Inn at Seattle Center gets green light for end-of-year groundbreaking; despite some design changes, residents worry about impact on neighborhood

Seattle Center planners welcome the project as further enticement for out-of-town visitors. Resident groups on the Center grounds, such as the Supersonics or the Seattle Opera, will have the opportunity to offer package programs, including accommodations, to tourists.
"The Center is a regional attraction," said Dave Buchan, Seattle Center's chief planner and project manager. "It's important to try and offer out-of-town visitors a place to spend the night."
Several long-term residents of the Second and John neighborhood reject Buchan's enthusiasm for the project. They worry that a hotel will adversely impact their community.
"It's totally inconsistent with a residential neighborhood," neighbor Magic Ferguson said. "I don't have a problem with progress, but Seattle seems to get dollar signs in their eyes."

Hotel dreams
When the Seattle Center first entertained the idea of a hotel, the lot at 2nd and John wasn't a possibility. Back in 1990, Center staff created a Master Plan which suggested Mercer Arena as a hotel site. At the time, Mercer Arena wasn't a popular concert venue and was seen as expendable.
A decade later, the arena frequently hosts concerts. Buchan explains the shift by pointing to an increasing number of artists who request intimate settings for their performances.
"Venues for small concerts are few and far between," Buchan said. "Mercer Arena became very attractive to promoters."
The arena will also temporarily serve as a performance hall for the Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet while the Opera House is renovated.
The idea of a hotel remained on the back shelf for much of the 1990s, but Seattle Center staff members were approached by developers four years ago. It had become obvious that Mercer Arena shouldn't be demolished, and the hotel project switched its focus to the lot at 2nd and John.

Not smooth sailing
Plans to begin construction in December now seem firm, but the project hasn't been without its rough spots. The development group, which calls itself Inn at the Center, originally intended to break ground this summer and complete construction a year later.
The developers later decided that opening at the height of the tourist season wouldn't be wise. During the winter, tourism drops off, which would allow the hotel's managers to work out kinks and train staff.
The project won't be delayed past December, listed in an agreement with the Seattle Center as the deadline for groundbreaking. If the developers fail to meet the cutoff date, the lease agreement is terminated.
Hotel planners also ran into troubles with the public notification process.
The City of Seattle's Department of Construction and Land Use requires developers to notify neighbors within 300 feet of a proposed project. A DCLU error listed the address of the lot as 305 Harrison, which is the Center House.
All buildings surrounding the Center House received notification of a design review meeting, but residences near 2nd and John did not.
Once Seattle Center staff realized the mistake, a second mailing was sent and a second public meeting scheduled. Due to yet another error, residents in the neighboring Queen's Court apartments were not notified.
"The Seattle Center did a lousy job of informing the neighborhood," Ferguson said.
Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata, who also chairs the Seattle Center Committee, was informed of the situation by a concerned neighbor. He stepped into the situation to assure that all residents received proper notification.
"We were very disappointed with the public notice," said Frank Video, Licata's legislative assistant. "There was frustration on the part of the residents that they weren't really heard."
Buchan expressed regret over the mistakes and said that subsequent Design Review Board meetings were held to assure that neighbors had a voice.

Design plans evolve
While some neighbors remain discontented over the project, input from the meetings did affect the design.
Initial drawings showed a six-story building, with a stucco exterior and metal roof, covering the entire lot. Developers planned on 197 hotel rooms.
"It wasn't in character with the neighborhood," Buchan said. "The project underwent major changes. It went from looking like a suburban hotel plopped in the middle of a city to an urban design."
The design now calls for a completely brick exterior, echoing the brick buildings in the area. Sections of the hotel are set back five feet from other segments to avoid an imposing, flat exterior, and six stories has dropped to five, with 159 units.
Although the measures reduce the building's bulk, some neighbors remain unconvinced that the hotel will blend with the area.
"The lot is too small for the size of the building," neighbor Barbara Brennan said. "It's an institutional encroachment on the part of the Seattle Center."

Neighborhood concerns
Neighbors worry that a hotel will add to the parking and traffic problems already plaguing the neighborhood.
The already tight parking in the area is jammed even further during events at the Seattle Center, including its arts and sports venues. Traffic in the neighborhood is a nightmare of slow-moving congestion before and after events and during rush hour, particularly as drivers traverse Mercer Street from Queen Anne and the Elliott Avenue corridor to reach Interstate 5.
According to Buchan, the hotel includes a parking garage with two entrances: one for hotel guests, and the other for Seattle Center visitors.
The lot at 2nd and John now holds 78 stalls for public use, which will increase to 98 in the new city garage beneath the hotel. Buchan believes that the parking situation is a good deal for the city, since more revenue can be generated with the extra spaces.
An additional 54 stalls are intended for hotel guests. Buchan explained that city code requires one parking spot for every 4 hotel rooms, and at 159 units, the Inn at the Center more than meets the requirement.
To limit additional vehicles, Seattle Center staff demanded that hotel developers not build a destination restaurant. Buchan acknowledges, though, that a hotel will create a "modest increase in traffic."
Ferguson and Brennan don't see anything modest about it.
"The amount of trips generated by this hotel, from people, services and employees, will cause congestion," Ferguson said.
Brennan also worries about the loss of mature trees on 2nd. Buchan confirmed that the trees will go, and explained that the roots go well beyond the lot line.
"The choice was to prune the roots drastically, cut a third into the canopy, and hope the trees made it, or replace them with large trees," Buchan said.
He emphasized that the replacements aren't babies, but rather sycamores with a minimum trunk of six to eight inches. Trees will also be planted along the John Street side of the lot, which has no plantings at the moment.
Landscape architect Robin Maynard Seaver, who lives in the neighborhood, doesn't feel that a tree with a six- to eight-inch trunk is a sufficient replacement. She estimates the size of the old sycamore trunks as two feet, and believes that trees of similar size could be used as replacements.
"I'm in the profession, and I know what's possible," Seaver said. "It really bothers me that they're going to take out those sycamores."
Both Brennan and Ferguson wonder about exhaust expelled from a vent at the rear of the parking garage.
"The fumes exit at ground level not far from my building," Brennan said.
Ferguson claims to already suffer from pollution in the neighborhood, citing nose bleeds.
According to Buchan, the garages are open air, with screens to block headlights at night. Additional exhaust will be vented at the rear, but Buchan claims that it will be routed up and away from the site.
Buchan said that the pollution concerns "would imply that if you were walking in a parking garage, you'd be overcome by noxious fumes."

Battling it out
Frustrations with the hotel led neighbors to challenge the environmental review of the project, but the city's hearing examiner upheld a determination of non-significance. Citizens also appealed the Master Use permit, but the hearing examiner once again sided with developers.
"Residents just didn't want to see a hotel, period, but there's very little the neighborhood can do to stop a project that meets guidelines," Video said.
Seaver said the project has been hard on the community.
"It's not a nice situation, but it happens," Seaver said.
Planners at the Seattle Center staff are sympathetic to neighborhood concerns, but believe that the hotel is a good deal for the city. Revenue includes the $185,000 per year that developers are paying to use the land, as well as providing additional city parking spaces. The developers also agreed to fund a $150,000 public art project, for which four design finalists have been selected, near the hotel.
"The dynamics of downtown Seattle are changing," Buchan said. "I understand that change is difficult, but we're very concerned about making this a good fit with the neighborhood."
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