Category Archives: Real Estate

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Waterfront

Collage created from Waterfront Seattle images.
Suitable for framing, MvB’s collage created from Waterfront Seattle images.

Across Seattle, a chorus of feeble, “Wait…what?”s are arising as people catch sight of artist’s illustrations of the new waterfront “boulevard” envisioned by city planners. Internet philosophe Fnarf anticipates much of the reaction with his article “City Proposes Waterfront Highway on Top of Tunnel” on Slog.

Seattle Bike Blog, while approving of the cycle tracks, says, “The new Alaskan Way, located mostly within the current footprint of the viaduct, will be four or five lanes for most of its length until it reaches Columbia Street. South of Columbia, it completely explodes with travel lanes and starts to look a whole lot more like a freeway than a waterfront boulevard.”

The assumption that, with a tunnel, the Viaduct would go away and be replaced by a meandering, flower-speckled goat-track was always suspect. From the beginning, a multi-lane boulevard was sketched out by the dead hand of history — how could the city replace Alaskan Way with anything less than its current lanes and retain its self-respect? The official Waterfront Seattle rhetoric soft-pedaled that, though, with talk of healing the scar created by the Viaduct, and stitching the waterfront back to the city.

Thus the surprise when images like this surface. Look at how tiny the people are! That’s because the streets are so big.

Waterfront Seattle illustration
Waterfront Seattle illustration

In these illustrations, the stitch to fix the scar is about as wide as the waterfront itself, and wider at parts. Tourists will share those remarkably spacious lanes with freight traffic delivering goods to the city. (The city-bypassing deep-bore tunnel also bans anything flammable or explosive, pushing those trucks onto the scenic drive as well.) The speed of boulevard traffic means the addition of parking/loading lanes, so that the “thin” north end is perhaps (with planted median) 80 feet or more.

That median separates north and southbound traffic, of course, but it’s also there because many won’t have enough time to cross the whole street in one go. The Street and Transit Update (pdf) avoids, anywhere, detailing the complete width of the boulevard. A street tree buffer is six feet wide, a sidewalk twelve feet, but lanes go unmeasured.

Isn’t this similar to San Francisco’s Embarcadero, some ask? It is. The difference is that San Francisco opted for a grand boulevard (and its tradeoffs) rather than spend $2 billion on a new tunnel, viaduct, or freeway. The state seems willing to spend $2 billion on a tunnel for Seattle and to clog its waterfront with cars and trucks.

(That said, with tunneling about to begin, the state is still trying to locate all of the $2 billion required, thanks to shortfalls in toll revenue projections. Neither has the Port of Seattle yet put paid on its $300 million, an amount that would have gotten them a much-needed overpass.)

Although the outrage “hook” is the view of nine lanes for motor vehicles (in part to speed ferry traffic to and from Colman Dock), Fnarf has a more insightful point to make as well:

But, as usual, what is missing from these photos is a city. The planners know how to build roads, so they build roads, but they have no idea how to build a city, so they just airbrush it out.

That’s to understate the role of cut-and-paste in this plan. If there is a street “enhancement” that’s been left out, it would be hard to say what it was. But they’re provided without context, plucked from cities and situations without regard for the environment that supports them.

All those verdant tree buffers and medians make sense in cities with a history of funding the kind of meticulous, ongoing landscaping care they require. Seattle’s budget doesn’t allow for its parks’ grass to be mowed weekly. Its sidewalks are everywhere in unsafe disrepair. The city has proven so averse to maintenance and upkeep that existing waterfront sidewalks sometimes swallow people up.

A city is always evidence of argument — sometimes of compromise, but at other times a single perspective has clearly won. Down at Seattle’s waterfront, there’s no possibility of agreement. Promenades and cycle tracks and places for leisure and sight-seeing can do nothing but clash with the exigencies of the workaday commute and the freight-delivery traffic that keeps downtown supplied. The tunnel was going to bury that argument, we were told, but here it is again.

City Council to Nickelsville: Stop Being Homeless by Sept. 1 or Face Eviction

Nickelsville's resident and head of security Steve Westfall walks thru the flooded camp last November. (Photo: Nick Adams)
Nickelsville’s resident and head of security Steve Westfall walks thru the flooded camp last November. (Photo: Nick Adams)

“Because we believe a public health and safety emergency exists,” reads the City Council’s letter to Mayor McGinn, “we ask this plan be developed and implemented — and Nickelsville closed — by September 1, 2013.” Dated June 10 and printed on recycled paper, the letter’s reference to a plan gets ahead of itself a bit. The signatories — the entire Council except for Mike O’Brien and Nick Licata — have instead requested the city’s department of human services to come up with said plan, and to make it one that features “outreach and engagement services.”

Mayor McGinn has said he will comply with the timeline. Nickelsville was notified of the eviction notice, the campers told The Stranger, when TV crews showed up to ask for their reaction.

The peremptory tone, and language of emergency, are new to the Council. In 2010, the PubliCola headline was “Council Members to Mayor: Slow Down on Nickelsville,” as Mayor McGinn sought to relocate the self-organized encampment of homeless people. Months later, in April 2011, the Council’s Richard Conlin was still somehow arguing that in fact the Council could “move forward and meet the needs of homeless individuals with greater speed by implementing alternatives other than the Mayor’s plan.”

That greater speed was not evident when, in November 2012, a flooded, rat-infested Nickelsville made television nightly news. Later this spring, Nickelsville again made the news as residents battled with what they claimed were drug-dealing interlopers.

“No one wants simply to displace campers,” goes the letter, whose sole clearly articulated objective is to displace campers. Otherwise, it refers to emergency shelters (which for many of the campers, homeless for years and proud of their limited possessions, would be step backwards) and permanent housing, of which there is too little available to accommodate Nickelsville residents, even if they were granted priority. Nick Licata’s proposal that the city manage the encampment went nowhere, with neither the greater Council nor Nickelsville.

Like the Council, Nickelsville is also run by people wedded to the warm glow of consensus in areas they’ve proven little competence in. And, like the Council, Nickelsville’s first concern is its self-preservation (thus their pushback to ceding any control to the city). Given that the Council has added nothing new to the equation, the likelihood is that Nickelsville will this fall be making its 18th move since 2008.

“I don’t know what happens next, but if the past four years are any indication, my bet is on Nickelsville,” writes Real Change‘s Tim Harris. He means “surviving,” not necessarily “winning.”

Harris tries to give some context, because this isn’t really about the Nickelsville 100, but a much larger number: 2,736 “[c]ounted outside, after the shelters were filled, between the hours of 2 and 5 a.m. on Jan. 25, 2013. It was a day of rain and sleet, with a 5-mph wind and a mean temperature of 45 degrees.” Those are all numbers missing from the Council’s letter.

For their part, the Council mentions they allocate more than $30 million each year on programs and services for the homeless. This week alone they voted to add  $50,000 to the Fresh Bucks program, which doubles the value of food stamp benefits when used for groceries at Seattle farmers markets. (In its pilot project version, Fresh Bucks had seven farmers market participants; now it will expand to all Seattle farmers markets.)

Glazer’s Camera Will Survive Hot SLU Real Estate Market

Screen Shot 2013-05-20 at 5.06.41 PMThe fiery inferno that is the South Lake Union real estate market has claimed many small-business souls over the past few years — once digested, a surprising number became Tom Douglas enterprises — but one that has escaped is one of the most venerable (and most beloved by Seattle photographers): Glazer’s Camera, 78 years old and on its third generation of owners. The main store is that bright red building at 430 8th Avenue North.

The Wolff Company, itself a third-generation, family-owned firm, has announced that “Glazer’s will occupy the new mixed-use development’s exciting two-story commercial corner on 8th same location where the store exists today.” Glazer’s is signing a long-term agreement that will allow them to move their rental and lighting and supplies locations in under one roof there at 8th and Republican.

Glazer’s is one of the few places left in the area that carries almost everything for the photographer and videographer, digital or…that more romantic stuff involving film or paper: from the cameras and lenses themselves, to lighting and darkroom equipment and supplies. Looking for a Sekonic light meter? Need some Fotospeed Blue Toner? At the moment, they have 294 used film and digital cameras.

And FYI, the PhotoFest 2013 trade-in event is coming up June 8 and 9th.

The entire project is an 8-story, mixed-use development with about 13,000 square feet of commercial space, and 210 market-rate apartments, designed by the Miller Hull Partnership (the architects behind the Bullitt Center) and Runberg Architecture Group (who did Capitol Hill’s Lyric and Chloe, as well as SLU’s Supply Laundry building). The Wolff Company is also behind the major Capitol Hill Pike and Pine project, redeveloping nearly a full block between Pike and Pine, where a BMW dealership used to sit.

City Council Looks into Micro-Housing’s Free Lunch

Nick Licata, sponsor of the Council's paid sick leave bill
Nick Licata

The City Council is holding a public “brown-bag” meeting today, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., on the subject of micro-housing, as typified by Calhoun Properties aPodments, the lightning-rod dormitory-style housing that can replace single-family homes with anywhere from eight to 56 inhabitants. Controversy over their affordability — and its costs to the surrounding neighborhood — has kept Capitol Hill Seattle blog pushing big pixels of coverage.

In March, the city told CHS that since 2006, 44 micro-housing projects had been built or permitted. Calhoun Properties alone has somewhere around 400 micro-units on the market.

“A portion of the meeting will include an opportunity for the public to provide comments and recommendations,” says the Council’s Tom Rasmussen, but certainly his colleagues Nick Licata and Richard Conlin will want to discuss ideas that they have been kicking around as well. You can watch the proceedings live here.

“Because not everyone can attend daytime meetings,” adds Licata, “within the next few weeks, Councilmember Rasmussen and I plan to host another evening public forum on microhousing development.” Licata told PubliCola that he’s curious to hear whether the public would like a minimum size set for micro-housing units. San Francisco has forbidden units of less than 250 square feet. Seattle’s residential code requires just 70 square feet for a sleeping area; micro-housing developments locally seem to have aimed for about twice that.

The Council has already tackled at least one major criticism, announced Richard Conlin on Tuesday, which is how micro-housing developers have been counting units. Conlin had previously pooh-poohed the concerns of neighbors, saying that micro-housing developments weren’t appreciably different from de facto student housing of the kind where five or six people rent out rooms in a house.

“Current code allows flexibility to allow up to eight people to live in one unit, assuming each have their own room,” the Department of Planning and Development’s Bryan Stevens told Real Change. “That number has been in our code for the past 30 years.” A “unit” is defined primarily by the presence of a kitchen, so micro-housing structures are built around a single shared kitchen per floor. Depending upon zoning, they can reach five and six stories in height.

City Council President Richard Conlin
Richard Conlin

“One sore spot,” admitted Conlin recently, “has been the way that developers have used their ‘unit count’ in different ways depending on what City regulation they are working with.” Land use code counts units, as mentioned earlier, by kitchens. But “some developers,” Conlin says, also applied for a Multi-Family Property Tax Exemption (MFTE), meant to encourage affordable housing, by counting each bedroom as a unit. Yet on a price-per-square-foot basis, micro-housing can often bring in more revenue than standard rental stock, which is why it so often replaces an existing structure.

Seven years later, the Office of Housing has closed that loophole: Housing Rule 01-2013 states: “The number and size of dwelling units verified by the Owner in the application for property tax exemption for Multifamily Housing shall be identical to the number and size of dwelling units contained in the Owner’s application to the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) for a building permit….”

This does not, necessarily, mean that micro-housing developments will trigger a design review (which currently occurs with projects of eight units or more). Conlin notes that the DPD is looking at “creating a new threshold for design review based on the size/square footage of the building,” rather than by unit count.

At the moment, micro-housing is earning its investors a premium because a micro-unit’s price point tends not to exist in Seattle’s most popular neighborhoods. Even that, however, is changing. Though you see advertising about micro-units “starting” at $500 per month, or even $475, the going rate has steadily increased to between $575 and $675. “Larger” micro-units, more than 200 square feet, might rent in the $800s. A micro-“suite” can top $1000.

At $675 per month, a 150-sq.-ft. micro-unit is bringing in $4.50 per sq. ft. Meanwhile, a brand-new one bedroom on Roosevelt is going for $2.50 per sq. ft., but the price point is $1,750, which works out to $21,000 per year in rent. That micro-unit? $8,100 for the year.

Downtown, a “Vertical Community” for a New Seattle Takes Shape

(Screenshot: Via6 site)
(Screenshot: Via6 site)

More than forty percent of Via6’s 654 apartments have already been rented, crows a press release about the newly opened, GGLO-designed Pine Street Group property. Located at 2121 Sixth Avenue, between Lenora and Blanchard, Via6 is actually two 18-story apartment towers — soon to fill, you imagine, with Amazon employees envisioning a few blocks’ stroll to and from work. Or, rainy days, nipping over to Westlake for the South Lake Union streetcar.

What’s fascinating about a development like Via6 is the ways in which it’s like a honey trap for a particular psychographic profile. The majority of its apartments are one-bedroom configurations, with only 15 percent being two-bedroom units, 13 percent, studios. But Via6 amenities are condominium-quality: 9-foot ceilings, cork and wood floors, balconies, walk-in closets. There’s a gaming center, a movie theater, a fitness center, dog-owner amenities (on-site “relief” areas and DIY dog-washing facilities), and a fire pit.

This will set you back. Urbnlivn already checked on the price points: Studios start at $1,175 (up to $2,120), a standard 1-bdrm begins at $1,600 (up to $3,500), and a 2-bdrm starts at $2,050 (up to $3,735). Per capita income in King County in 2009 was $58,000 and you’d better be making something like that before you move into your new one bedroom.

But perhaps Via6 lets you save money in other ways. Maybe not at the Tom Douglas restaurant, coffee shop, and urban market, but, suggests project manager Matt Rosauer, “If people want to try life without a car, this could be their spot.” (Here, Consumer Reports reminds you that, over the first five years, the median cost of ownership of a car is $9,100 per year — that’s “depreciation, fuel, interest on financing, insurance, sales tax, and average maintenance and repair costs.”)

Going car-less doesn’t mean staying home. Via6 is nearby the Westlake transit hub that includes the streetcar, buses, and light rail. The bike shop Velo (formerly of Capitol Hill) has taken up residence on the ground floor. (Non-residents might be more interested in joining ViaBike, a membership-based club that offers commuter cyclists showers and lockers.) There’s a car-sharing program planned (not quite finalized as of today), as well as a car rental partnership with a nearby agency.

Via6 is is the process of applying for LEED Gold certification, much of which applies to efficiencies residents won’t see, but some of which they will. For instance, air conditioning in the units is on-demand, rather than default. Overhead ceiling fans are a less-energy-intensive way of cooling off. In the bathroom, residents will find a tub-based clothesline for drying the non-electric way, if they’d like.

The most energy-conscious thing residents are likely to do, though, is live as a “vertical community.” It’s that density that allows efficiencies to flourish. But it allows other things to flourish, too. Earlier, I discussed Amazon as “representative of a new Seattle voting bloc — well-educated, well-paid, bike-toting urbanites who have a thing for rail.” If old Seattle was built by Boeing workers who raised their kids in suburban homes, you get sense of how different new Seattle will be, with single apartment dwellers and their dogs as the basic household unit.

Mayoral Candidate Tim Burgess Talks Homes for the Homeless

Tim Burgess
Tim Burgess

Two years ago, the City Council’s Richard Conlin was crowing over what he thought was a 15-percent drop in homelessness, and foot-dragging on finding semi-permanent housing for tent city residents. Only 1,753 people were found outdoors during the One Night Count, he said, “a testament to the success of the Seattle community’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness.”

This year the One Night Count found 1,989 homeless people without shelter, up from 2012, and more or less erasing that 15-percent “drop.” That’s even though a tent city like Nickelsville, which flooded disastrously back in November, isn’t included in the count because tents are shelter. What are these numbers a testament to?

The original Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness stated that by the end of 2014: “Homelessness will be virtually ended,” and “There will be no need for tent cities or encampments.” Mike Lowry was governor, and Peter Steinbrueck was on the City Council. That doesn’t leave us a lot of time.

When KOMO News asked Real Change founder Tim Harris recently how the Plan was going, Harris said that the push to build permanent housing (5,100 housing units have been created so far, just over half the goal) was coming at the expense of shelter beds, and didn’t consider the needs of car campers, or take a position on tent cities. “We need to look at low-cost, effective ways of meeting the needs that are initiated by the homeless themselves and how can they work with them as part of the solution,” said Harris.

But the Council’s Tim Burgess finds in the numbers support for permanent housing. Looking over a 2011 study of more than 2,500 people, he found something close to an 80/20 distribution: “26 percent of these individuals stayed in shelter for a lengthy 180 days or more, accounting for a total of 74 percent of the bed nights used.” Nearly 40 percent of the total used shelter beds for 30 days or less, for just three percent of the total beds-per-night available. Concludes Burgess:

This important information shows policymakers that if we can develop approaches to transition the long-term users of shelters into more permanent housing, we would free up a lot of bed nights to serve an even greater number of people who might need only short-term emergency access to shelter.

“The longer one stays in shelter, the harder it becomes to move into housing,” adds Burgess, arguing that shelters need a “back door,” a process through which people who aren’t temporarily homeless can begin rebuild their footing in the community.