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Seattle contest on office-to-housing conversions “more than met its goal”

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Three winners were selected from 13 entries from a dozen teams in the City of Seattle’s “Office to Residential: Call for Ideas” contest. All submissions can be viewed in an electronic gallery.

Sponsored by the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD), the competition invited building owners and architects/design teams to share innovative solutions, identify possible obstacles to conversion, and lead to potential policy and regulatory changes.

Hybrid Architecture, LLC took top honors, followed by Gensler, Seattle Office Project Team, and the Miller Hull Partnership.

Mayor Bruce Harrell announced the Call for Ideas during his State of the City speech in February as part of his Downtown Activation Plan, a multi-faceted effort to re-envision and revitalize downtown as a safe, thriving and welcoming destination “that works for everyone.”

The winning entry’s concept was based on transforming the historic Mutual Life Building in Pioneer Square into “co-living for environmental, economic and socially responsible housing.” The architectural firm partnered with building owner Diamond Parking, its real estate subsidiary West and Wheeler, and real estate development firm Great Expectations LLC.

As re-envisioned, the building would consist of 80 single-room occupancy units with a kitchenette and distributed shared bathrooms (with no more than two other residents) to reduce plumbing installation costs and increase the floor area dedicated to private space, thereby increasing affordability. Each level would have a communal kitchen, living/dining/gathering area, and laundry facilities, providing “opportunities for community interaction and giving renewed meaning to the term neighbors.”

The project team proposes further enhancing affordability via shallow rent subsidies to bring the rent down to $900 per month for a 350 square foot unit.

Ben Maritz, managing member at Great Expectations, said their effort to reinvent SROs is “a bit of a throwback to the earlier era of Seattle.” Acknowledging the building is not about to be converted, he told a reporter, “This was a thought experiment grounded in reality.”

The Hybrid/Great Expectations team received a $10,000 honorarium. The other two top scorers were awarded $7,500 each. OPCD said all entries that met the minimum entry requirements may receive a nominal honorarium in recognition of their time and expertise to participate.

Submissions were scored by a jury of experts based on the likelihood of implementation, creativity, how each would help activate downtown, housing impact and racial equity. In announcing the winners, city officials said the winning proposals “exemplified imaginative and achievable designs that integrate housing, commercial areas, and community amenities, fostering a thriving and inclusive urban environment.”

Participants retain ownership of the IP rights, but by submitting proposals they granted the City an unlimited and non-revocable license to use the materials and make them publicly available. City officials said they may use the submittals to develop future policies, code changes, or funding opportunities.

Mayor Harrell said the project would help inform the budget, adding the city may look to turn some of the ideas into legislative and regulatory actions. Various city departments will study the submitted ideas and remarks to determine what kind of changes or modifications – including code and permitting, incentives, budget, and partnerships – would be needed to support and effectively advance future conversion projects and development proposals.

“This program has more than met its goal of sparking a conversation about the future of downtown office space and its potential use as housing,” said Rick Mohler, FAIA, NCARB, chair of the University of Washington – Department of Architecture. “It has provided a catalogue of more than a dozen diverse office-to-housing conversions that can both inform city policy and inspire more property owners, developers and architects to explore opportunities for the post-pandemic transformation of buildings and our downtown,” added Mohler, a member of the review panel.

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