November 15, 2001

Orchestrating Belltown’s rebirth

  • New neighborhood emerges in the heart of the city
    Val Thomas Inc.


    While some cities are experiencing urban decline, Seattle is witnessing the emergence of a new neighborhood in the heart of the city. The transformation of Belltown from an industrial, commercial district to a lively, urban residential area is in full swing with hundreds of new condominium and apartment units now available or in development.

    Restaurants, nightclubs and unique retail shops are filling out the corridors of this section of mid-town Seattle.

    I have been watching, planning and hoping for the restoration of Belltown for 25 years — back when it was known simply as the Denny Regrade. I often wonder if the city fathers who sluiced down Denny Hill more than 100 years ago could even imagine thousands of people living here on active streets that are the envy of many cities.

    Klee Lofts & Suites
    Photo courtesy of Val Thomas Inc.
    Developer Val Thomas recently opened the Klee Lofts & Suites apartment project in Belltown.

    Along with several other “Belltown believers,” I am proud to be part of the reinvestment in Belltown’s north end. Our project, Klee Lofts & Suites, is one of several that will add 1,300 living units to the neighborhood. These new homes will provide a demand for more services and shops, extending active street life beyond its present First Avenue focus.

    I have a fondness for old buildings. When we first purchased the site in 1996, it was my intention to try to renovate or salvage portions of the existing Currin-Greene Shoe Manufacturing building.

    Careful study and research proved it would not be financially or structurally feasible.

    What now stands in its place is my vision for a residential community that is as vibrant as the people who choose to live there. Klee Lofts & Suites is the product of collaboration of many talented architects, designers and contractors.

    And we didn’t forget about the old building; some of its timbers are recycled in the lobby’s paneling and stairs.

    Once we made the decision to completely rebuild, our team at Hewitt Architects studied the site from every angle. We looked at orientation, exposure, and the way light and views would work after the surrounding buildings went up.

    You might have expected us to design more west-facing windows, but taking into account these new buildings meant orienting our units more north and south. This actually provides the best views over the long run.

    What we have is an urban building that maximizes light and greenery. The residential lobby between the two towers is entered through a landscaped garden. High ceilings and huge windows lead up to a lush courtyard between the buildings at the second level that provides a green center for the project.

    We also decided early in the design process not to max out the site with one huge or two large towers. We found that we could provide some less expensive units by using lower, wood-frame construction on part of the site.

    The trade-off for building fewer units was lessening the need to dig so deeply for parking — a substantial savings. The benefits are obvious. In addition to a good mix of units, we have two different buildings that stand in contrast to each other: one tall and muscular, the other providing more light and air to the whole. The benefit to someone walking by on the street is also a project that is less monolithic and inherently more interesting.

    On the inside, our buildings reflect their different personalities. The low-rise wood-frame building has large, comfortable floor plans with more conventional layouts, balconies and big windows.

    The lofts in the high-rise building provide very high ceilings with wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling glass. Many have exposed concrete columns visible.

    The lofts provide flexible space that can be molded to residents’ own needs. It is always a delight to be invited to walk through these homes after people move in and do their own thing in ways I never thought of.

    Naming the building after 20th century artist Paul Klee worked nicely with the concept of the paired buildings. Though Klee was a member of the famed Bauhaus, his work is delightfully quirky and varied. His other consuming passion was music, so Klee’s dual personality matches that of the building and gives rise to the Klee Lofts & Suites.

    The main common rooms will have numerous original works of art by Northwest artists, the most prominent of which is a series of glass waterfalls by Nancy Mee in the entry lobby.

    With all the development activity going on in Belltown the question becomes: Will Western Avenue just become a canyon of tall buildings?

    The city has taken action to soften the streetscape as high-rises replace warehouses and empty lots. New buildings are required to step back from the property line above 25 feet, letting in light and preserving views.

    The Green Street program provides wider sidewalks filled with landscaping to calm traffic and intensify the presence of greenery. Expanded curb bulbs at street corners accommodate extra trees and plantings as well as easy, short-term parking.

    And the Olympic Sculpture Park, just a block away from Klee at Western and Broad, will be a wonderful addition of both green space and art that will extend to the waterfront and potentially into the Sound.

    Getting this project built was a unique collaboration between two construction companies. One company, McCarthy Construction, built the base and the concrete tower containing the lofts. Another company, Express Construction, which specializes in frame construction, built the metal-sheathed low-rise building. This placed a bigger burden on us as owners, but the cooperation between our project manager Joe Borden and the two companies was excellent.

    As Belltown continues to grow from its adolescence to a fully mature neighborhood, it is vital that care be taken in the structure, design and integrity of the buildings, landscapes and businesses that will populate it so that people who chose to call it home can do so in an environment that is lively, responsive and respectful of their desires and needs.

    Val Thomas, AIA, is the principal of Val Thomas Inc., a Seattle developer of urban mixed-use properties.

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