Capitol Hill critics say Convention Center design a rush job — UPDATE

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(Images: LMN Architects)

UPDATE 10/7/2015: The board voted Tuesday night to allow the expansion project to move forward to the Master Use Permit, or MUP, stage but the project’s city planning rep tells CHS there will be more opportunities for public feedback as the design and approval process plays out. At least two “recommendation” level design review meetings are expected along with the process related to street and alley vacations necessary to complete the expansion.

Original report: As the public review process rolls forward for the expanded Washington State Convention Center, a Capitol Hill community group is continuing to raise concerns that the project’s hurried pace is leaving out meaningful input from neighborhoods on a range of required public benefits.

For months, the Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council has been pushing to insert Capitol Hill priorities into the public project with a $1.4 billion budget — a figure that exceeds the cost to build CenturyLink and Safeco Field combined.

“It’s almost as if there was another convention center being built in Seattle and they want to get theirs finished before it,” PPUNC chair John Feit told CHS.

Affordable housing, a transit hub, and creating open public space were just a few of ideas generated during an public open house in September. Some of the disconnect between community members and the Pine Street Group, which is managing the project for WSCC, may stem from differing views of how surrounding residents will interact with the project.

According to Pine Street principal Matt Griffin, the convention center is ultimately less about creating a destination for neighbors and more about patching over I-5. “

One of the most important things we can do for Capitol Hill is increase that pedestrian link between Capitol Hill and downtown,” he said.

But it’s likely the project will be asked to do more. Because of its scale, the project is also being managed by a Planned Community Development process in which this kind of once in a generation project may be planned in a unified process if public benefits including low-income housing, historic preservation, or public space are included. It’s rare for Seattle to see projects on this scale — the planned convention center expansion and a set of surrounding developments designed to accompany the project represent one of the few times the process has ever been undertaken.

An October 1st memo from DPD director Diane Sugimura documents five priorities for the WSCC is to consider as it utilizes the PCD process:

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On Tuesday night LMN Architects will take a rare third turn before the design review board, but don’t expect to hear much about programming or neighborhood improvements. The developers made some minor changes around the layout of retail space, but most of the changes from the last design review meeting focus around issues like street grading and tweaking the pedestrian experience. If you’re not up for sitting in the meeting for three hours, you can also send your feedback to the city’s planner for the project.

UPDATE: Here’s the letter P/PUNC sent to the design review board ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, wherein they ask for another round of design review. In the letter, Feit calls out several troubling characteristics, including “a pathologic over-expression of building tectonics: hanging masses, 200 foot plus columns, and sheer walls of glazing.”

1600 9th Ave

Design Review Early Design Guidance application proposing a 5 level exhibition and meeting room facility, with retail at grade, 800 parking spaces and associated loading docks within the structure. (Washington State Convention Center Expansion). Includes associated MUP 3020177, 1711 Boren Ave/ View Design Proposal  (38 MB)    

Review Meeting
October 6, 2015 5:30 pm, City Hall Room , 600 5th Ave, Bertha Landes Room
Review Phase: EDG–Early Design Guidance  See All Reviews
Planner: Garry Papers

The plan for the 1.2 million-square-foot center currently includes designs for a “9th Avenue Mixing Zone,” a “Pine Street Gallery,” and a “Boren Beacon” as well as a planned “codevelopment” to create a 30-story apartment tower and a 16-story office building near the site.

During a September open house, community members lead by the PPUNC offered a broad array of ideas that could be included as part of the special Public process. It was the only public feedback meeting held on the topic, and the developers are now working with DPD to finalize the plans.

In addition to the Planned Community Development benefits, the developers would also typically be required achieve public benefits in exchange taking over three alleys and a small block of Terry Ave. Another meeting to gather public feedback on the alley and street vacation has yet to be scheduled.

Additionally, the project must also go before the Seattle Design Commission, which could happen within the next couple of months. According to Griffin, that’s when developers plan to divulge more details beyond the proposed designs.

Lurking in the background of the public benefits push, there’s an even bigger concept at play: A bold proposal for a 45-acre lid park to cover large swath of I-5. The idea was among the most popular during the public feedback meeting in September, but while the developers haven’t been quick to mix the public benefits discussion with the design review process, they’re clear that the park is definitely out of scope.

“It’s not part of our project,” said Griffin, adding that the project wouldn’t preclude doing a park lid in the future.

According to Griffin, the development team is currently working with state transportation department to place a small lid over the south east corner of Pine and Boren for a retail property, possibly a bar or restaurant to further improve the I-5 traverse.

Griffin is skeptical about significantly expanding the current amount of retail space surrounding the center, as some have proposed, as he said retail vacancies are downtown are still relatively high.

“There’s a fair amount of retail empty in downtown right now,” Griffin said.

He’s also not convinced the pace of the project is unusually fast.

“To me, they always seem to take longer than they should,” Griffin said. “I’m used to moving them along.”

Convention Design Review 10/6

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9 thoughts on “Capitol Hill critics say Convention Center design a rush job — UPDATE

  1. Public benefit should be at the core of this publicly funded project, not a tacked on accessory. The benefits that this expansion might provide to the city of Seattle, King County and the state of Washington have never been presented to or scrutinized by the public in any meaningful way, but $1.4 billion in funding is somehow available.

    • It is not publicly funded – it is a PFD.
      the WSCC operates off of existing hotel room taxes and the new building will be built with that revenue plus the sale of the two adjacent towers. No public dollars.

      That said, PFDs have oversight boards to ensure they are run properly, and the WSCC is one of just a handful across the country actually having to turn away extra business and operating in the black.

      There have already been – and will continue to be – a number of public meetings focused on discussion around public benefits the project will provide. Tonight is one.

      • The paying of taxes (hotel rooms or otherwise) is typically how public projects are funded. Additionally, most of the project is being built on publicly owned land. There are five public right of way vacations required to build it. This is a public project managed by a board of director’s appointed by elected officials at the state, county, and city levels. One of the issues is that despite all of the public underpinnings, this project is being treated as a private development project (i.e., it is not being reviewed by the Design Commission during its early stages), and has yet to garner the type of public engagement and scrutiny its public nature warrants.

      • Definitionally, hotel taxes ARE public dollars. They are the action of the state taking an excise from private economic transactions (in this case, the renting of hotel rooms).

        So, regardless of attempts at nomenclature smoke and mirrors, taxes are what is funding this project, and that means at the the end of the day, its the public’s dollars that are paying for it.

  2. Good piece, thanks Bryan. And to the rest of us, please attend the public meeting this evening. Your comments matter and the Design Review Board takes them seriously. Whether you support or oppose to the project, show up and testify. Public participation is the best way we can all help shape our built environment.

  3. The city should require property owners to fill street-level retail vacancies within a few months of project completion. The reason for street-level retail is to “activate the street”, but there’s nothing active about a bunch of empty storefronts. The reason they’re not being leased…retail is too expensive. This will force developers to reduce retail rents, bring in tenants and help activate neighborhoods, a tremendous public benefit.

    • Totally…force them to fill the spots by fixing the prices. That way developers will line up to build out blocks that will operate at a loss!!! Let’s do it!!!

  4. The top picture is somewhat ugly. Too much gray wall facing onto Pine, not enough glass on the Pine side. Having said that, the lower picture looks good. Lots of glass much better. Scrolling through the proposal, I think they did a fairly good job. One thing they could do is borrow some ideas from the Olive 8 tower shown in the distance on the right of the top depiction. Rather than gray walls, Olive 8 uses more interesting but subtle colors and materials.