A Critique of the Seattle Condo Market

4 Responses to “A Critique of the Seattle Condo Market”

  1. dorian gray

    An enlightening read of the condo market this was. Thanks Doogie!

  2. Josh Mahar

    So I want to start a little discussion on building heights and this empty thread seems like the best place…

    Now, provoked by the Beacon Hill upzone discussion a while back, I got to thinking about building heights and what they really mean. Understandably people want building height limits to be raised around the new light rail station, but what they actually mean is INCREASE DENSITY. I don’t think most people have any affinity (well some probably do) for taller buildings, they just want to see more people around to use the light rail. But somehow, we generally seem to equate density with height.

    There is a flaw here because these two things aren’t always synonomous. Think of Delhi, India, one of the densest cities in the world. Having been there I know it is nearly devoid of any high rises whatsoever. Even in New York City you see places like Greenwich Village, a markedly short neighborhood, having a much higher density than, say, the Financial District, probably the highest area in the NYC.

    A problem I see in Seattle is that we actually promote building tall, un-dense buildings. Let me explain:

    Suppose I want to build a seven-story building in Seattle. I can go two directions, either I try and cram in a bunch of small, low rent units, OR I build a limited number of luxury units. Well, since Seattle law requires me to build 1.1 spaces for every unit in my building, the only thing that makes real sense is building as few units as possible, and thus, as little parking as possible, and charging more for each unit.

    Think about Alex at 1st and Bell. This 9-story building will have just 34 units!!

    It seems to me that we should really stop talking about building heights, and start talking about building densities. If we started giving out some density incentives, instead of just height incentives, it seems the affordable housing problem would start fixing itself. Plus, we could stop building all these terrible townhomes, which simply waste precious city space.

    (Note: this is not to say the SFH zones around the BH rail station shouldn’t be upzoned, it’s simply to remind people that density is the key, not just height.)

  3. Josh Mahar

    I guess I mis-spoke, there aren’t a lot of incentives for height, its more of a reward. But regardless we should be encouraging density not height.

  4. Sabina Pade

    Josh, I think we should be a bit careful when advocating density incentives per se. This, because the logical consequence of such incentives is reduced floor space per inhabitant.

    You’re spot on when you say that many extremely dense cities have little highrise. Consider however that in these same cities, 800ft2 houses typically not a hip young WaMu couple, but two or more entire families, each sleeping 5 or 6 to a small room.

    The real implication of density, within our traditional urban context, and one I sense Seattle has great difficulty accepting, is a contiguous 6- to 12-story street facade.

    Vancouver, BC is reputed for having successfully resuscitated a Modernist typology that had long fallen into disfavour for residential construction, that of the slender tower on a flat pedestal – think UN Headquarters office building, or Lever House. In Seattle, we’ve 909 5th as a particularly handsome example. Because of the slender tower footprint, achieving significant density with this typology while retaining the coveted unobstructed views into the distance implies building to great heights.

    Not only is the cost per ft2 of slender highrise construction comparatively elevated, but separating tenants a few to a floor tends to engender social isolation. While active young socialites are often happy to remain anonymous to their immediate neighbours, and will feel well in a slender glass highrise, families and the less socially active can find the experience profoundly uncomfortable – especially given that the flat tower pedestal rarely possesses a protected outdoor space of more than token dimension. Too, the slender highrise lends itself to floorplans with few internal partitions and even fewer corridors. Bathrooms have no windows. Operable windows must remain locked shut against curious toddlers. The kitchen is open and smells up the entire unit. There’s little integrated storage space. Families?

    I applaud you in your endeavour to build a 7-story multi-family. Make it 8 or 10 or 12 stories and I’ll applaud you even more. Bring your building to the property line, and spread it over the entire block. Leave a big open space in the middle, and put the cars below grade. Allow tenants to sublet their parking bays. Give us good old-fashioned floor plans with bedrooms and walls and doors and corridors and closets. And bathroom windows and some enclosed kitchens. No need to spend a lot of money on fancy street elevations, by the way, if you’ll but clad them in ivy. Do give us handsome detailing, though.

    We’ll have density. We’ll have livability. We’ll have straightforward, affordable construction. But we won’t have lowrise. We won’t have many views of Mt. Rainier. And it will look like a city. Is Seattle ready?

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