Boxy. Monolith. Bland. Generic. The adjectives that get hurled at many of the new mixed-used developments on Capitol Hill can be quite unforgiving.
One of those projects, Viva Capitol Hill at 12th and E Union, was recently stalled after complaints rolled in about the building’s monochromatic facade.
Materials, zoning, and Capitol Hill’s competitive development market all narrow the window for creativity and risk taking in building new mixed-use projects.
Those factors have led to some easily identifiable trends among Capitol Hill’s 47+ in-progress projects: cheap and flat facades, jolting color splashes, and hulking buildings desperately trying to look smaller and more welcoming at street level. The resulting public distaste is not surprising, and architects say more could be done to build better.
Public policy, enacted years before the neighborhood’s boom years, is part of the reason today’s developments look the way they do. In 1990 the state legislature passed the Growth Management Act which aimed to reduce sprawl and led to up-zoning through urban villages and urban centers, including on Capitol Hill. University of Washington architecture professor Rick Mohler told CHS that unlike other cities, Seattle has taken the GMA goals seriously, which has had a big impact on the type of projects that get approved.
“The city is in the position of having to accommodate an incredible amount of growth in not a lot of land area,” he said, adding that only 19% of the city has been zoned for urban villages. “It really is a response to accommodating population growth that the city thought was politically feasible.”
Additional zoning requirements have narrowed the types of projects that get approved, the most common being the six-story mixed-use developments with concrete bases and street level retail — the so called “five-over-one” projects. The 10th and Union Building is one example that includes underground parking — another common factor that leads to bulky buildings with massive footprints.
Due to their size, five-over-one projects are frequently built with cheap facades. “A lot of the projects use Hardie board and vinyl windows, because of the nature of five-over-one,” said Dan Foltz, who sits on the East Design Review Board. Foltz said public outcry over new buildings usually comes down to facades, especially when compared to older buildings.
“The type of material and the quality is the most important thing,” Foltz said, who is also a principal architect at Weber Thompson. “Citizens want to see quality of materials. They don’t want to see cheap stuff like corrugated metal, they don’t want small vinyl windows.”
The size of the individual facade elements can also help make big buildings more palatable. Schemata Workshop architect John Feit said new large developments tend to use materials that are not “hand scale.” Next time you see an “ugly” building, try to imagine installing the facade and holding the individual pieces in your hand. Chances are you couldn’t do it.
Mohler said Seattle planners have also been overly concerned with curbing building height, where cities like Vancouver have prioritized reducing bulk at street level to create a better pedestrian experience.
In an effort to breakup Seattle’s block-sized developments, design review boards frequently ask architects to add more “modulations” to their facades to reduce big flat walls and give the impression of smaller buildings. Broadway has become the epicenter of such developments on Capitol Hill, with buildings like Joule drawing a considerable neighborhood ire.
“It’s trying to look like several different buildings in one building,” Mohler said of the building designed by Driscoll Architects PS, which has since shuttered. “It doesn’t really work, it doesn’t fool anyone that it’s not a big development.”
While some of the “dishonest” design can be blamed on design review, the architects CHS spoke with all agreed that the architectural bar could be raised much higher for mixed-use designs. And if developments can’t all be smaller scale infill projects, Schemata’s Mike Mariano said designers should take more care to focus on the building at street level.
“The first 30 feet is key,” Mariano said of building heights. “People are responding to the pedestrian experience at street level.”
So do Viva, The Brix, Joule and others actually all look the same? Part of that answer will depend on your architectural acumen, but clearly they share some development DNA. The popularity of newer, cheaper materials is partly responsible, as are the GMA, up-zoning, and the popularity of underground parking. Either way, design monotony is not new or necessarily bad — just look at any of the beloved (and massive) 1920s apartment buildings around Capitol Hill.
“All the buildings in Paris look the same, but nobody walks through the streets of Paris and goes ‘yuck’,” Feit said.
The winner’s curse
But while Paris underwent a massive, centrally planned redevelopment in the 19th Century, developers on Capitol Hill are in fierce competition to cash in on the neighborhood’s boom years. The land rush has led to what some developers call the “winner’s curse” for successful bidders on Capitol Hill projects.
Developers rightfully concerned about a return on investment turn to formulaic projects and a conservative thinking, Foltz said. And as the price of Capitol Hill property rises, so to does the risk involved with building big.
One developer already involved with in-progress projects around Pike/Pine agreed to talk off the record and told CHS that a recently purchased plot of prime Pike/Pine land was nearly guaranteed to be developed with the cheapest possible materials after its winning bidder massively overpaid on the land. He wouldn’t be the first developer, to be sure, to complain about being outbid but his back of the envelope math made a convincing case. To win the land, any buffer budget will be long spent when it comes time to finish the building.
Some developers, primarily the local operations, have made an effort to take on more creative projects. Liz Dunn’s 1310 Union building was mentioned several times among architects. In 2010 CHS spoke with project designer David Miller of Miller|Hull about what a popular mixed-use development on Capitol Hill looks like:
I think there needs to be more of a focus on buildings that are simple and elegant. Some of the new multifamily buildings in Seattle are too complicated with so many different setbacks and materials. I think new buildings need to focus on rationality and simplicity.
Other developers who are interested in “designing from the inside out” opt to save on design fees and focus on tenant amenities as the rental market continues to explode.
“The rental demand in Seattle is just crazy,” Mohler said. “Developers can take high risks, but they can develop a crappier product and it will still lease.”