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December 12, 2013

Survey: Urban Visions

Specialty: Commercial real estate acquisition, entitlement, development and management

Management: Greg Smith, founder and principal

Founded: 2003

Headquarters: Seattle

Projects: 888 Second Ave., a 77-story mixed-use tower with 400 residential units and 930,000 square feet of office space and/or hotel with a retail base; 200 Occidental, 150,000 square feet of office space and 16,000 square feet of retail in Pioneer Square; Second and Pike, a 40-story luxury apartment tower with 344 units adjacent to the Pike Place Market

Image courtesy of Olson Kundig Architects [enlarge]
A 40-story luxury apartment tower at Second and Pike will help fill in the missing link between Pike Place Market and the retail core.

Greg Smith’s Urban Visions has been one of the most active development companies in the region in recent years. He has numerous projects in various stages of planning, most of which are along Second and Pine and in Pioneer Square/south downtown. Smith discussed with the DJC what he likes about those neighborhoods, and his assessment of Seattle’s office market.

Q: You bought two buildings on Second Avenue that you plan to renovate. You also have a high-rise project at Second and Pike that you plan to start soon. What made you want to invest so heavily in that area?

A: The energy of the Pike Place Market and retail core. Our properties are part of a missing link which when completed will finish the connection between Pike Place Market and Westlake Park/retail core. We’ve been fortunate to assemble enough properties at Second and Pike to be able to create a new vision for this strategic intersection. It’s truly the center of the city and at the entrance to Pike Place Market.

Within easy walking distance from Second and Pike, billions of dollars are yet to be invested. From the new waterfront and aquarium, the Pike Place Market expansion, Amazon.com’s new campus and the Convention Center expansion, along with a significant amount of new housing and retail.

Additionally, the next Seattle Streetcar connecting the south and north Streetcar lines will pass through this area. To live, work and play by the market, waterfront, retail core and Seattle Art Museum is both irreplaceable and very exciting. I know because I live there.

Q: You are building next to Occidental Park. What do you think needs to be done to clean up the park and make it more of a destination?

A: More investment in the neighborhood, which is currently underway, and a strong pedestrian connection via a green street from the new waterfront to both South Washington and Main streets. The city must take a bolder stance on aggressive drug dealing, and the judicial system should back up the police. Hopefully the new mayor will make this his priority for downtown as a whole. The residents and retailers in the neighborhood should continue to work with the Alliance for Pioneer Square and leverage their collective voices with the city.

The tree canopy in the park should be thinned so it’s not so dark in the park.

Q: You own several pieces of land near Sodo. What potential do you see there?

A: Just as South Lake Union grew over the last 10 years, south downtown’s time has come. It’s the most exciting neighborhood in downtown Seattle. It’s a flat area with amazing access to transportation — foot, bike, ferry, train, bus or light rail. There are two unique historic districts that provide a soul, two stadiums and hopefully a third coming soon to bring even more energy, and a forthcoming connection to the waterfront park. To us this spells density, whether its office or residential, or a mix between the two, we’re not sure. We support all of those uses, and we think a lot of people will be surprised with what happens down here over the next five to 10 years.

Q: What is your assessment of the Seattle office market?

A: The office market has been experiencing a massive shift in both how buildings are viewed and used. For instance, density per square foot of employee has doubled over the last 10 years from roughly 4 per thousand square feet to 8. A building’s floor plate design and infrastructure matter now more than ever.

Businesses are aggressively competing to recruit and retain their employees. Many businesses that reside in older buildings which are poorly designed or outdated, or are in the suburbs or not along a transit corridor, will have a very hard time retaining their employees over time.

Well-designed new buildings in vibrant, active urban locations will lease, and the businesses in those buildings will be in a much stronger position to compete for today’s employee. This is why we’ve focused our efforts on sites in attractive, dynamic urban locations as well as on design and work place strategies that will provide our tenants with a significant advantage over their competition for employee recruitment and retention. They will ultimately win.

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