October 25, 2007

Apartments designed to withstand the test of time

  • Developers can be held in higher regard if they look beyond the bottom line to create place-making communities.
    Special to the Journal

    Stephanie Bower rendering courtesy of Ashwood II LLC
    Elements too, a mixed-use project with 274 apartments, will have a public piazza that Su Development hopes will become a destination in downtown Bellevue.

    When it comes to designing for-rent multifamily projects, some developers weigh only marketability and the bottom line. If they can fill up the development at the price point they seek, they’re golden — at least in their own eyes.

    No wonder the word “development” conjures some negativity in the collective mind.

    The development community would be viewed much more favorably if it took a longer-range view of its projects. Instead of thinking about the immediate return on an investment, developers would do better to accept the fact that what they create will be a very tangible part of the community for decades. Or, if they’re truly successful, their projects will contribute to the landscape for a century or more.

    You may say that makes a lot of sense for landmark structures that house powerful corporations or where the rich-and-famous live. But for tenants who tend to be short-timers, well, that does not compute.

    Su Development never distinguishes between for-sale and for-rent projects. The company instead approaches each project knowing that what it builds will affect the community. The company’s goal is to create communities that will withstand the test of time.

    To achieve that goal, the company seeks out the most dynamic designers and consultants for its projects. It is, for instance, working with Peter Bohlin of Bohlin, Cywinski and Jackson on a major project in downtown Bellevue.

    Another dynamic team designed Su Development’s latest: elements too, also in downtown Bellevue. The two-building project with 274 apartments and 48,000 square feet of commercial space around a piazza is under construction and will be completed next fall. Su Development hopes its compelling design will make it a destination for more than those who call it home.

    Context is key

    CollinsWoerman, the architect of record, worked with Cutler Anderson Architects, the design architect, on the elements too project.

    The Cutler Anderson team, led by James Cutler and Pat Munter, approached elements too as Su Development does any other project: by trying to understand the land relative to the program and the institution, which in this case is the family. Then the architect placed that into the context of the region or natural surroundings, in this instance Bellevue’s urban landscape. Cutler Anderson feels Bellevue could use more vibrant open space where pedestrians, not cars, hold sway.

    Situated at the intersection of two quiet streets — 111th Avenue Northeast and Northeast Ninth Street — the elements too site is a micro-climate that’s tucked away from the hubbub of Bellevue’s busy road network. The design team immediately concluded it would be ideal for a dynamic urban open space — a piazza that could become one of the region’s most inviting public spaces.

    So the team recommended pulling out the curbs and installing bollards that will separate vehicular and pedestrian traffic. The result will be one large space that can occasionally be closed for performances and other gatherings. The plan will require cooperation from owners of properties facing onto the piazza. Su Development and Cutler Anderson Architects are working with these owners to make this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity a reality.

    Together the buildings, 13 and 22 stories, will help create the space for the piazza, which faces to the south. Both buildings’ floors are stepped to maximize southern and western sun exposure, and many homes will have green terraces. The angle of the roof on the taller tower, which resembles a series of drawers hanging from four massive piers, will shade the top 12 floors during the summer.

    Tying the building together is a three-story, light-filled atrium with eclectic shops, a fitness center and other amenities. A water feature will flow seamlessly from the atrium to a triangular pool in the piazza.

    Su Development, which collaborated on the design, is thrilled with the outcome and is confident that it will, from a marketing standpoint, be hugely successful. Not only will it be the Eastside’s premier apartment building, it will be a retail destination known for arts-related commerce as well as other shops and restaurants.

    Elements too will complement the recently completed 989 elements, a 23-story mixed-use project that CollinsWoerman designed. It includes 166 apartments, an art gallery, nightclub, bistro, urban market and spa.

    Driven by the tangible world

    For the design team, the commercial success of the project was secondary to a more basic factor: how the team feels about the work that it does. Cutler Anderson Architects is driven by the tangible world, not the virtual or political or philosophical world. The real world offers up many clues of what is around all of us. The firm strives to extract these clues and reveal them.

    That might sound like a bunch of woo-woo nonsense. Cutler Anderson, of course, disagrees because it knows that to succeed commercially it must succeed in place-making, which is what Su Development wants to be known for. The company approaches each project with the belief that it is creating one piece of downtown Bellevue’s built environment.

    Bottom-line-obsessed pencil pushers probably wonder how Su Development can succeed at operating under this model. A key to the company’s success is the fact it has its own construction company. Su’s construction manager examines the feasibility of the design, and if something won’t work from a cost perspective, the development team will collaborate with the design team to tweak the design to make sure it does.

    Cutler Anderson Architects does understand the economic side of a project. Unlike a lot of firms, which are so tied to their designs that they offer up a take-it-or-leave-it product, Cutler Anderson is flexible. The firm plods along through an iterative process, going over and over designs until it gets it right for both the place and the project.

    John Su, president of Su Development, has built more than 50 projects in the greater Seattle area since he founded the company in 1981. He practices the master builder approach to development, directing each phase from site feasibility to design to construction. James Cutler, FAIA, is a principal of Cutler Anderson Architects on Bainbridge Island. The firm is internationally renowned for its environmental awareness and attention to detail.

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