Q&A With Weber Thompson: Designing to Meet the Needs of the Surrounding Community in a Changing City

This article was originally published in The Registry on September 6, 2018.

As certain areas of Seattle continue to expand and densify with new projects continuing to change the fabric of the city, design teams are giving greater importance to the way that commercial and residential projects fit into their surrounding neighborhood context.

Stratus, a 396-unit luxury high-rise tower designed by Weber Thompson and located at 820 Lenora St. in Seattle’s Denny Triangle neighborhood, was completed in 2017 and officially opened to the public in early January 2018.

We recently spoke with Blaine Weber, founding parter and senior principal at Weber Thompson, and senior project manager Brian Steinburg, about the design of the residential tower, how it looks to respond to the surrounding neighborhood character of South Lake Union and the importance of community-oriented design and public-private partnerships in an evolving city.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background with Weber Thompson and the design practices that the firm looks to bring to its residential projects throughout the city and wider region?

Blaine Weber: We endeavor to create innovative projects that are responsive to site and place; that are sensitive to context and the greater urban fabric; and that are responsive to our client’s vision as well as the needs of each building’s end-users and the greater community. Every site has its own unique constraints, conditions, context and history, and this influences the design of our towers more than anything else.

Brian Steinburg: I’ve worked at Weber Thompson for nearly 18 years, and it’s home. When I was in school, I never pictured myself designing housing, but I love it. I worked on our first high-rise residential building, Cristalla, and was hooked on high-rise.

Our clients are respected as an integral part of the design team, and we pay attention to their vision. Their knowledge of the product and practical operations of these buildings is vital to the success of any project. We work with the client from inside out…meaning [that] we never cram their program into “our design.” The design evolves from an efficient and elegant interpretation of their program requirements.

How is Stratus’ exterior design informed by its location in Denny Triangle and proximity to Amazon and the growing technology and life sciences sector?

Weber: The sculptural and playful facades of the Stratus tower respond to a shift in the grid at a five-way intersection that fronts the site, to the future park that resides at the projects doorstep, and to the presence of Stratus’ little sister Cirrus, which resides across the street. At the primary Westlake façade, slender curving architectural elements are juxtaposed with deep horizontal and vertical reveals, helping to slenderize and break down the mass of the tower.

Steinburg: The site also has two distinctly different massing responses to the city grid. The east and southern facades are more rectilinear to reflect the typical urban grid. But along the west and north, where Westlake slices through the city grid, creating angles and triangles of leftover land, we have a sweeping curve peaking with a triangular end. Three primary forms, reflecting the Lenora, 9th Avenue and Westlake corridors, interlock with distinct material treatments that reflect the context and dynamism of the site.

The site is fronted by two green streets and a future city park, which required a public-private alley vacation process. The green streets each had setback requirements, which affected the massing decisions and required numerous design departures. Because the alley was vacated, there was no “alley” available for “back of house” uses, [so] most of these needed to be internalized within the building.

Over the last few years, how have you seen Denny Triangle and South Lake Union evolving? What are some of the other in-the-works and existing developments that continue to shape the changing neighborhood?

Steinburg: When we moved into the Terry Thomas building in South Lake Union from the Cascade neighborhood back in 2007, you could park easily, get lunch in under 5 minutes from one of the 2 or 3 sandwich places, and walk along the sidewalk possibly without seeing another person. It was convenient but not lively.

Now with the infusion of tech and life sciences, the community is transitioning to a 24-7 live-work-play community that is comprised of offices and hotels along with a growing ensemble of restaurants, a vibrant farmers market, and nightlife venues. What has been lacking is enough high-density residential to foster a 24-7 community. That is changing thanks to Weber Thompson designed projects like Cirrus, Stratus, Kiara, Ascent and Waverly along with projects by many other design firms. These residential projects will infuse the much needed residential density that will keep the neighborhood vibrant well into the evening.

Throughout the design process with Stratus, street-level activation was one of the foremost considerations. What were some of the site-specific challenges involved with achieving this goal in such a dynamic neighborhood?

Steinburg: The main challenge was the fact that the project has two green streets and an alley which was vacated to improve our relationship to, and better integrate project with, the future city park. Beyond the big move of the alley vacation, the residential entry from Lenora and the lobby facing the park also provide interaction between the building and public realm. We set the entry back off the street so that our retail corner also had visibility to Westlake and the park itself. This massing maximized the visibility from Westlake of the ground floor uses that the park may partially obscure once it matures.

Given how active the Denny Triangle area is, to what degree did community and neighborhood input inform the design of the tower? 

Steinburg: As owners of both Stratus and Cirrus, our clients were intent on ensuring that the project would be a good neighbor. This is one reason they bought in to the additional effort and cost to work with the City on the alley vacation. The biggest design input from the community was concern for limiting the exposure of the “alley” functions on 9th Avenue. We minimized the frontage, used both landscape and architectural detailing to lessen the impact and inserted art to conceal the uses as much as possible.

More generally, at a time when our city’s neighborhoods continue to grow and densify, is enough being done to solicit input from neighborhood groups and residents throughout the design review process?

Weber: There needs to be a relationship between City, project teams and citizens on any project. There are responsibilities from all parties to achieve this dialogue. The design review process has always been the forum for citizens to relay design-related comments to the project team. But too often only a handful of people show up, and sometimes the concerns aren’t related to design.

Steinburg: In July [2018], the City of Seattle implemented new community outreach requirements for all projects that are subject to design review. This process will provide a forum for members of the community to learn about a proposed project in advance of design review, and it will also open up dialogue between the community and the development and design teams.

At a time when so much development is occurring throughout Seattle, particularly in areas around South Lake Union, what is the added importance of achieving street-level engagement, activation and porosity from a pedestrian perspective?

Weber: Activation of the public realm is of paramount importance to pedestrian experience for the vitality of a city. The value of providing great venues for high-quality retail/restaurant space at grade cannot be understated, and one could even argue that “eyes on the street” also contribute to public safety.

Steinburg: Our primary responsibility for street level engagement is providing flexibility. All trends change, but spaces can’t easily be modified if your structure is prohibitive. We try to place the slab low so entries can change and floors can be positioned to meet the sidewalk anywhere along a façade. Height is key for a welcoming space, and we try to maximize it to the degree possible. We also try to create indoor/outdoor relationships so that people can interact without a wall separating them.

Can you elaborate on the design team’s collaboration with the Seattle Parks Department on the design of the project in relation to its specific site characteristics?

Steinburg: Early on Weber Thompson pitched that vacating the alley was a win-win proposition both for the project and for the community. There was some seed money for the design (provided by Amazon) but there was no funding for construction of the park—which was not scheduled for this decade.

We approached the City as a project team and they were receptive to front loading some initial design work. This would help us understand the park conceptually and topographically so that we could design confidently. We were co-petitioners to vacate the alley, and it was incredibly important to have the City Parks Department sitting with us during that process. Once approved, we permitted and constructed the building while the park waited for funding and final design work. We can’t wait to see the realization of this effort—it is a rare opportunity, but also a model for public/private collaboration.

What is the importance of developers/designers partnering with city agencies such as the Seattle Parks Department to resolve issues around street-level programming so that the project will better fit the neighborhood context?

Steinburg: An opportunity to work with the Parks Department is a rarity. Even more unusual is the opportunity to collaborate with the City of Seattle on the vacation of an alley fronting a park that will become an asset for a project and for the community. We were blessed with both opportunities on the Stratus project, and thankfully the City of Seattle enthusiastically embraced the prospects and made it happen.

Do you think project teams are doing enough when it comes to delivering community-oriented projects that will successfully fit into their neighborhood contexts in a growing city?

Weber: As designers, we need to pay more attention to with the experiential side of the public realm. For example, what design elements can we add to projects that will foster human interaction? Weber Thompson has been adding a “front porch” to our many of our projects in an effort to humanize a building and to create an opportunity for those who occupy a building to interact with each other and with the community members that are passing by.

Steinburg: The number one focus of the Downtown Design Review Board is that area of a building that is in the public realm, meaning the ground plane and building podium. They also focus on successful activation of the ground plane, landscape and hardscape design and creating quality retail that will contribute to city vitality in the pedestrian realm.

As the city continues to densify, greater attention is being given to a project’s design in relation to its surrounding neighborhood character—new strategies will different design teams look to bring to the table moving forward?

Steinburg: From our perspective it is not rocket science; it simply comes down to good design fundamentals. It starts with thoughtful consideration of place and context—getting to really know a site’s history and place in the city and studying a sites context and position in the greater urban fabric.

Creating interesting ground-plane facades and treatments that include a bit of whimsy and delight, places to sit, landscape that brings a bit of nature into the sidewalk realm, and good detailing of elements such as overhead weather protection, streetscape furniture and lighting elements. It’s not always possible, but setting a portion of the building back to create a “pocket park” or entry plaza can enhance a building and its context immeasurably.

In the wider context of Seattle, can you provide any comment on how in-the-works projects might be impacted by changes to the city’s Design Review process such as the recent Early Community Outreach guidelines?

Weber: As designed, the new program requires a 6-8 step process that informs the neighborhood of a proposed project well in advance of the first Design Review Board Meeting. The program offers a wide range of outreach options, so each project will have a somewhat different process. But the value to the community will be earlier notification, and the ability to provide the development and design teams with early input, prior to the Design Review Board process. We do not see this process influencing the design of a project to the degree that Design Review does, but it will foster communication between project proponents and the community.

Are you optimistic about the direction in which our city, with all of these new commercial and residential developments planned and underway, are heading?

Steinburg: There are many reasons to be optimistic, one being that developers and design professionals continue to design and build more innovative, sustainable and responsive buildings. There are major civic projects in Seattle like the Convention Center expansion, the seawall and waterfront redevelopment, and the visionary Lid I-5 movement. The city of Seattle continues to thrive and evolve, which is what healthy cities do.

There are also reasons to be concerned. We are faced with a serious affordable housing crisis, and options are becoming fewer and fewer for those affected. As a city we must find ways to provide housing of all kinds. Market-rate housing will become “missing middle” housing in the future, but we must find more ways to accommodate that group now. Affordable work-force and low-income housing, housing for seniors and urban housing options for families, are all in short supply. Without well rounded housing options, we risk losing cultural, financial, and age diversity.