In cities such as Seattle, high-end apartment high-rises are springing up outside the densest business districts, thanks to growth in mass-transit options.
By Bob Tiscareno, Tiscareno Associates
Luxury high-rise apartments are just for a city’s densest districts. Right?
For decades, this has been conventional wisdom among real estate development and architecture professionals. Where density is highest, there is zoning to support high-rises, and destination appeal that makes luxury a worthwhile investment.
But in recent years, luxury apartment towers have begun showing up outside the business and retail cores of downtown. In regions across the country, they’ve been taking root in less expected areas, from suburbs and transitional areas to first ring neighborhoods and quieter parts of downtown. Why? Some cities are overbuilt with apartments. In many markets, apartments have eclipsed condominiums in appeal because increasingly transient employment compels consumers to rent rather than buy. This is the case in Seattle, where a youthful demographic and a booming tech-industry contribute to high mobility and a strong apartment market. Another factor favoring apartments in Washington state are its unusually onerous condo regulations, which over the last decade have imposed stricter standards on condos than other types of construction, including a higher bar for inspections and a warranty period allowing owners to sue developers for construction problems up to six years post-completion. Though this is changing, Seattle’s apartment-packed landscapes bear witness to years of developers assessing the risk of building condos—and building apartments instead.
But the most compelling reason luxury apartments are being built across greater swaths of the region is the spread of mass transit. In the Seattle-Tacoma region, a mass-transit revolution is underway, with two currently operational light rail lines scheduled to expand to cover nearly 120 miles over the next two decades. A network of buses, streetcars and other transit options spread the connections further.
It’s All About Walkability
What’s the result of this transit boom? Walkability. Where there is high-functioning transit, people don’t need cars. Retail shops, restaurants and services can cluster into districts with high pedestrian traffic and little need for parking. High-rise apartments can thrive in neighborhoods like these, because residents can access all the amenities they need just steps from their door.
This is the urbanist dream for cities, which Seattle has encouraged in concert with its mass-transit surge by designating six major transit/housing/employment hubs “Urban Centers” and a couple dozen less populated hubs “Urban Villages.” In an effort to match Seattle’s projected growth (70,000 more housing units by 2035) to the existing character of Seattle’s neighborhoods and to concentrate density into areas with the transit and services to support it, Seattle has upzoned these Urban Centers and Urban Villages to allow taller buildings and the greater density that comes with them. The city has intentionally set careful zoning boundaries reflecting existing development patterns and actively promoted the conditions supporting mixed-use communities, like grocery stores.
Among the effects of Seattle’s upzoning? High-rise apartment towers beginning to populate those “Urban Center” first-ring neighborhoods. Now districts like South Lake Union (the Seattle home of Amazon’s headquarters) and Capitol Hill (the city’s hub of youth culture and nightlife) are seeing an influx of taller buildings and more upscale apartments.
Alongside Capitol Hill is the First Hill neighborhood—a district just east of downtown that has long been known for its hospitals and some of Seattle’s first gracious, old-world high-rise apartments. First Hill only began to see the new wave of high-rise luxury apartments after it was designated a stop on the streetcar connection to Seattle’s Link Light Rail system.
It was within these favorable conditions—the arrival of mass-transit, the city’s encouragement of density with upzones, increasing walkability—that the developer began to envision a 16-story mixed-use luxury apartment building for First Hill. A Whole Foods Market was signed to anchor the building on its first two floors.
Called the Danforth, the building was designed with a full slate of amenities once only found in the densest business districts: amenities like top-floor penthouses and a broad rooftop complete with community garden, dog run, greenhouse, and sweeping views. The building included a state-of-the-art gym with rock-climbing wall and yoga studio, and an open community space curving around the back of the second floor, opening onto private entertaining areas, a TV viewing lounge with fireplace, and a fully equipped demonstration kitchen. An arresting glass chandelier is just one of the installations from local artists.
Finishes and details were selected to lend a high-end urban feel, from stone in the residential entry to industrial concrete inside the 265 units to rolling barn doors and exposed stairs. Some of the units are two-story.
Features that are “musts” if you’re in the heart of the business district are ones tenants often don’t expect to find in downtown’s quieter zones. These include good soundproofing, which is more often a property of high-rises thanks to their concrete construction. The mid-rise apartment buildings that have, until the upzone, been built on nearby Capitol Hill were typically built of wood, a more economical choice than concrete. In this and other ways, height enables luxury.
It became clear that in order to successfully develop high-rise luxury, designers must create a building that looks like it belongs in one. That’s why a strong urban aesthetic became a priority for The Danforth. It is a contemporary tower, clad in window-wall glass both to look more “urban core” and to lighten its feel, and angled at the storefront corner for a more welcoming entry.
Fitting all this onto a small footprint—complete with wide, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks—was one of the design’s proudest accomplishments, but it was more than that. It helped frame the building to the street, creating strong access points off the corner along with a strong residential lobby—elements one typically sees alongside other high-rises.
Because of its location at the nexus of three distinct neighborhoods (First Hill, Capitol Hill and Seattle University), the Danforth was carefully designed to respond to each of them. The human scale of the residential entry was intentionally designed to express the pedestrian proportion and community identity of the building. And in addition to its main ground floor entry, Whole Foods has a second-floor “back door” into its prepared foods area, enabling hospital workers and Seattle University students to bop in and out for a deli salad or a cappuccino.
This gets at our biggest takeaway about Seattle’s new transit-oriented identity: that many people want close access to the excitements of the densest district without living inside it. Indeed, the fact that the Danforth reached 95 percent occupancy within a year of opening is an indicator that the building resonates with renters. Rental rates ($2,200-$6,700 for one- to three-bedroom units, with five upper-level penthouses from $3,000 to $10,000) are right in line with the luxury apartment stock closer to the business high-rises. For a building which cost upwards of $156-million to develop, that warm reception is good news.
Ultimately, what makes The Danforth a success is that it hits the sweet spot between luxury and connection to community. This building is woven into the fabric of its densifying, walkable neighborhood—and that’s the wave of the future.