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June 23, 2016

Seattle’s building boom pushes apartment evolution

  • With increasing competition, new apartments are upping the ante with high-end finishes and unique amenities that balance work and fun.
    Robin Chell Design



    There are now over 7,500 apartment units under construction within the central/downtown Seattle market. With all of the new construction going up in a relatively short period, the competitive nature of this market is requiring developers and design professionals to think outside the box in terms of how people live, what they really want and what they are willing to pay.

    We are doubling our efforts to stay ahead of the curve in order to design new projects that are distinguished from others in the market. In this respect, the competition is good, and it’s helping to create an exciting evolution in both the design and programming of new luxury apartments in the Puget Sound market.

    From exterior materials and interior finishes to an ever-increasing diversity of on-site amenities, developers and designers are really stepping up their game, and nowhere is this more apparent than in South Lake Union.

    On the outside, the much-maligned beige boxes of the recent past are quickly giving way to beautifully sculpted glass apartment towers, with striking exterior elements reminiscent of the “Vancouver-style” high-rises that our city has envied for so long.

    It’s great to see this significant shift in building design, which is apparent as our sparkling new skyline expands farther north toward Lake Union. On the inside, interior finishes are reaching a level of quality comparable to high-end condos, with quartz countertops, full-height tile backsplashes and under counter lighting now the standard for market rate units.

    In addition, traditional building amenities are evolving into vibrant, multipurpose spaces designed to capture the interest and energy of Seattle’s youthful, tech-oriented market.

    Photo by Brent Smith [enlarge]
    The skylounge at Juxt has modern finishes. The glossy wall in the back leads to a speakeasy.

    Photo by Arthur Wessel/Hero Creative [enlarge]
    Juxt’s Prohibition-style speakeasy is an iconic amenity with a nod to the past.

    No longer content with the same old clubrooms and fitness centers, savvy renters are flocking to trendy, socially oriented amenities that reflect their interests, and that provide just the right balance of work and fun. Where once we’d expect to find business centers, theater rooms and exhibition kitchens, we are now finding co-work spaces, multi-media gaming rooms, and stylish entertainment hubs.

    How residents relax, play and connect is being reinvented on a monthly basis, as many new projects push the boundaries of what we’ve come to expect in apartment living.

    Zeroing in on authenticity

    Over half of the renters downtown are new to our region — many from outside the U.S. When asked what they are looking for in an apartment community, many respond that they want a community that feels “authentic” to Seattle.

    The design and development communities have been quick to respond to this demand, and as a consequence we are seeing many projects with an “industrial chic meets Northwest natural” vibe, with plenty of exposed concrete, reclaimed hardwoods, blackened steel and white subway tile.

    But is this look appropriate for every project and every neighborhood? With rents easily topping $3 per square foot for new mid-rise product, are we in danger of creating the “same old, same old” in the eyes of the market?

    By zeroing in on what is special about the surrounding neighborhood character or history, new apartment buildings can capture a unique sense of authenticity and identity. For example, Capitol Hill’s old brick auto row buildings have helped to establish a predominant industrial character that reflects the attitude and vibe of the hip Pike-Pine Corridor.

    New projects such as Pike Motorworks, Que and Modera capture the essence of what people want in a Capitol Hill apartment. Across town in Ballard, new apartments are drawing inspiration from that neighborhood’s historic Scandinavian roots and maritime heritage. For new projects in the International District, that neighborhood’s diverse Asian heritage provides a rich tapestry from which to draw design inspiration.

    As the fastest growing neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest, South Lake Union has its own unique attributes and sense of place. For Juxt, a new 361-unit apartment building on Dexter Avenue North, Holland Partner Group engaged Robin Chell Design and Runberg Architecture Group with the goal of drawing from both the past and future of the neighborhood to create a sense of authenticity.

    For interiors and space planning at Juxt, our directive was to design a unique and exciting building that evoked the juxtaposition of Lake Union’s industrial heritage with its reputation as a 21st century hub for innovation. “Industry meets innovation” was the guiding principle, influencing everything from unit finishes to the programming of the amenities and common areas.

    At Juxt, clean, modern interior finishes such as porcelain tile and wood veneer are contrasted with industrial materials including blackened steel and board-formed concrete. The result is an atmosphere that blends the luxury of an upscale high-rise with the approachable vibe of a hip urban mid-rise. In addition, traditional apartment amenities have been reimagined as multipurpose, socially oriented spaces that encourage activity and community.

    One of the first decisions made in the development of Juxt was to eliminate the business center, replacing it with a more casual work space. The resulting Laptop Lounge is a pet-friendly co-work space, complete with back-painted glass whiteboards, Apple TVs, informal work stations and a collaborative meeting table. The space has large windows that open onto a breezeway.

    Raising the bar

    In keeping with the theme of “industry,” the design team at Juxt thought it would be appropriate to tap into some of the most popular industries in our region. As a result, the amenities at Juxt include a playful focus on our region’s role in the production (and enjoyment!) of beer, wine and spirits.

    On the ground level there is a gaming loft with arcade games and shuffleboard — and a beer kegerator. The main lobby on Dexter Avenue has a separate hospitality area that is designed as a wine bar, where resident tasting events are planned. The Cellar, as this amenity is called, also features a high-tech digital espresso machine. But the building’s crowning amenity, paying homage to liquor and spirits, is a very special space on the top level.

    Hidden behind a glossy paneled wall, in the back of a sleek and modern skylounge, is Prohibition-style speakeasy. With rich, upholstered red leather banquettes, copper-topped bar and individual liquor lockers, the speakeasy is a luxuriously hip place where residents can host their own cocktail parties, game nights and special events. As an apartment amenity, it’s the first of its kind on the West Coast, and it puts Seattle front and center in the evolution of apartment living.


    The 361-unit mid-rise, which opened last month in South Lake Union, is on track to being 80 percent leased this month. Developer Holland Partner Group says the combination of high-quality interior finishes, great views and unique amenities are being well received in the highly competitive downtown Seattle/SLU market.

    “We are now leasing about 20 units a week, which is unheard of,” says Brenda Warner, property manager for Holland Residential. “People obviously love the speakeasy, but they also love the rest of the amenities, the great views, the quality of the units, the story of the building, and the whole package.”

    Holland Partners was a true collaborator, and the firm was very receptive to new ideas and to rethinking the amenities. Together we had a great time challenging ourselves to design something that would be really unique in this market. The efforts seem to have paid off, as the building is enjoying a very healthy lease-up.

    Looking back, looking forward

    The blue and white eight-story building, designed by Runberg Architecture Group, has abundant open spaces, including a large central courtyard with a bocce ball court, and a rooftop terrace with covered barbecues, lounge seating and an outdoor cinema. The building itself blends traditional elements such as brick and concrete with innovative materials including glowing resin panels. Ground floor apartments with stoops and semi-private patios line the street level and are clad with a brownstone-style brick.

    The project team felt it was important to preserve and incorporate the story of South Lake Union’s past. Historic photos and old blueprints are placed in public areas throughout the building. The lower lobby on Eighth Avenue has a two-story fireside lounge and a unique “industry wall,” which displays old industrial and maritime machinery, some of which was found on site.

    As downtown continues with its major building boom, we will likely see even more evolution in the form of new amenities, dynamic architecture and innovative interiors. Juxt is one building that is helping to move things forward, while at the same time preserving a sense of authenticity that is unique to its neighborhood and to Seattle.

    Robin Chell Design is a Seattle-based interior design firm specializing in mid-rise and high-rise multifamily projects.

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