May 28, 2009

Small mixed-use: The neighborhood of the future

  • Input from Upper Queen Anne residents has helped shape several developments planned in the neighborhood.
    Special to the Journal

    Images courtesy of Tiscareno Associates
    Neighbors were responsible for a number of design changes to the 1900/Met Market block project, including the use of brick, a size reduction of the grocery store and a reconstruction of the Elfrieda apartment building facade.

    One Saturday in early October, Mayor Greg Nickels took a stroll across Upper Queen Anne, joined along the way by community representatives. It was one of those shimmering fall days that give New England’s famed autumn a run for its money.

    There was a lot to say and see. The mayor’s companions pointed out the new landscaping and curving curb lines on Queen Anne Avenue North, the re-located Farmer’s Market site, community-minded retail shops, and a recently completed mixed-use project on the corner of Crockett and Queen Anne, arguably one of the top-five most desirable development intersections in the Northwest.

    That’s a bold boast, but Upper Queen Anne is a developer’s dream: a widely diverse, walkable community only a mile from downtown, which over the decades has grown organically into an energetic blend of parks, residents and businesses. Indeed, Upper Queen Anne was on its way to becoming an “urban village” long before former Mayor Norm Rice introduced the concept to a skeptical city in the early 1990s.

    What Rice had in mind were pedestrian-friendly, higher density, mixed-use urban cores that could absorb Seattle’s anticipated growth. But on top of Queen Anne Hill, commercial and residential interests have co-existed comfortably since the early 20th century though in a less dense, more single-story version of Rice’s vision.

    Urban village guidelines

    Seattle’s 1998 Queen Anne Neighborhood Plan officially launched the hill’s higher density mix of housing, destination and neighborhood-serving retail, generous sidewalks, landscaped streets and human-scaled buildings. Since then, the community organization Picture Perfect Queen Anne has drafted its own design guidelines, which Matt Roewe, a long-time Queen Anne resident and activist, calls “a wonderful set of desired standards and outcomes for enhancing the public realm on top of the hill.”

    Picture Perfect Queen Anne guidelines still await adoption by the city council, but they’re worth paying attention to in a community passionate about preserving its character.

    Three-legged stool

    Sweetbrier, a retail-apartment project, is under construction at 2103 Queen Anne Ave. N.

    Thoughtful development of infill sites — underutilized tracts of land usually less than half a city block or so in size — can support both the city and neighborhood guidelines by incrementally adding value to each site. But success depends on balancing three factors: community interests, city requirements and market realities. Like a three-legged stool, saw off any one leg and the whole project is likely to collapse.

    For two of these legs, the upper hill has premium credentials: urban village zoning and underutilized sites on blocks that draw residents, shoppers, workers and retailers, while historically bringing strong investment returns. Even in this dire economic climate, it’s possible to move forward with a mixed-use infill project in such a desirable location. But winning over the neighbors is another matter.

    Consider Eden Hill on Crockett and Queen Anne Avenue North, with its 36 apartments, 12,000 square feet of retail and 82 parking stalls. Developer Emerald Bay Equity initially proposed a Walgreen’s to replace a gas station, but public criticism squelched the plan in short order. Committed to meeting both city and neighborhood requirements, Emerald Bay proposed a retail-residential project, then satisfied the community by signing up Bartell’s, instead of a national chain, and a restaurant with outdoor seating (Pasta & Co.).

    Meanwhile across the street, owners of the 1900 block of Queen Anne Avenue encountered intense resistance to their two development plans, especially a proposal to replace the popular Metropolitan Market with a QFC. When Emerald Bay took over, it sought participation of community groups in the yearlong planning and design cycles. Included were Picture Perfect Queen Anne, the Queen Anne Historical Society, the community council’s Land-Use Review Committee and the Queen Anne Magnolia Design Review Board. The project now includes redevelopment of Metropolitan Market, 20,000 square foot of additional retail, redevelopment of the Elfrieda apartments, 110 additional residential units and 200 stalls of underground parking.

    Neighbors have good ideas

    Without question, involving the community has built trust, good will and ultimately support. An unexpected bonus, however, has been the outpouring of ideas from residents. Like many design standards, the city’s guidelines for urban villages are open to interpretation, and Queen Anne’s own design guidelines are brand new. As a result, Eden Hill and the 1900/Met Market block, as well as Emerald Bay’s neighboring retail-residential project, Sweetbrier, have had to blaze the trail for applying untested guidelines to actual projects. In this, the community has been invaluable.

    Thanks to ideas generated in neighborhood forums, the upper hill has acquired pervious surfaces through which rainwater can flow, hanging flower pots, extended sidewalk canopies, seating walls, a public bathroom for the farmer’s market, new street lights, underground power lines, wider sidewalks and alleys, and much more. The cost of such amenities creates a continual balancing act of sustaining fiscally responsible projects while satisfying everyone’s needs, but the results are worth it.

    In October, the once controversial 1900/Met Market block passed through its last design review and won approval. Here again, neighborhood input was responsible for a number of design changes, notably the use of brick for a more authentic feel, reconstruction of the Elfrieda’s historic facade, and a size reduction for Metropolitan Market. In addition, the city and community asked the architect, Tiscareno Associates, to break up the building mass, which is actually three buildings in one. Among other things, the design now calls for a large public plaza with the three-story Elfrieda fronting the street on the plaza’s north side.

    The hot spot effect

    By Queen Anne standards, 1900/Met Market is a large project, one that will surely influence the evolution of the hill. The effect of incrementally developing Sweetbrier, Eden Hill, 1900/Met Market, and eventually the 1919 retail/office building, could very well transform the area into a hot spot — a thriving destination for people from all over the city.

    Change like this takes getting use to, but growing cities will always be magnets for new development. Developers can choose to favor cost over quality by creating buildings that meet only minimum requirements and skimping on amenities. But what’s the point of alienating the community or compromising a beloved area of a beautiful city? Small, well-located infill projects that satisfy the city’s vision, while respecting the neighbors’ wishes, will always attract people and please investors.

    That’s a worthy dream for the nexus of Upper Queen Anne, as it grows step-by-step into a fully realized urban village of value to residents, tenants and investors alike.

    As Matt Roewe puts it: “Development is part of the organic change that is a natural outcome of any vibrant city. Embracing change, while steering it in the right direction, is the best way to maintain great neighborhood attributes and shape community goals.”

    Joe Geivett is a principal of Emerald Bay Equity, a real estate development company. Jim Cade, AIA, is a principal of Tiscareno Associates, a Seattle architecture and urban design firm.


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