More than 100 people packed the Ballard High School Library Monday night for the second Early Design Guidance meeting of the city’s Design Review Board. After three-and-a-half hours of presentation, public comment and discussion, the Board approved Fred Meyer’s basic design, with a number of comments for them to incorporate into their refined design for the next stage, which is a Recommendation Review.
Scott Kemp from the city started off the meeting by saying, “Design is a very individual sort of thing. It’s very situational, but it’s also very subjective. We can’t accomplish everything.” With Fred Meyer wanting one thing, and some members of the community wanting another, “We want to stimulate as good a design as we can possibly get,” he said.
PhinneyWood went over the new designs with a member of the architect team last Friday. You can read that report here. In a nutshell, the new Fred Meyer would be about 160,000 square feet on one level, mostly underground (about five or six feet would be above ground). On top of the store would be about 200 apartments on the west side of the site, about 25,000 square feet of retail for other tenants, a public commons area, a three-story parking garage, and several smaller parking lots.
This is a far cry from Fred Meyer’s initial idea of just remodeling their current store into a “big box.” “That was not received very enthusiastically, to say the least,” Tom Gibbons, Fred Meyer’s Director of Real Estate, admitted with a laugh. So they went back to the drawing board and came up with “a more sophisticated plan,” he said, which they first presented to the community last December.
After the first EDG meeting last month, architects with GGLO said they took many of the community’s comments to heart. Fred Meyer technically presented three options to the DRB, but it really only likes one, referred to as Option A. Option B is similar to Option A with a little different housing options, while Option C is a two-story Fred Meyer with less housing.
“I think the on-street experience is pretty negative,” GGLO Principal Chris Libby said of Option C. “You’re kind of subject to walking between loading docks and parking garages. It’s really not a deal for Fred Meyer. It’s not something that they want to do.”
While the DRB asked a few questions about Options B and C at tonight’s meeting, they clearly focused on Option A as being the best one.
Libby said the design team made many changes that the public commented on at past meetings. “People did not like the mass of housing on top of the garage, so we’ve… moved all of the housing to the south third of the site,” Libby explained. “We’ve taken all vehicle access off 87th. We’ve widened the alley substantially for truck access in, and then they’ll exit out onto 1st Avenue. We’ve got slightly larger apartment buildings, which is a little better for the property manager to manage and construct.”
They also recreated the old 2nd Avenue NW and 86th Street through the site. 86th Street would be a wide pedestrian walkway from 3rd Avenue NW to 1st Avenue NW. 2nd Avenue off 85th Street is a driveway for cars with sidewalks, leading to the parking garage at the north end of the site.
“As far as the community plaza, we need to get activities happening around it,” Libby said. “It could be food vendors, coffee shops, retail opening to it… as well as flea markets, farmers markets, that sort of thing.”
Some neighbors wanted to know why Fred Meyer couldn’t build a two-story store like they have now.
“I’ll tell you why,” Gibbons said. “One thing that isn’t working is clearly two-level stores. These stores generate 40 percent less sales revenue than a single story store. On top of that, it costs us twice as much to operate in staff costs and shrink, which is theft and spoilage.”
Gibbons then said that if Fred Meyer can’t get the Master Use Permit to build the kind of store they want, their fall-back strategy is to just do a major remodel of the current store and turn it into a big grocery store, which wouldn’t require a Master Use Permit. Someone in the audience said, “Is that a threat?” to which Gibbons replied, “That’s not a threat, it’s just reality.”
GGLO architect Ted Panton said the property’s new West Portal, which is centered around the new 86th Street, would incorporate public and residential space with landscaping. “It would be like Harbor Steps downtown,” he said.
But at least one DRB member didn’t like the enclosed bridge over 86th Street that would connect the two apartment buildings. Libby and Panton explained that the bridge was necessary so they could have an elevator in just one building, instead of both. Adding a second elevator well would take up too much space. In the current design, the elevator would be on the corner of 85th and 3rd Avenue NW.
Below is the Design Review Board (far back) questioning GGLO Architects Chris Libby and Ted Panton.
As expected, several dozen people in the audience had questions and comments. And many times, the DRB chair had to remind the audience that the Board’s sole purview was design, not traffic or environmental issues, which come into play at a later stage of the process.
Several people asked if they could reinstate the townhouses fronting 87th Street in front of the parking garage. “Our challenge is it’s now become so isolated from a management standpoint, in terms of security,” Libby explained.
One man who lives on 78th Street and shops at Fred Meyer said he felt Fred Meyer had done a good job of working with the community. “I think this is a good solution. Having retail along 85th is significant, but I do agree that it will be tough without parking along 85th. I think the parking garage is in the best place in can be.”
Kate Martin, a landscape designer and former president of the Greenwood Community Council, has been very vocal in the past regarding her displeasure with the project. Tonight she thanked the design team for incorporating some of the public’s comments, but expressed her dismay that the design seems to her to have little regard for the peat bog on which it will be built.
“As a planner, the last thing you’d do from a hydrology standpoint is put a building underground,” Martin said. “The water moves through to the Greenwood bowl from every direction. It’s a huge risk to show us projects that only show us the building underground. I say analyze first and design later.”
She also wants to see the housing returned to 87th Street in front of the parking garage, because the neighborhood is hoping to turn a parcel across the street into a pocket park at some point. That park would be all about the Greenwood Bog, and having it across the street from a plain parking garage sends the wrong message.
One man in the audience, who is an architect or designer, said he liked this design better, but he doesn’t want them to rely on landscaping to make certain portions look better. He said his design professors always told him, “Try and never rely on landscaping around a building. It should be a beautiful building or garage or whatever it becomes, before you add the landscaping.”
Other major issues brought up were truck access into the site (currently slated as a one-way from 3rd Avenue and exiting onto 1st Avenue, but many people want it back on 87th Street); better accessibility for both bikes and wheelchairs; since the work would happen in phases, what happens if the residential phase falls through and we’re stuck looking at a blank store roof just a few feet above ground; truck access for the small retailers other than Fred Meyer (on 85th where they’d partially block traffic, or on 1st Avenue, where they’d have to use hand trucks to move merchandise); and the long distance from the parking garage to Fred Meyer or the other stores.
On a side note, a group of protestors stood outside the school entrance before the meeting, protesting Lorig & Associates, the residential property developers of the project. Holding signs that said, “Say no to Racism,” they passed out leaflets protesting Lorig’s alleged hiring practices. Bruce Lorig was at the meeting and said he’d look into their concerns.