Tuesday evening’s design review meeting was held in the basement of City Hall. The meeting lasted over two and a half hours. No food. No water. No bathroom breaks. It kind of felt like the land use equivalent of Luis Buñuel‘s The Exterminating Angel. Why are all these fancy people trapped in this room and will they ever get to leave?  I would guess that even the most seasoned land use hobbyist rarely attends design review meetings. This was my second.

Scale model of the proposed 5th & Virginia building.
Scale model of the proposed 5th & Virginia building.

It began with a “pitch” by the architect and design firm, then a public comment period, next a walk-through of models of the project, and then concluded with a detailed discussion of design elements by the review board. Spoiler alert: the review board did not grant approval for Project No. 3019699, Douglaston MUP Application for the building at corner of Fifth Avenue and Virginia Street. The review board asked for targeted changes to be presented at a future meeting.

A view from the 5th & Virginia building to the Space Needle and the Escala next door. (City of Seattle / Perkins + Will)
A view from the 5th & Virginia building to the Space Needle and the Escala next door. (City of Seattle / Perkins + Will)

The tone and pacing of design review reminded me of watching golf on television, with hushed tones and lots of inside jargon. Of all city processes and meetings that I have attended throughout my life, design review is where I feel the least qualified, like I barely belong there. To my untrained ear, critiques of the building were akin to pretentious appraisals of art by experts on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow.

The most exciting part of the evening included public testimony from Escala residents who have organized for many months to gain concessions from the developer due to concerns over light, air, and privacy. Under the guidance of former Seattle City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, the Downtown Residents Alliance (DRA) filed an appeal last week to halt the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) framework as a bargaining chip in their fight for land use code changes to preempt buildings like 5th & Virginia.

Portions of letters were read aloud including one that stated “Please log my displeasure for the design, bulk, height and mass of the proposed Douglaston development. Unconscionable”. Many Escala residents spoke to the need for light and air as a livability issue, which The Urbanist has covered extensively (“tower spacing”). One Escala resident spoke about seeing a couple making love at The Westin hotel from 200 feet away and was horrified at the idea that he might be subjected to this spectacle when the new building sits less that 25 feet from his window.

Locational context of the development proposal. (City of Seattle / Perkins + Will)
Locational context of the development proposal. (City of Seattle / Perkins + Will)

Those in support of the project included Liz Campbell, Chair of Belltown Housing and Land Use and former President of Belltown Community Council, and many members of the community. Campbell stated that the community feels “the enhanced activity in the alley created by early morning deliveries and increased hotel staff presence may provide deterrents to negative behavior that often plagues dark, otherwise empty alleys.” Members of the local business community expressed the need for greater street activation in the evenings. And I spoke during public comment in favor of the project on the grounds that significant concessions to the needs of Escala residents had already been incorporated into design updates by the Douglaston team.

Escala residents are demanding mitigation through design changes that they hope will reduce the sense that this building is close to theirs. Yet, at the time it was constructed, Escala’s builders maximized its site without regard for future development next door. Some Escala residents will likely be unhappy with any tower next door, whether 18 feet away or 60 feet away.

Sited ideally between South Lake Union and Downtown, the 47-story tall building will be a much nimbler tower than its cousin and provide 431 necessary apartment units, more than 150 hotel rooms, and desirable neighborhood retail in area with continued low vacancy rates. But you wouldn’t know that from the dozens and dozens of letters decrying it. Garry Papers, Senior Land Use Planner at Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI), told me that there are only three or four meetings per year that garner this sort of interest.

Evolution of the building form for 5th & Virginia. (City of Seattle / Perkins + Will)Evolution of the building form for 5th & Virginia. (City of Seattle / Perkins + Will)
Evolution of the building form for 5th & Virginia. (City of Seattle / Perkins + Will)

Design review board members seemed in broad agreement that their past recommendations had been incorporated in the latest designs. It is unclear if their choice to delay a final decision was entirely related to a few small “targeted” areas or if they were wary to make a decision under intense scrutiny from the public related to the larger questions of density in our city. The next design review meeting for this project will likely not be for several months.

This project is the start of something—the future of McGraw Square. For a neighborhood that some describe as “not quite Downtown” and “not quite Belltown” and “not quite South Lake Union”, these are exciting times. While the Escala residents frequently brought up lack of open space in critiquing 5th & Virginia, there was no mention of emerging plans by Douglaston to activate McGraw Square. With a number of new buildings along the monorail, this park could become a relevant community hub. One of my favorite aspects of urbanism is visioning the future. I can imagine emerging from the Westlake Station and receiving a text message from a friend, “I’m at the table and chairs at McGraw Square.

You can re-read my tweets from the meeting on Storify.

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Laura Loe (Bernstein) is an educator, musician, and gardener from Colombia/NY/LA/Chicago who has lived in Seattle since 2009. Her writing has appeared in The Urbanist, The Seattle Globalist, South Seattle Emerald, and International Examiner. She was elected to the Sierra Club's Seattle Group in 2016 and chairs their housing work group. She is passionate about womxn urbanist voices, climate justice, community ownership, equitable community development and renters' rights. Laura organizes independently to form ad-hoc collaborations with like-minded folks and performs civic matchmaking that leads to unlikely allyships. Yes in Our Backyards #YIOBY // Tweets as @yimbysea. She was recently referred to by a neighborhood activist as Seattle's "Worst Urbanist Propagandist".

5 COMMENTS

  1. “One Escala resident spoke about seeing a couple making love at The Westin hotel from 200 feet away”

    If random stuff like this freaks you out, you want to live on the Ponderosa, not in a city.

    • The comment made by the person at the design review was related to light and privacy. His comment was not that the act itself that freaked him out, but rather pointing out the likely impact of two glass enclosed living spaces less than 25 ft apart. In his opinion, this would impose privacy concerns which would, in his opinion, lead to a condition in which residents on both sides would have their blinds perpetually drawn and not get light into their units.

      Light, as discussed previously on this blog (see tower separation article referenced earlier), is a health concern.

      • Uh yeah so the typical setback in most older single family n’hoods is 2×5 feet or 10 feet. And across the street your windows are facing bang on the ones directly across from you. So unless we’re a bunch of Grimlocks, we’ve managed to survive with a sufficient amount of light and privacy, by hook or by crook…

  2. The author appears to be afflicted with a serious case of Donald Trump-itis.

    Like the Donald, she appears to just make stuff up without regard to truth or any basic fact checking. For example: 1) The DRA couldn’t use the DNS appeal as a bargaining chip since the project on Virginia is already vested.  2) The Escala Condos did not sue to stop MHA. 3) The developer has not made concessions to neighbors. 4) Stating that only 16 units in the neighboring building are impacted.

    The developer has not made significant concessions. If this was in regard to the 20% reduction (also note that FAR does not apply to mixed-use projects in DOC2), then the author must realize that the bulk of this reduction was not made as a concession to neighbors, but rather to meet fire code and have windows on the southern side of the building. If developers want windows, the building must set back from the lot line to meet fire code. Developers can build to the lot line, but then fire code will not allow windows. The transparency can be increased as the building is set back. This design decision made by the developer to maximize units with windows, was not a concession made for neighbors. If the author’s opinion is that the developers should build to the lot line with zero transparency, then that design feedback can be given via either written or verbal feedback at the design reviews. However, this feedback should be given in the EDG meetings not recommendations since massing has already been determined. The remainder of the reduction was the result of a DRB ask experiment with “shaving the corners”.

    The author acknowledges that listening to the design review sounds like a foreign language to her, but her lack of understanding doesn’t stop her from forming very strong, uninformed opinions on the matter to be consistent with her extreme views. Design reviews are for design feedback, not expressing support or lack-thereof of a particular project.

    Resorting to name calling and ad hominem attacks with the #50shadesofstupid hashtag on all tweets does nothing to help move the conversation forward. What makes matters worse is that the author is calling people stupid without being able to articulate the key issues. This is very unbecoming of The Urbanist blog, a publication that has done an excellent job in the past of discussing key issues without resorting to name calling or libelous remarks.

    Land use is an extremely complex and nuanced topic. Resorting to the false dilemmas (e.g. “You’re either accepting of a buildings design as-is, or you’re protesting density”, or “You’re either entirely accepting of a building’s design, or you’re decrying the building of 431 necessary apartments”) only leaves room for extremist viewpoints. It unfortunately does not leave room for a state in which both density and livability can be achieved. The author should study the DRA’s proposal as it offers both. The author should also examine other proposals in the article she linked to regarding “tower spacing” as many viable options are also described here. It would be so much more productive to be discussing/debating an actual solution, rather than haphazardly slinging untruths and insults.

    I hope the author can study the issues more deeply, issue a retraction to correct the inaccurate information, and offer an apology for the ad hominem attacks and defamatory statements. It’s disappointing to see this type of “journalism” enter the ranks of normally well-researched, well-balanced, and free-from-libelous-defamatory-statements blog.

  3. The author appears to be afflicted with a serious case of Donald Trump-itis.

    Like the Donald, she appears to just make stuff up without regard to truth or any basic fact checking. For example: 1) The DRA couldn’t use the DNS appeal as a bargaining chip since the project on Virginia is already vested.  2) The Escala Condos did not sue to stop MHA. 3) The developer has not made concessions to neighbors.

    The developer has not made significant concessions. If this was in regard to the 20% reduction (also note that FAR does not apply to mixed-use projects in DOC2), then the author must realize that the bulk of this reduction was not made as a concession to neighbors, but rather to meet fire code and have windows on the southern side of the building. If developers want windows, the building must set back from the lot line to meet fire code. Developers can build to the lot line, but then fire code will not allow windows. The transparency can be increased as the building is set back. This design decision made by the developer to maximize units with windows, was not a concession made for neighbors. If the author’s opinion is that the developers should build to the lot line with zero transparency, then that design feedback can be given via either written or verbal feedback at the design reviews. However, this feedback should be given in the EDG meetings not recommendations since massing has already been determined. The remainder of the reduction was the result of a DRB ask experiment with “shaving the corners”.

    The author acknowledges that listening to the design review sounds like a foreign language to her, but her lack of understanding doesn’t stop her from forming very strong, uninformed opinions on the matter to be consistent with her extreme views. Design reviews are for design feedback, not expressing support or lack-thereof of a particular project.

    Resorting to name calling and ad hominem attacks with the #50shadesofstupid hashtag on all tweets does nothing to help move the conversation forward. What makes matters worse is that the author is calling people stupid without being able to articulate the key issues. This is very unbecoming of The Urbanist blog, a publication that has done an excellent job in the past of discussing key issues without resorting to name calling or libelous remarks.

    Land use is an extremely complex and nuanced topic. Resorting to the false dilemmas (e.g. “You’re either accepting of a buildings design as-is, or you’re protesting density”, or “You’re either entirely accepting of a building’s design, or you’re decrying the building of 431 necessary apartments”) only leaves room for extremist viewpoints. It unfortunately does not leave room for a state in which both density and livability can be achieved. The author should study the DRA’s proposal as it offers both. The author should also examine other proposals in the article she linked to regarding “tower spacing” as many viable options are also described here. It would be so much more productive to be discussing/debating an actual solution, rather than haphazardly slinging untruths and insults.

    I hope the author can study the issues more deeply, issue a retraction to correct the inaccurate information, and offer an apology for the ad hominem attacks and defamatory statements. It’s disappointing to see this type of “journalism” enter the ranks of normally well-researched, well-balanced, and free-from-libelous-defamatory-statements blog.

Comments are closed.