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Making space for more, Capitol Hill’s old apartment buildings trading parking, laundry for new room to rent

16th and Mercer's Wellington is getting an addition (Image: CHS)

16th and Mercer’s Wellington is getting an addition (Image: CHS)

Late last year, the owner of the 1928-built Austin Apartments near 10th and Harrison made a big decision that is being echoed in many of Capitol Hill’s great old apartment buildings as the neighborhood tries its best to make room for more and more neighbors. In April the Department of Planning and Development approved the plan — the building’s old laundry room and basement storage area will be transformed into two new subterranean units and will bump the building up to 22 apartments.

The plan for The Austin's basement

The plan for The Austin’s basement

That 10% boost in rentable area is on the minds of many apartment owners on the Hill and joins the development trends across Central Seattle to squeeze more room to live into the neighborhood as rents continue to climb and vacancies continue to dwindle — and owning a Capitol Hill home is increasingly out of reach.

The Austin Apartments (Image: Northwest Apartments)

The Austin Apartments — soon 10% more rentable (Image: Northwest Apartments)

The construction projects also come amidst increasing restrictions on so-called “small lot” development and a push to regulate new forms of density-friendly development like microhousing. The result is developers moving quickly to address the market opportunities, often in waves and, sometimes, with some creative reimagining.

Meanwhile, regulation advocates will appreciate that the projects generate a greater paper trail than dormitory-style microhousing — here’s the “Land Use Bulletin” for the Austin project.

The trend is playing out just off 15th Ave E on E Mercer — one block from where construction will soon start on a new, four-story apartment building. When the owner of the Wellington Apartments at 16th and Mercer discovered its old alley garage structure needed to be replaced, the project architect submitted plans for a new parking structure — with three new apartments above. That’s half as many as Hamilton Urban Partners added in its 2011 upgrade that created six new apartments in the building’s basement. Soon, the building that once featured only 16 apartments will top out at 25.

In another example, the garage conversion strategy will play out in a much smaller scale at the tiny Royhill Apartments at 620 E Roy. In April, the building’s owner was granted a permit to create a 13th unit in the building by taking over the structure’s parking garage.

It’s a strategy that seems to be paying off. Not only are rents soaring — in new and old buildings, alike — and the prices for real estate primed for development weighing in at impressive levels but existing apartment buildings are a hot commodity for investors.

Earlier this year, one Capitol Hill transaction made headlines as the building’s owners clocked a 60% gain on their two-year investment when they sold the Union Manor building for $15.2 million to a Japanese investment firm. What the news outlets didn’t report is the 604 E Union building came with a recently installed bonus — three new apartment units constructed in the 1925-built building’s 44,000 square-foot basement.

UPDATE 4/6/14: CHS spoke with Morris Groberman, part of the ownership behind the Austin building and a frequent contact in our coverage of real estate in the neighborhood. We also spoke to him recently about the replacement of the Harvard Market escalator with steps, for example.

Groberman said the marketplace is definitely pushing the improvements — especially, he said, as the prospect for a higher minimum wage puts more money in his potential tenants’ pockets.

“What drives everything that we do is economics,” he said.

Groberman said he believes units in his old buildings are 30 to 40% cheaper than what people will find in new construction. The opportunity to suddenly unlock more space in the old buildings also, Groberman said, means more affordable housing on the Hill.

This kind of conversion is also underway in Groberman’s Tuscany Apartments at 1215 Seneca. After the Northwest School moved its cafeteria facilities from the building to its new facility at E Pike and Bellevue, contractors began a process to transform the open area into seven new apartments. The project, Groberman said, is about three-quarters complete.

Groberman said, in his buildings, what is being replaced is mostly cluttered, under-utilized basement space.

“These are old building storage rooms that get cluttered and full of crap,” Groberman said. “For example, one building I have.. it’s filled with like 50 old toilets.”

“What we do is repurpose those rooms and make it affordable.”

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16 thoughts on “Making space for more, Capitol Hill’s old apartment buildings trading parking, laundry for new room to rent

    • Oh yeah–I need to read for meaning. They must be adding stacked washer/dryers to make up for it, unless they expect everyone to schlep up to Lather Daddy on 12th…

      • There’s still a laundry room in the plan posted. Looks like there’s still room in it for more machines, even.

  1. Good idea if you ask me. Less space for cars, more for people – the way a dense, walkable neighborhood like capitol hill ought to be. More units also means the building can stick around and make money instead of being sold to a developer.

      • Enough people *don’t* have cars that making more apartments here for them is reasonable.

        Exercise for the reader: implications of `here’ and `there’.

      • Anyone who wants to park around there is certainly welcome to pay for their own space. If there is a stronger market for housing than parking, as the building owners seem to think, why shouldn’t they convert one to the other?

  2. The “garages” a 16th and Mercer were a terrible eye-sore. I’m not sure if I have an opinion on the new apartments vs. keeping them as garages but it is nice to see some of the junkier structures in the neighborhood are being replaced.

    • I suppose we should ban lifestyles that we deem not to be comfortable enough? Perhaps we should just ban poverty.
      By the way, Capitol Hill is an Urban Center, not an Urban Village.

  3. I live in the Austin Apartments and have for a year and a half now. This blog is the most information I’ve been provided about the renovation to date. Aside from the land use posting outside the building (which provided minimal detail), the residents have yet to be informed of any upcoming changes. While I welcome adding more units to the old building, I had been worried about the state of laundry (the sign outside had been ambiguous on whether there would still be a laundry room). Additionally, I actually use one of those storage units, which is provided to me in my lease.

    I understand where the owners are coming from, but the utter lack of communication with the residents is disappointing.

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