The days of cheap Philly cheese steaks may be numbered at the corner of 23rd Ave. and E. Union St. in Seattle’s Central District.
With its sandwich shop, pharmacy, post office and liquor store, the intersection is a humble but well-traveled hub in a neighborhood of old homes that like so many in Seattle these days are about to get a great big box for a neighbor.
This time next year, Jim Mueller—the former Vulcan Inc. developer behind the shiny new edifices of South Lake Union—hopes to break ground on a six-story building with 90 units of housing, ground-floor retail and underground parking at a site where the Coleman Building once stood.
The building would be 65 feet tall, 25 feet higher than the city allows in the area today. Mueller hasn’t decided if the studios and one-bedrooms he’s planning will be apartments or condos, but the building will be the first of its size in the immediate area—another outpost of the growth that is currently stacking Seattle’s neighborhoods with new apartments, condos and townhouses.
Like residents of other neighborhoods, people who live near 2203 E. Union and another site at 2501 E. Madison where Mueller is planning a 105-unit building express mixed feelings about the changes that development brings.
On June 19, after Mueller gave a public presentation on his plans at 23rd and Union, some participants said they were excited about the building’s ground-floor retail and the services and foot traffic it promises to bring. Others echoed concerns raised throughout the city with critics saying Mueller is plopping down another cookie-cutter project with no thought for how it could reflect or engage its community.
Dominic Holden, who grew up in the Central District and now lives in a house at 21st Ave. and E. Union, says growth is inevitable. But he points to a mixed-used complex at 23rd Ave. and E. Madison St. as a prime example of where a developer can go wrong. The complex is so tall, he says, that it looms over the surrounding neighborhood, providing little hint to passing pedestrians that there’s a Safeway store just inside.
“In essence, the building bisects the neighborhood,” Holden says. “They could have designed something that attracts pedestrians and shares some of the architectural characteristics of the neighborhood, but for reasons of style or frugality, they did not.”
Mueller said at the meeting that he has hired a music historian to help the design at 2203 E. Union capture the flavor of what was once a vibrant club scene in the area. During a question-and-answer period, however, he turned down requests to provide a community meeting room, plaza or garden or build the project without any parking—a pitch for more affordable units that could be occupied by car-less downtown workers.
At the $2.25 per square foot that Mueller quoted, a 500 square foot studio in the building would rent for $1,125.
Without parking, Mueller told the group gathered at Central Cinema, he couldn’t get financing for the project. And, at 16,000 square feet, he says, the project is just too small to accommodate amenities and still make money. But there is a public benefit, he says. The hazardous dry-cleaning fluid left over from a previous business will be removed.
Mueller’s responses disappointed Megan Haas, a nearby resident and co-founder of Seattle’s Utilikilts.
“I felt like he was being very honest when he said he wanted to make money,” says Haas, who now consults with companies on how to create community-centered businesses. But Mueller is not a true entrepreneur, she says, because he’s not willing to step out and take risks.
“In a situation like this, where the Central District is very hot [in terms of real estate], almost nothing could fail here right now,” Haas says. With profit all but guaranteed, Haas insists the developer can afford to step out and be creative in his design.
At the very least, he could offer lower rent to local retailers or build larger units to bring in families. Instead, she says, “there’s no garden, no nothing.”
In an area filled with artists, builders and longtime residents who know each other and say hello on the street, Haas says that’s sad. “This neighborhood has a pulse,” she says. But this project “is going to neutralize that pulse.”