The Seattle Design Commission approved the urban design merits of the Washington State Convention Center Addition plan during its meeting last Thursday. The plan includes a request for three alleyway and two street vacations.

Commissioners agreed with project developers that the inclusion of several public right-of-ways is essential to the success of the project, because the vacations allow developers to push truck loading docks underground and build 150,000 square feet of below-street-level exhibit space.

“Moving the loading [docks] down and the exhibit hall down is a good urban move,” said Commissioner John Savo. “It was a very positive development. But it just added this complexity around making [the project] happen.”

Included in the $1.6 billion WSCC Addition project, located between Pine Street, Ninth Avenue, Howell Street and Boren Avenue, is a proposal for 7,666 square feet of combined alleyway vacation, plus 47,983 square feet of combined subterrain street vacations on Olive Way and Terry Avenue.

Matt Griffin, a managing partner of Pine Street Group, and Mark Reddington with LMN Architects, led the presentation to the design commission. They addressed several points identified in previous meetings, ranging from the codevelopment site and truck entrances, to landscaping and placement of artwork.

“We want to make sure the convention center and all that energy there helps to enliven the neighborhood,” Griffin said. “And we care about the pedestrian level and creating great connections to all the neighborhoods.”

In order to locate the truck loading docks and exhibition space below grade, the project must use the underground portion of two sites north of Olive Way, leaving the aboveground portion of these sites open for codevelopment.

Griffin said the codevelopment site, anticipated to consist of a 400-unit residential building and a roughly 500,000-square-foot office building adjacent to the WCCC addition site, wasn’t part of the original plan.

“It was after working on it for six months that we realized that if our objective here is to create a great neighborhood, both for the locals as well as the convention-goers, we need to follow through on both those blocks on Olive,” Griffin said.

Commissioners expressed concern about the viability of the codevelopment site, prompting them to place conditions on the approval of the urban design merits. Those conditions include the completion of a SEPA and a requirement the group must return to the design commission with an interim plan if codevelopment doesn’t occur.

The creation of an art package demonstrating the mitigation necessitated by the removal of the alleyways, as well as the treatment of blank walls, was the second condition placed on the approval.

For the project to receive public right-of-way vacations, a public benefit package must also be developed to demonstrate what public amenities will be offered to offset the loss of the street or alley. The developer must also purchase the land at fair market value.

Abby Lawlor, with UNITE HERE Local 8, wasn’t convinced the applicant made a strong enough case to warrant the vacations.

Lawlor told commissioners she didn't hear from the developers why the street and alley vacations make a better project from the public’s perspective.

Ben Franz-Knight, executive director of the Pike Place Market Preservation & Development Authority, said “this project does some amazing things for the Pike Place Market.”

“These types of visitors, the folks that come to conventions, are far more valuable than cruise ships. They don't come all at once, right, they stay for longer, they dive deeper,” Franz-Knight said.

First Hill Improvement Association executive director Alex Hudson, who was representing the Community Package Coalition, concurred with the commissioners that the vacations are critical and fundamental to the success of the project, but raised concerns about the public benefits package.

“The project itself lists some pretty good commitments that we should all be excited about: Benefits for the neighborhood; creating rich mixed-use neighborhoods; and strengthening the urban framework,” Hudson said. “Our request is that the alleyway vacation and the public benefits package associated with that be in service of those values, and creating a package not [only] for the immediate adjacent neighborhood, but the whole city.”

The Community Package Coalition is comprised of nine nonprofits, community organizations and advocacy groups. At a previous design commission meeting, the group argued the public benefits package presented fell short of the $79 million investment the coalition believes is needed to offset the impact of privatizing the streets and alleys.

The approval of urban design merits is just the first of two steps the WSCC will take with the design commission. Next the commission will consider the proposed public benefits package before passing on a recommendation regarding the vacations to the city council.

Still very concerned about truck access and the lack of a formal art plan, Commissioner Ross Tilghman was the lone dissenter in Thursday’s 7-1 vote.