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November 13, 2008
Four years ago, walking down the sidewalk at First Avenue and Union Street was a bleak experience. The Heliparker garage had a blank building face with empty storefronts, and the south side of Union Street merely offered a dark garage entry.
Today, the design of the new Four Seasons Hotel at 99 Union St. brings a renewed energy back to this part of the city.
Creating a vibrant pedestrian experience was a key goal of the Four Seasons project, so the design team incorporated cable lights that recall a European plaza at night and the entry plaza is designed as a “woonerf,” a concept meant to encourage cars and people to share the same area.
To further energize the street front and aid in wayfinding, the First Avenue sidewalk sparkles with decorative mirrored glass medallions that increase in density as you near the front door.
The city of Seattle also wanted a new pedestrian connection between upper Union Street and Western Avenue to replace the increasingly unsafe stairway that existed. The design solution features a single-span grand staircase that is 120 feet long, from the new Union Street plaza down to Western. This staircase creates a safe and direct connector that offers a dramatic new path to the waterfront.
A water feature doubles as a focal point and a vehicle barrier at the end of Union, and on top of the north side of the water feature is a new Gerard Tsutakawa sculpture of a thunderbolt. The sculpture signals the hotel’s spotlight on Northwest art with an impressive collection featured inside in the public spaces.
Most commercial buildings are designed to maximize the development potential of the site. However, the Four Seasons project had a strict height and massing limit based on an agreement with Washington Mutual to protect views from their roof terrace.
This restricted height limit, which is below the city’s allotted height, led to a step-down massing at the north side of the building. This allowed views west and north from Washington Mutual’s 17th-floor terrace garden.
Along with preserving Washington Mutual’s views, the Four Seasons leveraged their expansive views as well. To do this, the design team created a U-shaped building to maximize views to the water for both the hotel rooms and residences.
On a typical floor, all but four rooms have water and mountain views, which is quite an achievement for this tight urban site. The terrace at level four is also unique to the city with a whirlpool, fire pit and infinity edge lap pool oriented toward Puget Sound.
The challenge of designing a new building to reflect the brand qualities exceptional service and understated elegance of the Four Seasons Hotel was difficult, but NBBJ approached this challenge by choosing refined exterior materials that are crisply detailed and simple, as well as regionally specific to the Pacific Northwest palette. The metal panels, glass curtainwall and exposed concrete frame set the tone for not just the exterior materials, but the interior material choices as well.
NBBJ partnered with Brayton Hughes Design Studios for the interior design of the hotel and with Susan Marinello Interiors for the interior design of most of the residences.
The hotel lobby recalls a stone canyon worn away by the elements with a fireplace to draw visitors into the lobby and a cast art glass wall to recall water. The textured stone on the walls is placed in 3-inch increments, reflective of sedimentary layers.
The residences were planned to maximize views and light with almost every unit having an exterior view terrace. Most residence floors also have water or city views from the elevator lobbies.
The tight urban site posed a number of design and construction challenges. Each of the four sides of the site has different requirements.
The urban, pedestrian- and vehicle-oriented First Avenue called for a retail presence as well as pedestrian features such as canopies and custom-designed lean rails for the bus stop. The street end on Union is the building’s main pedestrian and valet entry, but also had to support entries to the Pike Place Market, the residences, 98 Union, the restaurant and apartments on the north side.
The grand staircase down to Western also meets the plaza at the southwest. Rebuilding the paving and sidewalks, providing a fountain and hanging sparkling cable lights across the plaza all helped unify the surrounding elements. As well as locating the service and residential entries on the pedestrian-oriented Post Alley.
Another significant challenge was how to coordinate all these access points to various places during construction when much of the area had to be closed off to pedestrians. Through a good deal of scheduling choreography, the team was able to get the project built while still affording the variety of required access points.
The new Four Seasons Hotel and Residences transforms First and Union into an engaging pedestrian experience, but don’t just take it from me. Go for a walk on First Avenue, take the new stairs down to the waterfront or Post Alley or sit on the fountain in the plaza. Experience the elegant canyon feel of the lobby and then finish the day with a drink at Art restaurant with one of the best views in town.
Jim Tully is a principal with NBBJ. He is one of the leaders of the firm’s commercial and civic practices.
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