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Bernard Choi is a CHS contributor.

Flood of apartments also means flood of ‘creative’ building names around Capitol Hill

You mean it's not named for the band?

You mean it’s not named for the band?

Some are plain. Some are clever. Some leave you scratching your head. Regardless of the category, the names of some of the new apartments on Capitol Hill and First Hill also say quite a bit about the history and culture of the neighborhood.

Take Coppins Well, the name of the apartments at 1000 Minor Ave.

At first glance, the name doesn’t bring to the surface any clear tie to the area and the marketing team didn’t much care for it either.

“To be quite honest, when it was first presented to us, we paused and collectively said, ‘Absolutely not’,” recalled Josh McDonald of Holland Residential.

But if you go into the well of local history, you find that in 1875, Charles Coppin dug the first well on First Hill, which was said to have produced 900,000 gallons of water every day. Tapping into a reliable water source was not a trivial matter in 19th century Seattle. The well served as an essential ingredient in the development of First Hill, attracting families that would turn the hill into a bona fide residential neighborhood.

Other names aren’t as deep, but nevertheless give a nod to the area.

The developer of the new apartments at 215 10th Ave E. chose the name ‘Lyric’ “as a homage to the musical heritage of Capitol Hill as well as iconic local musicians, such as Jimmy Hendrix and Pearl Jam, that have made Seattle, one of the influential musical neighborhoods in the country,” according to Billy Pettit, vice president of Pillar Properties.

“The lyric in itself is a symbolic representation of art, which also helps pay tribute to the artistic, vibrant culture of Capitol Hill,” Pettit added.

The arts also inspired the name of the Vox Apartments at 1527 15th Ave, which was previously a theater. The developer used the theater as a starting point for the name and came up with Vox, the Latin word for voice or sound.

“We think it’s a concise and edgy name with a fun nod to the previous theater,” said Therese Bushnell, the property manager. “We think it fits the no frills, straight forward aspect of Capitol Hill while offering a bit of creativity in its essence.”

Not all of the new apartment names have a broad historical or cultural tie.

The developer behind the Chloe Apartments at 1408 E Union St and the Pearl Apartments at 1530 15th Ave would only say that the two were named after family members of their respective owners.

14th Ave's under-construction REO Flats

14th Ave’s under-construction REO Flats

Meanwhile, two new apartments under construction will feature names that pay tribute to businesses that once thrived on Capitol Hill.

First, the building going up on 1222 E. Pine will be named Collins on Pine, which the marketing material references the speakeasy era of secrecy and celebration. It’s not a tribute necessarily to the present day bars that try to replicate the speakeasy experience but to the time when Capitol Hill was the center of the speakeasy culture in Seattle.

Finally, the name of the soon-to-be apartments at 1515 14th Ave takes us on a drive down memory lane, when auto-row ran right through Capitol Hill. Among the auto dealers on the hill back then was the REO Motor Company, which sold cars at what is now the Seattle Central Community College book store. REO also had a truck dealership at the current home of Area 51.

Developer Brad Augustine said he wanted to celebrate the industry that fueled some of the neighborhood’s growth so he named their new project REO Flats. But he wants the tribute to be more than just a name.

Inside REO Flats, Augustine said the architectural team worked hard to keep the 20-foot high store front (even though zoning only required 13-foot high ceilings) since that is what existed in old auto row buildings. Once the project is complete, photographs of old REO cars will adorn the lobby, while a large mural of a REO speed wagon (not the band, but a delivery truck) will be painted on the building’s façade.

“We’re not doing a billboard to promote our business but to promote the concept that this was once a local company,” said Augustine, founder of Madrona Real Estate Services. “We reside our businesses on Capitol Hill so we’re trying really hard to make sure we pay some homage to the history that was on that hill.”

Digging up Capitol Hill’s mortuary past as the last funeral home works to prolong its life

Time waits for no one, even director Smock (Image: CHS)

Time waits for no one, even director Smock (Image: CHS)

These days, Richard Hugo House offers a quaint venue for directors and actors to bring stories to life. But for decades the Capitol Hill theater served a different set of directors who helped lay thousands to rest.

Today, the building at 11th and E. Howell is being considered as a Seattle historical landmark. The nomination also brings to life a host of stories from Capitol Hill’s past of mortuaries, funerals and caskets. Among the undead is Bonney-Watson, Hugo House’s neighbor across Cal Anderson Park, resident these days at 1732 Broadway — and the last full-service mortuary on Capitol Hill.BW1

Bonney-Watson’s story, in particular, shows that while death is certain, the business of serving the departed has always been and continues to be dynamic, mirroring changes across Seattle and on Capitol Hill. It also is a visceral reminder of the diversity of industries and uses this area of the city has provided Seattle — the first known use of the Capitol Hill area by European and American settlers, it should be noted, was as a cemetery.

When Cameron Smock joined Bonney-Watson as a funeral director and embalmer 24 years ago, the company handled about 600 deaths annually at its location on Broadway and E. Howell. Today, as CEO, Smock has to figure out how to keep the business alive and kicking with 350, um, customers a year.

“This neighborhood has changed dramatically,” says Smock. “Our business was built on the families who built their families on Capitol Hill. Many of them have left.” Continue reading

Hill’s school board rep Smith-Blum on more schools in our area, standardized tests — and whether she’ll run again

The kids at Stevens are in Smith-Blum's hands (Image: CHS)

The kids at Stevens are in Smith-Blum’s hands (Image: CHS)

If you’re going to talk to Kay Smith-Blum, the Seattle School Board member who represents Capitol Hill and whose term ends this year, be prepared for an adventure. One minute she can delve into downtown demography trends. Ten minutes later, she’s focused on funding from Olympia. Then, she widens out to national testing standards, makes several pit stops, such as discussing Finland’s educational system, before circling back to Seattle.

Though Smith-Blum is serving her first term as an elected school board member, her breath of knowledge and enthusiasm for education belie two decades of advocating for local schools.



CHS sat down with Smith-Blum, a former retail executive who also runs the Butch Blum designer clothing store, to get her take on achievements during her first term and her priorities for the next four years.

“I haven’t quite made the decision to run again,” Smith-Blum pointed out at the start of our conversation. “I’m 61 and I’m the CEO of our company. The school board is another 20 to 30 hours every week on top of that. It’s an extraordinary commitment.”

Continue reading

Soccer-fueled sports drink start-up Golazo hopes for extra time on Capitol Hill

(Images: Bernard Choi for CHS)

(Images: Bernard Choi for CHS)

For Golazo, a soccer-inspired start-up specializing in energy drinks, regulation time expired a while ago on their lease at the old BMW building on E Pike. They’

ve been on extra time for months and it appears that clock could soon run out.

“We’ve been on a month to month basis. But the minute they get their demolition permit, we’re out,” Golazo co-founder Alex Rosenast told CHS.Exterior

Golazo has been keeping the old BMW space active for the developers the Wolff Company who are planning to tear down part of the former car dealership between E Pike and E Pine at Harvard, preserve some of its elements and put up a 260-unit apartment complex. Continue reading

Chapter 40: Elliott Bay Book Company opens up about its past, present and…

Aaron gets ready to cut the ribbon at Elliott Bay's 2010 Capitol Hill grand opening (Image: Suzi Pratt for CHS)

Aaron gets ready to cut the ribbon at Elliott Bay’s 2010 Capitol Hill grand opening (Image: Suzi Pratt for CHS)

It might not seem an encouraging sign when you describe the state of your business with phrases like, “We’re still alive” and “We continue to survive.” Such is the way Peter Aaron opened our interview about Elliott Bay Book Company, his iconic bookstore that marks the 40th anniversary of its founding this year. But, before you jump to any conclusions, there’s more to the story.

Let’s pick things up in 1999 when Aaron bought the independent bookstore, inheriting a literary legacy and a business model that, even then, looked destined to go the way of VHS rentals. Squeezed by big box chains, large discounters and the early rise of online sellers, the store had barely survived the three preceding years.

“Put it this way, during that three-year period, our sales volume decreased by one third,” said Aaron. “From a profitability point of view, it had gone from a comfortable business to one that was marginal.”

Nine years after the store had been featured in Newsweek as an example of successful independent bookstores, it seemed likely the next chapter for Elliott Bay Book Company would be followed by the number 7 or 11. Continue reading

The last bike shop on Capitol Hill (and another one on E Union)

Branford's Rodd Wagner (Image: CHS)

Branford’s Rodd Wagner (Image: CHS)

The Capitol Hill biking community is a little flat following the exit of the neighborhood’s most significant cycling retailer. CHS introduces you to two nearby spokes-focused retailers ready to help you keep a tight chain — including the last bike shop on Capitol Hill.

When you walk into Capitol Hill’s Branford Bike, you enter a space that’s about the size of a large bedroom. The walls are plain beige, the merchandise racks modest. It’s not exactly a luxury showroom. But don’t let the looks fool you.

The average road bike here – made of titanium or carbon fiber – will set you back about $5,000 and the more expensive models go for more than $12,000. Consider it the Ferrari of bikes.

“Our customers are willing to pay that. They seek us out because they’re looking for a certain quality,” said owner Rodd Wagner.

Continue reading

Pike Volvo dealership to close, follows auto exodus off Capitol Hill

(Images: Bernard for CHS)

First, a long, long line of auto-related businesses — then BMW — then Mercedes. Now, you can count Volvo as the latest car dealership to head for the exit and depart Capitol Hill’s transformed auto row.

CHS has learned that the Seattle family that owns the Bob Byers Volvo dealership will not renew their lease at 1120 Pike and plans to vacate the building before the end of September, just shy of its 15th anniversary on the Hill.

“The main thing is the cost of doing business on the Hill,” said Doug Byers, who purchased the dealership from his father Bob and co-owns it with his sister.

“The value of the land is difficult to pencil out for an auto dealership, especially  now that financing is coming back for property owners to build condos and apartments.”

Byers said the landlord “has been very good to us” in keeping the rents reasonable, especially during the recession, but “at a certain point, it just didn’t make sense anymore.”

The 13 sales and service employees at the Capitol Hill dealership will be offered positions at the company’s larger and original location in Ravenna, according to Byers.

“This affects all of us,” said salesman Ryan Driscoll. “I love this location. I’m really going to miss it.”

Driscoll, a self-described car nut, said this is more than just a business relocating, it may well be the end of the road for a slice of Capitol Hill history.

“This building has been home to different car dealership for so long”, said Driscoll, recounting how Fiats, Datsuns and Packards once sat on the same showroom floor before the arrival of the Swedish imports.

Capitol Hill’s transformation has carried its auto row buildings from the boom days to bust to a new boom of reuse and redevelopment. The new “showrooms” of Capitol Hill have drawn national acclaim. Meanwhile, the exit of the last bastions of auto row has cleared the way for almost unimaginably massive developments. This 260-unit apartment building will replace the BMW campus that runs between Pike and Pine at Harvard. The former Mercedes dealership on the street will also be part of a project that will eventually rise to seven stories. Currently, there are no records on file with the city that indicate a redevelopment future for the 1920 building the Volvo dealership has called home. The same owners have held the building since 1997 according to King County Records.

Byers said the dealership has had a good run on Capitol Hill. “We definitely acquired new business because of the location. People wanted to be able to drop their car off to be serviced and walk back home.”

However, the past five years have been a challenge due to in no small part to the recession. Byers said he’s thankful for the customers in the neighborhood and hopes many of them will visit the Ravenna location.

While he and his sister have not finalized plans for relocating, Byers said it will be a great reason to reduce inventories so they will probably hold a moving sale.

Meanwhile, a “for lease” sign hangs at the top of the building, advertising 29,000 square feet for rent. What will or can put that kind of space to work is a good question. The dealership’s restaurant neighbors at Tango have recently added sibling Rumba to the lower Pike mix off Melrose. Higher on Pike, Hunters Capital is marketing its newly acquired space that costume shop Brocklind’s called home for decades. “5 years, restaurant preferred,” the Hunters flyer reads.

Once Bob Byers Volvo drives off, the Ferrari/Maserati dealership on 12th and Union will be the only major car dealership that remains on Capitol Hill. We’ve learned about some changes for that showroom, too. Look for it in an upcoming update.

First Hill’s hotel elder statesman: Facing downtown competition, Sorrento has history on its side

With CHS visiting the restoration of an auto row building and considering the role hotels might play in the future of Pike/Pine development, we thought it might be wise to check in with an area old-timer to learn a little more about the hospitality industry from a historically important veteran of the industry. Long before boutique hotels became the chic choice for lodging, well before the public truly appreciated the value of historic preservation, First Hill’s Sorrento Hotel has made a home for guests visiting the core of Seattle.

Opened in 1909, the seven-story hotel on the west slope of Pill Hill is the longest-operating hotel in Seattle and still one of the coolest. The building’s heritage and character will soon bring the Sorrento some federal recognition as it is added to the National Register of Historic Places. 

“Any day now,” said Michael Malone, the developer behind some of Capitol Hill’s recent revivals such as the Elliott Bay Books and Poquitos buildings. Malone and a business partner bought the Sorrento in 1980, rescuing it, he says, from a period of neglect and negligible performance.

Back then, “the average room rate was $25 and the occupancy rate was 20%,” Malone recalled as we chatted recently in the hotel’s signature Fireside Room, an octagonal lounge near the front entrance. The dismal number serves as a reminder that, while the Sorrento is now firmly in its second century of operation, it almost didn’t make it past the first. 

“The place was a dive,” said Malone, who still cringes at the puka shell wallboard that covered up the distinctive Honduran mahogany panels in the Fireside Room. “It was a pimpy Trader Vic’s.”

A $4.5 million renovation restored the elegance and charm that once drew well-to-do families such as the Guggenheims and Vanderbilts and reportedly a visit from President Howard Taft in the hotel’s early days. 

But the year-long restoration project didn’t restore business — at least not right away. Just as the Sorrento reopened its doors in 1981, the U.S. economy sank into recession and dragged the hospitality business down with it.

“It was very tough. I would have wavered had it been my [main] business,” said Malone, who made his fortune in music distribution. Surviving that downturn proved to be valuable experience because it would happen again and again, at varying degrees, in the ensuring decades, including most recently in 2008 to 2009. 

“We weren’t immune,” said Malone.

In the last two years, though, business has returned as the local economy has grown and delivered visitors to downtown. Randall Obrecht, general manager, said the occupancy rate for Sorrento’s 76 rooms now stands in the mid-70% range, a healthy level. However, Malone noted that room rates (anywhere from $175 to $275/night) have not bounced back due to increased competition. Thousands of hotel rooms have been added to the downtown Seattle market in recent years. 

“It’s simple supply and demand,” said Malone.

Fortunately for the Sorrento, located at Madison and Terry, its proximity to downtown and unique character help it stand out among its competitors. The Italian-inspired façade and the old-world charm within continue to draw a diverse crowd year-round. 

Obrecht noted that the clientele ranges from the older couples drawn to the hotel’s history to the medical professionals visiting one of the nearby hospitals to the Capitol Hill hipsters who drop in for a drink at the bar or to attend special events such as “Silent Reading” when guests gather in the Sorrento to read silently while downing Manhattans.

A second renovation in 2002 added 21st century amenities such as wireless internet access. Interior designers were also brought in to create deluxe guest rooms and luxury suites. While no major changes are planned in the near future, Obrecht said regular maintenance comes with operating a 100 year-old structure. 

“You have to stay on top of it and do preventive work,” he said. “You have to stay ahead or it will get ahead of you.”

So how far will the Sorrento make it in its second century? Malone said he knows the land underneath the hotel is worth a lot of money but he’s not interested in that as much as making sure the Sorrento has a place to stay in Seattle’s past and present.

“This hotel is a love and a passion,” he said.

Why nobody* is building hotels or office space in Pike/Pine

There should totally be a hotel here, a developer says (Image: Bernard)

If Pike/Pine is an attractive area to live for a year or a lifetime, why aren’t there more places in the neighborhood that let you stay for a night or two?

While new apartments and condos have mushroomed through Capitol Hill’s Pike/Pine neighborhood, there have been no new hotels and none are in the pipeline. One noted developer says there’s a simple reason. 

“The land use code is pretty much stacked up against doing it,” says Scott Shapiro, a partner behind the Melrose Market development and many other projects on the Hill including this microhousing development planned for 12th Ave.

Shapiro and others are hoping the city will revisit zoning regulations that were put in place more than a decade ago that favor residential development over strictly commercial uses.

“There have been a lot of apartments…There aren’t enough hotels in the mix,” says Shapiro. “And it’s not just hotels, it’s also office space. There are creative companies that want to be on Capitol Hill but there is not enough Class A office space.”

To illustrate the zoning double-standard, Shapiro points to a 9,000 square-foot lot for sale at the corner of Belmont Ave and E. Pike St. According to city regulations, a new residential development there could have a maximum Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of 4.75, while a commercial development is limited to a FAR of 2. 

In practice, that means an apartment or condo on the site could be 4.75 times the floor area or 42,750 square feet. A hotel or office building on the same site can only be 2 times the floor area — or 18,000 square feet.

“The apartment developer has the advantage. I can’t compete against someone who can build twice as much,” said Shapiro. “We’re not asking for more height, we just want an even playing field.” 

Plenty of apartments on E Pine? (Image: Bernard)

The zoning disparity dates back to the mid 1990s when the Pike/Pine Overlay District was established to address concerns that high-density commercial development would creep up the Hill from downtown. The overlay, with few exceptions, imposed limits on non-residential use, while encouraging affordable and market-rate housing.

“There’s no reason for commercial developers to look at Pike/Pine,” said Hugh Schaeffer, a principal at architecture firm S+H Works. Schaeffer says when he and his clients, including Shapiro, look at properties on Capitol Hill, “the commercial option usually goes right out the door because it’s just not going to pencil out.”

This zoning distinction applies roughly to Pike and Pine Streets (and some of Union and Olive) between I-5 and 15the Ave E. It does not extend north on Broadway — so you could see a hotel near the light rail station developments join the Silver Cloud on Broadway. 

Dennis Meier, the city’s senior urban designer who oversees Pike/Pine, says it may be time to re-evaluate the regulations because they seem to have achieved the goal of increasing the residential supply. But while Meier acknowledges the value of diversity in development, he said there’s also virtue in balance.

“There is interest in preserving the neighborhood and not throw gasoline on the fire of development,” says Meier. “Any direction that you might consider going, you have to weigh the factors. Because of the character of the neighborhood, you want to be cautious.” 

Shapiro, who brought up the issue at a recent meeting of the Pike Pine Urban Neighborhood Council, says he wants a balance too because a diversified mix makes for a better community.

“You want to have residential, you want to have offices, you want public spaces,” says Shapiro. “It would be nice to have the option to do what makes the most sense.”

Meanwhile, at least one intrepid developer is moving forward despite the limited environment and the likelihood she’s leaving money on the table by not pumping even more housing capacity into Pike/Pine. Liz Dunn, Shapiro’s partner on Melrose Market, has cut the apartments and unveiled her plans to build a project mixing restaurant and office space on 11th Ave behind her Piston Ring building.