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Cubes of Air: The coming of Seattle’s condos

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.

A sales brochure for The Highlander. Photo: Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.

The views of Seattle, the Space Needle, Elliott Bay and the Olympics though, were spectacular. While outwardly modern, its theme was old-world Scottish: Norcross put plaid carpeting in the lobby and celebrated its completion with bagpipers on the roof. Architecturally speaking, however, it was strictly mid-century modern.

The air wasn't cheap. The $1.9 million Highlander included top-floor penthouses. A one-bedroom unit ran $18,000 and a two-bedroom corner unit went for $37,000. 

One of The Highlander's original buyers, Fred Schroeder, still lives there today. He helped during construction, sold units in the building and was president of the condo association off and on over the years. When The Highlander opened, "no one had the slightest idea" what a condo was, he said. "No one had done anything like it."

The west face of The Highlander today, with sun shades and lanais. Photo: Carol Poole.

Schroeder remembers residents experiencing growing pains as people learned to live together and make decisions cooperatively. "A condominium is nothing but trouble!" Schroeder said. The best owners, he concluded, are broadminded people with common sense. They're not for everyone.

For these and other reasons, the condo trend didn't catch right away. It was a decade before condos would even appear in the annual Central Puget Sound Real Estate trend reports and even then, there were only around 3,500 condo units in King and Snohomish Counties. Fewer than a third of those were in Seattle.

Instead, the cubes of air caught on mostly in the suburbs north of the city and east of Lake Washington. One reason, according to George Rolfe, professor of urban studies at the University of Washington and former head of the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies, is that the first wave of condo buyers were young people looking to get a foothold in the market. They were attracted to places outside the urban core, like Northgate, West Seattle and Redmond, by the affordability of condos.

When condos did catch on within city limits, though, they skyrocketed. In 1970, Mayor Wes Uhlman took control of a bulldozer to break ground for one of the first major downtown condo projects, the 21-story "luxury condominium apartment building," Royal Manor on First Hill. The Times reported "Uhlman said the construction of the condominium would mark a significant step in de-escalating the flight of people from the heart of the city to the suburbs."

By 1983, there were 10 times as many condos as ten years earlier — a trend dubbed "condomania." In 1980, a Knight-Ridder News columnist in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote, "If you aren't protesting condos these days, you're buying one." The market had moved from young early adopters to mainstream buyers.

While buyers benefited, some renters weren't so lucky. Apartments were converted to condos by the score, taking a toll on low-income renters especially. To protect renters from being dumped unceremoniously when an apartment complex "went condo," the Legislature modified the Horizontal Property Regimes Act and, in the late 1970s, Seattle instituted a six month moratorium on the sale of condo conversions. Seattle mayor Charles Royer argued that he wasn't against condos, but supported a moratorium to help the "victims" of conversion displacement. A new city ordinance gave renters 120 days notice, the right of first refusal to purchase their unit and a relocation allowance.

The high-rise condo boom was not without pushback. In 1966, the Madison Park Community Club objected to the waterfront Washington Park Towers. Groups all over the city complained about density, encroachment on single-family neighborhoods, blocked-views and faulty process. Sometimes they took umbrage at the idea that their communities needed to be "improved." The Seattle Times referred to one condo plan as Queen Anne's "unwanted neighbor."

The Capitol Hill Community Council put on an "anti-high-rise party" in 1977 to fight a high-rise slated for 13th Ave. E. and E. Republican St. The manager of an apartment house that was slated to be torn down objected to the number of trees that would be cut (nearly 40). "I resent the implication in the [developer's] environmental impact statement that this neighborhood needs cleaning up," he told a reporter. According to the newspaper, some 250 people attended the event including local politicos Charles Royer, Paul Schell, John Miller, Sam Smith, Ruby Chow and others. It was an election year.

Still, the city was walking the line between keeping neighborhoods happy and filling the need for housing. The new condo market included more people who wanted to live downtown or close by — especially a breed of baby boomers called yuppies. Cliff Albright, a pioneer salesman for projects like The Lamplighter and The Highlander, became regarded as "the dean" of condo salesmen. He began to observe a shifting demographic among condo buyers: They were single. "With the growing numbers of young professionals living here and even the increase in divorced singles, the buyer profile has changed."

Seattle also revitalized its commercial core to increase the appeal of in-city living. Building the Kingdome, sprucing up the waterfront, rethinking Westlake, developing the Denny Regrade and putting Freeway Park over I-5 were all part of that effort. Downtown was opening for a new generation of residents. Bob Royer, the former deputy mayor during his brother Charles' administration, remembers one of the things that changed the way people felt about condos: In the early ‘80s, a number of prominent "opinion influencers" started to move into them, especially in revitalizing downtown neighborhoods like the Pike Place Market and Belltown. "Who wouldn't want to live in a building if Judge William Dwyer had a condo there?" he asked, citing Seattle's famous and influential federal judge who moved in to a downtown condo.

There were other buyers too — people downsizing, affluent older folks looking to buy units as investments or for retirement. Real estate prices had recovered and were marching upward after the Boeing recession. By 1983, central Seattle, from Jackson Street to Denny Way, boasted as many condo units as had been in the entire region in 1973. Said the Times, "Carefree life-styles of the 80s, along with higher land and construction costs, probably will continue to feed the condo market beyond even the most optimistic projections, most in the industry believe. We haven't glimpsed the peak yet, apparently."

There have been several peaks — and also valleys — along the way. The condo market got off to a slow start in the 60s, boomed in the late 70s, crashed in the mid-80s, returned to solid performance in the 90s, boomed again, then stalled out with the Great Recession in 08. The current Seattle market is in a holding pattern. Post-bubble projects are by and large rental apartments. Developers are waiting for proof that the condo market will recover. One key factor has been watching to see how the buying habits of the Millennial generation shape up. Will Millennials be happy with rentals forever? Or will they fuel a new wave of buyers?

Either way, the impact of condominiums has been felt. Seattle real estate consultant Brian O'Conner, an expert in assessing the market, estimates there are roughly 96,000 condos in King County now. As a result, Seattle and its suburbs are denser. Four- and -five story condo complexes have proliferated in residential neighborhoods where they created not sprawl but in-fill. The variety of condos and their spread throughout neighborhoods has, experts say, increased options for buyers: You can pick condo "flavors" from Ballard to Bellevue to Belltown to Burien. From a real estate standpoint, condos have helped to make Seattle a richer urban smorgasbord than it used to be.

From a neighborhood standpoint, feelings are still mixed: The demolition of older, low-income housing for new condos is still pushing buttons around the city. But with Seattle's growing tech boom, it's hard to see the growing density of the city's housing stock easing up anytime soon. For better or worse, that will likely mean more condos. 

This project is made possible with the generous support of 4Culture/ King County Lodging Tax Fund.

For this story, particular thanks are due to Crosscut intern Sara Kowdley, Michael G. Houser of the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, Eugenia Woo of Historic Seattle, Prof. George Rolfe of the University of Washington, residents of The Highlander, and the staffs and digital and other resources of the Seattle Public Library and the University of Washington's Special Collections.

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