Art may be subjective, but the number of unknowns about how it will work in the latest designs for redeveloping the Central District’s Midtown Center superblock resulted in two review boards shooting down those plans.
Responding to community complaints during a July presentation before the East Design Review Board that neither the mixed-use development nor the review board represented the interests of the black community, the EDRB sent developer Lake Union Partners and architecture firm Weinstein A+U back to the drawing board.
Lake Union Partners, which has developed The Central and East Union buildings on two other corners of 23rd and Union, plans to construct a seven-story mixed-use development that would spread about 430 residential units across three buildings on the Midtown superblock. About half of those are proposed at affordable housing levels for incomes between $28,000 and $60,000.
LUP hosted two community open houses in October and another in November, and came back with an art program expanded from three areas of the three apartment and retail buildings on its site to eight, including along the building facades at 23rd Avenue and East Union Street, a plaza at 24th and Union and the pedestrian portals leading into a 16,000-square-foot central square, where an originally planned 120-foot-long mural will remain.
The second recommendation meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 19, included members of the newly formed Central Area Design Review Board. LUP asked that the board be included, which had been a request from the community during the last review.
While the Midtown Center design team made a lot of positive changes in response to feedback received in July, both boards agreed that the latest design relied so heavily on art that more information is needed, not only about its context, but also how it functions in the neighborhood and draws people into the space.
“We need to understand how this wraps back into the concept,” said EDRB chair Melissa Alexander.
Multiple artists are anticipated to contribute to the various murals and art installations, and their selection and future work will be overseen by an art panel comprised of Central Area youth, elders, business owners, local artists and a member of the Africatown Community Land Trust, which has partnered with Capitol Hill Housing to develop 20 percent of the superblock to the south.
“Lake Union Partners would have one seat at the table,” said architect Rico Quirindongo with DLR Group, who was brought onto the project to help it meet the community’s vision.
But the current timeline doesn’t anticipate artist selections until July, which is also when community meetings about the art program would start.
CADRB member Sharon Khosla said it was harder to judge the project because there was so much art, and particularly because it was so heavily incorporated into the facade.
EDRB member TJ Taaca said he saw a missed opportunity by not placing murals closer to where the portals terminate at the central square, which he felt would make the space feel more inviting.
He also did not care for the placement of late artist James Washington’s Fountain of Triumph in the plaza at 24th and Union.
“If it’s a fountain, it should feel like a fountain,” Taaca said. “I still think it looks like a tombstone on that corner.”
The boards ended up deferring to the James & Janie Washington Foundation, which provided a letter of support for that corner, but wanted the foundation to be included in future decisions about additional art, paving and furnishings around the fountain.
Many community members had wanted to see the fountain celebrated in the central square, but what was designed in the center of that space also didn’t appeal to the review boards — a large tree surrounded by a wooden deck, which landscape architect Todd Bronk with Berger Partnership said would be a gathering space and potential second stage to one planned along the western edge.
Alexander agreed the paving pattern — modeled after the ones painted in the parking lot of Midtown Center over the summer — does successfully draw people to the tree.
Khosla said she felt a large tree being in the center of the plaza could make it harder to host large gatherings and would prefer to see it moved elsewhere. If it were relocated, it would not be a tree of that size, said architect Heather Hargesheimer with Weinstein A+U.
The Midtown design team was able to increase the width of the three portals by five feet, removing a skybridge at 23rd and Union and on 24th Avenue, which the review boards appreciated. They did encourage looking at placing art along a skybridge on Union.
The boards also appreciated the increased space for the “living room” concept at the corner of 23rd and Union. The northwest building will include a 12,000-square-foot drug store, which is expected to provide enough revenue to offer smaller retail spaces to minority business owners at below-market rates.
A seating area is planned to have wood decking along East Union, and Alexander encouraged making sure that treatment and furniture doesn’t create a feeling of separation in the plaza.
Between Union and the central square, a farmers market space could support about 24 tents, Bronk said.
The boards were supportive of all of the requested departures for the project, including a 55-foot curb cut on 24th Avenue, which the design team said is necessary in order to allow in vehicles to the below-grade parking garage and sanitation to collect recycling and garbage.
Because the boards couldn’t approve everything but the art on Dec. 19, nor could they craft enough conditions to address their concerns, the Midtown design team will have to come back for a third recommendation meeting sometime next year.
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