Seattle discovering homes with serious altitude
Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle) - September 15, 2006by Brad BrobergContributing Writer
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Seattle's hottest new neighborhood looks down on the rest of the city. That doesn't necessarily make the residents snobs. They're just living la vida alta -- or will be soon.
As the desire to live downtown continues to sizzle, a gaggle of high-rise condos is elbowing its way into the skyline. The result: an emerging community in the clouds.
"What I love about living in the sky more than anything else is the quality of life," said Blaine Weber.
A principal at Weber + Thompson in Seattle, Weber is the architect for 1521 Second Avenue, a 141-unit residential tower that began construction last month between Pike and Pine streets. When completed in 2008, the 38-story building will be Seattle's tallest residential high rise -- and the first built under new downtown zoning regulations that stretch previous height limits in the central core.
A short stroll away, work has also started on Seattle's largest residential high rise, Escala. The 30-story tower, located at Fourth Avenue and Virginia Street, features 280 units. It also is scheduled to open in 2008.
Escala and 1521 join several other downtown residential skyscrapers in various stages of construction or planning. One big difference: The developers of 1521 and Escala are committing their entire projects to luxury condos rather than surrendering the bottom half to hotels.
Buyers have exhibited a feverish interest in both Escala and 1521, say their developers. When the doors opened at a preview event for Escala, the surge of people pinned a sales agent against the wall.
"It was like the scene at a soccer game in Germany," said Joe Strobele, president and chief operating officer for Lexas Companies, the project's developer.
More than half of Escala's units already have been reserved. They range in size from 950 square feet to 16,000 square feet and in price from $500,000-plus to more than $5 million. One of the building's distinguishing features is its elevators. They stop in individual foyers rather than hallways, with each foyer providing access to no more than two units.
Meanwhile, at 1521, more than 100 units already have been sold. The average price is $1.8 million and the units range from 1,600 square feet to 5,000 square feet. Each unit incorporates glass sunrooms that can be fully opened to the outdoors, with only a protective railing coming between residents and the city below.
To date, most downtown residential development has occurred north and south of the central core. Now, the parade of new towers promises to make midtown an equally popular -- albeit loftier -- address.
"I think Seattle is more than ready for it," said Jeffrey Ochsner, an architecture professor at the University of Washington.
The City Council certainly thinks so. To encourage more midtown development, the council adjusted the zoning code to allow greater density by allowing taller but skinnier buildings. In most places, height limits now vary between 400 feet and 500 feet. In a few spots, there is no limit at all as long as the tower remains slender.
In a location such as midtown, developers have no choice but to reach for the sky because of the cost of real estate.
"A lot of it is economic," said William Justen. "You have to get the most utilization out of the land."
Justen, managing director of the Samis Land Co. and founder of the Justen Co., is a longtime downtown resident and developer/consultant who is collaborating with Opus NWR Development LLC to develop 1521. He's also a future resident of the tower who will make his home on the 29th floor.
To be sure, high rises such as those dotting midtown are first and foremost creatures of economic and regulatory realities.
"They're the only thing that's feasible because of the land costs and the zoning," said Justen.
Yet there's also a certain sex appeal to life in a high rise. With such a concentrated number of people sharing the same lobbies, terraces, workout rooms, etc., bumping into someone who wants to share a drink or catch a movie is almost unavoidable, said Justen.
"You go to one of those places, see who shows up, and off you go," he said.
Weber agrees. "People in towers tend to respect each other's privacy, but here's still a sense of community," he said. "People who live in a tower are of a like mind."
Another high-rise perk: a boatload of amenities made possible by spreading the cost over more units, said Strobele. Plus there's a certain prestige attached to living in a "landmark" building visible from blocks -- if not miles -- away.
In midtown, high rises will both contribute to and benefit from the surrounding commercial/cultural vibe as residents will enjoy easy access to the shopping, dining and entertainment opportunities available all around them.
The icing on the cake -- at least for those on the upper floors -- is the view.
"It's a constantly changing postcard, moment to moment, day to day, the way the light dances on the water, the way the clouds roll in," said Weber. "It's even fun watching bad weather from that high up."
Weber has called the 22nd floor of the Cristalla building in Seattle's Belltown home for the past several years. Like Justen, he also is moving into 1521, but has opted for a garden terrace unit on the seventh floor. Even so, he hasn't lost his appreciation for addresses with more altitude.
"People always ask if it's a hassle to wait for an elevator," said Weber. His reply? Not so much. The wait time is usually only 30 or 40 seconds and the payback -- serenity, security and "knock-your-socks-off views that go on for miles" -- is worth it, he said.
"The sense of expanded space really changes your mindset," said Weber. "For me, it just elevates my spirit."