Last Saturday (January 22, 2011) Sound Transit and the City of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development hosted an Urban Design Framework workshop for the Capitol Hill light rail station development sites. This workshop is part of an ongoing community engagement program in collaboration with the Capitol Hill Champions, which consists of a joint committee of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce and the Capitol Hill Community Council.
For those of you who have not heard about the Capitol Hill light rail station development sites, these properties represent an incredible opportunity to strategically enhance one of the most established, vibrant and diverse places in the city. As a consequence of the underground bored tunnel and station construction effort, there will be five residual parcels on two different city blocks that will be available for redevelopment when the station is finished in 2016. The station is intentionally sited in the heart of the neighborhood and if designed well, will ultimately serve as the civic center of the community.
Earlier workshops focused on uses appropriate to this location. The neighborhood has a long list of desired uses and activities including:
- 50% affordable housing
- arts and performance space
- subsidized local retailers
- community meeting facilities
- a hotel and a cultural/resource center for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community
The current zoning, called neighborhood commercial, allows buildings from 45’ to 65’ tall with a development capacity of about 400,000 square feet. The lone odd shaped parcel on the west side of Broadway is zoned as part of an institutional overlay for Seattle Central Community College and will allow about 100’ of height. That site is tough to develop individually as it straddles a third entrance to the station and is best suited as part of a project that includes college land to the south.
I participated in the workshop as a representative of the Seattle Planning Commission. I’m also interested as an architect/urban designer who works on transit oriented development and station area planning. Incidentally I’m also a board member of Capitol Hill Housing, an affordable housing provider who manages and operates about 30 buildings in the neighborhood.
This particular workshop focused on design quality and scale. About 60 people participated in the 4 hour session. A great range of divergent opinions were expressed by a range of participants that include neighborhood residents, business and institutional leaders, civic groups, students and plenty of professional architects and planners. Expectations were high, but the room was full of collaboration and enthusiasm. There definitely was interest in tossing out the old zoning and establishing new development standards specific to this site and including incentive based public benefits tied to added value creation.
Here are my summary notes and personal conclusions (the opinions expressed here are my own and are not representative of VIA, Capitol Hill Housing, or the Planning Commission):
- Blurring the property lines that define where the mid-block crossing should be on sites A1/A2, as well as B1/B2. Both those long segments may want to be one developer with connected garages. ST should remain flexible on this rather than specifically delineating those as four “pads”…rather two long pads should be a welcomed option.
- A sweeping pedestrian desire line from the primary entrance down Broadway, arcing through site A1/A2 (possibly building this as a ground level internal arcade with building over it) then through to The Nagle Market Square and on into Cal Anderson. Three teams came to this conclusion.
- E Denny between sites A + C should be dedicated and designed to function as a square or plaza. Service and limited access can be controlled by electronic bollards subject to time of day and key card access. No need to delineate curbs as long as appropriate programing and features allow a clear path for sire and service.
- ST and the city may want to be open to breaking away the strict street grid on the plaza space at E Denny. The RFQ/RFP process should be flexible for this to break down given the right geometry and outcome from item 2 above.
- Parking is a major concern as it is essential to the retail and market rate housing in this location. Certainly this will be a paid, below grade solution with best practices in sharing and managing this as multi-tenant/user asset.
- Making enough parking would be welcome by the merchants. But walk-able/environmental advocates fear that it will generate too much traffic. A delicate balance should be the goal, rationalized with a good traffic and market/real estate study.
- Automated below grade parking may be necessary for the tower residents (see below) and to take advantage/necessary regarding the footing depths of a tower having to go down about 80’ to match the station box depth.
- Massing Option 4: Putting the height on the NW corner of the project makes sense in terms of shadows and hierarchy of form. The other sites could transition down from 65’ of height, gradating down toward Cal Anderson Park. Even consider one story kiosk like buildings near the square if certain elements want to be special single use jewel boxes.
- Just one building could be built as a high-rise (in the NW Corner) as the construction costs are heavy and the visual impacts would be limited to one location. I suggest starting at 240’ tall. The additional development capacity would be viewed as value creation which would be part of an incentive program that requires the developer to provide public benefits.
- If there is more appetite for mutually agreed incentives of private funding for community benefits, go up to 700’. Think of a stellar tall tower as a beacon signifying this as an honorable civic place and as a huge, yet fun and welcoming transit investment. It also allows some expression of this place as Seattle’s “ Times Square” and as a way-finding symbol …”you have arrived” as you step out of the station…”we are at the heart of this community”.
- A hotel use in the tower was welcome, even targeting the gay/lesbian tourism sector. Calling this the “Peoples Tower” by allowing a public view platform and/or restaurants at the roof seemed to make sense as more of an inclusive structure. Who says the Space Needle should be the only profit making icon in the whole city?
- If 50% of the housing is targeted to be subsidized, we have to look hard at how this can be accommodated and where. If there is a luxury tower that helps pay for affordable, that ratio will need to go down, but for all the right reasons. I suggest the city set 50% of the current allowed zoning housing capacity as affordable. Then, if the zoning changes to allow significant more height, that added area would need to be exempt from that requirement…unless they want to 20% tax credit of course.
We have plenty of time as the RFP for development won’t come out until 2012 and the station will not be operational until 2016. Construction under current zoning would likely take another 1.5 to 2 years. If there is rezoning or if markets are soft, complete build out could take until 2020 or possibly longer.
What is an urban design framework?
In order to guide and inform the redevelopment of the properties acquired by Sound Transit, Capitol Hill community members, Sound Transit staff and City of Seattle staff will develop, in partnership, an Urban Design Framework for those properties. The purpose of the Urban Design Framework is to establish a shared programming and design vision for these properties and adjacent streets and public spaces. An Urban Design Framework is a set of recommendations focused on physical planning issues (urban design, land use mix, street and public spaces, sustainable design, etc.).
The Framework is a “bridge” to connect broad goals and policies, to specific physical planning recommendations. Focused on urban design and place-making, the Framework can include implementation actions that are cross-departmental, regulatory, capital and programmatic. In the case of the Capitol Hill light rail station sites, the Framework will address desired uses, programming and maintenance in addition to design. The extensive body of past planning work done by the Capitol Hill community (including but not limited to the Capitol Hill Neighborhood Plan), Sound Transit, and the City is a foundation for the Urban Design Framework.
Calatrava’s Turning Torso Tower in Malmo
An example of a single iconic tower amid a 4 to 6 story townscape.
Food for thought – feel free to share your comments and ideas.