August 9, 2001

Infill problems? Get creative

  • Building urban infill takes patience and creativity
    Lorig Associates


    In 30 years of developing projects, Lorig Associates has established a reputation for finding solutions for complex urban developments. Some call us visionary, others refer to us as the developer of last resort.

    Whether prophetic or audacious, we take on challenges that require careful thinking about every aspect of how they might work. What is the best use on a particular site? How do possible projects suit what both the market will accept and the community will want? How do we create an economically feasible and enduring asset?

    One key is not to be in a hurry. Building urban housing, whether affordable or luxury for families, low-income elderly or students, takes patience — and tenacity. Another key is not getting financially over extended. There is considerable risk in any project — even the best-planned project will hit unexpected bumps in the road, so a financial buffer is necessary.

    Market Place North

    Photos courtesy of Lorig Associates
    Market Place North condominiums, with office and retail space, helped transform the Pike Place Market area into a 24-hour living environment.

    An example is Market Place North condominiums. After doing an extensive market research study for the city of Seattle to determine what would be the best use for the property just north of the Pike Place Market, we determined that a mixed-use, office, retail and condominium project would work. It would bring new life to the neighborhood by providing a mix of tenants and residents, thereby creating a true 24-hour downtown living environment.

    Based on the research and the city’s desire to encourage downtown housing and office space in the area, the city held an international competition, inviting developers to submit ideas for what to develop there. It turned out that Lorig Associates was the only participant in the competition.

    Our design included townhouses at the street level with a meandering courtyard that brought in the sounds and smells of the market, yet offered privacy from public access. The project was completed when interest rates spiked, jeopardizing its permanent financing and resulting in the impression that it was a failure. In reality, it has been a huge success.

    The project works as a whole because not only does the residential portion offer a wide variety of housing options, but it also incorporates office space, street level retail and underground parking. It also houses the highly successful Seattle Athletic Club and Etta’s Seafood restaurant.

    Wallingford Center

    In another instance, while working with the Seattle School District to evaluate some of its surplus real estate, we analyzed the Interlake Elementary School in Wallingford. Believing that people appreciate buildings with character and knowing it was an icon in the neighborhood, we developed a plan to renovate it into a mixed-use project that would utilize the two ground level floors for retail and the top floor for housing.

    Not only has the Wallingford Center been a success for its tenants and residents (there have been virtually no vacancies since it opened), but it led the way for the neighborhood’s revitalization into the vibrant center of activity that it is today.

    Wallingford Center taught us that schools lend themselves to being retrofit into housing. With wide hallways, high ceilings and oversized windows, unique spaces can be created that are difficult to duplicate with new designs at a reasonable cost. Plus renovating school buildings helps retain the historic character of the neighborhood.

    Queen Anne High School

    Queen Anne High School
    Queen Anne High School in 1988 was converted into 139 apartments. Much of the character of the original building was recaptured by razing a gym addition that hid the school’s brick and terra cotta façade.

    In 1988, we converted the historic Queen Anne High School into apartments. Much of the character of the original building was hidden by a gymnasium that had been added in the 1920s. By tearing it down, we were able to utilize the elaborate brick and terra cotta façade of the original building, which had been hidden all those years, as a dramatic entrance.

    Other modifications such as converting the old cafeteria into a parking structure, adding townhouses above the newest wing of the school, and double-loading a corridor with a set of apartments, brought the overall project to its current size of 139 apartments.

    The additional challenges of working with a building on the National Historic Register, and its aging internal systems were well worth it. Fifteen years later, Queen Anne High School Apartments is still one of the most desirable rental addresses in Seattle. It sits on top of Queen Anne Hill, one of highest points in Seattle, as a lasting tribute to spectacular architecture and the value of reusing or retrofitting urban structures.

    Innovative housing

    Renovation is not the only key to innovative urban housing. Harbor Steps, an urban village-within-the-city, was envisioned and built by Stimson Bullitt of Harbor Properties. Years ago Mr. Bullitt dreamed of a pathway down University Street connecting the core of downtown with the waterfront, as well as Pioneer Square up to Pike Place Market.

    Belltown, formerly a mix of surface parking lots and dilapidated one- and two-story buildings, is nearly built out with new mid- and high-rise housing, so the next wave of development is looking to other close-in neighborhoods such as the Denny Triangle and the International District.

    In the International District, the Moriguchi family wanted to expand its Uwajimaya Asian Food and Gift market into a 70,000-square-foot supermarket with ample parking for the more than 1 million shoppers who visit the market annually. The Moriguchis wanted to lower their cost of occupancy and wanted to be able to afford the necessary pilings and extensive foundation required when building on poor soil. Building housing (both market rate and affordable) on top of the market provided the solution.

    Similar projects are being developed or are planned for lower Queen Anne Hill and the Denny Triangle area, as these neighborhoods seek to maximize the use of scarce land while generating new economic and housing activity.

    The next wave of urban mix-use projects includes things as diverse as “transit-oriented developments” being encouraged by municipalities and planners, and the potential of building housing on a former smelter site in Tacoma.

    Looking ahead, we know there will continue to be demand for urban projects throughout the region. Growth is continuing to happen.

    One thing is certain. As sites continue to become scarcer and the development process continues to become more complex, it will take more patience and creativity than ever to meet the demands of urban development.

    Bruce Lorig is the founding partner of Lorig Associates LLC of Seattle. He and his company have been developing significant urban, mixed-use projects throughout the Pacific Northwest for the last 31 years.

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