Friday, December 13, 2013

WSECU Proposes Garage Art Wall Installation

Above: The Washington State Employees Credit Union (WSECU) parking garage as seen from the parking lot of its former credit union site on Union Street. The proposed art would be placed on the southeast corner of the building, seen here on the far right.

By Janine Unsoeld

A subcommittee of the City of Olympia’s Design Review Board heard a proposal on Thursday night by Washington State Employee Credit Union (WSECU) staff to create an “art wall” on the southeast corner of WSECU’s parking garage at 410 10th Avenue SE in downtown Olympia.

WSECU has also submitted a building permit application to the city to replace the tempered glass panels with laminated glass panels. Like the previous panels, the glass will be angled to reflect light in different ways.
While the application does not require design review, the board expressed interest and welcomed the presentation. City of Olympia planner Catherine McCoy explained the project to Design Review subcommittee members Darrell Hoppe, David Goularte, and Joseph LaValle.
Mike Sanders, Vice President of Facilities for WSECU and John Thomas of NBBJ, a Seattle architectural firm, gave presentations.
The intent of the art wall is to display “relevant, local, and community-inspired art” in a variety of formats including three-dimensional artwork. Some artwork could look similar to the images wrapped around transit buses, for example, using opaque, weather resistant material.
Artwork would be mounted to perforated, stainless steel panels with a bolted connection allowing a wide range of flexibility for assorted materials and mounting configurations. It is anticipated that some three-dimensional artwork such as lightweight objects or ceramic tile panels could be used in addition to two-dimensional artwork. Lighting will be provided for nighttime illumination.
The applicant says that no advertisement or signage of any kind is anticipated or intended for the garage.
Building History and Recent Flaws
As project manager for WSECU’s corporate buildings, Sanders said WSECU tried to design a building that was more than a parking garage, and feels the glass panels add that design component, blending into the community.

Located across the street from the Olympia post office on 10th and Jefferson, the block was rezoned in 2006 from urban residential to downtown business to build the $18 million six-story garage. Nearby neighbors were not thrilled with the project at the time, as it appears out of scale with downtown residential housing in the area. The city's Planning Commission at the time made no recommendation to the city council on the project due to a split vote.

A selling point WSECU used at the time of the proposed rezone of the block was that they would consider the garage to be available for neighborhood residents and community use, however, this has yet to occur. Built in 2009, the private, gated garage contains 469 stalls.

The City of Olympia arts, parks and recreation is not involved in the application, and there is no city or state mandate for WSECU to do this project, says Stephanie Johnson, the city’s program manager for the department. In order to learn more about best practices of public art processes, however, Sanders sought Johnson’s professional opinion about the project and various artistic options of what could be done with the space.

Explosion of Glass
Tempered glass panels originally surrounded the brick building to better obscure the sight of vehicles in the garage. Those panels were recently entirely removed when it was discovered that they were secured to the building with faulty components. 

On August 17, one of the glass panels spontaneously exploded, said Sanders.
“After an investigation, it was determined that there were impurities in the glass making process….There are various opinions about what causes glass to explode….The tempered glass was under great tension….and when I say exploded, I mean it exploded with such force that there was glass found above it, outside, and rained glass onto the sidewalk.” There were no injuries.

In an effort to determine existing conditions of the glass before its removal, a 3D laser scan of the building was made. Recently, the public saw huge swaths of blue X’s marking each panel which was needed for that effort. Scaffolding was then put into place and the glass panels were removed.
Above: A sample image from a page of the Washington State Employee Credit Union's application to the City of Olympia for garage art wall installation. 
Building Art Proposal
Sanders admitted the garage is pretty ugly right now, so WSECU staff wondered what they could do to “fix the building.” He says WSECU tries to be community-minded, so, staff discussed art projects, such as photography and sculptures.

While many details are in the conceptual stage, a metal, perforated mesh, ¼ inch thick, will cover a space 13 ½ ft. wide x 39 ft. on 10th Avenue, and 23 ft. x 39 ft. on the Jefferson Street side. It will be designed to look attractive whether art is placed on it or not.
Sanders said that while WSECU does not yet have an art program in place, they have experience with the annual calendar featuring photography from around the state. He anticipates staff will use the same kind of deliberation in art for the garage as it does for the calendar, and will voluntarily stay away from controversial pieces. They anticipate changing the art once a quarter or a couple times a year.

City staff and Design Review subcommittee board members asked questions about illumination, weight, wind, earthquake, and pedestrian right of way issues. They also expressed full confidence that WSECU will not violate Olympia’s municipal code regarding signage.

"Subtle illumination will be used to define the artwork but not make it look like a billboard," said Sanders. He said they will use low profile, LED lighting that will blend into the building.
Also, credit to chosen artists will not be displayed or printed on the actual art, but be placed on a small kiosk nearby, under the art, similar to art sculptures currently on display around the city, and through their publication and website. 

Board members asked to see the final ideas when WSECU was ready with more information. Sanders said he hopes to have the metal mesh and glass installed by March or April of 2014.

In a letter received today in response to an inquiry from this reporter, Sharon Whitehead, Senior Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer says, in part, "You are certainly right in that art is subjective and yes, we realize that there may be some level of risk inherent in placing visuals on the building for others to view and evaluate. We also believe it can be a great gift to the community to increase the visual appeal of the neighborhood."

According to its website, WSECU is a non-profit, community credit union open to everyone, not just state employees. It was founded by a small group of Washington State employees in 1957. WSECU is overseen by nine volunteer board of directors. To contact the board of directors, write: or by mail: Board of Directors, PO BOX WSECU, Olympia, WA 98507.
For more information about the proposal and to see sample designs, go to: or contact Catherine McCoy, lead planner, City of Olympia, (360) 570-3776 or and refer to WSECU Art Installation Case Number: 13-3544.
Above: The southeast corner of WSECU's parking garage is on the left, as seen from the Olympia United States Post Office on Jefferson Street.