A new angle on Seattle's skyline
By Eric Pryne
Seattle Times business reporter
The developer who saved the historic First United Methodist Church sanctuary last year has unveiled plans for an asymmetrical skyscraper next door that could be a striking addition to the downtown Seattle skyline.
At 660 feet, Daniels Development Co.'s Fifth and Columbia Tower would be the city's fifth-tallest building, and the tallest constructed since 1990. But its height would be less distinctive than its angular design.
Each side of the slender office tower is to have four triangular planes set at different angles, like facets on a diamond. As it rises, the skyscraper would extend in and out of the air space above the other two buildings on the block, the 1908 domed church sanctuary and the 1904 Rainier Club.
The design was driven in part by a desire to honor, rather than overpower, those venerable neighbors, said Kevin Daniels, Daniels Development president and a longtime historic-preservation advocate.
The tower's angles and slopes suggest "it's paying homage to its neighbors," he said. "It's genuflecting."
Because of the angles, the dimensions of each floor of the 43-story tower would be slightly different, larger in the middle than at the top and bottom.
The "facets" would be covered by glass that would be either transparent or reflective, depending on weather, point of view and time of day. At times it would reflect surrounding buildings, including the historic church at its base and the skyscrapers on the other three corners of Fifth Avenue and Columbia Street, designers say.
"All the sides of the building are different," said partner Allyn Stellmacher, of Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, the architectural firm that designed the tower. "It'll be a different building when it's sunny, when it's dark, when it's cloudy."
A church annex built in 1950 would be demolished to make way for the tower.
The $300 million project already has won the approval of the city's downtown Design Review Board, an advisory panel.
"It's a very exciting and interesting proposal," said board member Wilmot Gilland, former dean of the University of Oregon architecture school. "It's one of the finer projects we've seen in the last year and a half or so."
In mid-2006 the city changed downtown zoning to allow taller, skinnier office towers. Under the old zoning, the tower would have been limited to 450 feet, and Daniels said it probably wouldn't have been economical to build.
Michael Godfried of Save Our Sanctuary, the group that led the charge to save the century-old Methodist church, called the tower "an elegant building that's going to be a nice addition to the skyline ...
"They kept it simple. They didn't add too many bells and whistles," he said. "Hopefully that's what's going to allow it to harmonize with the sanctuary."
Daniels was widely applauded last year for his role in saving the historic sanctuary, whose destruction seemed inevitable after the church won a long legal battle to prevent the city from designating it a protected landmark.
Church leaders said sale and redevelopment of the property could provide both new worship space and money to support the congregation's ministry to the homeless and others. They also maintained that the congregation lacked the resources to repair the aging sanctuary, damaged in the Nisqually earthquake.
In 2005, city planners approved a 33-story tower that would have replaced both the sanctuary and annex. But community leaders implored the church to reconsider.
In a complex, $32 million deal announced last May, Nitze-Stagen, Daniels Development's sister company, agreed to buy the church property, preserve the sanctuary and move the congregation to a new home near Seattle Center.
But designing a skyscraper limited only to the church-annex site posed special challenges, Daniels and Stellmacher said.
The quarter-block site was too small, they said, to build a conventional tower that would be economically viable. And the historic buildings on the rest of the block demanded respect, an architectural imperative that suggested the tower should be distanced from them -- and its footprint reduced still more.
Solving a design puzzle
So they designed a 760,000-square-foot building that is smallest at its base, providing greater separation at street level from the sanctuary and Rainier Club. The first four floors, walled with clear glass, will serve as a "crystalline podium" for the rest of the tower, Daniels said.
Some higher floors of the tower would contain nearly twice as many square feet as the ground floor. At its closest, the skyscraper would come within 4 feet of touching the sanctuary's roof.
Economics dictated that the building's upper floors intrude some into the air space over the sanctuary and Rainier Club, Daniels said. But he and the architects rejected a more boxy cantilever over the sanctuary because of concerns such a design would overwhelm it.
The faceted design that was chosen also serves a practical purpose, said Bob Zimmerman, managing partner of Zimmer Gunsul Frasca's Seattle office. The diagonal steel braces that separate the triangular planes on each side help hold the building up, so it requires fewer columns that block views and reduce leasable space.
Daniels has tentatively arranged to provide parking for Rainier Club members in the skyscraper's underground garage in return for the club's air rights. The garage would be built under both the tower and what is now a tiny parking lot at the south end of the Rainier Club's property.
"[Daniels] has made a real effort to find out what the club's needs are and accommodate them in his design," said Douglas Oles, the club's president.
As for the skyscraper, "it's hard to argue it's a complementary structure" to the brick, gabled club building, he said. But it would allow more daylight than the bulkier, 33-story tower originally proposed for the Methodist property, he added.
The Fifth and Columbia Tower also would feature:
• A narrow courtyard between the skyscraper and the sanctuary's south wall, with sculpture and a water feature, that would be accessible to the public from Fifth Avenue.
Design Review Board members have expressed concern the space could be too dark and forbidding. In response, Daniels said, designers may add more reflective surfaces to make the most of daylight.
• What architects call a "living wall" along steeply sloping Columbia Street, with plants growing from holes in a vertical facade along the sidewalk.
• Environment-friendly features, including solar-energy equipment on the angled roof that would generate a small part of the building's electricity, and a system to capture and reuse all the rainwater from the entire block.
Future use of the First Methodist sanctuary hasn't been decided, Daniels said, but it will be renominated for landmark status, and any use "will preserve the sanctity of the building -- no condos."
The city is expected to approve a land-use permit for the tower in the next few weeks. Daniels said he hopes to start tearing down the church annex in April and finish the skyscraper by mid-2010. No tenants have yet been signed.
Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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