The Great Capitol Hill & Condo Chaos

Bryan RMarch 12th, 2008
By: Bryan R

Like gold prospectors in California circa 1849, developers have been flocking to Seattles Capitol Hill neighborhood to lay down some claims. Without a doubt, Capitol Hill is in the midst of a condo boom; a short jaunt around the neighborhood provides enough evidence to convince even the most unaware doubter. New units are being constructed every month while the number of condo conversion projects have skyrocketed. At last count, the apartment to condo conversion tallied in at 2,532 units in 2006, a staggering increase of 588 percent over the last two years.

Predictably, the sharp boom in condos has lead to angry confrontations and consternations between developers and Capitol Hill residents. In one camp, stand the pro-expansion group, comprised mostly of developers and a small population of prospective home owners looking to settle into the Hill. In the opposition camp, stands a coalition of existing residents, anti-development groups, and social justice activists concerned about gentrification.

With compelling arguments for each side, city hall is so far measured in their response in voicing which group they plan to support. If city hall supports developers, the city stands to gain directly through higher adjustments in property values along with an enlarged tax base of home owners. On the other hand, Seattle city planners have consistently shown that they take into account other urban issues such as zoning and historical preservation.

Giving both sides a fair chance to make their arguments, its easy to have mixed feelings about the situation. For residents in an already populated locale, the idea of even more development is hard to swallow. However, seeing the shift in desired paradigms from suburbia sprawl back to urban living is an exciting process to watch. Personally, Id love to welcome as many people back to city living as possible for a number of reasons.

First, dense urban housing has many environmental and economic benefits. It helps reduce traffic and greenhouse gases, as city dwellers are more likely to commute to work via foot, bike or mass transit. From an economic perspective, higher population densities help boost sales for local businesses, which in turn generate more tax revenue for the city.

Metro-transit services also improve as a neighborhoods density climbs. Large swaths of Seattle are currently somewhat under served by King County metro. The ugly truth is that its simply not cost effective for metro to increase coverage for these low density areas. But as block density increases, the argument for increasing metro coverage becomes more compelling; thats good news for those of us who rely on the bus as their primary transit option.

Of course, theres the ugly side to all this development. Affordable housing tends to be the first casualty when the new condos roll in. The conclusion is more or less foregone; when a developer seeks out new property, they want to find the oldest, shabbiest and therefore cheapest building within their area of interest to tear down or possibly remodel. Without a doubt, these buildings are more likely to house people whose income is considerably lower than average. Occasionally these tenants are given the option of purchasing a new unit after the construction is complete. But for families living paycheck to paycheck, the prospects of paying $200,000 or more (probably much, much more) for a new condo is ridiculous.

Capitol Hill need only look towards the Cascade neighborhood (centered around South Lake Union) to see the impact on affordable housing once development began there. In 2006, the city estimated that roughly half the available units in the Cascade neighborhood were affordable for someone earning $43,000 per year. Now in 2008, as a result of the areas condo boom, only one third the housing is still affordable.

Other than livable rent, the second most touted concern about the condo boom are changes to the character of Capitol Hill. This assault-on-character argument is well established and there are quite a number of local examples to call upon, such as Fremont. Long known for its eccentric character and artist friendly vibe, Fremont was transformed by developers in the 1990s to what it is currently- expensive housing, traffic heavy and commercialized state of affairs. Belltown, formerly a low-rent, semi industrial district known for its arts, became a target of progress in the 1970s and is practically unrecognizable compared to its older self.

With progress on its doorstep, residents are wondering if Capitol Hill is the next lesson in history. Its a real possibility, given the gradual trickle effect. Since 2000, the median price for a condo in northern Capitol Hill rose 62 percent to $322,000. Capitol Hill institutions such as the Cha-Cha, the Manray, and others are slowly eroding away due to increasing costs. At the same time, successful local businesses are finding difficulties renewing their very own lease against competition from major players such as Peets Coffee, Whole Foods Market, and Crate and Barrel. Ironically, new Capitol Hill transplants (not-so-fondly referred to as the Hillites) may find the very things that drew them to the area disappearing as a result of their own actions.

Though progress seems inevitable, some developers are working with the anti-development camp in an attempt to keep the look and feel of the neighborhood intact. The development company Barrientos has renovated and adapted some of the neighborhoods more historic buildings to keep up with the drive for gentrification. Meanwhile, city employees are mulling zoning legislation, affordable housing requirements, and height caps in an attempt to preserve the areas feel. While these regulations can certainly influence development, it won't necessarily keep Capitol Hill grounded in its unique character.

After all, how does one regulate hip.

Bryan is the Chef Seattle science guy and also a resident of Capitol Hill. With so many arguments for each camp, even he cant quite decide where he stands on the issue.

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