Solera: Where Suburban Form Meets Urban Function

Spring 2022 Issue
By: Mark Stine
Solera, in Renton, Washington, aims to provide affordable housing in an area where that can be hard to find. Courtesy of Tiscareno Associates

This unique mixed-use project offers large affordable units for families.

Solera is a master-planned community in the Seattle suburb of Renton that combines family-oriented mixed-income housing with a variety of commercial uses. Multiuse projects of this scope present plenty of challenges, but they will become increasingly relevant in areas with constrained supplies of affordable housing. 

Filling a Need

With approximately 37,000 square feet of commercial space, 590 rental apartments and as many as 96 attached townhomes on more than 10 acres, Solera is first and foremost a large redevelopment project. The site contains older affordable housing that is not dense enough to optimally address the housing crisis that has plagued King County in recent years. According to the King County Affordable Housing Committee, about 68% of low-income households in King County spend more than 30% of their income on housing. Additionally, there are on average only about 27 affordable housing units available per 100 extremely low-income households in the area.

To address this problem, the city took the long view, seeking a developer with a broader revitalization vision than just replacement of the affordable housing. After other developers failed to make such a project pencil out, Bellevue, Washington-based developer DevCo proposed one that did: a mix of affordable rental apartments, market-rate housing units, community amenities, a daycare, and flexible commercial space on a site adjacent to planned bus rapid transit, parks and a new public library. Most notable is Solera’s uncommonly high number of multi-bedroom apartments: 218 two-bedroom, 111 three-bedroom and 45 four-bedroom. The project broke ground in August 2021 and is expected to be completed in 2024.

Design Considerations

Once Tiscareno Associates was hired on to design the two buildings that comprise the commercial and rental properties of Solera (the townhomes are being designed independently), the usual questions arose. How would residents circulate within their own homes and throughout the complex? How to design for commercial tenants that are still unknown? 

For the first question, the architects had to be both good listeners and experienced planners — to provide what the community wanted, but also what the community needed. The latter was tougher, as different sorts of businesses require different circulation paths, ventilation, restrooms, parking and more. A unique aspect of Solera is its dual identity as a family-oriented housing development and a commercial project. This brings the potential for a symbiotic relationship between residential and commercial, which is being maximized at Solera with a daycare and other possible tenants to enhance its family-oriented identity. 

Solera’s other dual identity — affordable-housing vs. market-rate apartments — brought challenges of its own. The developer originally intended both designations to share space within both buildings, but lenders can be reluctant to fund such projects. As a result, most of Solera’s affordable-housing units are in one building and all its market-rate units are in the other. These were designed so that passersby would have no idea which is which. Both have similar amenities spaces and parking spaces. Without making them identical — they have slightly different color palettes and different modulation to accommodate different unit mixes — both buildings feature tripartite facades and dark, neutral colors to reinforce a sense of unified community. 

Family Priority

DevCo’s niche is affordable housing for a demographic group not typically provided for in multifamily developments: larger families. Thus the “different unit mixes” mentioned above refers to the relative preponderance of multibedroom units in the affordable-housing building, which holds all 45 four-bedroom units.

Multifamily architects are often tasked with squeezing as many units as possible onto a site. But Solera’s even greater challenge required Tiscareno to take the multibedroom units originally spread across both buildings and puzzle-fit them into one. Since the four-bedroom units are most practically situated on corners, this was a thorny challenge, driving the shape of the buildings and dictating more and smaller windows (so that every room could have views of the outdoors) than smaller units require. 

Here it’s worth noting that the affordable-housing building at Solera, which wound up with 275 units, is large enough to fit closer to 375 units of a size more typical for these projects. Renton does have density limits, but Solera’s relatively high number of larger units along with the lower-density townhouses created a mix that passed restrictions and penciled out. The family priority extends to the amenities DevCo has planned for the community, which in addition to the typical meeting rooms, business spaces, fitness centers and coffee lounges include an indoor half-court basketball gym in each building and play areas on the courtyard level of the affordable housing building. Finding space for these extra-large facilities required early planning. 

Adequate parking presented a similar challenge, as DevCo bucks the current fewer-parking-spaces trend in favor of supporting lower-income workers’ more frequent use of cars over transit to commute. The goal was 1.5 parking spaces for every apartment, which is more than is typically seen in Seattle, where no parking is required for apartments. Tiscareno designed a large parking garage beneath Solera and constructed the buildings in a “wrap” formation to conceal much of the rest of the parking behind it in compliance with the city’s zoning codes. 

Distinguishing Identities

Finally, while care was taken not to signal any difference between the market-rate and affordable housing, it was very important to distinguish the residential and commercial identities of this multiuse project. This is a tall order when both share both buildings. For privacy, access to residences needed to be kept separate from access to businesses. It is critical to ensure that home feels like home for the residents, so an apartment door wouldn’t go next to a popular restaurant, for instance. 

For this reason, Tiscareno Associates worked with the city to make sure that residential entryways were permitted along the quieter back side of the development, with the commercial entryways on the more visible front side along the state route. Likewise, both buildings have courtyards that are not public space but private to the residences — all part of an effort to imbue the private portions of the buildings with a more tranquil sense of place while increasing the accessibility of the public parts. 

These dual identities can be signaled with different design features, and a lot of effort went in to making the buildings read “commercial” and “residential” as appropriate. For instance, the ground-floor commercial space is clad in a regular pattern of high, dark brick masonry columns and glass storefronts for a modern look. Residential areas are signaled by incorporating warm wood-like siding and painted panels in neutrals above with balconies and shed roofs. 

A Different Kind of Project

Once complete, Solera will present a clear suburban identity, with plentiful parking, a location in a bedroom community with wilderness close at hand, nearby single-family neighborhoods, and a strong family orientation. On the other hand, its location on a state route in a recently upzoned neighborhood, proximity to multiple transit options, walkable shopping and public library across the street bring a definite urban flavor. 

Projects like Solera are helping to blur the categories “suburban” and “urban” into a new kind of hybrid. Many of Seattle’s former bedroom communities are urbanizing with higher density and mass transit, because density and transit promote sustainability. At the same time, Seattle’s urban core — amply stocked with multifamily units built for singles or roommates — remains painfully low on affordable units for larger families. It may be that “hybrid” developments like Solera can offer just the kind of crossover template this moment calls for.

Mark Stine is a principal with Tiscareno Associates in Seattle.

Unique Financing

According to a September 2021 article in The Registry, Solera is being financed through private capital and public funding.

The Washington State Housing Finance Commission awarded Solera $70 million in federal tax-exempt bonds in August 2021. Those funds are augmented by proceeds from the Evergreen Impact Housing Fund (EIHF).

According to the article, the EIHF is “a collaboration between the Seattle Foundation and five area credit unions — BECU, Salal Credit Union, Sound Credit Union, Verity Credit Union and WSECU — to help finance affordable housing projects.” Those organizations combined to contribute $11.1 million to the EIHF.

Solera is the EIHF’s first project.