The entire front of First Avenue North will be dedicated to retail, with another retail space to the southwest.
The entire front of First Avenue North will be dedicated to retail, with another retail space to the southwest.

The NIWA Apartments will become the biggest building on the block in Uptown. Whether it keeps any of its bright yellow cladding remains an unknown following a long design review meeting on Wednesday.

The West Design Review Board on Wednesday cleared the eight-story, 127-unit apartment building to proceed with permitting for construction at 513 First Ave. N., but not without lengthy debate about what guidance and conditions to impose on the project.

The Vibrant Cities development is the first to get cleared after an Uptown Urban Center upzone, and will stand at 85 feet, which is 20 feet taller than the Expo Apartments across the street.

While more redevelopment around First Avenue North, near where Uptown meets Queen Anne, is likely in the future, review board members were concerned about how the NIWA Apartments could set the tone for future projects.

Jackson Main Architecture principal Robin Murphy explained that NIWA — which means garden in Japanese — was designed with three massings. It was the yellow one on the First Avenue North side of the building, wrapping around to the north, that received the most attention during the Nov. 14 recommendation meeting.

“I’m having a hard time piecing it all together in a way that’s really coherent,” said West Design Review Board chair Stephen Porter.

Developers asked about changing the cladding to white, like what is done on the other side of the building on First, but board members said NIWA Apartments would then just be white and gray.

Porter said it’s always difficult to assess buildings that rely on bright colors.

“I don’t want to overreact and say this all has to be brick,” he said. “I don’t want to design this for them.”

Jackson Main architects were directed to work with the city planner assigned to the project on addressing the color scheme and scaling down the number of building materials.

WDRB member Brian Walters said he was confused by the use of two brick treatments for the base of the building, and the board ultimately directed the design team to just go with the more contemporary style.

Because First Avenue North is a Class 2 Pedestrian Street, a residential entry is required there, but the review board approved a departure to locate the lobby on the south side, where a mid-block pass-through is being created between First Avenue and the west alley. This means the entire ground floor of First Avenue will be dedicated for retail space. Porter insisted that wayfinding signs be included, so people can find the residential lobby.

“You’re not going to be able to see that residential entrance walking down First,” he said.

Queen Anne resident Erica Chong said she was skeptical about the pass-through residential entry at first, but feels it makes sense now. She said she’s excited about the pass-through, because people won’t have to walk all the way around the corner.

“I think that sounds like a great idea,” she said.

The pass-through will include a number of tables and seating, trees and plantings, plus a retail space on the southwest corner. Board members wondered about whether that retail space would be successful. Jackson Main associate Steven Bohlman said the Dick’s Drive-in to the west of NIWA would provide plenty of visibility.

The Uptown Alliance Land Use Review Committee approved of the design, but worried about having a blank wall on the south side, and the design review board encouraged the design team to work with the group on a putting up some art treatment there.

Vibrant Cities had originally banked on the pass-through being larger, working on partnering with the adjacent Inn at Queen Anne to spruce up the entire area between the two buildings. Murphy said the Inn at Queen Anne’s property owner backed out due to privacy concerns for guests there.

“We feel that this works even without their involvement,” he said.

The 127 residential units will be a mix of studios, one-bedrooms, open one-bedrooms, two-bedrooms and open two-bedrooms.

A green roof will include private patios, raised decks and a barbecue area.

513 First Ave N REC by on Scribd