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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