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Midtown: Public Square kicked back in review process as board says plan for community art not enough

A plan for adding massive installations of art panels to help the project better reflect the culture and the history of the Central District wasn’t enough to convince area design officials Wednesday night as the Midtown: Public Square mixed-use project was kicked back for yet another round of review.

After a four-hour design review meeting, a blended group of the newly created Central Area Design Review Board and the East Review Board decided to ask the developer and its architects at Weinstein A+U to return with plans for art on the building that is more fully fleshed out.

“What we’re going to want to know is where the art is going to be located, and why it is reinforcing the larger design concepts of the building,” East Review Board chair Melissa Alexander said. “Is it art that is speaking to the larger community? Is it drawing people in? How is that art drawing people into the space?”

The combined boards came about “based on community interest,” the city says, after complaints that the process wasn’t being responsive to the neighborhood and its communities, The East Board has agreed to incorporate members of the newly created Central Area Board into the recommendation process for this proposal, and Lake Union Partners agreed to the combined review, a city rep told CHS.

Planned to link its structures around a public square in one cohesive design, the proposed development will create what is essentially a set of seven-story apartment buildings with 429 apartment units and underground parking for 258 vehicles. Regional pharmacy chain Bartell Drugs is planned to occupy the large retail space on the corner of 23rd and Union with a mix of smaller, more neighborhood focused retail and restaurant spaces surrounding the inner square.

The development will include around 125 affordable housing units allocated for households earning between $40,000 and $65,000 per year or 60% to 85% of area-median income (AMI) built as part of both the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program and the Multi-Family Tax Exemption Program (MFTE). The Lake Union Partners project will take place on 80% of the Midtown block, while the other 20% of the property was sold by Lake Union Partners to Africatown Community Land Trust and Capitol Hill Housing. The two projects have separate design review processes.

Wednesday evening’s meeting marked the third time that the development has been in front of a design review board. And the design process stretches back much further. Development on the block also went through preliminary design review under a developer previous to current owner Lake Union Partners.  A previous deal for the block got off to a rough start as the design review board rejected  the first design plan for the Midtown Center block for a project from national developers Lennar Multifamily Communities and Regency Centers. The rejection was soon a moot point when the deal for the big developers to purchase the property fell off the table. In 2017, Lake Union Partners stepped in with $23.25M to pull together a project on this key block for Central District redevelopment.

The development at 23rd and Union is expected to include art installations at eight locations after the developers responding to community feedback said they were unable to “incorporate rounder, more Afrocentric shapes into the building form” — “Neither the zoning or the structure of a multifamily mixed-use building will allow for rounded shapes,” the latest design proposal reads.

Much of the issue for the board came over concerns regarding the jury that would select artists and how the art would successfully fit into the vision of the project.

“I want to make sure that the team has thought about how those murals, because they’ve become so expansive, it’s not just this one in the courtyard, is actually reinforcing the architectural concept from the beginning,” Alexander said.

Other proposed changes were appreciated by the design review officials, such as those over visibility, a 55-foot curb cut, the widening of three portals that will lead into the public square, and the removal of two skybridges.

The decision follows the project’s unsuccessful review this summer as developer Lake Union Partners faced significant community complaints that the design for the Midtown: Public Square project looked too “South Lake Union” and speakers at a July session made calls for a more Central District-centered process.

The next review for the project has not yet been scheduled. The process to arrange and document a new proposal for the city’s review process typically takes months. The developer had been planning to demolish the buildings currently on the property home to an assortment of remaining small businesses, a liquor store, and a post office this winter.

Most elements brought to the review have been resolved, the board agreed, so art will be a main focus on the next go-around.

More notes from Wednesday’s review:

    • A 55-foot curb cut on 24th Avenue was approved by the board to allow for better access to the parking garage, which will have space for 258 vehicles, a load and unload space, and solid waste pickup. This would allow for the consolidation of trash. The curb cut was approved by both Seattle Public Utilities and the Seattle Department of Transportation, according to Heather Hargesheimer of architecture firm Weinstein A+U.
    • A budget has not been established for the art installations, according to Rico Quirindongo of DLR Group.
    • Much was made of the positioning of the James Washington Fountain at its planned location on 24th and Union. East Review Board member AJ Taaca said it made the sculpture look like a “tombstone,” but his location was approved by the James and Janie Washington Foundation.
    • Doris Koo of the Yesler Community Collaborative believes the development need not be exclusive. “The proposed project has the opportunity and must help move the needle on inclusive development as a tool to celebrate and restore our community’s sense of history and culture and find access to opportunity and ownership,” she said.
    • Central District activist Omari Tahir Garrett caused a stir during the meeting when, during the public comment portion, he made a speech deploring white supremacy and gentrification, which he thinks this development is reinforcing. “How are you talking about developing a community and disrespecting the native people, the original people here,” Garrett said. “You’re not going to do the same thing to black folks.” He implored staff at the event to call the police after he was repeatedly told to sit down. Police were called, but they wouldn’t come in to the meeting because it was public. Garrett returned peacefully to his seat.
    • Some took issue with the event being hosted in a Seattle University building, instead of the Garfield Community Center. Garrett objected to the meeting being held at all and, during introductions, walked around the room with a video recorder to document it.
    • There were concerns from multiple board members about how the art would be monitored and dealt with as it deteriorates.
    • One community member, during the public comment portion, said that “we don’t know what this building is” because of the large amount of art included that hasn’t yet been created.
    • One woman who said she had strong roots in the neighborhood was disappointed in the neighborhood’s recent architectural designs, saying it looks like “they just took Belltown and stuck it in the Central Area,” she said. “I will be a stranger when I drive through the Central Area.” She hopes businesses currently on the property will be offered retail spaces in the new project. The legendary Earl’s Cuts is set to move across E Union to make way for redevelopment of the Midtown block.
    • According to the proposal from the developers, “through the utilization of the drug store as an anchor tenant, the developer is able to offer the remaining spaces at below-market rents to attract and retain minority-owned, start-up businesses.”
    • More than a dozen pop up vendors could utilize the space for a public market, according to developers.
    • Jeffrey Floor of the Central Area Design Review Board said that removing the skybridges meant to connect two of the buildings was a “major move” because it allows better light and visibility into the public square from the sidewalk.
    • The board was happy to see increased transparency and windows to open the community and draw people into the 12,500 square foot public square.
    • Multiple board members hoped art or greenery could be incorporated in the three portals accessible from the street to bring residents in to the square.
    • Alastair Townsend of the East Review Board worried that too much art could overwhelm the architecture of the development.
    • The board recommended that there be no neon light on canopy-signage for businesses because that could detract from the art that is so important to the development.
    • The board was interested in the possible incorporation of a water element in the public square for children to play in that would entice families to come.
    • The design review team was split over the positioning of the large tree, which is currently slated to sit in the middle of the public square. Some thought it would block retail spaces and take up too much space that could be used for seating. That being said, there is ample seating available under the tree. Also, one member said that the there would be shade from the buildings, so the tree wouldn’t be necessary.
    • Carson Hartmann of the East Review Board said that the public square, which could be used for movies or concerts, among other events, is not conducive to large public gatherings, only small ones.

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25 thoughts on “Midtown: Public Square kicked back in review process as board says plan for community art not enough” -- All CHS Comments are held for moderation before publishing

  1. Omari is not an activist, he’s a blight on the community who once assaulted the mayor and clearly cannot control himself still.

    Thank you for including an account of his antics here, his supporters deserve to know what kind of person they’ve gotten behind. Those of us who live here and have had to put up with him directly all these years appreciate the truth coming out.

    These delays are unconscionable in the face of our housing crisis, the developer has gone to lengths expected of no other project and still they’re being harassed by a small group of very uninformed, yet very vocal protesters who in all likelihood will never be satisfied no matter what concessions they’re given.

    • “they’re being harassed by a small group of very uninformed, yet very vocal protesters”

      Ah, that has become “the Seattle way”

      Pay attention to the loudest, fringe (mentally ill) activists – and ignore the needs of the greater community, especially the taxpayers.

    • Huh. When did all the people I know going to these meetings and open houses become NIMBYs? I believe I’m actually more of a YIMBY. But if I get a say in what our neighborhood is going to look like and how safe it’s going to be, I’m going to take it. I believe Joanna just said she went to most of these meetings and open houses. What about everyone else complaining?

  2. I guess some folks think this one project can address, and fix, all of Seattle’s problems past and present. If I were the developer, I’d be thinking of walking away right ’bout now.

  3. The developer had two design review open houses where they asked our opinion on all these questions. Then they sent a follow up survey. If they didn’t want to deal with the feedback, they wouldn’t have done that. It seems like they are just trying to get it right and be successful.

    For those of you complaining, did you go to one of those? Did you fill out a survey and say “it’s fine. stop the shooting. build now?” I’m not a fringe, mentally ill activist but I am a property owner who pays taxes. I’d like it done well with art and not looking like Belltown, Ballard, or Ohio.

    • I have gone to all the design reviews and most open houses. There was some type of open house recently when I was out of town. I have signed up for everything and have only seen one community survey. I think the developer is trying to get it right as well. I think perhaps the feedback is not all the same. I would not want the overall architecture of Midtown and materials used compromised in order to install elaborate art that may or may not be lasting or sustainable. At the moment there is no budget for art, and it is not clear if some architectural details or cost of materials would have to be sacrificed. I like the vision of the store fronts being village-like and reflecting the original brick and wood store fronts that served the community for most of a century. Getting to the village feel for the lower level would help it not just be a replica of Belltown or Lake Union. The art and architecture should both be nice. The art should not just be a cover.

  4. They keep talking about “community” this and that. Quite honestly, it seems to exclude the 90% of the residents of that area that aren’t of African descent along with omitting the long and vibrant (and sometimes very sad) history of that neighborhood when it was predominately Asian, Jewish, Polish, Native, etc.
    On a side note, Omari’s reference to the Native Americans is shameless. Please tell me I am not the only one is grossed out by the exploitation of Native suffering by the activist community who when given funds are obviously more interested in directed them towards other groups and pretty much ignore the Natives until another moment of exploitation arises.

    • Ignoring the Omari part because generally one has to, did you see my comment above about the neighborhood being invited to the two open houses to give feedback? And then a survey? My friend and I live three blocks either direction from there and are both white. The Saturday open house seemed amid but white people were certainly represented.

  5. Actually, the writer did a good job, but he forgot to mention that Omari kept calling all the white people in the room a bunch of inferior Albinos. He then went on to verbally attack the City Planner who was running the meeting. He was up in her face and at one point I thought he was going to punch her. She did absolutely nothing wrong. She was almost too polite. And of course no one in the room did or said anything to stop him. His own son Wyking stood there and watched approvingly. The City Planner stood up for herself by calling the police. The whole thing was disgusting and embarrassing.

    • Jamel, I think your post is right on. The things he says are super racist and I think because he is so over the top, he gets a pass for the most part. The city planner running the thing was super sweet, but I would also say she has quite the backbone. I was incredibly disgusted that in him and tbh his son. If my old man was screaming at a public servant like that I’d consider calling the police on him.

      I always want to speak up at those meetings but I always seem to lack the courage to do so as I’m slightly intimidated to get involved. All that said, the more I go to these meetings the more invested I feel and the more comfortable I think I’ll be saying something at some point. That is to stand up and publicly call out the elephants in the room. (i.e. this project isn’t just for Africatown, it’s for the CD and greater region)

      • Upzone- I am with you 100% although I do not attend these meetings because I feel it will either increase my repressed resentment at the activist community or I will say something tactless. A small but loud group of activists holds this city hostage, and this seems more so in the CD/Cap Hill area. They are blatantly racist, anti-Semitic, and extortionistic. Most of them seem to live on taxpayers (I don’t mean necessarily welfare, but as “community leaders” subsidized by the city. They seem to be given a lot they in no way deserve but still feel shortchanged.

      • You keep saying the same thing but paying no attention to those addressing it. I’m starting to think you are just rabble rousing.

        You don’t go to the meetings because they will increase your anger but you seem to know all about these activists who are holding “this city hostage, and this seems more so in the CD/Cap Hill area. They are blatantly racist, anti-Semitic, and extortionistic.” Where are you getting this? If you mean AfricaTown, say so. Besides the fact that they aren’t holding the city hostage, if you want to make a difference, go to the meetings. I’m sure the rest of us can keep you from blowing a gasket in public if you can’t manage to control yourself.

        This whole bunch of hyperbole is ridiculous. If one corner makes you think Seattle is falling down under the rigors of giving in to activists, I encourage you to vote in the next election for Seattle City Council as well. Geez.

  6. Jen, thank you for calling out this sort of general rant against activists–aren’t we all at some time. What is the difference between activist and advocate? I am growing rather weary of the tone and divisive nature of some of the conversations in this city.