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Board and developers agree, Midtown Center project needs further review

screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-3-58-13-pmIt’s not often that the backers behind a big time project in Seattle ask to be slowed by another review. But the project to redevelop Midtown Center and a city fully city block at 23rd and Union is complicated.

The East Design Review Board agreed Wednesday night that the project planned for 2301 E Union should, indeed, return for a second Early Design Guidance meeting.

Brad Reisinger with Lennar Multifamily Communities, one of the site developers along with Regency Centers, requested a second EDG because the project is complicated due to the block-sized site and the pending agreement with the Africatown nonprofit.

An agreement between developers to sell Africatown about 20% of the 2.4-acre property at 23rd and Union to give the nonprofit an ownership stake is still being finalized. Regency is currently under contract to purchase the block.

CHS looked at the history of the block, its importance in the Black community, and the long road to redevelopment for Midtown here. Capitol Hill Housing, meanwhile, is developing the Liberty Bank Building across the street from Midtown Center under a community agreement with partners including Africatown that will be fully affordable and  is hoped to become a template for inclusive development in Seattle.

Plans from Encore Architects for the Midtown Center project propose two seven-story buildings with 355 units in one and 120 in the other. In the larger building, 10% of the units and a to be determined portion of the units in the second would be affordable. Plans also include a large local grocery store, pharmacy, smaller retail spaces and 482 parking spaces. CHS looked at the design here earlier this week.

“The overall mass and scale seem kind of grotesque in my mind,” one neighbor on 24th Ave said. Many commenters raised similar concerns and the board referred to the proposed development as “massive.”

screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-3-59-16-pmBoard member Christina Orr-Cahall requested Encore come up with two more designs, potentially with more, smaller buildings as suggested by members of the public and the board. Even if the smaller buildings don’t work, it would be nice to see why they don’t, Orr-Cahall said.

Some commenters and board members expressed concerns that the 30,000 square foot yet-to-be-announced grocery store chain could be driving much of the design.

“I agree that the scale of the grocery store seems out of line,” board member Barbara Busett said.

Some commenters liked the thought of having another grocery store in the neighborhood, but most others thought it was too large or that there are many nearby grocers already.

Another concern for the board in the preferred design is the pedestrian walkway planned to run between the two buildings. The members considered it to be too narrow, don’t think it will be very active and could be a security issue.

The development also calls for the underground parking entrance to be located on 24th Ave across from single family homes.

“That’s a neighborhood,” resident Samara Louton said. “That’s not a thoroughfare. That’s not an arterial.”

Tami Garrett, the city planner on the project, said the conversation about the parking entrance is ongoing, but, under current zoning, an entrance isn’t allowed on 23rd or Union.

Among its requests, the board also asked the architect and developer to include African American and neighborhood culture and history in the design, citing the planned nearby Liberty Bank Building as example.

The development also hinges on Central District zoning changes planned as part of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda — or a special rezone will be required. The early designs call for the seven-story building to be 70-feet tall, below the 85-foot threshold that could be allowed in the area eventually under HALA.

While Lennar is still working with Africatown on the agreement, the goal is to build on the site as one project. The developers hope to start construction in the first half of 2018 with the first units opening in 2020.

screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-2-57-53-pm600 E Howell
Earlier in the evening, the board voted to move the project slated to replace a Capitol Hill diver bar with seven stories of microhousing forward. The E Howell property currently houses two duplex structures and two single-level commercial buildings, one of which is the Redwood.

The Redwood and other buildings on the site are set to be replaced by a seven-story, mixed-use building that will create 73 “Small Efficiency Dwelling Units,” and four studio apartments atop 1,500 square feet of commercial space.

In August, CHS talked with owner Lisa Brooke about the dive bar’s limbo status as the project planned for the block moved slowly forward. Earlier, Brooke said she hoped to get another six-month lease in October to stay open through May 2017.

Neighbors to the proposed development by S+H Works and owner Blueprint Howell noted that it has been a spot for drug use and other criminal behavior and the design should try to deter that from continuing.screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-2-55-34-pm

“You’ll want to enclose whatever open space there is,” one man said. “… People will use any open space you leave available for nefarious activity.”

The board agreed that security at some areas of the development, particularly at the bike storage, is a concern that should be considered further by the developer.

Another commenter raised concerns about ensuring quality materials are used, noting that a nearby building has had to be resided twice in a relatively short time period.

“It’s amazing to me that we’re allowed to put up buildings that disintegrate in 15 years,” he said.

The board requested that quality and simple materials be used and was pleased with the overall massing of the building.

“I feel like in general, they’ve done a really great job at articulating every facade,” said one board member.

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26 thoughts on “Board and developers agree, Midtown Center project needs further review

  1. I think it’s a lousy idea to include a very large grocery store in the 23/union development. There is already a Safeway just a short ways north of the site, and there will probably be a grocery store in the redevelopment south of there, at 23/Jackson, where the Red Apple is now. The space would be much better utilized by small community businesses.

    • That Safeway has become very crowded in recent years due to the population increase, so adding another grocery store to the area actually makes sense to me.

    • I would think the neighborhood could use it. Safeway at 23rd currently serves parts of the Hill/Hilltop, Madison Valley and Park, Madrona, Denny Blaine, etc. The next closest large grocery stores are on 15th and Broadway, or Red Apple at 23rd/Jackson (I love the Red Apple down in Madison Park, but it’s on the small side and I can’t really do a week’s worth of grocery shopping there).

      With Red Apple at 23rd and Jackson possibly going away in the near(ish) future and all the large apartment developments going up on both Madison and Union, we could use the additional capacity. I would be pro-grocery store. I also read frequently about “food deserts” in historically disadvantaged communities like the CD, and would think this could be a welcome addition to the area, along with supporting small community businesses.

    • “The next closest large grocery stores are on 15th and Broadway, or Red Apple at 23rd/Jackson….”

      No, the next closest grocery store is 6 blocks to the east of 23rd and Union, the Grocery Outlet, at Union and MLK. Although many people sniff and turn up their nose at G.O., it’s a pretty full-service store. It’s not as big as Safeway or Red Apple but it’s certainly bigger than Trader Joe’s.

    • Heh, umm yeah the grocery outlet is not a comparable to a QFC, Safeway and especially not a higher end grocer. The produce quality is terrible along with the selection. The absolute worst part are the prices! The prices aren’t even good! (unless you are buying ice cream and novelty deserts).

  2. Why is there so much disdain new, potential grocery store? I live near there and every time I go to a grocery store “near” 23rd and Union I drive. It would be wonderful to have something to be able to walk to and possibly higher quality produce.

    • I’m pretty sure there will be a grocery store at the gas station project under construction at 23/union. That would be two across from each other very near to Safeway, Trader Joe’s and Mad mkt.

    • A grocery store is planned for the project under construction on the NW corner of the intersection. I believe the general mood of the room was that another much larger store would be redundant. https://www.seattleinprogress.com/project/3019001

      Moreover, objections focused on the monolithic character of Lennar’s proposal. There is general consensus favoring redevelopment of the block asap, however consolidating the allowed mass in a single structure is troubling from an urban design standpoint. Personally, I’d be willing to accept even more building mass and height if it came in the form of four or six structures of varying forms.

      The issue here is that inclusion of a large format grocery tenant appears to be driving all other design decisions and precludes a more nuanced, fine grained project. One board member noted that the board generally does not favor such large stores in urban contexts since they tend to be auto-oriented and contribute little if anything to foot traffic. This contradicts the architect’s suggestion that the grocer would be necessary to generate support for small in-line retail. A smaller footprint grocer such as the one Lake Union Partners are bringing to their project less than 100′ away would be preferable.

  3. “An agreement between developers to sell Africatown about 20% of the 2.4-acre property at 23rd and Union to give the nonprofit an ownership stake is still being finalized.”

    I’ve seen this mentioned multiple times and a few details always seem to be lacking. Digging backwards to the linked article I found this:

    “…they are working on a deal with Central District community nonprofit Africatown that will give the organization an ownership stake in the project. The planned deal “articulates a path forward and shared goals for inclusive redevelopment of the property” the companies say……The developers say Forterra, “a local sustainability non-profit with deep experience helping facilitate complex land transactions,” will work with Africatown to finance the deal.”

    Is this agreement just a Memorandum of Understanding and a “Right of First Refusal” to purchase the 20% stake at some later date, at an unspecified price TBD later after about 10 yrs of appreciation?

    This says Forterra will ‘work with Africatown to finance the deal’. Will they kick in actual $$? Does Africatown HAVE any actual money now? Who associated with Africatown now has access to investment capital? If not– is there a reason to expect at some time in the future, they’ll have several $millions$ to get into this? What happens if this time approaches and either Forterra isn’t around, and/or has no money, and/or Africatown has no money? Then wouldn’t this all dissolve into one massive BS PR stunt? Maybe these questions have been answered before, but if they have, I must’ve missed it.

    • all of your questions are the same ones I’ve been asking myself – I wish the parties involved would hold a meeting so we can understand what is happening and how it will happen. I’m all for Africatown having a place to call home, I just want to hear from them what they are planning to do and how they are planning to fund it.

  4. Why do we choose to call it historically black?

    The culture and demographics of the Central District have changed repeatedly throughout many years. It started out as a predominantly Jewish neighborhood.[4] Jewish residents built Temple De Hirsch on Union Street in 1907;[1] Temple De Hirsch Sinai on the opposite corner of the same block is a successor to that congregation; the original Temple De Hirsch is largely demolished, though some fragments remain. Other former synagogues in the neighborhood are the former Sephardic Bikur Holim synagogue (now Tolliver Temple), Herzl Congregation synagogue (now Odessa Brown Clinic), and Chevra Bikur Cholim (now Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center).
    A few decades later, the Central District became a home to Japanese-Americans in Seattle. The blocks between 14th and 18th Avenues and Yesler Way and Jackson Street still retain a strong Japanese presence—the Buddhist Church, Seattle Koyasan Church, Konko, Wisteria Park, Japanese Congregational Church, Keiro Nursing Home, and the Kawabe Memorial House. During World War II, presidential Executive Order 9066 made possible the removal of American citizens of Japanese descent from the West Coast. All Japanese residents were immediately taken out of their homes and sent to internment camps. This and many race-restricted covenants to the north and south paved the way for many African Americans to find a new home in the Central District.[5] By the 1970s, Central District became largely an African-American neighborhood and the center of the civil rights movement in Seattle. In 1970, Blacks made up nearly 80% of the neighborhood’s population [1] However, it also marked the neighborhood’s decline into poverty and crime for another two decades.

    • We didn’t use the term but you make this comment repeatedly. I’m leaving this one in place but if you continue to make the same argument on every post about development involving Africatown, it will be removed. Find another venue.

  5. @Aaron, I’m not sure what your point really is but we are talking about one intersection and making a genuine attempt to preserve and honor the history there. I got the impression from the meeting that the (23rd @Union) intersection is where Africatown identifies as a hallmark, flagship (if you will) of it’s history. The rest of the Central District (Even that corner) is permitted for any and all development from what I can see.

    @Jon, I actually prefer the density and want to maximize building up if possible. We have to think for the next 20-50 years and build something that will be sustainable for the incoming new residents.

    • I’m not arguing for less mass and height. Rather, it’s not if we grow, it’s how we grow. The same mass divided into multiple buildings yields a more diverse, fine grained urban structure. Eroding the urban grain allows the granular structure to dissolve into a more suburban pattern of large superblocks. Human scaled development is the hallmark of places that have been the successful and adaptable over time.

    • “The (23rd @Union) intersection is where Africatown identifies as a hallmark, flagship (if you will) of it’s history:

      Were you not in Seattle for Wyking’s Colman School occupation? Or Horace Mann?

      I also question where the organization will get the funds. Sounds like there isn’t an answer yet.

    • I suspect the developer knows fully well this promise to sell 20% will never need to be honored. They placate everybody talking nice about Africatown/community ownership stake, knowing when it’s time to kick in the cash there won’t really be any. They get to look all warm-and-fuzzy for 10 years then it’s business as usual. To be clear, I’m not saying they do or don’t “owe” anybody anything– I’m just not convinced this ever amounts to anything.

  6. Hi jseattle,

    I am not sure why you post on the internet and then get sensitive when people in a community pose a question.

    What’s the point of having comments if people can’t ask questions? They don’t require you to answer them and they are not all directed at you to answer either.

    I don’t care whether you used the term or not. It gets used often enough around anything related to the Central District. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to you whether that gets answered. You are free to express your opinion around that if you would like and filter others that you don’t like (as your comment suggest you would do).

    I appreciate you leaving the comment this time.

    • As a former resident of Seward Park/Lakewood area and knowing how diverse it actually is, both racially, economically, and spiritually, if the demographics drastically changed in next 10 years, this gentile would argue with anyone who would say that it wasn’t a historically Jewish neighborhood and a particularly Orthodox and Sephardic one. And it also wasn’t always the case. This history (and present) is woven in the neighborhhood. I’m unclear why some folks feel so challenged about the African American history of the CD, where I am resident. This is also woven into the history and present of the CD and frankly also Madrona.

  7. A grocery store doesn’t need to be large to be useful. Trader Joe’s is a prime example. You can’t get everything there it’s true but I also can’t get eveything I need at the Safeway either. Grocery stores don’t always work well with small business retail mix; try to think of a good example in the city in a neighborhood where a large grocery store is surrounded by a good retail mix some of which are small businesses (clearly u village doesn’t count). So as mentioned before the scale of the grocery store is a big driver of everything else, including the design of all the other retail small business spaces, flow of foot and street traffic and as presented large grocery trucks (bigger than the ones ar TJs) rolling on 24th Ave into the site.

    We have no idea who this grocery pharmacy tenant is and they are a major driver. I’m way more concerned about that and getting that info than public private partnership with Africatown, Forterra, and the developer, especially when one can pick up the phone and call any of those folks as they are know entities (in addition the developer and the mysterious tenant driver would typically have requirements in such an agreement for somewhat simultaneous development schedules, so tenants aren’t losing money due to additional development after completion of the project.)

    Speaking of 24th, one can have density without essentially having the single family houses on 24th facing a wall and a couple of townhouses – there are better examples across the city I how this has been achieved and the board and folks at the meeting raised valid concerns of no backsides of retail/restaurant/ grocery facing a residential street.

    I’m not surprised the developer also wanted to go back to the drawing board – I would say they didn’t bring their A game to this presentation, but maybe internally they didn’t have a choice and this is what they needed to go back internally to get some things done. Some good ideas, but massive and vague were takeaways which is not a good first attempt for presenting development of an entire city block, particularly where there are bad examples in other parts of the city (old qfc site on north Capitol Hill springs to mind). Hopefully even more folks will come to subsequent meetings and stay engaged!

    • Thoughtful observations, particularly regarding the scale of the grocer. The architect argued that the large grocer was needed to attract foot traffic to support the smaller retailers. I don’t buy that, and neither did the DRB members, one of whom pointed out that a 30,000+ sf grocer is really more of an auto oriented destination and not a foot traffic generator. Therefore, she argued, it’s actually counterproductive to the idea of creating a walkable, pedestrian oriented streetscape. The board also noted that Union is the logical place for small storefronts, yet it’s dominated by the grocery and pharmacy in the current plan. Larger grocers are not the direction the board wants to see in urban sites, preferring retailers more in the scale of the Madison coop or Trader Joes.

  8. I agree that the area should have a grocery store but a small scale one similar to TJ’s on Madison. Also, it’s time for the people at Africatown to start answering the questions: where are your supporters and where’s the funding? you’ve had a couple of years now to work on this.