattle-based firms Neiman Taber Architects and Karen Kiest Landscape Architects presented a joint proposal on behalf of OZ Navigator for an 8-story, 272-unit apartment building on MLK Jr. Way last week during an early design guidance (EDG) meeting to the Southeast Design Review Board. After deliberations over the design, the Board unanimously approved the project to move forward to the recommendation phase.
The site is located at 7324 MLK Jr. Way S. and is currently occupied by an unused commercial building and a 10-unit apartment building. Both buildings will be demolished to make way for the new project. Once completed, the design team hopes the building will help with Othello’s transitional growth and respond well to neighborhood context, complementing the pedestrian transit focus and mitigating any privacy issues with neighboring buildings due to the tight urban infill site. The design goals of the project are tri-fold: Build financially feasible housing that responds well to neighborhood context, provide homes with access to natural light while respecting the privacy of neighbors and create a building that complements the pedestrian-oriented streetscape.
“The project is in a pedestrian zone at the heart of the station area,” said David Neiman, founder and partner at Neiman Taber Architects. “The building has to help contribute to a lively and vital pedestrian streetscape. It’s always top of the mind for this project.”
According to project documents, the 21,243 square foot irregularly-shaped site will feature a proposed gross floor area of 143,419 square feet, with eight floors containing 272 total residential units of both one- and two-bedroom units and a small efficiency dwelling unit. Retail occupants have not been specifically chosen, however, the project will dedicate up to 2,700 square feet for ground-floor retail space. The project also features 11 parking spaces below grade, along with 217 biking spaces.
During the meeting, the design team proposed three potential massing schemes. Scheme A features a donut-shaped building, with the residential units organized around a central courtyard and oriented east to west to provide the most access to light and air. This creates an unbroken street-facing facade. Scheme B features a “fingers” shape, which opens the east side of the building into a U to help provide access to light and air and maintains a continuous west facade with an upper level setback. While this also creates an unbroken street-facing facade, certain apartments face one another across the courtyard, leading to a potential lack of privacy.
Scheme C, the preferred option, features a refined version of Scheme A with a “portal” shape that has multi-story openings on the east and west facades to provide views to the interior courtyard. An opening at the front of the building helps to activate the street facade, which encourages pedestrian activity and improves the amenity area.
“We think this represents a large improvement over the previous two schemes,” said Patrick Taylor, designer at Neiman Taber Architects.
Othello design guidelines require a strong relationship between the building and pedestrian streetscape, which the design team hopes to achieve through the mid-block plaza and opportunity for small retail along the MLK Jr. Way frontage. Guidelines also encourage the use of high-quality materials to build the composition of the facade, and while these materials haven’t been selected yet by the team, they aim to incorporate traditional storefront materials that will help marry the facade with the up-and-coming station area shopping district.
“We really want to energize the plaza by connecting it to those retail spaces, and we really want to connect the inside of the building to the street level visually,” Taylor said.
During EDG, the design team requested two departures. Zoning regulations require upper-level setbacks for street-facing facades, which the team would prefer to abandon to allow for Scheme C’s design. Removing the upper level setback will result in a continuous vertical facade and allow for the creation of the first-floor plaza, along with a break in the facade at the second and third levels that extends the full height of the building. This break will help reduce the visual scale of the building.
The second departure request would reduce the required P-zone uses – retail, open space, et cetera – from 80 percent to 60 percent to allow for a more prominent lobby. The project doesn’t have alley access, so the waste room and auto access will have to be through MLK Jr. Way S. Reducing the P-zone use percentage will therefore allow for maximum street-level connection.
Overall, the Board considered the design of the project to be well thought through and appreciated the different design iterations listed in the packet. The clarity of the massing schemes presented was supported and the Board unanimously supported preferred Scheme C moving forward, given the concerns surrounding the privacy of the apartments that face each other in the courtyard. The Board agreed that the massing of the building from east to west in Scheme C breaks up the bulk of the building and attributes to the success of the courtyard.
Moving forward, the Board requested more details on materiality and specific details on the facade composition, as well as more details on the transition from public to private spaces in the building. The Board also requested to see more details on how the retail spaces would border the plaza. The Board was generally in favor of both departure requests as currently stated.
At the end of the meeting, the four Board members voted unanimously to move the project forward to the recommendation phase, taking the project and design vision one step towards completion.