September 2, 2013

The city of Seattle continues to grow in 2013. Since I wrote “Seattle, rising” last March, the only thing going up faster than new residential buildings is the rent landlords can charge to live here.

Last spring, Amazon was putting the finishing touches on its South Lake Union (SLU) campus, an 11-building complex first announced in 2007. Today, the campus also includes several satellite buildings built by others and leased by Amazon. The company bought three nearby blocks of land in late 2012 and has started work on a trio of skyscrapers with neighboring low-rise mixed-use buildings, including an eye-catching glass “biosphere” design that has attracted national attention. The New York Times observed that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos “has put his chips on the idea of Seattle and urban America itself.”

The flood of offices into a former warehouse district has already created growing pains. Most streets near Amazon’s current campus have only two lanes, and some are reduced to one lane by streetcars and construction. I hear the trills of whistles every afternoon as Seattle Police officers direct cars towards the work-in-progress I-5 approach that locals call the Mercer mess. Local residents have blamed the current campus for worsening traffic and expect more of the same when the new towers open.

One plan to mitigate this traffic involves adding thousands of residents to SLU, once a sleepy neighborhood of century-old wooden houses and low-income apartment blocks. Now, many of those buildings are being vacated. Some will serve as historic centerpieces to ironically-named apartment buildings such as Stack House. Others will be demolished entirely. One oblong half-block formerly home to a restaurant and a flower warehouse is giving way to 400 Boren Ave N, a nine-level, 282-unit apartment complex that faces four different Amazon buildings.

Who would want to live so close to work that they could see their desk from their living room? Via6, a luxury twin-tower project directly across from one of Amazon’s future skyscrapers, pre-leased many of its 654 apartments when it opened last winter. About a block away, the 41-story Insignia condominiums represent the first new units for sale in that neighborhood since the 2008 financial crisis.

It’s not just places across the street from Amazon offices that are in demand. Older buildings elsewhere are also being knocked down or redeveloped, sometimes in jarring ways: the Hollywood Lofts and the Troy Laundry building are two examples of a small façade fronting a taller building in the interest of historic preservation. Last week the Seattle Times Sunday cover story “Soaring rents force lifestyle changes” cited “low housing inventory, a growing population of young tech-company workers and changing attitudes about when to buy a home” to explain widespread rent increases. The author spoke to an Amazon employee who is “hoping for a big enough raise to move out of Alturra,” the aPodment complex next door to me. Alturra has no frills: no elevators, shared kitchens, and furnished “pods” from 200 square feet down to 90 square feet. A top-floor unit with a miniature lofted bedroom rented for $1,200 a month last autumn. That’s more than I ever paid for a one-bedroom home half a mile away, and my 650-square-foot place had an elevator, a large roof deck, a kitchen, in-unit laundry, and a full-sized bathroom.

All these new buildings won’t make prices go down. The new units being built are mostly in premium buildings with brand-new appliances, gigabit Internet, and common areas made for throwing big parties, so they’re pushing up the expectations at the high end of the market. At the same time, aPodment buildings push up the low end of the market: if tenants will pay $1,200 a month to walk up five flights of stairs to a tiny apartment without a kitchen, they’ll pay more for a studio apartment in an elevator building. In addition, Seattle’s total lack of rent control — any increase in rent is permitted with 60 days’ notice — invites bad news for older renters on fixed incomes who may not be able to move away from their friends, families, and doctors. If not this year, I expect Seattle voters to press for more limitations on landlord powers. Owning an apartment or a house begins to look attractive when rents rise so much, but many Seattle transplants wonder aloud whether they’ll be here long enough to make a purchase worthwhile.

Despite concerned citizens’ decrying of new construction as “bland boxes” and “rabbit warrens,” redevelopment is here to stay. More density brings more need for public transportation, more innovative services like car2go, and more services to appeal to residents. At the same time, what I like best about Capitol Hill, where I live, is its class diversity: swanky four-dollar-sign restaurants and Dick’s Drive-In with its $1.25 burgers can exist just a few blocks away from each other. Capitol Hill will continue to prosper as long as all earners, from students to professionals, have a reason to live here.

The above article represents my own opinion and not that of Amazon.com.