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Cubes of Air: The coming of Seattle's condos

Roots of Tomorrow: The glory and drama of Seattle's condo uprising.

Editor's Note: This article is the final installment in Crosscut's "Roots of Tomorrow: Urbanism in our Blood," a 4Culture-supported series on northwest urbanism. Also! Join Crosscut Wednesday, December 4th for a party with Knute Berger, food, drink and a live band to celebrate bike lanes, P-Patches, density and the rest of Seattle urbanism, past and present. Things will get dense. Learn more here.

As the Space Needle snagged the attention of the world and suggested a new, futuristic way of living (see The Jetsons), another phenomenon was taking place in the Needle's shadow, one that would prove far more practical than spinning Sky Pads and flying cars.

It was the condominium, an ancient concept from Rome, circa 6th century BC, wherein the Romans provided for "the joint sovereignty or joint ownership of property." Leap to the Space Age, and the idea found new life in the post-war United States where people were looking for new, affordable living options, and ways to finance them.

The condo idea first took hold in this country in unlikely Salt Lake City, Utah. It was there that a real estate attorney named Keith Romney — a relative of Mitt's — helped launch the first U.S. condo complex. Romney became a kind of condo-evangelist, touting the benefits of condominiums for multi-family housing, vacation properties and just about anything else. He traveled the country, urging state legislatures to pass laws legalizing condos, and acting as a consultant on many projects and developments, including some in Washington state.

The concept offered benefits and challenges. Unlike cooperative apartments, condo buyers could own their units and get a mortgage, with all the attendant tax advantages and FHA financing they offered. They could benefit from rising market values too, which made them a good investment. Creating a functional governance structure, though — one that could handle group ownership and consumer protections for buyers — was more of a challenge.

In early 1962, lawmakers in Olympia began considering legislation to legalize condos here. The "Horizontal Property Regimes Act" finally passed in March of 1963. As one newspaper described it, "Applied to an apartment house, the most frequent example, each tenant would own his own unit — the air space the unit occupies — plus an equal share with other tenants of the roof, walls and land…."

One Seattle newspaper headline announced that people could now buy "Cubes of Air" in Seattle. The question was, would anybody want one?

Seattle developers gradually began to take advantage of the new law. On Lower Queen Anne, where the remaking of the neighborhood for the World's Fair was stimulating construction, a sleek, modern 11-story high-rise with great views of Elliott Bay grew. It was called Mercer West. A newspaper ad that ran during the fair touted its location: “Surrounded by stores, shops, banks, churches and entertainment facilities."

Here was a walkable neighborhood with modern multifamily housing near the center of urban action. If you couldn't afford to live in the Space Needle — and there were those who tried — you could still enjoy modern high-rise living within its view.

In 1964, the Mercer West owners decided to convert the building from a co-op to condos, and the city council passed an ordinance making it the first building to be platted as a condominium in the city of Seattle.

Condo Hunting: Mossback outside the original Mercer West condominiums in South Queen Anne, the first building platted as condos in Seattle. Photo: Carol Poole.

With the passage of the new condo law, the developer of a Capitol Hill luxury apartment co-operative, The Lamplighter, decided to expand. Norcross Development began construction on Seattle's first new condo complex — The Highlander. With on-site indoor parking, an outdoor pool, a genuine grass putting green, and "a private lanai" for each unit, complete with striped sun shade awnings, The Highlander might have been more at home in Honolulu than Seattle.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 5:31 a.m. Inappropriate

Now that Skip is approaching "senior" status, imagine the reaction when he finds himself forced to enjoy, the sights, smells and sounds of his neighbors, up close and personal and not being able to do a darn thing about it unless the condo association sides with him at the annual meeting. Density is an apt description of Seattle.

Cameron

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 8:13 a.m. Inappropriate

In my condo, I hear/see/smell less of my neighbors than in the typical house. Houses have barking dogs and lawn mowers next door. Condos can be noisy, but much less if they're concrete and well-built. Being on the alley side also deletes street noise.

mhays

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 9:01 a.m. Inappropriate

This is a nice cap to a terrific series that continues the wont of Seattle historians to record local events as if they happened in a national vacuum. The patterns of real estate change Skip describes are national ones -- o.k. maybe not the Hawaiian Highlander. Related in the larger context of experiences across the country, this article would have more lasting value and might explain why, for example, condos replaced coops.

MJH

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

I can't foresee myself ever being interested in a condo, and I think those who buy them are fools. First, the construction values are poor. I see condos of various ages all over with various signs that they are being rebuilt or extensively repaired due to poor initial construction. And guess who pays for that? The innocent buyer is hit with assessments that can run to tens of thousands of dollars. Second, as Cameron noted, condo buyers are at the mercy of condo associations, which often are comprised of bossy types reveling in their big fish in a small pond power. Third, I do not want to live in a cube anywhere. The existence of neighbors a mere wall away makes me claustrophobic. I'll take my chances with the neighbor's barking dogs (Animal Control is excellent at dealing with that issue if neighbors aren't willing to), and lawn mowers every day. Finally, I can't see any reason why I would want to make mortgage payments, and then spend an additional amount monthly for HOA fees. Looks like paying twice for the same space to me. No wonder apartment owners went for condo conversions. No condos for me, thanks, and I hope to continue to live in a neighborhood where they don't encroach. I need the breathing space. I also want to control my property, not be required to pay for repairs or upgrades or whatever else when I don't want to or can't afford to just because other owners don't agree with me or care what I think or feel. Not willing to give up my autonomy in this way.

mspat

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 1:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Initial construction is actually not any worse than any similar apartment building. In fact, it is often better.

The greater problem lies in the ownership structure which allows for certain construction companies (Charter, etc.) to act in the manner of patent trolls by claiming there are defects within the legal time frame (seven or eight years I believe).

Of those buildings you see with scaffolding/wrap, probably half are not actually necessary.

jeffro

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 10:28 a.m. Inappropriate

A fool sees HOA dues but forgets that house ownership involves countless costs as well. The HOA mostly just aggregates costs rather than adding them (except the guy at the front desk of course).

The overall costs seem very low compared to what house owners face. I bet that between yard work, painting, insurance, repairs, utilities, etc., the average condo owner pays less (mostly via dues) than the average house owner. Even that assumes your personal labor cost is zero.

mhays

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 4:26 p.m. Inappropriate

My sense is there were a number of issues to work out with condos. One was ensuring that owners of conversions and new condo projects were honestly representing what they were selling. Tinkering with the law addressed these issues, as well as displacement. Another is that the culture of condo buildings and associations can really differ--some very restrictive, others less so; some dominated by done individual, others more shared responsibility. As the longtime, original resident of The Highlander says in my story, they're not for everyone--while they offer some of the benefits of private ownership, they carry some of the responsibilities of collective living. I don't live in a condo, but might someday. But I do live in a large multi-unit apartment complex and appreciate the fact that if there's a problem, it's someone else's job to fix it.

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 8:50 p.m. Inappropriate

You're a renter? Why?

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 6:26 p.m. Inappropriate

When I lived in Tacoma, I was always impressed with the One Stadium Way condominiums. At 188 feet and 16 floors (each a separate condo unit, I believe) it's probably on the high end of high-rises.

I wasn't keen on the concept of buying a condo when I first became aware of them, but after seeing that building I realized that it provided a view amenity that couldn't be achieved in a single family house. However, due to its waterfront location, its price range is above most first time home buyers.

http://tours.tourfactory.com/tours/media/scene/big2/00/00/30/78/307858.jpg

Posted Thu, Nov 14, 4:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Doesn't Mhays work for a construction company/builder? That alley side unit has a great view of the activities that normally goes with a downtown Seattle alley.

Cameron

Posted Thu, Nov 14, 7:52 a.m. Inappropriate

Yes. And we get hired for everything from condos to dentists' offices. I'm one of the few people here that doesn't hide his identity.

I'm on the 6th floor to avoid alley noise. The noise itself is limited to cars coming and going to the garage on each side (rarely notice at all) and an occasional truck. It's maybe 1/4 the noise of living on the street side.

mhays

Posted Thu, Nov 14, 8:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Like anything - there's ratty condo construction just as there is ratty single family residence construction. Buyer beware. I'm a home owner but could see, at some future time, going the condo route. Some friends have made this transition and are gleefull about not doing yard work, cleaning gutters, raking leaves, paiting, etc., etc. How much space do you really need after 70 anyway?

They travel quite a bit and can walk to shop and have a great view of the Sound. Houses are nice, but they are a time and money suck.

Treker

Posted Fri, Nov 15, 1:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Very interesting story, and I do think somewhat peculiar to Seattle. I think it peculiar that there is a 'condo' market and a single family market. In most other cities, the 'market' is more determined by neighborhood, i.e., we should talk in terms of a 'downtown' market and a Capitol Hill market. I bought a condo in DC in a 40 unit group in a rehabbed building, and what was relevant to me when looking was how much square footage did I want (not much) and did I want a yard (shared is fine). But, a small rowhouse would have potentially sufficed.

When I moved to Seattle, I lived in an apartment that I wish the owner had converted to condos because I would have bought.

When it came time to buy, I looked at houses and condos all over town and ended up in a small older townhouse, built and governed with a condo structure due to a shared sewer line.

So, mark me as someone who knows how she wants to live. So many friends of ALL political stripes informed me that it would be a HORRIBLE idea to buy a condo. That I would need to buy a single family house (with the prices, I would be in fixer upper mode for years!) because that would be the only way I could be sure I could have some protection for my housing value and not lose my life savings. Either my area would stay single family and I would realize the value when I sold. Or, the land would be upzoned and I could realize a nice profit. I dismissed them as acting like flippers or land barons, but they knew some things about WA and Seattle Land Use that I was unaware of.

I've come to realize that my friend were correct, and that fact they were correct is a seriously sad state of affairs.

While downtown and first hill have a fairly robust and permanent vertical community environment with their own issues, the lower rise multifamily zones are purely schitzo. Only in Seattle, does buying into a multifamily mean inherent instability. Only in Seattle, does the government change the meaning of a zone designation without regard to any planning or rezone process.

In DC, poverty and other serious issues might affect the quality of neighborhood, but living in a condo, a coop, or renting was not 'experimental', was not only for those 'starting out' or 'downsizing' after the nest is empty, and those persons were not subject to effectively is what is bait and switch abuse.

Posted Tue, Nov 19, 3:42 p.m. Inappropriate

Knute Berger has had it in for downtown condos for as long as I can remember. Were it not for the move toward dense downtown residency, Seattle's core would more closely resemble 1943 Stalingrad than one of the most vibrant and livable downtown areas on the planet that it is today. I would love to see a story about how the final five year death rattle of Frederick & Nelson scared the city's shakers so badly they finally managed to perceive reality and waddle off in the right direction. This isn't anywhere near over I don't think. Districting is part of it, a gerrymander. But in the end, transportation costs will trump everything.

Posted Wed, Nov 20, 12:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Condos were actually late in coming to Seattle compared to other parts of the country. Co-ops are still uncommon here when compared to the east coast.

Condos fill different needs as Knute points out. Some can't afford a single-family house but don't want to rent. Others want to minimize direct upkeep responsibility. You can lock the door of a condo and be gone for months without much concern, not so easily done with a house.

Seattle experienced lots of poorly built condos, thrown up with poorly skilled workers when the market was hot. Most of the buildings you see having their exteriors replaced were built with artificial stucco. This material allowed moisture into framing but not out with the result of structural damage and mold. Avoid.

Condos require cooperation and restraint if residents are going to live together without constant conflict. Some people are just not suited for this. Some buy a condo not really understanding what they are buying and then turn into nightmare neighbors when told that condo rules restrict something they want to do. As a general rule, avoid small condo projects. Small condos often don't hire professional management, leading to financial and maintenance problems. A couple of deadbeats not paying HOA dues can cripple an association. Larger associations can absorb a certain amount of delinquencies and can pay for professional managers and lawyers. Personally, I'd be wary of new construction just because it can take years for big problems to manifest themselves. Granite countertops are cheap and no substitute for quality inside the walls. Read the association rules before you buy. If some realtor tells you that you'll get a copy of them at closing tell them no deal and walk away.

By way of full disclosure I own both a single family home and a condo and have been on a HOA board of directors (never again).

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