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Seattle Design Review Board Fumbles Through Denial of Bosa’s 423-Unit 3rd & Cherry Project

Seattle Design Review Board, Bosa Development, Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, Seattle, Pioneer Square, McCullough Hill Leary
Image Credit: James K.M. Cheng Architects

By Meghan Hall & Vladimir Bosanac

The smallest things can seem ominous at times, and perhaps it was a forgotten projector power cable that foretold the outcome of last week’s Seattle Design Review Board’s decision to reject Bosa’s 3rd & Cherry residential tower project. A stunned design team, caught off guard by the board’s challenge of the building’s proposed design, was left scratching its head as the board haughtily rejected its proposal. It was mostly an exercise of committee design that elongated the review process, which failed to provide leadership toward a resolution and quite possibly sent the project back to the drawing board.

James K.M. Cheng is one of Canada’s most prolific and award-winning architects who prides himself on creating meaningful and dynamic built environments. From his office in Vancouver, B.C., Cheng has been committed to crafting high-quality and innovative designs for over 40 years. His portfolio includes Canadian and international master planning, as well as residential, commercial and institutional projects that have received prestigious awards, such as the Order of Canada and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Governor General’s Medal.

Cheng is the design force behind Burnaby, B.C.-based Bosa Development’s 432-unit project in the very heart of Seattle at 3rd and Cherry, next to the City Hall in a block that has had its share of controversy over the past few years. His partnership with Bosa is looking to bring a thoughtful and evolved project, one that is considerate of its past, its physical location and its future use, which will include public transit access as well as the creation of a 25,000 square foot private plaza with broad public uses.

Documents indicate that Bosa originally intended the tower to be used primarily for commercial uses, with some residential units and street level retail. However, those plans changed, stated Bosa in project documents, due to the rising need for housing in the area. Building uses immediately surrounding the site are office and retail, with government and public tenants occupying neighboring structuresl. According to public documents and previous reporting by The Registry, Bosa had initially presented plans to build a 61-story, 520-unit development with 9,963 square feet of ground floor retail space on the site; that vision received a green light at an Early Design Guidance Meeting more than a year ago in January 2018.

Image Credit: James K.M. Cheng Architects

The site also sits at the boundary of Seattle’s central business district and the legacy that the Pioneer Square neighborhood brings. “The site is in a transition zone between the commercial core and the Pioneer Square district. So, we are half and half, and actually our design responds to that,” said Cheng in his opening remarks to the board.

His presentation was technical and detailed in response to prior meetings the design team has had with the board. This was not a presentation to sell the project; it was addressing specific board comments and feedback.

“The main concept is to create the diversity of open space,” said Cheng. “The board suggested that we try to move this massing as close to the northeast corner as possible to give more space to the plaza and open space.”

This open space is perhaps the main feature of the project. The team proposes over 25,000 square feet of open space and just over 10,000 square feet of building area on most of the city block. The Pioneer Square light rail underground station is also present on the same block, giving the design team limited area to design the building with structural limitations presented by the Sound Transit station below.

The development team explained that its intention with the project is to reinforce a public corridor along Cherry St. and provide a pedestrian experience that will complement City Hall and existing buildings. The massing of the building, according to project documents, extends the curvilinear geometry of City Hall. Meanwhile, the positioning of the tower on the site will be shifted to the northern portion of the site, with a reduced tower width. The building will be oriented to the northeast in order to allow for additional area on the lower plaza while maintaining views through the site from 4th Ave. to 3rd Ave.

A mix of materials, including masonry and glass will be used to create a unique façade, but one that does not overwhelm in its complexity, rather providing a simple and elegant texture of the massing.

Several departures were requested for the project, since the elevation transition on the block is dramatic and requires a creative solution to make the structure appear cohesive. The tower width was one one of them, because the team has a narrow space on which to locate the project, and it needs to preserve the 25,000 square foot public amenity on the site. On top of that, the structural challenges presented by the underground transit station and the strive for great design felt like reasonable reasons for such a request to be granted approval.

But the board could not see it through.

It objected to the width of the building and spent over an hour deliberating the impact of the building width on the pedestrian experience. It seemed to consider positively the large park the developer was proposing and it seemed to appreciate Cheng’s great design, but it could not get over the request for the departure. At one point, a member of the board even stated that a departure at this stage of the design review will be impossible to obtain.

“I’m stunned!” proclaimed Jack McCullough, partner in Seattle-based McCullough Hill Leary, who represented the development team. “It’s about great design, that’s what the departures are about.” He explained Cheng’s strategy of avoiding building a podium below the tower, careful consideration of incorporating the neighborhood context to the 25,000 square foot park, the vision behind expanded views and the city’s recommendation to place the building in the northern part of the block. The team followed the city’s guidance, after all, and they are constrained by the topography of the site and the transit use below ground.

It fell on deaf ears, and the board instead started reading the minutes from the earlier meetings desperately trying to re-interpret for the development team what they meant in their previous session. There was no leadership on the board to find a solution and no proposal for a resolution. Perhaps even an imperfect one may have been better than to delay and possibly push for a redesign of the project. The context of the project’s timeline and the presence of a great designer who knows much about urban planning and bringing functional design to life, was lost on the board. Process overtook progress.

Sensing defeat and realizing that he can not pass through this committee think, McCollough deferred, “So, that’s what we’re trying to focus on, and we need to do a better job with characterizing [the project] for you.”

And, until the next meeting, the gaping hole of the site’s previously demolished structure and a vacant city block will continue to define the board’s decision.