First the neighbors took stock of the super block Midtown Center project at 23rd Avenue and East Union. Then it was the East Design Review Board’s turn to cut the proposed development down to size.
Board member Christina Orr-Cahall summed up the opinion for Wednesday’s Early Design Guidance meeting at the beginning of board deliberations.
“It’s big,” she said. “I guess I would suggest they look for ways to break this up more.”
Lennar Multifamily Communities is developing the large project, with retail-focused partner Regency Centers, to include a 30,000-square-foot grocery store, 10,000-square-foot pharmacy and an additional 6,500 square feet of retail space below five to six floors of apartment units across a 160,000-square-foot parcel.
Their preferred option for the Midtown Center would include a southern development to be owned by Central District nonprofit Africatown, the two structures sharing a pedestrian passthrough and courtyard.
“We have an opportunity to have these two buildings talk to each other,” said Andy Hoyer with Encore Architects about the passthrough.
Lennar is voluntarily making 10 percent of the 355 apartment units in the northern building at 60 percent of the average median income, said Brad Reisinger, president of the Pacific Northwest division of Lennar Multifamily Communities, to comply with a Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Mandatory Housing Affordability action that isn’t set to be adopted until later this year, and would upzone the neighborhood possibly to 85 feet — Midtown Center is proposed at 70 feet by developers. Developers are also using the city’s Multi-Family Tax Exemption program, which will ensure 20 percent of the units are at 65-85 percent of AMI.
Developers requested to come before the East Design Review Board for two Early Design Guidance meetings, which the board on Wednesday unanimously agreed they would need. The developers are also now being asked to come back with more design alternatives, addressing the bulk, scale and arrangement for Midtown Center.
Those options would all still include an Africatown partnership, which the review board and residents supported during the meeting.
“It’s damn near revolutionary that they’re doing this design work with Africatown,” said Jeff Floor, co-chair for the Central Area Land Use Review Committee, which hosted a December open house to review the Midtown Center project ahead of the EDG meeting.
Many opinions at that meeting were echoed on Wednesday, particularly in regard to the size and impact of the grocery store anchor tenant on the project. Residents that did like the idea of a grocery store still felt 30,000 square feet was too big.
Review board member Barbara Busetti questioned why the development couldn’t be split up into several buildings instead of two, which Hoyer said was because of how much space the grocery store takes up, plus the additional 10,000 square feet for a pharmacy and need for commercial truck access.
Board member Curtis Bigelow didn’t understand the reason for separating additional retail from the grocery store and placing it farther south. Hoyer said the not-yet identified grocery tenant wants to be sited at the corner of 23rd and Union.
Busetti said she’d like to see a design option where the grocery store is moved to the middle of the development and more connected to the additional planned retail. She said she also liked the idea of big retail structures being designed to be broken up later.
Bigelow said he liked the inclusion of two-story townhouses along 24th Avenue as a response to single-family homes across the street, but felt there should be more than four units.
“It doesn’t really give that sense of residential street,” he said.
There was also concern about vehicular access to the development being sited on 24th, with board members saying they felt 23rd Avenue would be better.
“I don’t want to live in that house that has 24-hour 18-wheelers coming through,” Bigelow said.
East Union and 23rd Avenue are pedestrian streets, where the city wants retail activation. Vehicle access was proposed on 24th because curb cuts are not permitted on pedestrian streets. There are 130 commercial parking spaces and 240 residential stalls proposed in a garage under the grocery store.
The review board did like one resident’s idea of using the pedestrian passthrough and courtyard in the style of a Pike Place Market, but didn’t respond favorably to the proposed design. The width of the corridor, they said, is too small to serve as a community gathering space as intended.
“My concern is, as it gets close to 24th, it becomes the wall of the parking garage,” Bigelow said.
Capitol Hill Housing is developing the Liberty Bank Building across the street, and is also working with Africatown through a memorandum of understanding, with plans to eventually make the affordable housing development available for public ownership.
The development is committed to reflecting the African American history and culture of the neighborhood, which Bigelow said sets a precedent for Midtown Center to do the same.
Midtown Center developers will need to bring back new design alternatives addressing the East Design Review Board’s feedback, as well as images that better show the relationship of the development to the surrounding neighborhood, which Busetti said was unclear from Wednesday’s presentation.
“I think it’s easy to not understand how big this is,” she said.
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