Does Live-Work Work?

UPDATE: See comment #1 for a clarification on the building shown below from the developer. In short, it is not live-work, but “live above work,” consisting of five separate mixed-use buildings.

[ Photo: Dan Bertolet ]

This is a recently constructed live-work unit development at 25th and E. Union in the Central District. There are five units, with commercial space ranging from about 500 to 900 sf, and residential space from about 1400 to 1500 sf.

[ Photo: Dan Bertolet ]

The City of Seattle approved a live-work unit ordinance in 2003. Live-work units combine residential and commercial space in a single unit, and residents must possess a business license. A key provision in the code is that no parking is required for the residential portion of the units, which provides design flexibility and encourages small-scale buildings that are not dominated by surface parking or garages.

It’s easy to like the idea of live-work units. They encourage small businesses and help strengthen community at the neighborhood level. They bring interest and activity to the street. And they help reduce commuting.

But I can’t help being a tad skeptical: Do they work as advertised in the real world? What fraction of the live-work units out there have healthy, operating businesses, and what fraction are essentially functioning as apartments? Is there demand for these units in Seattle, or is there already a glut? Help me out here — anyone?

The project shown above is relatively isolated from other commercial uses and gets very little passing foot traffic. And so these spaces are not likely to be successful for many types of businesses, at least until there is more commercial development around 23rd and Union.

Coincidentally, there are two more live-work developments proposed within a few blocks of the E. Union St. project described above. The first is at 26th and East Cherry St (careful, big pdf) , rendering shown below:

The second is on East Union between 20th and 21st, designed by Pb Elemental, rendering below:

These two projects are also located in areas that will not provide much commercial synergy. All three live-work developments will be will be trailblazers, and here’s to hoping the neighborhood can absorb and support them.

21 Responses to “Does Live-Work Work?”

  1. Randall Spaan

    Mr Bertolet:

    I posting to you blog in order to correct misinformation you have published concerning the East Union Street “Live Above Work” development at 2425 E Union Street. First of all, these are not “live/work” units. They are “live above work” units. This is more than a symantic distinction. The important distinction is that the street-level storefront commercial space is completely separate from the townhouse-style residence above it. The NC2 zoning requires that the commercial space be used for one of the commercial uses allowed in that zone (which are quite varied).

    East Union Street “Live Above Work” is unique in the City inasmuch as it has been shortplatted into 5 lots. Each “live above work” unit, which consists of one 3BR/2B residence above a store-front commercial space above its own underground garage space, is situated on its own lot, allowing each unit to be sold in fee simple title. It is not a condominium. It’s really a series of common-wall mixed use buildings, each on its own lot.

    East Union Street “Live Above Work” was designed for folks who want a “stairway commute to work.” I myself have enjoyed a stairway commute to work for 25 years and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Reducing commuter impacts is also good public policy, which is why Seattle DPD granted a number of design departures to facilitate the permitting of this “live above work” project. “Live above work” is a common European model but this project is the first of its kind to be permitted in Seattle.

    The parking was required for the residential component, not the commercial (you had it backwards). No parking for the commercial spaces was required because the site is located within a Pedestrian Overlay zone, which stretches along both sides of E Union Street from 20th Ave to 25th.

    The project was designed with purchase by owner-occupants in mind: Anyone from attorneys to dog groomers to corner coffee shop proprietor, as we like to say. However, the purchasers of the units could also treat the commercial space as income property, leasing the space to anyone who would like to set up shop in space with great street appeal in the burgeoning Central District and along a well travelled commute route from Madrona to Downtown.

    Finally, the design of the commercial spaces is not at all conducive to apartment conversion. Each commercial space has an exposure only to the public sidewalk, where monumental sized windows puncutate the exterior wall. The spaces are truly designed as store-front commercial spaces connected to the neighborhood pedestrian environment. We believe that there is an unmet demand for the “live above work” lifestyle in Seattle. We will soon find out, as they will shortly be brought onto the market!

    Randall Spaan
    project designer and developer

    P.S. Thank you very much for the free publicity!

  2. Marlow Harris

    I think there is a large number of artists, writers and others involved in the creative arts who would thrive in a live/work situation such as this. It’s not necessarily a retail use, but that doesn’t seem to be the criteria, just “business”, and that leaves the door wide open to many types of endeavors.

    I hope the prices on these are reasonable enough to encourage taking a chance. If they sell and people find them valuable, it would be great to have more of these spaces available throughout the city.

  3. Dan Staley

    I just saw some of these in Belmar in Lakewood, CO this past weekend. Eh.

    The cost/sf is such that either Lakewood/developer must subsidize artist residences (why aren’t they subsidizing more needy first?) or you only get high-end artists in these units. Hardly a situation to expand the number of these units to have art re-prosper in our society. That said, I like the ones in Sumner and think that small craftsmen can make these work.

  4. Phil McCrakin

    Imagine how much better these eye-sores would look if they weren’t required to have access to a garage (especially the first one shown in this posting). Town-homes or live work hybrids aren’t inately ‘bad’. It’s the designers and developers who lack proper design sense (let’s just say they’re slaves to ‘value engineering) that make these types of buildings the shitty ugly monsters they are.

  5. Pb Elemental is on Fire | hugeasscity

    […] Meanwhile, the firm continues to crank out smaller-scale projects — there are 18 listed on their web site that are either in the design phase or under construction. Six of these are “live-work,” which is still a relatively unproven building type in Seattle — the City’s live-work ordinance was passed just five years ago. The live-work typology has great potential for improving neighborhood vitality and sustainability, and it’s commendable that Pb Elemental is willing to take the risk. Their “9th Avenue” live-work project is rendered below. […]

  6. Kathryn

    If you understand the reality on the ground of that part of East Union, the live above work makes great sense. The lots are really narrow and there is more tendency for housing to be built. On the other hand it is mere blocks from 23rd and we have apartment buildings toward MLK. I’d rather small offices, shops and art studios than townhouses built on Union. Hopefully we will see an anchor building at the corner of MLK and Union before too many years go by. There is a great alley behind these buildings.

    Now the Cherry Street development makes me want to scream, Not only is it screamingly ugly and totally out of the context on Cherry, it is taking out a historic building that should be preserved. But, as far as use, with the apartment buildings and restaurants, small businesses make a ton of sense.

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