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With its mix of pristine Victorian homes, quaint cafes, and independent shops and restaurants, the small West Galer Street commercial strip on Queen Anne Hill is as pleasant a neighborhood hub as you’re likely to find. At least, it used to be. For months, Galer8, a partially constructed residential development sandwiched between a brick apartment building and a charming pizzeria, has drawn stares and grimaces. The three-story dead zone—eight residences wrapped in a neon orange weather barrier (hiding bright red graffiti) and fronted by a cyclone fence, with a Honey Bucket at the entrance—serves as a sign of tough times and as a magnet for vandals and taggers.
Like scores of local developments, Galer8 is just one of many development ventures in and around Seattle that are either on hold or stand empty awaiting a dicey fate amid a stringent lending climate and the downturn in the housing market. Other buildings have it even worse. Some builders have simply walked away. As a result, from Capitol Hill to Greenwood and everywhere in between, neighborhoods are inheriting ubiquitous eyesores in the form of quarry-like pits and half-finished zombie buildings.
The situation is dire enough that last spring the Seattle Department of Planning and Development—for the first time—conducted an informal survey, identifying nearly two dozen stalled construction projects, mostly mixed-use buildings and townhouses. City inspectors initiated the effort to make sure they were being properly maintained. “Some have postponed work after completion of the shoring and excavation of the site,” says Bryan Stevens, customer service manager, industrial permit liaison and spokesperson for the Department of Planning and Development, “while a select few have stalled during building construction.”
Stevens estimates that the overall construction value of the 22 projects listed in the study is close to $65.8 million. They include the massive 1 Hotel & Residences project in downtown Seattle—which has morphed into a blocklong hole next to the Macy’s parking garage—the site of the historic Denny’s diner in Ballard, the site of the old Leilani Lanes bowling alley on Greenwood Avenue North and Whole Foods in West Seattle. And while eyesores are one thing, the growing uncertainty is putting additional strain on communities everywhere. “Stalled construction proposals mean vacant buildings and excavated sites may remain a little longer,” Stevens says. “It’s not easy for neighborhoods to deal with during this economy, but we can’t make property owners finish their construction proposals.”
Despite the pessimistic outlook, there has been a temporary reprieve. Last summer, the City Council passed an amendment to extend the life of master-use permits for 12 months beyond the initial five-year period. Stevens acknowledges that a lot of time, money and public input go into the permit process. “Extending the permit life was done to give applicants flexibility as they wait for the market to turn, rather than having them start the entire process all over again,” he says. Meanwhile, Stevens points out, some 1,800 projects in and around Seattle were still on track at the time of the survey.
This is hardly comforting to the neighbors, including merchants near Galer8. Caffè Fiorè general manager Katrine Callahan describes the project as a complete eyesore. “We are very happy to have the graffiti covered up,” she says, about the aesthetic benefit of wrapping the entire building in a winterizing wrap. “It would certainly improve the neighborhood to have the project finished.”
Nicole Ryan—who owns Mes Amis, a boutique for pets, a few doors down from Galer8—registers worries of her own. Ryan, who i