Design Commission questions WSCC Addition urban park

As much as they like the concept, the Seattle Design Commission is still determining whether a nearly 30,000-square-foot rooftop garden on the Washington State Convention Center Addition qualifies as a public benefit.

The design team had its ninth meeting earlier this month before the commission, which needs to sign off on a public benefits package that is required in order for the $1.6 billion WSCC Addition project to take over almost 1.3 acres of public land.

Architects spent the July 6 meeting focused on on-site public benefits, while off-site proposals, such as funding Pike/Pine pedestrian and bicycle improvements and a study to lid Interstate 5, will be provided at an August meeting.

Design commissioners weighed in on several on-site public benefit proposals presented on Thursday, with the most attention being given to the Pine Street Public Garden.

The rooftop garden designed on the fifth floor of the WSCC Addition is proposed to serve as a public park. Previously, the design team had proposed to use that space as a private roof terrace, said LMN Architecture’s Mark Reddington. He said those plans were revised after the design commission told them to make it a public space.

Shannon Nichol, a founding partner with landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, provided an overview of the garden space and several other planned public spaces around the convention center and two codevelopment sites — a 428-unit residential building at 920 Olive Way, and 264-foot commercial building at 1711 Boren Ave.

The Pine Street Public Garden would be 65 feet from street level, with a large lawn and garden space, integrated benches, curving pathways, seating boulders and a large deck.

“That’s kind of the granddaddy boardwalk piece,” Nichol said.

The garden deck would provide about 50 moveable seats and 24 small tables, with the ability to increase seating during peak times and seasons. It could also accommodate a stage for performances and tents for farmers market-style events.

Movable play structures, such as large climbing domes and low climbing forms like those found in Westlake Park are also proposed. 

Nichol said the garden is proposed to include plants native to the Pacific Northwest, including pollinators and edibles.

The design commission expressed excitement about an urban park that would provide elevated views of the city, but worried its height might mean the garden wouldn’t appear open or accessible to the public.

Commissioner Lee Copeland asked whether the same concept could be implemented at street level if desired, which Reddington made clear wasn’t feasible.

“I don’t think chopping a corner of the building off would be part of the approach,” he said.

Commission vice chair John Savo said he’d like to see some path-finding measures implemented in the design, so people would be able to find the garden.

Pine Street Platforms, a stairway with pier-style wooden platforms that provide varying viewpoints of the city, is proposed as an access point to the garden park, as well as an outside elevator. 

Nichol said the size for some of the platforms is close to that of “pocket parks.” Platform 5 would provide a view of I-5 and Capitol Hill, and Platform 9 would give an elevated view of Pike Place Market. 

Project artist Cathy McClure confirmed artwork will be incorporated with the Pine Street Platforms, including around an atrium space created to the east.

Commissioner Ben de Rubertis said he questioned the capacity for the stairway and platforms, assuming many people will crowd the space at certain times. The same could be expected for the elevators, said Commissioner Rachel Gleeson. She said more public input regarding the new park proposal would help her decide whether it should qualify as a public benefit.

Seattle Design Commission director Michael Jenkins said he doesn’t doubt the garden park would be used, but the challenge is whether the public will benefit from it or those people that are at the convention center for an event.

“People can wear a badge that says they’re a Seattle citizen,” Copeland joked.

Commissioner Laura Haddad said she also wants to see more public buy-in, because the commission may like the concept of a rooftop park, “but 50,000 people that live around it might not.”

Freeway Park Association president Bob Anderson said the vision for WSCC’s public benefits package has greatly advanced over the design process, but the Community Package Coalition — a group of 10 area nonprofits and community organization — has not been appropriately engaged during that time. He questioned whether funding for a garden park five floors up on the WSCC Addition wouldn’t be put to better use reinvested in Freeway Park. Currently, WSCC’s public benefits package proposes a $1 million contribution to the park.

Denny Triangle Neighborhood Association chair Howard Anderson said the organization has supported the WSCC Addition for years. He said the public benefits the project will provide are more than the neighborhood has seen through “block by block” developments.

Brian Layton, Seattle Theatre Group Historic Facilities Program director, said the platforms will provide Paramount Theatre patrons with a good vantage point for photographing the building’s marquee, rather than doing so from the middle of the street as sometimes occurs.

The Downtown Seattle Association has been tapped to provide programming for the Pine Street Public Garden and other public spaces proposed around the WSCC Addition and residential and commercial sites. DSA currently manages those efforts at Occidental and Westlake parks.

Jennifer Casillas, DSA vice president of public space operations & events, said the organization is excited about the partnership, especially being able to help design future programming spaces rather than just inheriting them.

Community Package

The WSCC Addition public benefits package has grown to $40 million in projects and investments since May, but that still falls short of the $60 to $75 million the Community Package Coalition believes should be expended to offset the 7,666 square feet of combined alleyway vacations, plus 47,983 square feet of combined subterranean street vacations of Olive Way and Terry Avenue.

The coalition submitted a letter ahead of the July commission meeting outlining its concerns with the project, mostly with the latest off-site proposals, which won’t be addressed again by the design commission until August.

Among the requests by the coalition is for a larger investment in Freeway Park, setting aside funds for Pike/Pine street improvements that are already being planned by the city and making a larger affordable housing investment.

The current benefits package would provide $5 million, which is in addition to the $5 million commitment from the land purchase agreement with King County for a large project parcel. Another $4 million is anticipated through incentive zoning, according to Jane Lewis with Pine Street Group, which is leading the WSCC Addition development.

The Community Package Coalition proposes funding for 300 income-restricted homes, estimating demand for affordable housing by those hired to work the expanded convention center at more than 500 homes. Had the WSCC Addition not been vested before the Mandatory Housing Affordability program’s adoption downtown, the coalition estimates the co-developed residential tower would have been required to provide hundreds of affordable units, or WSCC would have been required to pay $22.5-$27 million in fees for affordable housing.

The coalition also addresses the previously proposed rooftop terrace, noting it had long been designed into the project, so should not be considered a public benefit.

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