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Brian Miller
Real Estate Editor

September 15, 2016

On the Block: Up with the U District! But will Murray's upzone proposal take the area beyond student ghetto?

Real Estate Reporter

To the surprise of no one, Mayor Ed Murray proposed a dramatically taller https://goo.gl/maps/K82aqf8zcxy" target="_blank">U District core on Monday.

Ever since Sound Transit 2 mapped out a light-rail route from Westlake to Northgate (with stops at Capitol Hill, Husky Stadium, the U District, and Northeast 65th Street), it was a given that more density would come.

The U District station, at Northeast 45th Street and Brooklyn Avenue Northeast, will open with the rest of the line to Northgate in 2021.

The eye-catching number in Murray's plan, to be considered by the City Council this fall, was 320. That's the possible maximum height — the range is 95 to 320 feet — that would be permitted along 45th between the freeway and University Way Northeast (aka “The Ave”). Spreading a few blocks north and south, mixed-use projects would stair-step down in height to 85 feet — along the UW's western border — and a range of 75 to 240 feet.

At present, the two tallest structures in the U District are the 22-story UW Tower, formerly Safeco Tower, at 325 feet, and the historic 16-story Hotel Deca, at about 170 feet.

Courtesy Sound Transit [enlarge]
A rendering of the U District Station.

Currently, a quick survey of Ethan Phelps-Goodman's invaluable website Seattle in Progress, and the city's knock-off, Shaping Seattle, reveals about a dozen projects proposed for the U District area, none taller than eight stories. Most are mixed-use/residential, of the economical wood-frame-over-concrete-base variety; and most were surely conceived during the five years of hearings and advisory panels about the U District upzone.

All are plainly aimed at students, though a few UW employees might also trade square footage for a commute-by-foot.

Looking ahead, however, the market could change with new zoning and a projected eight-minute (!) commute to Westlake Station. It'll be five minutes to Northgate, for those who feel like shopping there.

Will developers come running, checkbooks in hand? They're playing it mum for now — none returned my calls under a tight deadline yesterday.

But don't expect developers to race to 320 feet, says Matthew Gardner, chief economist for Windermere Real Estate. He sees 240 feet as more financially viable, adding, “Builders will not build if there's not a sufficient yield.”

Additional costs will include affordable-housing fees (subject to a council increase) and the difficulty of assembling parcels thanks to the U District's “fractured ownership” among many absentee landlords, he says.

Gardner calls the potentially taller, more dense U District “a great siting in terms of mass transit.” Could it attract downtown commuters and change the neighborhood's demographic mix? “I believe that it would.”

Meanwhile, as all longtime local shoppers lament, the Ave is a rundown retail wasteland, like a set for “The Walking Dead.” Where Millar-Pollard, Nordstrom and The Yankee Peddler once stood, we now have noodle bars, nail shops, T-shirt vendors and a few national chains (Starbucks included). Oh, and the intractable homeless population and aggressive panhandlers. Plus the drug dealing and petty street crime.

Though, to be fair, most students don't have much money to spend. And the Ave's retail heyday preceded Amazon and big-box stores.

For the neighborhood to recover, and become attractive to developers, requires both more economic diversity — both working professionals and student paupers — and safe, engaging streets. It's a classic chicken-egg problem for both city planners and urbanist developers.

Courtesy University of Washington [enlarge]
UW Tower will still be tallest.

U District merchants have long complained to me that 1) University Village stole all the upscale retailers and customers, and 2) that longtime landowners on the Ave and surrounding blocks had adopted a stingy, wait-and-hold attitude toward development. For decades they've been assuming — correctly, as it turns out — that one day height and density would come to the U District. Then and only then could they unlock the value to their land.

Assuming the City Council approves the upzone early next year (presumably with minor changes), is that great unlocking nigh? Might nicer, taller buildings attract an older, more affluent class of renter? (We won't speculate about condo buyers.)

“Certainly it has that potential” says Gardner. “It's a remarkable opportunity.”

But, he cautions, “It's going to be difficult. It gonna have to make financial sense.”

(Editor’s note: There is another tall building in the U District: the 23-story University Plaza Condominium at 4580 Eighth Ave. N.E. On the Block was referring to existing tall buildings in the central U District -- along the 45th/University Way. University Plaza is in the northwest corner of the area proposed for a rezone. )


Brian Miller can be reached by email at brian.miller@djc.com or by phone at (206) 219-6517.

Got a tip? Contact DJC real estate editor Brian Miller at brian.miller@djc.com or call him at (206) 219-6517.

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