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September 3, 2013
After one meeting with the Columbia City Business Association, Joe Fugere knew this was the place for him.
Fugere grew up on Beacon Hill and has deep ties to South Seattle. He had more than 20 years of experience in the restaurant industry, and he was looking for the right spot to open a pizza place. Some people told him to stay away from Columbia City, which was still struggling with a bad reputation, but Fugere saw the tide turning. Residents and business owners were pulling together to turn things around, and he wanted to be a part of that.
On Jan. 2, 2004, Fugere opened Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria, and the line of customers soon stretched down the block, he said.
“There was always a really big soul here,” Fugere said. “It just had to be nurtured.”
His success in Columbia City nurtured Fugere, who is preparing to open his fifth location: at Crossroads Mall in Bellevue.
The business community gets a lot of credit for the neighborhood's resurgence. The efforts go back to 1978, when Columbia City became a landmark historic district. Today the Columbia City Business Association has more than 110 dues-paying members, and more than half of them show up at most meetings.
The main drag along Rainier Avenue South is lively now with bars, restaurants, clothing stores and cafes. A multi-screen movie theater shows first-run films, and Eileen Fisher, a high-end women's clothing chain, opened a store called Green Eileen earlier this year. The store, which is only the second one in the U.S., sells used Eileen Fisher clothes and gives some of the proceeds to nonprofits that benefit women and girls.
And for the first time in decades, Columbia City is getting new market-rate apartments. Developers cite Sound Transit's Link light rail station and the vibrant business scene as reasons for wanting to build in the neighborhood.
Apartment developers started looking at Columbia City around the time Fugere did.
The first two were HAL Real Estate and Harbor Urban, which was then Harbor Properties and now has become Mack Urban. Harbor bought land one block west of Rainier in 2005, but didn't build anything for a while, though over the next few years, other developers built and sold market-rate townhouses nearby along Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
Seattle Housing Authority redeveloped Rainier Vista, with a mix of market-rate and low-income units available for rent and for sale. So far SHA has built 809 units and another 156 units are planned, including the first market-rate apartments in Rainier Vista.
Martha Barkman, Mack Urban's director of design and construction, said Harbor Urban decided in 2009 to start an apartment complex in the neighborhood, despite the recession. It was the first new market-rate project built there since 1969.
The complex is called GreenHouse and it has a food theme. Barkman said Columbia City's zip code is the most diverse in the country, with 59 languages spoken, but food unites everyone. Columbia City has a successful farmers market, and many yards there are filled with vegetable gardens.
Runberg Architecture Group designed GreenHouse, and Exxel Pacific was the general contractor for GreenHouse, which opened in September 2012. All 124 apartments were leased in four months.
Rents in the Greenhouse ranged from $1,300 to $1,500 for a one-bedroom, lower than new units in other neighborhoods, and the amenities were attractive: a gym, a rooftop deck and rooftop P-Patches for the residents. The courtyard garden produces fresh berries and is a popular gathering place on summer evenings.
Barkman frequents the neighborhood, and she said it needs more new apartments. “We are bringing in the people who go to the restaurants, who go to the movie theater and help support what is already wonderful about this community.”
Security Properties bought land at 4801 Rainier Ave. S. from HAL Real Estate last year, and is the next big developer to build in Columbia City.
Last month Security Properties demolished an old strip mall to make way for Angeline: a six-story building with 193 apartments. Construction should take 22 months.
John Marasco, chief development officer at Security Properties, said he started looking for land in Columbia City about 12 years ago. Like Barkman, Marasco said he enjoyed spending time there and felt the time was right for new apartments.
Security Properties has mostly focused on neighborhoods close to downtown Seattle, but it is venturing out with this project and a 316-unit project it is doing in Bellevue's Spring District.
Security Properties also is bringing Columbia City something that many people say is desperately needed: a grocery store. PCC Natural Markets will have a 25,000-square-foot store on the Angeline's ground floor.
Mike Gruber, development director at Security Properties, said PCC will serve the locals and bring in people from other neighborhoods.
Bumgardner Architecture is designing Angeline and S.D. Deacon is the general contractor.
Marasco said Security Properties had its site under contract before GreenHouse opened, but it was reassuring to see how quickly those units were leased.
“It was nice having them ahead of us because as much as we might like that community for new development, you still need to prove whether the rental revenue is going to justify new construction,” Marasco said.
Angeline also taps into the food theme. A courtyard on the second floor, above PCC, will be an urban farm. It will be professionally managed and harvested, and some of the food could be sold at PCC. Residents can garden as well, with individual P-Patches on the roof.
Security Property is offering more large apartments — 35 two-bedroom units — because families want to live in Columbia City.
The Wolff Co. is also planning apartments in Columbia City at 4730 32nd Ave. S., the site of Zion Preparatory Academy. Wolff wants to build 250 units in a five-building complex on 4.5 acres, with a potential second phase on 2 acres to the north.
Construction is set to begin in May 2014. BAR Architects of San Francisco is the architect, and Compass General Construction is handling preconstruction.
Wolff is based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and has been active in Seattle but mostly in South Lake Union and Capitol Hill. About two years ago it began to look at the Zion Prep site, which was sold to a group of developers in 2009. Greg Van Patten, vice president of development at Wolff Co., said the project will be atypical for his company because it will be low rise and have more green space.
But Van Patten said Wolff is going outside its comfort zone because of its confidence in Columbia City's market and location.
“It's a different project for us,” Van Patten, “but it is just steps away from the Columbia City light rail station.”
Light rail is key to the new development in Columbia City. The trip downtown takes less than 20 minutes, and the train also goes to the airport, so developers can pull residents from the north and south.
Born in the 1890s
Columbia City was formed in the 1890s, when an electric railway came through Rainier Valley Electric Railway. The neighborhood got its name in 1893 and became part of Seattle in 1907. Most of the original buildings were built in the next two decades. By the 1930s and 1940s, it started to decline before hitting bottom in the 1970s, with crime issues and boarded up storefronts. Residents started the push to revive Columbia City, and the landmark designation helped in preserving many of the early 1900s brick structures.
In 1998, Rob Mohn decided to put his life savings into redeveloping Columbia City, and has been a key figure in the business community since then. Walking down the sidewalk in Columbia City with Mohn takes a while. It seems everyone stops to chat for a minute.
“This neighborhood is small enough that most everybody knows everybody else,” he said. “It's those relationships and connections that make this the special place that it is.”
He helped recruit Columbia City Ale House, an English-style pub created by Jeff Eagan and Jeff Wright; turned the Shirley Marvin apartments, built in 1935, into a hotel; and developed an eight-unit live-work complex called Columbia City Live Aboves.
Mohn said his development work has been fulfilling, and he is proud of his part in bringing the community together.
Retail vacancies are low along Rainier these days, and as soon as something comes available, it's gone quickly.
The grocery store was the biggest need, Mohn said. Next he'd like to see more local jobs, and a community college branch or medical clinic. Then maybe the light rail could bring people to Columbia City for work and play, rather than just shuttling them to Seattle or the airport.
“I don't think anyone here wants to be solely a bedroom community,” Mohn said. “We'd rather use the light rail not only to get to work, but also to bring people here to work, and to bring customers to our shops and restaurants.”
Fugere also is ready for more density. The new apartments will bring more people, which means more customers, and buzz about the neighborhood brings people in to explore Columbia City.
Fugere said the business community has worked hard to bring in other business owners who want to see the neighborhood succeed along with their businesses.
A couple of days ago, a small crowd watched as crews tore down the former Angie's Cocktails, which had been a trouble spot in the past. They cheered and shook hands as it collapsed.
“Maybe because the district struggled for so long, there is this deep sense in people that it has to be done right,” Fugere said.