October 6, 2005
Finding a home for young urban workers
By DENNY ONSLOW
While workforce housing may be familiar to many, getting a clear, distinct definition of the term can be difficult. It can be classified as everything from market-rate condominiums and high-rise apartments to government-subsidized rentals and low-rise mixed-use residential.
But as the city of Seattle and local developers continue to collaborate on creating a denser, more sustainable urban community, one type of workforce housing is becoming increasingly important to realizing these goals: apartments developed in concert with existing neighborhoods that are affordable to a greater number of workforce employees.
Most 20- and 30-something urban renters, especially those that represent the bulk of Seattle's business workforce, generally want to live in newer, well-appointed apartments that are within walking distance to restaurants, shops and other downtown services.
The problem is that while these residential opportunities abound for attorneys, accountants and investment bankers, among other professionals, there isn't a surplus of options for the younger employee on a limited income.
As a result, standard rank-and-file urban employees think graphic designers, healthcare administrators, receptionists and service-industry workers are stretching their monthly paychecks more than ever before, sometimes in places where the finances don't exist.
To that end, workforce renters, unlike most condominium dwellers, have to make constant, deliberate choices between things like owning a car and riding the bus, dining out and eating in, seeing a show or staying home, and other activities that contribute to the overall urban experience.
Affordable urban living
To bridge the gap, local companies such as Harbor Properties have concentrated their efforts in recent years on developing market-rate, urban-infill apartments that are affordable to a much broader spectrum of downtown workers specifically, renters who fall within 80 to 120 percent of Seattle's median income, roughly $32,000 or more annually.
These developers are creating attractive, spacious buildings that have been designed and constructed for people seeking a long-term place to live, as opposed to having to settle for that typical stepping stone apartment until the next better and likely more expensive unit becomes affordable.
Perhaps most important, their projects are being developed in neighborhoods located near an abundance of street-level services, community green spaces, transportation hubs and various other key urban assets. Using this approach, developers don't have to duplicate these services within their buildings, thus saving on development costs that otherwise would have been passed along as higher rents.
Historically, that's been a challenge for developers, many of whom point to the city's stringent, highly complex code requirements that hinder their ability to develop workforce housing. But recently the city has reexamined its land-use entitlements and made several provisions that give developers of in-city apartments greater flexibility.
One example is the city's easement of parking requirements for apartment developments in neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill, which creates greater incentive for residents to use alternative means of transportation. There's also increasing support by the city for revising codes that mandate ground-floor retail in many mixed-use urban projects.
Urban development, after all, is a fluid process. One size doesn't fit all, and not every apartment building requires or can support ground-floor retail. So, infusing more flexibility into the entitlement process and enabling developers to avoid a duplication of services can only benefit the city's apartment dwellers, as well as Seattle's urban neighborhoods and their surrounding environments.
Location, location, location
Companies such as Harbor Properties are becoming more strategic and selective about where they locate their buildings. Developers are siting their infill projects in neighborhoods where there already is a critical mass of urban services or in downtown areas experiencing significant commercial and residential growth.
The Site 17 projects illustrate how workforce housing can both complement a neighborhood's existing lifestyle offerings and even encourage future retail and residential development. When Site 17 was first developed, Belltown was only beginning to emerge on the urban-lifestyle scene, despite its convenient location within walking distance from Pike Place Market and other in-city attractions. Site 17 provided renters with one of their first opportunities to live in that area in market-rate, newer apartments.
Furthermore, Site 17's speedy absorption many residents were attracted by the building's funky, modernistic style helped to validate this former industrial neighborhood as a prime location for other moderately priced apartments, as well as a number of avant-garde shops, gourmet restaurants, eclectic retailers and other urban-lifestyle offerings.
A second Site 17 project, called Site 17 North, was developed soon thereafter, and it was embraced by the local workforce community as quickly as the first.
The Press projects on Capitol Hill are notable in that they are located in an area of downtown the Pike/Pine corridor already replete with street-level retail and other services, not to mention an established architectural style dating back more than a century.
Unlike Site 17, the Press buildings didn't require Harbor to set the tone for the neighborhood in terms of services and design. Rather, Press One was developed in a way that mimics the architectural style of that neighborhood. And Press Two (currently under construction) will not have ground-floor retail like its sister building, given the wide range of stores and restaurants already within walking distance.
Harbor also made a strategic decision to create several community-gathering spaces in its projects, including a recreation room and a rooftop deck for residents. These on-site common areas generate larger, more moderately priced units (by limiting individual resident decks, for one) and provide spaces where residents can get together and share their urban-lifestyle experiences.
In addition, given Press' reduced parking ratio, the developer partnered with Flexcar to give residents an alternative, sustainable means for getting around town.
As Seattle continues to move toward a denser, highly sustainable downtown populated by most everyone who wants to live close to work, developers will continue to collaborate with city officials on ways to add flexibility to the urban-development process.
More pressing, though, is Seattle's immediate requirement for moderately priced rental projects that today's savvy workforce employees find desirable. To get there, developers will need to approach their projects more strategically in order to better leverage existing urban resources and create positive incentives for other downtown development to follow.
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