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By Clair Enlow
May 27, 2015
In any city, surface parking is almost synonymous with underdevelopment. In Seattle, it's getting harder than ever before to find because the city is maturing fast.
What will Seattle be like when it grows up?
One answer is taking shape on a longtime surface parking lot at First Avenue and Stewart Street, and it's a smart one.
A 12-story hotel and apartment project will cover a quarter of a city block along First Avenue, and it will be a game changer in the Pike Place Market area.
First and Stewart, as the project is called, will be a completely modern addition to area around the precious market.
A high-end boutique hotel will be combined with full service apartments. Restaurant and retail space will fill out the base, with three levels of parking underneath.
Olson Kundig Architects designed the building. Munge Leung is the interior architect, and Jensen Fey is responsible for the hotel program and residential interior design.
Turner Construction is the general contractor.
The owner is a partnership between Geolo Capital and TC Real Estate Development. TC is owned by former Touchstone partners Douglas Howe and Shawn Parry.
Geolo Capital will manage the hotel and apartments under the Thompson Hotels & Resorts flag.
Thompson Seattle hotel will join Thompson hotels in New York, Chicago, Toronto, Miami, Los Angeles and other locations. It's scheduled to open in May of 2016, but the apartments may be ready next March.
The first thing to understand about the design is what it will not do. It will not pack the site with all the allowable square footage, squeezing maximum leasable area out of the zoning limits.
Instead, some of that space will be given over to quality design, the people who occupy the building and the city around it. And this will happen at every level, from the ground to the highest floors.
The building will have two sides — with distinct personalities — rising from a shared street-level base. A central courtyard, open to the sky, is carved out of the middle, and accessible from street and alley. It blends semi-public space at the ground level with the public right of way.
Cars can pull in from the alley for pick-up and drop-off. The plan allows pedestrians to walk through the building in much the same pattern that they used to cut through the parking lot that's been there for decades.
The hotel section will grab second looks from the streets with a luminous and uncanny feel. Walls will be translucent, with floor-to-ceiling glass. The stacking of two-story sections is slightly offset, with odd angles that reflect the kink in the street grid where Stewart meets First. Some floors bridge the gap between the two building sections, leaving voids between to allow light into the interior courtyard.
The apartment section will have a very different character. The straight walls will spark the street with a complex interplay of dark and light solids along with clear glass, in a custom panelized system.
A great way to achieve design success is to make a project fit specific occupants, whether they own or rent, and that extends to the ground level. An as-yet unannounced restaurant tenant will collaborate on the final design of the corner space beneath the hotel.
A hotel entry along Stewart Street will activate one side of the building. A retail tenant is being selected to occupy the street level space between the two sections of the building. A tall portal into the courtyard breaks up the frontage between First Avenue and the courtyard. Apartment dwellers will enter through the side of that passage.
A three-way effort
These factors will combine to make the most of the site. The project is likely to become an instant old friend along First Avenue. Although this building does not mimic anything around the market, it is very particular for the location and will add value to the public realm. People will be coming and going at all hours of the day and evening.
Like all downtown projects today, First and Stewart was the product of a three-way effort between a private developer, an architecture practice and a neighborhood design review panel charged with making sure it fit the intent of the zoning code.
A strict application of the code, according to Olson Kundig principal Kirsten Murray, would have resulted in a crude imitation of a wedding-cake, with more than one set-back. Instead, the design team took zoning as a challenge, forcing them to argue that their proposal would serve the intent of the code — to break up the bulk of a full-height building — in a way that made more sense.
When this boom is over, we will be looking at a city that is substantially filled in. Not every former parking lot will have a future as thoughtfully designed as First and Stewart.
Zoning is intended to make sure new projects are not outsized boxes. But things can go wrong.
One of the unintended results of the design review process mandated by the city is that the concerns voiced by the reviewing panel sometimes result in changes that are superficial and reduce the overall quality. Murray calls this “checklist design.”
We've all seen it: the abrupt shift in cladding or finishes to break up the walls of a bulky building, stacked window bays seemingly applied at the last minute because the building did not have enough “verticality,” a favorite word of design review boards. A bad result is always likely when there is simply not enough design talent — or conviction or thoughtfulness — on the job.
It's easy to say that checklist design is the fault of members of the reviewing panel, because they just don't get it, and doubtless sometimes this is true. But most criticisms from review boards have some basis, and it's important to address them in a holistic way. “It's just a design problem,” said Murray.