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Belltown Messenger #81 - July 2010 - "Belltown Life"

The Bubble Era Behemoths - A Look Back

An era or a fad in any field of culture is best analyzed after its prime has passed.

Sure, it’s fun to pontificate on the gender roles in Tyler Perry’s films or scoff at the overtly faked Auto-Tuned vocals while those things are still coming out.

But it’s more instructive to look back once a trend’s arc has descended. That way you can track how the allegedly superficial disco fad directly led to the richer, enduring electronica genre.

Today’s topic is architecture. Specifically, a building type that threatened to overtake all of Seattle, as recently as two years ago.

I’m hereby giving this building type a name, the BEB—Bubble Era Behemoth.

It was born of a time of rampant speculation and hyperinflation in the housing biz. A time when the drive to maximize income potential and cut costs in each project reached near-absurd levels. It was a time when every project had to be both impersonal and prestigious, both mass-produced and exclusive.

Local politicians supported almost all of this. They saw a chance to build Seattle’s population density, its tax base, and its sprawl-depleted clout within the county and the state. City building and zoning codes were bent and curved every which way.

Ballard’s heritage as a home for working families was gutted, along with businesses that had served these families. There and elsewhere, once-sancrosanct single family zones became awash with huge clusters of skinny rowhouses (eh, “town homes”).

And around here, on the historic (but not landmark-protected) Second and Pike block, the Fifteen Twenty-One condo tower was allowed to completely obliterate the human scale of its surroundings. Developers were allowed to build a 38-story middle finger reaching above the Pike Place Market and waterfront.

(Mitigating factor: it would have looked less out of place, if other planned BEBs nearby had gotten built before the bubble burst.)

Fifteen Twenty-One also stands out, again not in a good way, due to its pricing and its branding. In ultimate BEB fashion, it’s not just massive; it’s expensive. “Homes starting at $1 million” straddle the space in between the Turf Grill and the Josephinium. All 143 homes have killer views, concierge service, and access to a roof deck, a club room, a pilates center, and a yoga studio.

It claims to be Seattle’s “most successful” luxury condominium building, with 70 percent of its units sold. Four years ago, the Seattle Condo Blog reported that 75 percent of Fifteen Twenty-One’s units had been reserved. That difference still counts as success in today’s market.

An even bigger BEB, the Escala at Fourth and Stewart (where Annex Theater and the Vera Project had been back in a simpler time), has an even bigger street footprint, and has had a tougher time unloading its inventory. Its developers recently announced a major price cut. They enabled this by cutting back the vast array of services they’d originally promised to residents, including a posh private club.

These sorts of amenities helped to resolve a fundamental contradiction in the whole BEB concept. If these projects are so huge, and so many of them are popping up around the same place at the same time, how do you command a top price? How do you impart brand images of exclusivity and über-luxury? (After all, you can only stick so much real marble onto the countertops.)

Another way to promote the illusion of difference in the bubble era was with another contradictory notion, that of “eco-luxury.” One BEB claiming this status was Paul Allen’s Enso on Westlake. It’s a giant building. Its units are crammed with goodies. It’s pure ostentation—but it’s green ostentation!

(Mitigating factor time again: yes, a condo in the heart of town’s more resource-saving than a big McMansion out in the ‘burbs. And yes, condos can be built to conserve heat and water, at least in comparison to other condos.)
Other BEBs, even huger (up to a full city block), were planned before the bubble burst but never got built. The developers of some of these stalled projects insist they’re ready to get going once market conditions improve.
But by then, market tastes may have passed the BEBs by. The post-recessionary zeitgeist could move away from blatant displays of wealth and conformist “uniqueness,” toward a more understated sense of good taste.

But don’t worry. The industry will figure out how to play its one-upsmanship games there too.

–Clark Humphrey


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