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November 20, 2014

Mack Urban's tower first out of the blocks

  • An apartment building at Western and University will be the first property to be developed under the city’s $1 billion waterfront plan.
    Mack Urban


    Two decades ago, Stimson Bullitt’s Harbor Properties developed Harbor Steps, a four-phase master-planned residential project that created access from downtown to the waterfront.

    His vision included a 16,000-square-foot staircase park between First and Western avenues, with eight cascading fountains and a tree-lined central courtyard. The courtyard created an elegant central gathering place for Seattle residents and visitors alike. With over 3 million pedestrian visits per year, the staircase park is now an important civic contribution to urban life in downtown Seattle.

    Stimson, who died in 2009, had foreseen the transformation of the Seattle waterfront. First Avenue, which was a once a vibrant pedestrian corridor bordered by Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square and the central waterfront, had deteriorated by the early 1970s from years of neglect. He envisioned a revitalized First Avenue anchored by a sunny urban plaza and staircase park connecting to Post Alley and the waterfront.

    Stimson’s first effort began with the acquisition of land and property located primarily on First, Western and Post Alley. The second phase involved the development and renovation of numerous neglected or abandoned properties, including the South Arcade Building, Vincent House, 98 Union Condominiums, Post Alley Court Apartments, the Oceanic Building, the Erickson Building, 84 Union and the 110 Union Building.

    Image by Ankrom Moisan Architects [enlarge]
    The 16-story, 169-unit apartment building will break ground in December.

    This wasn’t a single focused effort and development. Harbor Properties also played a pivotal role in helping to move the Seattle Art Museum from Volunteer Park to downtown. A partnership with low-income housing advocates also helped to build new downtown housing.

    This renewal effort led to other market-rate developments such as Watermark Tower and Waterfront Place. Stimson didn’t see additional development as competition. Rather, other developers were his peers in helping to reknit the historical, residential, retail and pedestrian connection between First Avenue and the waterfront.

    Mindful of the big picture

    Given this neighborhood’s rich history and our position as custodian of the Harbor Properties legacy, Mack Urban embraces both the opportunity and the responsibility that come with developing the first property under Seattle’s new $1 billion waterfront redevelopment plan.

    In December, Mack Urban will begin construction on a 16-story, 169-unit residential tower across the street from Harbor Steps, at 50 University St. We are aiming to follow Stimson’s example by being a good partner with the city and the community, which means understanding our place in the bigger picture and doing considerably more than the minimum.

    With that aim in mind, our project has to accomplish several goals at once.

    First, it must enhance the connection between downtown Seattle and the waterfront. Second, we need to recognize our role as part of a larger effort to design a world-class waterfront, which includes incorporating civic design goals into the architecture and construction of our future residential site. Third, we must also bring in the right kind of retail that animates the new, emerging pedestrian block along Alaskan Way and across the street from the new park.

    It’s also important for our project to be contextual with historic structures as well as other new developments in the neighborhood.

    As the first project out of the blocks, we have sometimes been ahead of the city design guidelines for the new waterfront. It’s fair to say that at the time of our design effort the city is still thoughtfully planning the details of how new buildings should interface with the new waterfront. Not all the design elements are completed yet, such sidewalk treatments and streetlight design.

    A timeless design

    It’s been very important that our design embraces the historic flavor of a waterfront, as well as the urban, industrial feel of downtown. We will continue to work with the city as they get closer to final sidewalk and pedestrian design guidelines so they can be incorporated into our project. This takes more time, but when a project is as much about placemaking as dwelling, it’s important to get it right.

    Our new residential tower is a legacy project. It is designed to create a waterfront lifestyle that is timeless — connecting to its surroundings on many levels, rather than a commodity apartment product.

    Our investment and development strategy is long-term, meaning we would like to hold this property indefinitely. We feel that this approach is well-suited to a development of such symbolic importance for the neighborhood and the city, and look forward to further realizing a waterfront that Stimson Bullitt envisioned over 30 years ago and today would heartily embrace.

    Martha Barkman is vice president of development for Mack Urban.

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