April 10, 2003

Growing urban oases

  • The multi-family market embraces the benefits of eco-amenities
    Harbor Properties

    The McGuire in Belltown
    The McGuire in Belltown, with 272 apartment units, offers residents a full-sized rooftop lawn.

    The Seattle residential real estate community has made great strides recently in developing urban, mixed-use apartment properties with extensive natural amenities such as green rooftops, interior gardens and parks, and other professionally landscaped common areas.

    In just the past decade, local developers have introduced a wide range of multi-family projects that feature gardens at street level and above. These landscapes go way beyond the ubiquitous tiny central courtyard with yards of concrete and a single bed of plants and flowers.

    Today, many urban apartment-dwellers are able to stay at home to plant and tend vegetables and learn about trees and plants indigenous to this region. Other downtown residents are using these fresh outdoor apartment spaces to sunbathe, read a book, or just take a break from the daily grind.

    To make these urban encounters with nature more frequent, developers like Harbor Properties are increasingly looking to qualified, creative landscape architects to help them deliver projects that blend urban residential design with nature at the door.

    Evidence of this trend is everywhere. Today, it’s not uncommon for downtown residents to discover a community P-patch, a private park or a landscaped courtyard right outside their apartments. These natural, quiet spaces afford people a soothing place to be at one with nature any time of day without leaving the apartment property.

    Projects with eco-amenities reflect a smart, forward-thinking development strategy that improves the quality of life of residents by acknowledging the critical role of nature and greenery in our urban fabric. In addition, green residential common areas, if planned correctly, can help improve the developer’s bottom line.

    Anytime a developer creates an amenity that both increases resident satisfaction and garners support from the environmental and governmental communities, it helps to build brand recognition for the developer.

    Developers clearly understand that today’s savvy urban resident wants the best of both worlds: an animated urban lifestyle, but with access to restorative natural spaces. With the recent rise in projects being built with landscaped rooftops and other eco-amenities, Seattle’s urban residents no longer have to maintain a house in the suburbs to get it.

    Despite this local trend, mixing nature with urban housing is nothing new to the international community. The practice can be traced back centuries ago to mankind’s earliest structures, many of which featured sod-covered roofs. The natural vegetation kept out the rain, while it helped to maintain cool temperatures on the inside. Sod roofs even gave the family goats a place to graze.

    These grassy roofs eventually became known as “living roofs,” which have been popular for many years overseas, especially in European countries like Germany and Holland and Switzerland.

    Today, right here in Seattle’s apartment community, landscaped rooftops and other natural spaces have a wide range of practical benefits for the real estate developer. They:

    • Increase the project’s property value by extending the usability of once blank, hardscaped common areas.

    • Increase apartment occupancies by improving street (and roof) appeal and the overall marketability of the project.

    • Provide an aesthetically pleasing, even therapeutic space where residents can gather, converse and build relationships.

    • Capture a new audience — those who thought apartment living meant sacrificing contact with nature.

    Urban residential green spaces have many positive ecological impacts, too, some of which ultimately can benefit the developer. These include:

    • Reducing significantly the runoff of rain, which helps prevent urban flooding and sewage problems.

    • Cutting building energy costs by preventing extreme fluctuations in rooftop temperatures.

    • Reducing the amount of hardscape, which reflects noise and reduces visual appeal and resident satisfaction.

    • Improving urban air-quality by converting carbon dioxide to oxygen.

    • Removing dust and dirt particles from the air and nitrogen pollution from the rain.

    • Neutralizing the acid rain effect.

    • Reducing demand for heat in winter and air conditioning in summer.

    • Acting as a trend-setter for subsequent developments to follow suit.

    Several decades ago, when Stimson Bullitt founded Harbor Properties, he envisioned a real estate development company that would grow like a “tall tree with deep, healthy roots.” Harbor, Bullitt thought, would stand for environmental stewardship, as well as the creation of interesting urban places where people could live, work, play and learn.

    Today, each of Harbor’s apartment properties features environmentally focused, user-friendly amenities, whether it’s a landscaped rooftop, an interior private park or an outdoor courtyard inhabited by drought-tolerant plants and trees.

    Harbor Properties has partnered with local architecture and landscape architecture firm Hewitt Architects on several residential projects that reflect Bullitt’s original vision for the company. One is Harbor Steps, a 739-unit apartment complex featuring Harbor Steps Park. The park is a public, open-air gathering space that Hewitt designed to include a cascading water feature, mature trees and several species of indigenous flowers and plants.

    Harbor Steps also has a garden courtyard that can be seen from all the interior-facing apartments in the complex’s two south towers. Hewitt Architects designed a number of evergreen planters at Harbor Steps, with vines, trees and other drought-tolerant vegetation on the low-rise rooftops overlooking Harbor Steps Park and the courtyard.

    Another project example is McGuire, a Belltown property featuring 272 apartment units offering access to one of Seattle’s first residential landscaped rooftops. Hewitt Architects designed McGuire’s terrace, located on top of the complex’s above-ground parking structure. The terrace is a full-size lawn and garden where residents can sunbathe, read or convene for a community barbecue. This lush, green outdoor living space located in the center of Seattle’s downtown core features numerous drought-resistant plantings, a hot tub, and five townhomes with private decks, patios and individual entrances. All McGuire residents have access to the terrace area.

    A third Harbor Properties project, Alcyone, is currently under construction, but will include a landscaped roof deck with a P-patch for residents to cultivate plants and vegetables. A separate landscaped courtyard will provide a place for residents to meet and talk, or to simply relax and enjoy the outdoors. Local architect GGLO designed Alcyone, while Hewitt Architects provided landscape-design services for the project, due for completion next spring.

    Like many other new urban apartment projects, Alcyone’s extensive eco-amenities reflect a much broader — and serious — commitment that Seattle developers are making to the environment. They’re creating projects in a more sustainable manner, implementing environmentally sensitive design and building practices that use everything from energy-efficient lighting and water-efficient landscaping to recycled water and environmentally friendly flooring.

    Projects which meet a certain threshold of environmental friendliness are deemed LEED-certified, an industry measurement tool created by the U.S. Green Building Council to define green, community-conscious projects.

    Urban residential developers are more in touch today with their natural surroundings than ever before. They’re creating fresh, new wide-open projects enabling apartment residents to experience nature in the heart of the city. Gardens, parks and P-patches are becoming staples of Seattle’s urban lifestyle.

    No one knows for certain what the next eco-amenity will be. But, whatever it is, there will be an innovative landscape architect bringing some developer’s vision to light.

    More information on Harbor Properties’ holdings and eco-amenities is available at

    Alison Jeffries is marketing director at Harbor Properties.

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