Ultra-green Seattle office project draws corporate HQ, complaints
Developer Skanska USA has signed Brooks Sports as anchor tenant for a planned ultra-green office building between Wallingford and Fremont, but some neighbors question how far the city should bend its rules to make the project happen.
Seattle Times business reporter
Seattle planners already can bend some development rules for projects that promise to be extra-green.
But how much flexibility is too much?
That's the question raised by a proposed deep-green office building on the border of Wallingford and Fremont.
Developer Skanska USA announced Thursday that it has signed an anchor tenant for most of its planned five-story project at the foot of Stone Way North. Running-shoe and -apparel maker Brooks Sports, now based in Bothell, has agreed to move its headquarters and 300 jobs into the building sometime in late 2013.
But the developer says the innovative building won't pencil out unless planners permit it to deviate from zoning rules even more than the city already allows.
At issue: another 10 feet of building height.
The outcome is important to the future of green building, says Skanska executive vice president and regional manager Lisa Picard. "We have to show there is profit potential in projects like these," or none will be built, she says.
But critics say city planners, in their zeal to satisfy Skanska, have run roughshod over the neighborhood.
The Wallingford Community Council already has appealed a city decision paving the way for the project.
It's just too big, says Lee Raaen, the council's president.
"I have mixed feelings. I like the concept of 'living buildings.' But I look at this particular building in this particular location, and it's going to be way out of place."
Second to seek approval
Skanska's Stone Way project is just the second to seek approval under a "living building" pilot program the city adopted in late 2009.
It allows planners to approve up to 12 projects over three years that don't comply with all the usual zoning and building rules — provided a building will use just one-quarter as much energy and water as a comparable conventional project.
To qualify, it also must meet at least 12 of the 20 requirements of the "Living Building Challenge," widely considered the toughest green-building standard on the planet.
All that green appealed to Brooks, Skanska's new tenant. "Sustainability is a value of our brand," says President and CEO Jim Weber. "We want to have the least impact on the planet that we possibly can."
What's more, he says, the Stone Way building was competitive with less-green properties the company also considered.
Picard acknowledges Skanska's building won't be as green as the first building approved under the city's pilot program, the Bullitt Center now under construction on Capitol Hill. It bills itself as the world's greenest office building.
But Bullitt's prospective tenants all are deeply involved in green building, and are paying a premium to locate there.
Skanska's project, in contrast, aims to attract more-conventional tenants with market rates, Picard says.
That's why the building represents a step forward, she adds: "If we can't figure out a way to make these buildings financially sustainable, then we're only going to see one of them."
The "living building" pilot program already allows qualifying buildings to be 10 feet taller than zoning ordinarily permits. Skanska wants another 10 feet.
Its building would be 65 feet tall, on a site where the height limit now is 45 feet.
That's mostly so the building can be five stories, not four. The extra floor would be shops and perhaps restaurants at ground level.
That retail floor was a key to signing Brooks, Picard says. The running company — a subsidiary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway — plans to open a prototype store there.
The popular Burke-Gilman Trail is just across the street. Brooks hopes to turn the building into a trailhead of sorts, Weber says, where Burke-Gilman users can start and finish their workouts.
"We wanted a headquarters that really reflected the essence of our brand ... . Where else could you have an office right on a running trail?"
The first-floor retail also will engage the community in ways a pure office building wouldn't, Picard says, helping make it a living building in another sense.
Appealing to some
Skanska's vision appeals to some in Wallingford and Fremont.
Stone Way is "an odd, pseudo-industrial street that really doesn't do much for the neighborhood," says attorney Ryan Gist, who lives nearby.
Two aging retail buildings now occupy Skanska's site. A new, high-profile project there could give the community a much needed center, Gist says.
"It could become a gateway to the neighborhood," says Robin Daly, who owns a paint store a block away.
But teacher Ted Lockery, another neighbor, says the building would be "grossly inconsistent with the scale and character of the neighborhood," blocking views of Lake Union and downtown.
"It would tower over everything else all around it," agrees Raaen, the Wallingford Community Council president.
He says he's as concerned by the process the city is following as by the proposed building's size.
The city's Department of Planning and Development has drafted an amendment to the pilot program allowing planners to award qualifying projects another 10 feet of height — but only on sites zoned like Skanska's.
That change in the program still must be approved by the City Council. Meanwhile, the department announced last month that the amendment doesn't warrant an environmental-impact statement.
Raaen calls that an end run, and the community council has appealed the question to the city hearing examiner. A hearing is scheduled Nov. 29.
Department spokesman Bryan Stevens says the amendment doesn't award Skanska the extra 10 feet — it simply authorizes it.
And the amendment doesn't apply only to Skanska's site, he adds — more than 20 other properties conceivably could be affected. The site-specific effects can be weighed when the building's design is considered, he says.
The city's Northeast Design Review Board, an advisory group, is tentatively scheduled to examine the project Nov. 21.
Lockery says the department is being disingenuous: Its support for Skanska is clear, he says.
Gist, his neighbor, doubts the neighborhood will suffer any negative consequences.
But even if it does, he says, "They are far outweighed by the regional, or even national implications this project has."
Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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