June 29, 2006

Urban core too pricey? Try the U District

  • Seattle’s workforce community is flocking to close-in neighborhoods for an affordable urban-living experience.
    Harbor Properties


    Some of Seattle’s best-known developers are increasingly looking outside the downtown core where infill property is more plentiful and the ability to create moderately priced, market-rate housing still exists.

    These savvy developers see a chance to accommodate Seattle’s workforce community with sleekly designed, well-appointed residential buildings while they work with local stakeholders to promote more dynamic, sustainable lifestyles in these close-in neighborhoods.

    One of these areas is the University District, where three years ago Harbor Properties began to acquire land and develop mixed-use projects that appeal to residents making between 80 percent and 120 percent of Seattle’s median income level.

    It started with Helix Apartments, a 77-unit mixed-use building at the corner of Northeast 50th Street and 12th Avenue Northeast. Helix, due for completion this December, and the 72-unit Ellipse Apartments, Harbor’s other U District project located across the street, are among the first workforce apartment buildings to be developed in this neighborhood in years. These projects, along with others entering the development phase, will provide some long-needed options for people who appreciate the neighborhood’s proximity to downtown but can’t afford living in the urban core.

    Images courtesy Harbor Properties
    Harbor Properties is building two U District apartments -- the Ellipse, top, and the Helix -- for the local workforce community.

    Workforce housing’s benefits

    The creation of workforce housing in neighborhoods such as the U District is beneficial in many different ways: It facilitates higher densities for Seattle’s urban community, and it promotes sustainability by enabling residents to walk to work or use public transportation for their daily activities. Moreover, these types of projects represent a critical part of the overall strategic mix of properties and assets required to create healthier, more vibrant urban neighborhoods.

    In that respect, the U District is well on its way. Since 2003, when Mayor Nickels began his strategic initiative to spur economic growth and create better housing and transportation options for the U District and other urban neighborhoods, many positive changes have taken place in this resurging community.

    With the support of local-government grants, merchants on “The Ave” banded together a few years ago to make dramatic improvements to their storefronts and, as a result, stimulate greater foot traffic and increase sales. Neighborhood businesses also collaborated recently to fund additional police patrols in the U District, a move that has dramatically improved public safety and provided incentive for other businesses and residents to locate here.

    Land-use changes coming?

    This fall, local developers, in collaboration the Greater University Chamber of Commerce and other area organizations, will propose to public officials some key changes in the land-use and zoning regulations that affect housing and other new developments. If accepted, the proposal, which will include recommendations for reducing residential parking requirements and amenities on new construction, stands to lower the costs for housing by streamlining the development process for developers.

    The overall pace of commercial development in the U District is on the rise, too. A $30 million development near University Village is expected to open by year-end, offering 60,000 square feet of Class A office space and 30,000 square feet of ground-level retail. It’s one of several planned projects that will give the U District the opportunity to diversify its portfolio of corporate and institutional tenants in light of Safeco’s recent decision to move downtown and the University of Washington’s long-held position as the neighborhood’s largest employer.

    Affordable urban living

    This trend of urban neighborhood development has been brought about partly by escalating housing prices in Seattle’s urban core, where empty nesters, business professionals and other high-wealth individuals are moving in. And with a resurging local economy and a building boom that could rival any expansionary real estate trend in recent memory, residential prices in the downtown core should only continue to climb in the coming years.

    That means graphic designers, researchers, nurses, artists and other “creative class” members -- who account for the vast majority of the local urban workforce -- could find it increasingly difficult to secure affordable housing within walking or biking distance to work. With the possibility of light-rail and other improvements to the region’s public transportation still years away, these neighborhoods surrounding Seattle’s downtown core offer an immediate solution to people who want to embrace the urban lifestyle.

    But, there’s a much broader positive outcome that can be realized by developers seeking opportunities in neighborhoods such as the U District, First Hill, Capitol Hill, South Lake Union and even West Seattle. Through the strategic siting of projects and public-private collaboration on open spaces and other recreation-oriented assets, developers can lessen the burden for government and the private sector -- leading to lower rental costs for workforce residents.

    For example, with the Helix and Ellipse apartment buildings, Harbor Properties created an alliance with the University YMCA, located a half-block away, which will enable residents to use the services offered at the YMCA facility. The partnership lessens the need for development of on-site amenities while it creates incentives for residents to engage with the local community.

    The company also will make many of the amenities on-site at the Helix and Ellipse -- including a rooftop deck with p-patches, storage for bicycles and other recreational gear, and FlexCar service -- available to residents in each building. In addition, by locating these developments within walking distance of popular urban destinations such as restaurants and shops, movie theaters and a public library, residents will be much more likely to avoid using cars.

    The urban landscape in Seattle is changing quickly, with exciting commercial and residential buildings coming online each month. But as “costs for entry” continue to rise for developers, especially those creating market-rate housing, many will look to urban neighborhoods such as the University District for their infill opportunities. Doing so will not only have a significant cost-saving benefit for residents and developers, it will greatly enhance the livability factor for these urban areas for many decades to come.

    Denny Onslow is executive vice president and chief development officer for Harbor Properties, a Seattle-based real estate company.

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