Seattle's Apartment Boom Offers New Living Options

As it transforms neighborhoods, Seattle’s apartment boom offers a surplus of options like rooftop gardens, chicken coops and more
Apartment-dwellers in South Lake Union’s six-story Amli can enjoy the 3,000 square foot rooftop garden

If it seems like brand-new apartment complexes are proliferating throughout Seattle, it’s because—well—they are. The economic upturn, coupled with a deliberate strategy adopted by the Seattle City Council in the mid-1990s to focus new housing in “urban villages” (with access to frequent transit, walkable business districts and nearby amenities) and compounded by the Washington Condominium Act (which has had a chilling effect on condo development) has given rise to a building boom that is transforming Seattle’s neighborhoods.

“The most significant population growth is right in the urban core, but some neighborhoods are starting to feel drastically different because they are seeing it for the first time,” says Jason Kelly, director of communications for the City of Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development. Total housing units—almost all apartments—grew by 16 percent over the past 10 years, he says.

One of the urban core neighborhoods that’s seen the biggest growth is Belltown, perhaps better known in the early 2000s for its own condo boom, which occupies just 0.3 square mile. Between 2013 and 2015, 1,514 new apartment units were constructed there, according to the city’s Urban Center/Village Residential Growth Report.

Amazon employee Harlan Bennett, 55, lives in Belltown, in one of these recently constructed buildings: a one-bedroom apartment in The Martin, a 25-story tower at Fifth and Lenora. He sold his car when he moved there last spring and now walks to and from his job in South Lake Union, a journey that takes him through one of the densest parts of Seattle.

Bennett is not alone. The hot housing market—and accompanying low inventory for sale—is making apartment renting in Seattle a desirable option. “People who would typically buy are now renting,” says Amy Williams, regional development manager at Madrona Ridge Residential, a subsidiary of Security Properties, which is the developer of a number of the city’s new apartments buildings. 

All of these new apartments are changing the landscape in many neighborhoods, including the three that follow, where new buildings are replacing teardowns and empty lots are being filled in with multistory housing developments.

South Lake Union
Long home to single-story industrial buildings and warehouses, the neighborhood has become nearly unrecognizable in recent years. Significant developments by Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. have made the area a hub for life science organizations, and Amazon has made the neighborhood its home base. Yet until recently, there were few residential options in this hot, growing area.

About 3,200 new apartment units were added to South Lake Union between 2006 and 2015, according to the city’s growth report, and more are on the way. In just a 50-block area bordered by Interstate 5 to the east and State Route 99 to the west, and Mercer Street to the north and Denny Way to the south, more than 2,700 new apartment units (in a dozen new apartment towers) are under construction or have been recently finished. As many as 5,000 more apartments are in the early stages of design. This, amongst just as many new office towers—with many occupied by Amazon—that are being built or considered.

One of the largest apartment towers under construction is the still unnamed structure at 970 Denny Way. When completed in 2018, the 40-story tower will add 461 apartments to the busy neighborhood. Located at the corner of Terry Avenue N and Denny Way, it’s a stone’s throw away from the 2200 Westlake complex that houses Whole Foods, and immediately adjacent to the multistory Rollin Street Flats and Boxcar apartment buildings—developments that were among the earliest to begin transforming the neighborhood in the mid-2000s.

Photograph by Michael Walmsley
Amli’s dog wash station

The decision to build in the busy South Lake Union neighborhood was an easy one for Holland Partner Group, the developer of 970 Denny Way. “During the past two years, downtown Seattle represented 34 percent of the job growth in the region, but absorbed over 70 percent of the housing demand for those jobs,” says Tom Parsons, executive managing director with Holland Partner Group’s Seattle office. “Clearly, Gen-Y has spoken. They want to live in urban environments close to work, dining, entertainment and shopping.” Owning a car isn’t a priority for them, he says, “and with Facebook and Microsoft providing shuttle bus transportation around the region, everyone wants to be in the city.” The addition of more and more mixed-use towers—with restaurants, bars and shops populating street-level space—will serve to activate a neighborhood long after its corporate inhabitants have called it a day.

Fast fact: The area encompassing South Lake Union, the adjacent Denny Triangle and nearby Belltown has seen about three times as much new housing in the past nine years as Ballard, a neighborhood that saw rapid growth between 2008 and 2010, which then slowed during the recession, but began experiencing another growth spurt in 2013.

Photograph by Jaclyn Newman
The perks of apartment living go well beyond an exercise room: Chickens live on the roof at the Bowman in Wallingford

Stone Way
If you haven’t been along Stone Way recently, the unofficial dividing line between Fremont and Wallingford, you may not recognize it. 

“The Wallingford/Fremont area has been a very attractive neighborhood for years,” says Kelly. “Stone Way—which had been the home to a lot of older, single-story commercial buildings—has for the last several years redeveloped into neighborhood commercial buildings with walkable storefronts and apartments above.”

Residential development between N 36th Street and N 40th Street is filling in on both sides of the street with four- and five-story apartment buildings, most with retail on the ground floor. Among the buildings: 3627 Stone Way N (not yet named), a four-story structure under construction with 124 residential units; Bowman, with 274 units; Ray, with 137 units; and Prescott Wallingford Apartments, with 154 units and one of the first new buildings on the block, opening in 2012.

They join a number of other apartment developments—many farther north that were built several years earlier—marching their way up and down Stone Way. “These areas have long been zoned for this type of growth,” notes Kelly, “but development is increasing now because of the strength of the economy and the rising costs of existing housing.”

With new housing comes new shops and restaurants. It’s still hard to find a seat at Tutta Bella, the Neapolitan restaurant that opened at the north end of the neighborhood more than a decade ago. The Whale Wins and Joule opened in 2012 in a shared building at the south end of Stone Way. New American eatery Manolin and craft bakery Sea Wolf Bakers are newer additions, along with cocktail and small-bite bar 36 Stone (at the base of the Ray apartment building). 

Columbia City and Othello
When Sound Transit completed the first Link light rail line along Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Way S in 2009, neighborhoods around the light rail stations began to feel the impact, none more so than areas in Columbia City and near the Othello light rail station.

“The number of homes in Columbia City has nearly doubled in the past 10 years,” says the city’s Kelly. “Columbia City grew from about 1,500 homes to 2,700 homes from 2005 to 2015.” 

While Columbia City’s commercial core along Rainier Avenue S has seen significant residential development to flank the main street lined with shops and restaurants (The Angeline, a 193-unit apartment building above a new PCC grocery store, opened in the summer of 2015), the most growth has happened several blocks to the west around the light rail corridor along MLK. 

One such project is CityLine Apartments, on 32nd Avenue S just off MLK, which opened in late 2015 with 195 apartment units. Construction of a 91-unit apartment building, developed by BDR Capital Partners, is poised to begin in April, followed by an additional BDR 96-unit apartment project breaking ground this summer.

These two market-rate apartment projects are the final two in the Rainier Vista master planned community, a Seattle Housing Authority effort that has sought to reconnect the former public housing neighborhood with the surrounding community through construction of both low-income and market-rate housing.

Farther south along MLK, near the Othello light rail station (about a one-and-a-half-mile walk to the retail area of Columbia City), the seven-story Othello Station North, with 353 apartments, was recently finished—and more are on the way. Projects under review by the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections include a cluster of townhomes just north of the Othello light rail station and four apartment buildings, potentially bringing more than 600 new units to the area.

Much more of this kind of development is expected in areas along light rail’s path, including in the University District, Northgate and Roosevelt neighborhoods, where light rail is scheduled to reach in 2021.

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