Boom City Design Review Board Undermines Denny
posted by May 15 at 15:01 PMon
Once new construction occupies the hundreds of empty lots in South Lake Union and the Denny Triangle, Denny Way will essentially run through the middle of downtown. Cranes flanking the street, and design proposals filed with the city, show that Denny will be home to thousands of new residents and office workers. One of those proposed buildings, 1200 Stewart, being developed for Lexas Companies, will be a giant among them, standing 400 feet tall with twin towers on a block-long podium.
The big problem with block-long developments is their tendency to have massive unbroken faces with few or zero urban amenities, which turns off pedestrians. A lack of sidewalk activity makes for a dull and dangerous street. That’s why the downtown design guidelines’ number-one requirement for the streetscape is to “promote pedestrian interaction.” Another guideline, for public amenities, is to “design for personal safety & security.”
In practice, this means providing retail at the sidewalk. Shoppers and workers make the street lively and keep an eye out for public safety.
But the latest designs for 1200 Stewart provide no retail along Denny Way, and only a couple of small retail spaces off Denny. And the downtown design-review board approved the latest drawings on Tuesday for the next stage of review with no requirement to build any retail.
“Denny is not going to be coffee shops and newsstands,” said downtown design-review board member James Falconer. “You’re not going to saunter down Denny. You have to accept it for what it is.” (Whether the Department of Planning and Development has officially provided an exemption to the design guidelines for Denny is unclear; calls to DPD for comment haven’t been returned.)
Falconer excused the lack of retail on Denny, saying that there was no place to park cars. But with 800 (!!!) below-grade parking spots in the proposed development, his assertion seems ludicrous.
Malaika Lafferty, who has lived for 11 years in the Cascade neighborhood, which borders Denny at the site of 1200 Stewart, says, “I think honestly, if we’re talking about improving the density in our core, I don’t know how one can do that without providing amenities at street level. It’s about what the neighborhood needs, and we need retail down there.”
I know, I know—Denny is clogged with cars and isn’t a very hospitable place for pedestrians, so building for retail in its current state seems unrealistic. But here’s the thing: Traffic on Denny is fucked—and will only become more fucked—and most of the thousands of newcomers will have feet. So they’ll be walking up Denny to get to Capitol Hill, crossing Denny to go downtown, or walking down Denny to go shopping. It’s the only street that functionally connects South Lake Union to Belltown and Capitol Hill. It will be a pedestrian corridor regardless of what we build, so we should plan for pedestrians.
More after the jump.
Even if certain members of downtown’s design-review board don’t care abut the Denny streetscape, Vulcan does. “For us, it’s always been important to incorporate retail because that’s what keeps people in the neighborhood instead of getting in their cars,” says Vulcan spokeswoman Lori Mason Curran. “I can’t imagine that we wouldn’t include retail in most situations.” Vulcan has included street-level retail facing Denny in three of its buildings: Borealis, Rollin Street, and 2201. However, there is no retail entry for the Whole Foods on Denny, in the 2200 building (in Whole Foods’ defense, that part of Denny is a steep hill.)
What’s proposed on the ground floor of 1200 Stewart instead of retail? “We need a lobby for all the homeowners,” architect Paul Thoryk told the design board. Although the proposal contains a couple of small retail spaces on Minor Street, and additional retail on the second through fourth floors, it’s geared mostly toward the luxury condo owners and does nothing for the streetscape on one of the city’s busiest streets. Instead, there’s a single entrance to the lobby from Denny, windows into residential units, and windows that face blank interior walls.
The design review board unanimously elected to pass the project along to the city’s design commission after Jack McCullough of Lexas Companies, the developer, begged the board to approve the plans in their current form, saying, “Can I make a plea to you guys? We spent a million dollars on three early design meetings to get here.” After the design commission reviews the proposal, the board can make additional recommendations. One of those recommendations should be including retail on Denny.
The design boards need to think forward. People are coming to Denny; either we can prepare for the future or create a self-fulfilling prophecy that Denny will only work for cars. Just because it’s an imperfect situation doesn’t mean we should give up; it means we should make a concerted effort to make sure Denny works.