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New guidelines set to refresh design of Capitol Hill development

The design of the next waves of Capitol Hill redevelopment could get a refresh under a set of proposed design guidelines that would govern buildings in the neighborhood.

“I think there’s an acceptance there’s going to be growth and there’s going to be change,” said Patrice Carroll, an urban planner with the city who is helping with the development of the new guidelines.

Capitol Hill Design Guidelines Open House

The original guidelines for the area were established in 2005, then revised in 2013 to reflect a larger, citywide update. In broad terms, the guidelines give developers an idea for how a building should look, and what sorts of amenities are important to the neighborhood.

The Capitol Hill guidelines include the 397-acre area roughly bounded by I-5 to the west, a staggered eastern border that generally follows 15th and 16th avenues, north to Aloha and South to Olive, though there are a few appendages that stick outside those borders. The guidelines do not include the area that’s part of the Harvard-Belmont Historic District (that is dealt with by the Landmarks Preservation Board). Nor are the Seattle Central campus along Broadway or the Kaiser Permanente building on 15th included, each of those has their own master plan.

The new guidelines have been in development for more than a year by a 14-member committee. The new set was driven, in part, by Capitol Hill Housing calling for new guidelines to reflect a new reality in the neighborhood. The largest example is Capitol Hill Station, which has transformed the area around it. But the draft guidelines note that there have been nearly 50 new buildings constructed since the 2005 guidelines were adopted.

“The time was really right for a design guideline update,” said McCaela Daffern of Capitol Hill Housing. Daffern was a member of the working group that developed the new guidelines.

The guidelines could end up helping developers early in the process. They would use the old guidelines, then find out the community wanted some things that weren’t established in the older set, Daffern said.

Overall, these new guidelines, as Carroll said, make some fundamental changes in the way developers should look at new projects. The previous set, she said, had been more focused on allowing the neighborhood to hold on to its historic character. The new guidelines, however, ask developers to not only respect the history but also to make use of contemporary techniques.

New buildings are asked to preserve the scale and mass of existing buildings, but to use new materials and styles.

“New development should complement, not mimic, this existing character to ensure that the diverse and eclectic character of Capitol Hill continues to evolve in the 21st century,” the guidelines state.

In discussions with the group, Carroll said that they stressed that the guidelines are not meant as a backdoor to restrict development. Development is generally welcomed, as long as it fits in with what’s already here.

The new guidelines call out different micro-neighborhoods within the larger Capitol Hill; they note, for example that Broadway is very different from 15th Avenue, which is different still from the Olive/John corridor, among others. The guidelines say developers should find way to maintain the character of each of these different areas.

Beyond the physical space, they guidelines say that new buildings should be aware of a number of community driven priorities. The specifically mention the Capitol Hill Arts District, Capitol Hill EcoDistrict, LGBTQ culture, Melrose Promenade and Lid I-5.

The new guidelines are also designed to take into account entities such as the Business Improvement Area and the coming affordable housing mandate

The guidelines focus most of their attention on the street level experience. There are numerous calls for maintaining pedestrian and bike-friendly infrastructure, and incorporating buildings with features like glass frontages to keep street illuminated, and overhangs to ward off the rain.

There is some discussion of the value of rooftop decks, and some discussion of ensuring that the new buildings are bird-friendly – like making sure that glass is identifiable as a solid object so birds don’t knock into it.

The guidelines also call for finding ways to incorporate art into projects, whether it be to leave open spaces to allow for performances, or finding places to add murals. They specifically call for incorporating an artist early in the process, rather than as an afterthought.

Environmentally conscious development as also a factor, calling for developers to use eco-friendly techniques to control water, and to heat and cool buildings.

There were some difficulties with the process. While the guidelines govern how a building interacts with the sidewalk, they don’t cover the planting strip where the street meets the sidewalk the area beyond the curb, Daffern noted. That side is governed by SDOT, which made for a bit of frustration.

Another example is live-work units cropping up in many buildings. These are units designed to be either a residence or a business. But oftentimes, they become a residence, with blinds drawn over the large street-level windows. This ends up creating an unappealing area to walk past. These, too were outside the scope of the design guidelines.

Overall, Daffern said she and the group were generally happy with the results of their work.

A draft version of the guidelines was made available online May 24. A community open house to discuss them is set for 5:30 p.m. May 30 in the 12th Avenue Arts Building’s Pike/Pine Room, on the second floor. The family-friendly event will have food available.

After the open house, the guidelines will go back for more internal city staff review before eventually being passed on to the City Council. Carroll is hopeful that it will be sent to the council this summer, though they may not be able to take it up until after the budget process in the fall. Either way, Carrol expects new guidelines to be adopted by the council before the end of the year.

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