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Seattle Rejects Early Design for 226-Unit Apartment Building Next to First Hill’s Trinity Church

Seattle, Trinity Parish, Caydon USA, First Hill, Compton Design Office, Solomon Cordwell Buenz, Westbank Frye High Rise, Lennar
Image Credit: Compton Design Office

By Meghan Hall

Seattle is a city in transition, and in large part this is due to the growth the city has been undergoing over the last decade. Residential towers have sprung up in a city seeking higher density and proximity to its downtown core, and as a result First Hill will soon be a place few will recognize. However, one of those projects, proposed by the city’s historic Trinity Parish in partnership with Caydon USA, will have to return with a new proposal that better meets the city’s design guidelines.

The proposed 226-unit residential tower next to Seattle’s Trinity Church in the First Hill neighborhood honored the city’s historical landmark by preserving it in place while adding a contemporary structure next door that would help redefine the neighborhood’s landscape. Located at 615 8th Ave., the project, proposed by Caydon and designers Compton Design Office and Solomon Cordwell Buenz, would connect the church to the 324-foot tall development through an urban garden and three-story glass connection and cloister. The Parish program would occupy the lower levels of the tower, resulting in a new Parish Hall, art gallery and coffee shop, which will be open to the public. Parking for 178 vehicles is also proposed.

The church has tremendous historical significance to the city. It had been rebuilt twice since its initial construction; the original parish hall burned in the Great Seattle Fire and was rebuilt in 1891. However, a second fire destroyed the building again in 1907 and further renovations occurred between 2003 and 2005 after the Nisqually Earthquake. Its English Gothic style and sandstone exterior walls have made it a hallmark in the neighborhood, and the development team worked closely with the parish to incorporate the church’s Memorial Garden into the plans and connect the church with the development.

“We have, over the last twelve months, really put forth a lot of effort to move the project forward, and we’re excited what that means for the community,” said Derrek Lerouax, COO Caydon USA, who started the meeting by welcoming everyone in the room. “Trinity and Caydon have partnered to bring a great residential offering to the First Hill community, and in doing so continue and support the viability of Trinity Church as a fixture in the community.”

Kay Compton, founder of Compton Design Office in Seattle, added, “8th Avenue is a quintessential urban residential street. You don’t find a street like this in most cities in this country. It’s flat, it’s beautifully canopied, it’s an exceptional street, and we wanted to play to that exceptional street and the church that is on that street.”

But Compton and the rest of the development team also understand how different this neighborhood will soon look, and it was in that context that they saw their new tower, as well.

“The interesting thing about the neighborhood and the sense of place that we see there now, …it’s getting ready to change fundamentally,” she said. “We have nine towers that are going to be built in this neighborhood; residential towers, over the next few years.”

Those towers include the 33-story Westbank Frye High Rise on Terry Ave., the 30-story Lennar Multifamily project on Spring St., the 30-story 800 Columbia St. apartment building and the 24-story 620 Terry Ave. apartment project, among others.

So, Compton and the rest of the development team looked at ways to make their project stand out, and found it in the setting that is already there. “Their vision for the future has manifested itself in a project that is really somewhat unprecedented,” she said. “The new design takes that existing memorial garden and emphasises it and creates a larger memorial garden for the community. The transparency builds upon a sense of place that is already there.”

It is this memorial garden through which almost everything in the project hinged, and according to the design review board, it was the proposal around the garden that also turned the board to reject it.

“Our newly designed Memorial Garden will allow us to more meaningfully and visibly live Trinity’s mission, as a place that honors our history, memorializes those whose remains are interred in the Garden, and provides a welcoming space for the church and the wider community to gather and find a place of quiet contemplation in our bustling neighborhood,” said Reverend Jeffrey Shilling Gill in the design documents.

The benefit of the garden and its access to the public, as well as the glass-enclosed cloister, was the counterweight the design team used to request several departures in the proposal. The biggest ones were focused on expanding the footprint of the structure and creating bigger floor plates in the residential portion of the tower. This would have been achieved through expanding each side of the building, in some cases up to ten feet. The argument the designers considered was that the church will provide a wonderfully landscaped, expanded green space next to the building that would be accessible to the public. The team argued that it was sacrificing maximum area of the lot next to the church for more green space but in return wanted to expand the building.

However, this is where the design review board took issue with the proposal. The main objection was brought by board member AJ Taaca, who did not see the project working cohesively. His initial focus was on the proposed cloister, which after some questioning was described as no more than a gathering space to be used in conjunction with the Parish Hall and possibly the church itself. Further discussion also revealed that the public space within the Memorial Garden will not be so publicly accessible and would be limited to certain hours and days of the week. In addition, the garden would be fenced off, and it was not certain how and if access would be enabled through that fence on a regular basis.

Other members of the board concurred, summarizing that there is a disconnect between the public realm and the church programming and concluding that there is simply not enough benefit in aggregate to validate the numerous departures asks the design team was proposing.

The board also deliberated access points to the building, the design of the tower, which was not universally appreciated, and ground floor uses and materials, among other items. Overall, there were a number of questions about the design for which board members Andrew Haas and Melissa Alexander did not find good answers. Although these issues on their own could have been overlooked and may have made another project pass the design muster, the issues began to pile up. It was at that point that the board made it clear that the design team will have to come back and address their concerns in a future meeting.