Biggest boom ever?

With Downtown Seattle’s history of construction booms, being able to stand in one place and see 15 or 20 tower cranes isn’t unusual. So being the biggest boom ever would take some doing. But we might be there today. How remarkable given the still-recovering economy.

Bay Vista in 1982, courtesy of Lease Crutcher Lewis

The 70s began by saving the Market and Pioneer Square, encouraging a lot of reinvestment in those areas. It continued with the Kingdome, Freeway Park, Rainier Square, Bank of Cal, and the Federal Office Building. In an era when many cities tried to out-suburb the suburbs, we chose to celebrate and revive our urbanity. Or we did to an extent, as we also upped the safety regulations on rooming houses to such an extent that, according to Sightline, 5,000 rooms closed in a span of months in close-in neighborhoods, which must have helped spur today’s mass homelessness. The decade also began with voters turning down the Forward Thrust rail system, earning the scorn of many urbanists ever since.

The early 1980s were epic, adding our first major wave of condo towers, doubling (and seriously overbuilding) Downtown’s hotel inventory, and adding office towers like the Columbia Center and Wells Fargo Center. The early 80s might be called the dawn of our modern downtown. (Apologies to the 70s, as well as the 62 Fair, the Box the Space Needle Came In, and the advent of Seattle-style teriyaki.)

The late 1980s were even bigger. We built four of today’s seven tallest office towers. The housing boom was the biggest yet, including a larger focus on Belltown. We built the convention center (helping those hotels!) and the Downtown Transit Tunnel. The voters rebelled with the CAP initiative in 1989, dramatically reducing building heights and temporarily restricting new office square footages (largely irrelevant since we overbuilt). Of course, voter annoyance might have been more about traffic disruptions related to the tunnel and convention center, but developers are a natural target for populists.

The late 1990s were bigger still. By then we were building hotels again. The retail core underwent a massive transformation, making us once again a top retail destination. Another office boom brought the late 80s to mind but spread more to the Downtown peripheries, powered by tech and astonishingly low vacancy rates.  The housing boom was again our largest ever. We expanded the convention center and built Bell Street Pier and Safeco Field.

The late 2000s gave the late 90s a run for their money. Again it was our biggest housing boom ever, primarily condos. Offices once again got built at a high rate, and hotels continued unabated as Seattle continued to emerge as a visitor destination. We added CenturyLink Field, turned the Bus Tunnel into the Downtown Transit Tunnel with light rail, expanded hospitals, and continued to grow as a center for disease research.

And then there’s now. Who’d have thunk it? Ripples in 2010 turned into waves of groundbreakings in 2011 and unquestionable boom status by 2012. Apartment construction is over 10,000 units if you gerrymander up Dexter and Pike/Pine and count projects in early demo. Along with the one big condo project, that’s by far the largest housing boom ever. The office market is still relying on niches and a big internet/retail firm, but we’re already building at a good clip. Hotels have just started. The 99 tunnel, Mercer/Valley/Broad, the Link extension, and the First Hill Streetcar are the biggest transportation wave since the I-5 at least. But that’s not all. This boom appears to be sticking around.

Apartments should keep breaking ground at a good clip, spurred by culture and job growth, even if the market moves somewhat toward normal. They’ll be joined by a surging condo market in the next year or two, as a few developers can finance projects without presales, and rising confidence by buyers and lenders may result in presales being viable again. The office market should broaden with the economic recovery, even while Amazon has announced further expansions. Hotel occupancies recovered two years ago, followed by room rates more recently, and that market seems poised for another large wave. Absent a major surprise, the pace of work underway might even increase.

  • joshmahar

    Great history and interesting discussion. I certainly don’t disagree that downtown Seattle is on the rise, literally, by I do think its important to put it in context.

    I think this is part of a much larger national phenomenon of investment moving inward; real estate that once funded exurban development is turning to high rise and multifamily projects. There are a lot of reasons for this: 1) metro regions have worked hard to preserve the rural and natual areas that surround them over the last decade, 2) cultural shifts have shown that people are more attracted to walkable, inner city locations now, and related 3) inner city real estate fared much better over the recession then suburban real estate.

    I only point this out because I don’t think Seattle is the only place that looks like one giant construction site. I think a lot of US cities are seeing this same thing happening. In fact, I was just in Miami and their downtown boom actually put Seattle’s to shame. Unreal how much was under construction.