May 28, 2009

Northgate’s urban center grows up

  • The neighborhood’s transformation into a walkable, transit-oriented community may provide insight into the future of sustainable development in Puget Sound.
    Special to the Journal



    This spring heralded the grand opening of 507 Northgate, the first mixed-use project developed in the Northgate area since the adoption of the Growth Management Act in 1990. Wallace Properties’ project provides 163 sustainable, workforce apartments and 55,000 square feet of retail at the corner of Northeast Northgate Way and Fifth Avenue Northeast.

    507 Northgate is a milestone in the revitalization of the Northgate Urban Center and is the result of years of effort to turn Northgate into a walkable, transit-oriented community. The revitalization of Northgate reveals the challenges and opportunities with managed growth, and provides valuable insights for the future of sustainable development in the Puget Sound region.

    The Northgate Urban Center is a compact area with Northgate Mall at its core. To the south and west of the mall are a number of office buildings, North Seattle Community College and Northwest Hospital — all of which support a variety of jobs. The core is also surrounded by middle-income single-family and multifamily residences, providing the density necessary to support mixed-use development.

    Photo by Natalie Wallace/Platinum Multimedia
    A pedestrian-oriented retail base with overhead weather protection supports the three to four stories of workforce apartments at the 507 Northgate project.

    The urban center also thrives from a mix of transportation choices; it is adjacent to Interstate 5, boasts one of the busiest arterials in the region in Northgate Way, serves mass transit needs from the Northgate Transit Center, and Sound Transit plans to open a light-rail station in 2017.

    Growth potential

    Residential growth in the region has been strong and it appears that, notwithstanding the current economic recession, this growth will continue and provide the demand necessary for future development.

    The Puget Sound Regional Council forecasts 1.7 million new people in Central Puget Sound by 2040, and the millennial generation, equal in size to the baby boom generation, is now entering the housing market. Many of them seek the freedom and flexibility that urban center living provides. This, paired with future job growth and tighter lending standards on home and condo acquisitions, will create future demand for moderately priced apartments.

    507 Northgate team
    general contractor

    Baylis Architects:
    project architect

    Coughlin Porter Lundeen:
    structural and civil engineer

    landscape architecture

    Sechrist Design:
    interior designer

    Morrison Hershfield:

    Foster Pepper:

    Barry Leahy:
    construction manager

    Despite these positive conditions, no new multifamily units have been delivered in the Northgate Urban Center in the last generation.

    Previous development

    With this potential and previously favorable economic conditions, why the delay?

    The historic lack of development was primarily due to the Thornton Creek issue and the city’s anti-growth posture during the 1990s. In 2004, after years of intractable litigation over the creek, the city finally stepped in. Creating solutions and providing infrastructure, city leaders fostered a pro-growth attitude that spawned new development:

    • In 2004, a stakeholders group was created, resulting in a community-based solution to the Thornton Creek daylighting problem and approval of the Northgate Mall South Lot development.

    • In 2006, the city completed Northgate Community Center, Library and Park, as well as streetscape improvements and the coordinated transportation investment plan, which is now being implemented.

    • The stakeholder-approved Thornton Creek water quality channel restoration and daylighting project is now complete, with a grand opening scheduled for June 6.

    • Planning for the new Northgate Urban Center Park is complete and construction is funded in the 2009 city budget.

    • The 3rd Avenue Northeast extension is out for funding.

    Photo by Nic Lehoux
    Northgate Community Center and the Northgate Branch Library, which opened in July of 2006, were a strong step in the redevelopment of the Northgate Urban Center.

    It is because the city first provided this infrastructure that private developers were able to develop sustainable mixed-use projects in Northgate. Private development did not commence until the infrastructure was provided, the city codes were changed and city staff began supporting private development.

    As a result, last year Simon Properties finally completed its two-year renovation and expansion of Northgate Mall, adding 120,000 square feet of outdoor “urban village” retail and a five-level parking garage at the south end adjacent to the transit center. Also, a number of new projects are in the works.

    Current development

    507 Northgate is a sustainable, environmentally friendly project designed by a team lead by Baylis Architects. Wallace Properties spent more than $1 million to improve the quality of the water flowing through and from the site, thus reducing pollution in Thornton Creek.

    Photo by Natalie Wallace/Platinum Multimedia
    A graceful art piece invites pedestrians to the courtyard and retail spaces at 507 Northgate.

    The apartments at 507 have been awarded the Seattle City Light BuiltSmart designation for energy-efficient design and construction. In addition, the project received awards from the state Department of Ecology for the clean-up of a former gas station site and environmentally sound construction management practices.

    The project interacts with the surrounding community with retail on the ground floor and wider-than-standard sidewalks, thus enhancing the pedestrian experience and safety. Because the retail space is located on the most visible corner in one of the strongest retail markets in the Seattle area, the project expects to be fully leased in a matter of months despite market conditions.

    Later this year, on the property south of the mall, Lorig Associates will complete Thornton Place and ERA Care will complete Aloyja. This joint project is a 6-acre development with 50,000 square feet of retail, restaurants, and resident services space along with a 14-screen theater, 109 condos, 278 apartments, 127 senior apartments and more than 850 parking spaces.

    Future development

    A few additional neighborhood developments are proposed in the near-term which combined could provide another 1,125 residential units, 200,000 square feet of retail and possibly hotel or office buildings. Included are Kauri Investments’ Court at Northgate II, Wallace Properties’ Phase II east of 507 Northgate, and the Mullally Family Northgate Apartments site, which could include one of four development scenarios.

    If financially viable, these projects will bring Northgate closer to the housing and jobs target under the 2005 comp plan. However, the transportation assets provide opportunity for even greater density. Transit-oriented housing is a part of the solution to our region’s traffic problems. Providing viable alternatives to commuting in cars (or even owning cars) accommodates regional population growth without the need for building more roads. To this end, all these projects provide incentives such as bike lockers, ZipCars and other alternatives to driving.

    Photo by Natalie Wallace/Platinum Multimedia
    Wide sidewalks and landscaping along Northeast Northgate Way provide a buffer between pedestrians and traffic.

    The vision, however, is far from complete. In early 2007, the city began the process of rezoning a small portion of Northgate. At a Northgate stakeholders’ design charette and in public comments to the EIS, the community supported increased height in the neighborhood to 125 feet. The city’s draft EIS, however, countered with mostly 85-foot height limits. This rezone is also contingent on passage of incentive zoning. Presently, the entire rezoning effort has been shelved.

    As proposed, the rezone is unlikely to positively impact residential growth absent changes to building codes permitting wood-frame construction above 70 feet and elimination of incentive zoning fees and other requirements that decrease the time, risk and cost of development.

    The potential for the revitalization of the Northgate Urban Center has only begun to be realized. A mutual public-private respect and partnership to continue the vision of an urban center will need to be fostered. The city will need to become aggressive in increasing the height and density limits in the area and in decreasing the permitting costs, risks and/or duration. And, private leadership will need to realize the potential and provide developments that, like 507 Northgate, contribute to the making of a vibrant urban center.

    Kevin Wallace oversees all development and acquisitions at Wallace Properties. The firm’s Development Division specializes in sustainable, transit-oriented mixed-use projects in Puget Sound’s urban centers. Kevin J. Cleary, AIA, is an associate at Baylis Architects. Cleary is active in urban mixed-use projects and was the project manager for 507 Northgate.


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