Thursday, January 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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From vice to nice

Seattle Times business reporter

A three-floor penthouse with more than 30,000 square feet of space is about to be built atop the new Four Seasons hotel-condominium at First Avenue and Union Street in downtown Seattle.

At what the Four Seasons has said it is charging for condos — $2,100 a square foot — this one unit will cost more than $60 million.

The home, 20 times the size of a typical Seattle house, will reign over Elliott Bay and the Pike Place Market from a blocklong deck. Inside, the main floor will have 15-foot ceilings, according to plans filed with the city.

But just as interesting, perhaps, is its location.

The five-star Four Seasons hotel and 26 ultra-luxury condos are replacing a nondescript parking garage next door to the Lusty Lady strip club, in the middle of what used to be Seattle's vice district. The development is part of nearly $1 billion in construction projects that could transform the rather seedy area east of the Market.

If the marketing research for the projects is on target, scores of wealthy people are ready to trade mansions in places like The Highlands and Hunts Point for downtown high-rise living. If they make the move, retail analysts say, the neighborhood's wig shops and pawnshops could quickly give way to the likes of Dior and Fendi.

But more significant, downtown business groups say, is the chance to finally fill in one of the city's biggest missing links.

Shady corridor

For decades, the Pike-Pine corridor between First and Third avenues has been known for run-down buildings, parking lots prone to drug deals and heroin addicts visiting the King County needle exchange on Second Avenue.

Despite decades of effort by the city and neighborhood groups to make it safer, the stretch is so rough-looking that it effectively serves as a dam separating Pike Place Market and its 9 million annual visitors from the city's shopping and convention areas.

If the proposed developments are built, three parking lots will become condo towers and a hotel. Downtown would get its biggest infusion of new shop space since 2001, along with hundreds of well-heeled residents.

Much of the planned development hinges on a City Council vote to allow taller residential buildings downtown, an idea first proposed in the late 1990s that appears to have a good chance of passing this year.

"It's what everyone has been waiting for," said Kate Joncas, president of the Downtown Seattle Association. "We have a couple of developers who are ready to go. We've got to get these code changes passed, and then we're ready to go."

What's in store

The combination of Seattle's hot condo market and national investors with money to spend could bring seven or eight construction cranes to a four-block radius. Here's a look at some of what could be coming:

• The Four Seasons, about to start construction, will be on First Avenue across from WaMu's new headquarters and the expanded Seattle Art Museum.

• Another opulent condo tower, with units priced at around $1 million, is aimed for a lot at 1521 Second Ave. owned by the Samis Foundation. The glass-walled building, to be developed by Minneapolis-based Opus, would end up right beside the needle exchange.

• Half a block away, at Second and Pine Street, Portland developer Paul Brenneke is planning to turn a parking lot into a hotel-condo along with 100,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space. The project is to include a $5 million new façade for one city eyesore, the former Bon Marché parking garage at Third and Pine.

• Seattle developer Greg Smith has control of the southeast corner of Second and Pike, now a parking lot known for drug activity, and plans a condo high-rise.

• Three more condo high-rises could be coming along Virginia Street, at the edge of Belltown, from developers Tarragon, Lexas and Intracorp. Some of these projects, like 1521 Second Ave., are waiting for the zoning proposal to come to a City Council vote.

"Belltown has probably gone through 10 years of transition — I would expect this neighborhood to be less than half that time," said Dean Jones, a marketing expert who has helped sell condos for Samis and Vulcan, Paul Allen's real-estate venture. "The cards that are being played in the neighborhood are going to take shape more quickly and be more impactful. Just about every developable site within a block radius has some kind of initiative on it."

Most, but not all, of the planned housing in the neighborhood is aimed at affluent buyers.

Nonprofit developer Plymouth Housing Group is in its fourth major building renovation. Plymouth refurbishes historic buildings, like the former St. Regis Hotel at Second Avenue and Stewart Street, and turns them into apartments for low-income people.

Former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, who has spent much of his career living near First Avenue and persuading people to live downtown, says nothing could affect the area east of the Market more than a wave of construction and hundreds of new residents.

"We may have reached the tipping point," Schell said. "[The projects] will provide that last link between the traditional downtown, which is healthy, and the one that's uniquely Seattle — where the soul of the city is, in my mind — on First Avenue."

History as sex district

A quarter-century ago, First Avenue never would have been mentioned in the same breath as the Four Seasons. The street was largely a sex district, with porn emporiums, strip clubs and prostitutes walking the streets.

Getting the Seattle Art Museum to move to First Avenue was a big step. Harbor Steps, an upscale apartment project built in the 1990s with backing from Seattle's Bullitt family, also was notable.

Another turning point came in 1994, with the death of landlord Sam Israel, who was known for keeping run-down buildings at key locations and leasing to porn shops and strip clubs.

Israel left his portfolio to the nonprofit Samis Foundation, which under new management has renovated many of its historic buildings and replaced the longtime porn mart at First and Pike with a Seattle's Best Coffee.

Instead of an obstacle to change, Samis, led by veteran developer William Justen, is now one of the main forces behind redeveloping the area east of the Market. The condo tower at 1521 Second was Justen's idea.

The final leg needed to remake a neighborhood is retailers willing to move into new storefront space built by the developers. There, too, the timing appears to be right for the area.

Maria Royer of Real Retail, one of the city's top retail leasing agents, says there's a long list of national and regional retailers and restaurants who want to move to downtown Seattle right now but can't.

"If you look at our retail core, which has historically been between Seventh and Fourth [avenues] on Pine or Pike, there's absolutely nothing available," said Royer, who is lining up retailers for the Brenneke project at Second and Pine.

"[Retailers] want to be on the street, and there's no street space available. They need critical mass, and that's what we can create. You need a significant anchor, another development like this."

Watching all the activity with interest is Marty Levy, owner of an old building near Second and Pike that's almost a sampler of the old neighborhood — the Liberty Loans pawnshop, a smoke shop, a wig store and an adult bookstore upstairs.

At one point, Levy said, downtown had 15 pawnshops. Now, he said, it's just him and two others, and he's not promising he'll be around forever.

"We've had a lot of inquiries about buying the property," Levy said. "If the price is right, I'd be gone."

Information in this article, originally published January 19, 2006, was corrected January 23, 2006. A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Starbucks replaced a porn shop at the corner of First Avenue and Pike Street. The coffee shop is a Seattle's Best Coffee. Also, a previous version of the graphic that accompanies this story showed the King County Needle Exchange at the southwest corner of Second Avenue and Pike. The exchange is on the other side of Pike between First and Second avenues.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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