Talk of the Town: The Hines Project

March 2, 2015 | by Erin Sirianni

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Curious to know more about the Hines project everyone is talking about? Here’s the scoop:

The Hines project is a proposed 5-story mixed-used development that will transform our Town Center.

Whether the potential benefits (a Whole Foods store?) will outweigh possible infrastructure challenges (i.e. increased traffic) has yet to be seen, here’s what I know.

Hines property location

Hines, a privately owned international real estate company, recently acquired a block of land between QFC and Albertson’s through the purchase of three separate parcels.

Hines-Property-View

Southwest view of the Hines Property

Located at the intersection of SE 29th St and 78th Ave SE, that’s where you’ll find MudBay, Veloce Velo, Seven Star Chinese Restaurant, Terra Bella, and Tuscan Stone Wood-Fired Pizza. It’s also a giant concrete parking slab.
The project will result in a dramatic transformation of the area, which any passerby will admit is in need of a facelift. The building will stand five stories tall. The ground level will be commercial space topped by four stories of residential, approximately 180 to 200 units of mostly 1 and 2-bedroom apartments.

According to coverage in the Reporter, construction may start within the year.

Community controversy

The Hines development will be the ninth significant mixed-use project to be built in the Town Center. Many passionate Islanders believe these developments are changing the “quiet, small-town feel” of Mercer Island and creating infrastructure burdens, such as increased traffic in the downtown area.

MIxed-Use Buildings in Mercer Island Town Center Photo Credit: Hines

Mixed-Use Buildings in Mercer Island Town Center | Image Credit: Hines

Save our Suburbs, a community activist group that formed in December 2014, requested that the City Council grant a six-month moratorium on all new building permits for development in the Town Center. Despite an impressive grassroots effort and hours of public comment at recent City Council meetings, they fell short of convincing the council of putting the Hines Project on a time-out.

The City Council responded by agreeing to a four-month moratorium for buildings over two stories but exempted Hines citing legal concerns and Hines willingness to engage with the community toward creating a vibrant Town Center.

The City Council will hold a public hearing this evening regarding the moratorium, but with five of six City Council members voting in favor of exempting Hines at the City Council’s February 2nd meeting, it seems unlikely that they will have a change of heart.

While less outspoken, others in the community have expressed favor for the project.  A letter from Roger Page, owner of Island Books, states:

“Mercer Island’s downtown has long been anemic. . . . We have been dying for decades. Barely a pulse now. I think change is coming. There’s a renaissance coming. Let’s not reflexively quash it. Let’s try to make a place with shared spaces, with parking spaces, with incentives for local business that engage and serve our community. We can’t just stop. We can’t move backwards. Let’s lead the new developers toward our hopes and dreams for a vibrant downtown.” (Read by City Council member Jane Brahm at the February 2nd council meeting.)

Hines community outreach

Leaving “hopes and dreams” to developers may seem a little outlandish (no pun intended), but Hines has made some good-faith efforts so far.
Hines along with Runberg Architecture Group and Hewitt, a landscape architecture firm, hosted a well-attended open house at the Mercer Island Community and Event Center last week.  I stopped by and chatted with Evan Kaseguma, a Hines representative, to find out what the open house was all about.

Hines Open House

Display boards and visitors at the Hines Open House on Thursday, February 26th.

“We want to get as much community input as possible,” Kaseguma said. “We’d like to learn from previous projects done on Mercer Island and what worked and what didn’t to make sure [our project] will be what the community wants.”

Regarding what didn’t work, he shared examples of public plazas built alongside other Town Center mixed-use buildings that are uninviting if hardly noticeable at all. Others, he said, such as Aljoya’s plaza that lines green space along a walking trail on the Lid, are welcoming and attractive.

“We really want to create a space people will enjoy,” he said.

Feedback for the public plaza, which is an amenity requirement with the addition of a fifth story, suggests placement along the length of SE 29th St.

Mercer Island Town Center Public Plazas | Image credit: Hines

Mercer Island Town Center Public Plazas | Image credit: Hines

A commuter parking possibility?

Along with a public plaza, another upside to the development may include 200 commuter parking spaces. The feasibility of this additional parking will depend on a partnership with Sound Transit to provide the funding.
The current Hines building design includes two levels of underground parking providing 400 to 500 stalls.

“We’ve already done the design of a third level on our own dime to show the opportunity for commuter parking and also for parking that might be needed for the Mercer Island Center for the Arts,” Kaseguma said.

A Vision for a Mid-Century Modern Design

Rest assured that the Hines project will not look like Fort Knox as suggested by a massing study image published in The Reporter.  At the open house, I also had the chance to chat with Michelle Holst, a Runberg architect, who pointed toward a mid-century modern design possibility.

“Our firm has always looked to create engaging spaces that are also contextual to the surrounding area,” Holst said. “We felt a mid-century modern design would be true to the character of the island, but we would love get the community’s input to confirm that.”

Whole Foods – Fact or Fiction?

That leaves the biggest question for last. Yet to confirm a signed contract, Hines has stated that they are currently in negotiations with Whole Foods that would fill the majority of the ground-level commercial space.

Additionally, at the February 2nd City Council meeting, Hines shared a letter on behalf of Joe Rogoff, Whole Foods Regional President, disclosing dozens of requests from Island residents for a store on the island, and stating “we believe it would be a wonderful area to be a part of .”

The letter went on to say: “We’ve lately been in negotiation for a location that would require a build out. I fear that a moratorium would put that work on hold or perhaps not allow the developer to consummate their project. From my perspective, that would be unfortunate.”

I’ll leave the speculation to you.

What are your thoughts about the Hines Project?  Feel free to share in the comments.

Update 6/4/15:  According to the Mercer Island Reporter, the City of Mercer Island’s Design Commission unanimously rejected the preliminary designs for the Hines property during their May 27th meeting. Additionally, at the June 2nd City Council meeting, all council members voted to remove the development’s exemption from its moratorium on downtown development projects over two stories. Hines did not receive a commitment from Whole Foods for commercial space, and the public parking agreement between the City and Hines is now tenuous.

Additional reading:

Hines, previously exempt, now included in the moratorium Mercer Island Reporter (6/2/2015)

Hines needs another reviewMercer Island Reporter (5/28/2015)

Letter by Joe Rogoff, Whole Foods Regional President, presented at the City Council February 2nd Meeting

Council passes moratorium; exempts Hines DevelopmentMercer Island Reporter

Developer obtains final piece of landMercer Island Reporter (January 21, 2015)

Another big project for Town Center – Mercer Island Reporter (November 25, 2013)

5 Comments

  1. I’m not sure you have the facts 100% correct. Perhaps you know something I don’t? It is my understanding that the developer does not own the land, so i believe your statement suggesting they own the land is false. In fact, they are in negotiations to buy the land if you believe what one of the land owners stated at tonights meeting.
    So, the “proposed” developer has no ownership, only a desire to own and develop as long as they can make money.
    Secondly, and I am going on memory, but I believe the term used regarding whole foods was “discussion” and not “negotiation. Now I’ve been in discussion with a lot of people about a lot of things. The two are very different. Although I have no additional information, if I had to judge by the representatives comments during this evenings council meeting, I’d say that there is a slim chance that whole foods comes here.
    Two hundred additional parking spaces for a total of 400-500 is not an upside for anyone. The street simply can’t handle it. The result will be people avoiding downtown’s new traffic mess in lieu of coming down town. By definition, the “commuter” parking spaces will be transient traffic and generate nothing but congestion as they make their way to and from home. Not exactly an upside.
    It seems that the word “amenities” has become a code word for getting people to accept something they don’t want. Let’s just call it what it really is, a bribe. Let’s stop beating around the bush.
    I certainly hope we take a balanced approach to this and thing about the long term impact of these decisions.
    If you look at the park and ride on the north end, that’s the litmus test for bad decisions. It’s filled with people from other communities. Our land used for others to drive their cars from their communities to park and make their commute easier. Because of poor decision making and short sightedness, we are left to clean up the mess. Adding another, bigger mess to try to solve that one doesn’t make sense.

    Comment by David — March 2, 2015 @ 10:28 pm

  2. Hi David – thanks for your comment. I just listened to the public comments on the online video of last night’s City Council meeting. I believe you are right . . . one of the property owners said that they have a closing date with Hines in April 2016, so the deal is not completely final. But my post is consistent with the MI Reporter’s coverage in that Hines has secured these properties and is moving forward with development plans.
    Regarding your second point, Evan Kaseguma did use the word “negotiation” in our conversation and Joe Rogoff, Whole Foods Regional President, also used the word “negotiation” in his letter (quoted above). Evan again used the word “negotiation” and confirmed that Hines continues to be in negotiation with Whole Foods at the City Council meeting last night.
    I certainly understand your concern about traffic, as I pointed out in my post myself. When I use the word “commuter,” however, I am also referring to commuters who live on Mercer Island who may benefit from those parking spaces since the Park N Ride lot fills up so quickly every morning.
    Your call for a “balanced approach” is wise. I will be very curious to see how the development proceeds. Again, thanks for weighing in.

    Comment by Erin Sirianni — March 3, 2015 @ 11:15 am

  3. Erin,
    Again, one of the land owners spoke at the meeting on Monday and stated “if this deal falls through” or something very close to that in what could only be taken as an ultimatum to the council to vote her way or else… So, I don’t think the developer owns the land. I believe they probably have an option to buy based on a contingency although I have no evidence. I don’t see any documentation showing they own it.
    I’ll give you the “negotiation” vs. “discussion”, but it you were there, you’ll have to give me that fact that he danced around it like his feet were on fire. If we went on body language alone, I’d say there’s no Whole Foods. Can we at least agree on that?
    Regarding parking, I’d say that doing the same thing and expecting different results is the accepted definition of crazy. Been there, done that with the parking fiasco. Here’s what’s happening on that front, the City has a constant embarrassing reminder of poor decision making that we all call the north end park and ride. Oh what a great thing it will be for all of us on Mercer Island. WRONG! What it turned out to be is a place where people from Bellevue come to drop off their cars and jump on the express. Free parking and a cheaper and faster bus ride. So, now ST is looking for another place to dump all the transients that will be coming from the planned closure of the bellevue way park and ride. So, to add injury to insult, our city council thinks it’s a good idea to jam hundreds of cars right in the heart of our city center all of whom will come at the same time and leave at the same time. In some twisted logic, city council believes that these people will somehow boost business activities for the town center. Actually, it will have the opposite effect and here’s why:
    1. These are commuter spaces. People going to work don’t stop to shop and people going home from work will not risk an even longer commute by shopping here on MI. So, the additional “commuter” spots will have no value directly
    2. Mercer Island is not exactly the cheapest place to shop. Ever buy gas here. Most of us who absolutely have to will do a splash and go to give us enough comfort to make it to costco where gas is $0.50-$0.75 a gallon cheaper, so even those inclined to shop would not. Remember, costco has food too, so indirectly, the ridiculous gas prices on the island result in residents going off island for groceries.
    3. The people who do shop now will likely decide not to brave the traffic to shop down in the core. Those south of 40th will go to the south end. Who wants to go down and deal with the mess. I suspect that 40th to W. Mercer and East Mercer way will see a significant increase in traffic volume with people avoiding what will be the downtown mess.
    4. Have you ever walked downtown Seattle? There is not a ray of sunshine, the one thing that brings us West of the cascades folks out to walk about. Creating an environment that cast shadows over every sidewalk will result in people no longer wanting to go downtown MI. We want sun, who wants to walk into a city center where the sun is blocked by building? Really, no one. Trying heading over to West Seattle and see what a mess they’ve made there.
    Bottom line is that the traffic would be horrendous and 78th would be unbearable. Just time how long it would take to empty that lot each night at 5:30. Think about all the people coming how to Mercer Island that are going to have to deal with traffic from other cities that are only here to use parking spots? Sounds really attractive doesn’t it?
    Whatever happens, it can’t be because city council thinks it’s a bright idea. They seem to be good folks, but I don’t think they are being influenced by the residents of mercer island. I think they are answering to ST, King County and the developers and landowners and just maybe a representative from the 41st Legislative District! If you were at the meeting Monday, you’d have seen that you could count supporters of this development on one hand if you subtract those that have A DIRECT FINANCIAL INTEREST in the project (e.g., landowner, lawyer, developer). Everyone else who spoke was against it. EVERYONE.
    So, what do we want? We want to move forward in a balanced manner. We don’t want to build because Olympia says we have too. We don’t need to create a wall of apartments to meet mandates. We are not prepared to support it. And, there are no amenities. When was the last time you saw homeowners walking into downtown bellevue to handout in the courtyard of an apartment building? The answer is NEVER. As I said, amenities is code for getting MI residents to accept something they don’t want. Speaking of which, Whole Foods? Honestly, this Island can’t support a Whole Foods next to the QFC. Sorry, the perception that we are all rich is just silly. The fact of the matter is that we are all middle class to upper middle class surrounded by a few wealthy folks on the perimeter who are not hanging out at the Mercer either! Most of us have more than one child and are price sensitive. If Whole Foods was the only option on island, we’d likely take it due to convenience. But, QFC is not far off from what you’ll get an whole foods and smart moms and dads know that. Whole Foods won’t come here because they know, with our population, they probably can’t support it. If they do, no one I know will shop there.
    So, I appreciate the dialogue for sure. I appreciate that others may have different opinions, but for sure, ignoring the obvious, as I think city council is doing won’t get us any further in the debate. What will happen is simple; city council members will be voted out next election, new council members will be elected who listen to MI residents, and the pendulum will swing hard in the opposite direction after November. I think the council is misreading the tea leaves here. The SOS group is growing daily as more people become aware. And, unlike the “no tolls’ grass root efforts, this group is not going away and will be prominent in November’s election. Surprisingly, this groups has not put out signs, or advertised. Once that happens the numbers will grow exponentially.
    I do hope that the residents of MI are not on the short end of the stick again like they have been will almost every other project. I don’t think anyone can, without research, name the “amenities” that other developers have “given” us for there additional floor. Can you? If you apply logic here, it really does magnify the absurdity of it all.
    Again, thanks for opening the dialogue.

    Comment by David — March 3, 2015 @ 8:44 pm

  4. Very cool update! Thanks for your efforts of keeping us informed with what is happening on the island. Light rail, overflow parking, and whole foods? all sounds like positive progress for our community…of course it depends on who you ask. Looking forward to the next hot button topic!

    Comment by James — March 3, 2015 @ 12:50 pm

  5. Thanks, James! I think almost all the moms I know are in favor of the Whole Foods, at least. Yes, will keep you posted. I appreciate you chiming in.

    Comment by Erin Sirianni — March 3, 2015 @ 10:19 pm

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