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May 3, 2000

Project of the Month: Keeping company on Queen Anne

  • A winning town house project brings urban rhythm to a residential street
    Special to the Journal

    Walking along Comstock Street on the south crest of Queen Anne Hill is a lot more interesting this year, thanks to a smart new condominium building just across from St. Anne School.

    Victoria Townhomes
    The Victoria Townhomes bring neighborly design values and traditional row-house style to Queen Anne.
    Even though each unit is in close physical and visual contact with the street, it's possible to stop, turn and look around without staring directly at a window. For the three-story row of town houses fronting the street, the balance between privacy and proximity is in the multilevel, multi-layer composition of landscaping and entries. The lively and confident urbanity of the Victoria Townhomes borrows heavily from premodern housing traditions, mixing classic forms and materials with modern details. It's a welcome balance of density and civility on a site poised between extremes. On one side are the comfortable single-family blocks of west Queen Anne. Just down the slope of the hill off West Highland Drive, some brutally modern multifamily high rises block the sun and the bay. The Victoria Townhomes have something for everyone to like, from any angle.

    Project of the Month

    Victoria Townhomes,100 West Comstock Street

    Lorig Associates

    Mithun Partners

    Completion date:
    October 1998

    Project type:
    Multifamily, new construction

    Project size:
    Residential area: 25,000 square feet
    Garage: 32,000 square feet

    Structural and civil engineer:
    Coughlin Porter Lundeen

    Landscape Architect:

    Interior Design:
    Marcia Johnson Interiors

    General contractor:
    W.G. Clark Construction Company

    As a project, the award-winning condominiums began as a two-level, 60-car garage that would serve the Victoria Apartments. The historic, turn-of-the-century apartment building, which covers more than half of the block, was being renovated into condominiums by Lorig Associates. The rest of the townhouse project is essentially a mitigation measure. But thanks to a masterful design by Jim Bodoia of Mithun Partners, it is a very desirable address.

    And it couldn't have found more supportive neighbors. As a test of the city's new design review process, both the project and the process passed with flying colors. The code would have allowed two rather massive multi-story buildings, set back from the street. Instead, the owner applied for no less than seven departures from the building code, including lot coverage, length on the street front, set back and open space. All were heartily approved.

    "We knew that what we wanted to do was appropriate," said Bodoia. And he knew the neighbors would like it.

    Taking advantage of the sloping site, the architects sunk one level of the parking garage so that it was completely below grade at the street. Another, partially buried level of parking was added on top. The parking is accessed at the back of the town houses and through the center of the block, leaving the entire front free of curb cuts. The town house building is essentially a wall along the street, a building code no-no. Those who know older cities need no proof, but with the Victoria Townhomes, the architect has shown that a wall can be very interesting and inviting, indeed. The design team has orchestrated an intricate play between individual units and the street. The articulation of the residential units begins with the steep peaks of the gabled roof, which sets up a lively rhythm along the length and around the sides of the building.

    Townhome interior
    Ten-foot-high ceilings and 8-foot-high doors are combined with rich details in the town houses.
    Stairs from the sidewalk, each behind its own entrance gate, are carved into the walls of the parking garage at the base. Small terraces at the first floor of the town houses top the base and hold small trees and other plantings. Bay windows, generous exterior entry areas and awnings of glass and metal add a sense of shelter, privacy and craftsmanship.

    Shrubbery softens the concrete base of the building at the street level, and beds of greenery enliven the planting strip. A concrete pathway along the curb extends presence and hospitality of the town houses to cars parked along the street.

    With the advice of his project manager, Carol Hanson, Lorig invested in the quality of materials in each built-out unit and endorsed a series of design decisions that added substantially to the character and livability of the townhouses. There is a fireplace in every three-bedroom, two-and-one-half bath unit. Interiors have 10-foot-high ceilings and 8-foot doors, and there is no shortage of turns and moldings in the living areas or stainless and tile in the kitchens.

    Bodoia and Hanson
    The Mithun team, James Bodoia and Carol Hanson.
    The generous 2300-square-foot units were built out at a pricey $200 per square foot, which puts them in the $500,000 range. It's a thin market, according to Bruce Lorig, but the units sold much faster than the bank had estimated. The entire formula was driven by parking needs. At ten, there are far fewer units than the underlying zoning would allow. The number is small because of the limits on parking space and the fact that that number was to support the neighboring Victoria Apartments as well.

    Sometimes it's better to look beyond the development potential and the dictates of the building code, and let the site be the guide. With Victoria Townhomes, what started out as a constraint was made into an opportunity. And everyone involved, from owner to buyers to neighbors, is a winner.

    The Project of the Month feature is sponsored by the Daily Journal of Commerce and the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Design categories include all types of construction with the exception of single-family houses. Projects are selected by distinguished architects, other members of the arts and design communities and representatives of client groups.

    For more information about submitting projects for possible feature articles, contact Peter Sackett at AIA Seattle.


    Clair Enlow can be reached by e-mail at clair@clairenlow.com.

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