FEATURE ARTICLE: Developers Think Big in Seattle

What Three Top Developers are Getting Right.

For the third year in a row, Seattle has topped the nation’s tower crane count. The Seattle Times calls Seattle the crane capital of America and residents are used to their skyline being in constant flux and their city dotted with construction. It’s surely representative of Seattle’s growth and evolution, but we believe there’s so much more to the story as these cranes mark some of the Puget Sound’s most interesting developments.

The best developers leverage a long-term vision, challenge the status quo, and choose and design projects that  benefit the community. Creating a new development is a significant undertaking – often taking years, spanning acres, and including thousands of hurdles along the way. As consultant partners, we have a front row seat to some of the Puget Sound’s most interesting developments. We’ve profiled a few of our partners who are doing exceptional work in the development channel. By sharing project successes and learnings, we hope not only to give context to the projects behind some of Seattle’s cranes, but identify what it takes to create a successful development and highlight learnings that will help other AEC consultants be better partners as they support these visionaries.

Lake Union Partners | Midtown

Developer: Lake Union Partners
Architect: Weinstein A/U Architects and Urban Designers, DLR Group
Contractor: W.G. Clark Construction Company
Structural Engineer: Coughlin Porter Lundeen
Civil Engineer: KPFF

Midtown is a full-block development in Seattle’s Central District. The block (at the intersection of 23rd Avenue and E. Union Street), is divided into two parts, twenty percent to the Africatown Community Land Trust, and 80 percent to the Midtown project by Lake Union Partners which will include a mixed-income project of 430 apartments, underground parking for 258 vehicles, and 28,000 square feet of ground floor retail. The project is scheduled for design review this December.

Midtown is in the heart of the Central District, a historically African American neighborhood. Forterra, an original partner on the Midtown project, articulates the challenge best in a series of project-specific FAQ’s saying, “Seattle’s astonishing growth in the years since the Great Recession has put tremendous pressure on longtime residents of close-in neighborhoods, which are sites for new, often denser, more costly housing. Many longtime residents have been displaced or have sold their properties at a profit and moved out, and the dislocation has been especially pronounced in the Central District, an area with deep African American roots. Having built, in the face of that discrimination, a neighborhood rich in character and achievement, many African Americans resent the loss of culture in the neighborhood. The district is now only 8-10 percent black, down from more than 70 percent from its peak in the 1970s.”

Lake Union Partners offered to work with the community to help restore some of the lost culture and support efforts bringing African American businesses and residents back to the neighborhood. Their approach has been conscientious and sincere, and their desire to do right by the community is evident. While the development does include affordable units (of the 430 apartments, 125 will be available to families with incomes between $40,000 and $65,000, meeting the criteria for the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program), that’s only a portion of the efforts made to make Midtown a good fit for the neighborhood. Africatown Community Land Trust (ACLT) in partnership with Seattle- based affordable housing developer Capitol Hill Housing (CHH), will develop 20 percent of the block into approximately 130 affordable housing units. Across the full block (ACLT/CHH and LUP), nearly 50 percent of the units will be affordable for households with income as low as $28,000 per year.

Much of the early-stage success may be due to the partnerships and philosophies established at the start. Original partners included Capitol Hill Housing, Forterra, and Africatown Community Land Trust, but when they were unable to complete the block purchase on their own, Lake Union Partners joined the team. The group signed a memorandum of understanding with Lake Union Partners ensuring the developer is committed to the community’s desire to revitalize 23rd and Union as an African-American business and cultural center.

Other cities are taking note of the collaboration between a private developer and nonprofit organizations, and their commitment to restoring culture and providing affordable housing. This spring, Oregon Business published an article titled, “An ambitious effort to combat gentrification in Seattle offers lessons for Portland.” In it, they recognize Lake Union Partners’ challenge of entering a historically African American community with a new development, but cite the project as, “a possible path forward.”


Listen to Locals: Including meetings held by Africatown, there have been more than six meetings held by developers and architects where community members are invited to give input on the Midtown project. Weinstein A+U and DLR Group regularly present takeaways from prior gatherings and show how they were considered in the latest designs.

Put Their Money Where Their Mouth Is: Lake Union Partners sold twenty percent of the block to Africatown and Capitol Hill Housing for about $1 million less (on a per square foot basis) than what Lake Union Partners paid for the full block. Additionally, a 12,000 square-foot local drugstore will anchor the development. Their market rent allows the developer to offer lower-than-market rents to local entrepreneurs. The project has a goal to establish synergistic neighborhood retail, owned and operated by as many minority owners as possible. “We commonly push the envelope in our projects and stretch to get entrepreneurs in our buildings who have a great business plan but may not yet have the financial balance sheet to qualify for the space,” says Patrick Foley, a Principal at Lake Union Partners. “It’s more work, but in the end it makes for a better building that the neighborhood appreciates.” Neighborhood treasures like Earl’s Cuts and That Brown Girl Cooks! are already slated to have new homes in the Liberty Bank Building across from Midtown.

Make Community Priorities Their Own: Lake Union Partners and their team have taken the time to understand the complexities of its neighborhood and the preferences of its residents. As a result, the project is attentive to things like reaching out to African American sub-contractors who might not otherwise be aware of the project and supporting minority-owned businesses. (W.G. Clark leads the contractor team with assistance from Tony Johnson of JC+C.) Thoughtful designs at the ground-level draw inspiration from farmers markets in different parts of Africa and is designed to be an open-air public square, accessible to the public 24-7. Surrounded by retail, it’s intended to be an inviting community gathering space

SECO Development | Southport

Developer: SECO Development
Architect: Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects, MG2, Mithun
General Contractor: Exell PacificSellen Construction, Lease Crutcher Lewis
Structural Civil Engineer: Coughlin Porter Lundeen

On the south shore of Lake Washington sits Southport, a mixed-use, waterfront urban village build from the ground up by local developer SECO Development. The 17.1-acre campus includes three, nine-story. Class-A office buildings, two multi-story apartment buildings named Bristol I & II, highly anticipated restaurants, and a new 12-story, 347-room, 4-star Hyatt Regency.

Southport’s massive project scope is a challenge in itself, especially considering the significant time it required to complete—nearly two decades, with 6,000 new jobs created in the process. The size, scope and timeline could be considered the most prominent challenges at Southport, especially as the project required multiple complex phases and included the development of more than 2.4 million square feet.

In addition, Southport is the first development of its kind in Renton. Given the size of the project, and its lack of predecessors, SECO knew the project would generate significant attention from the community. But would potential visitors treat Renton as a destination? Would SECO end up with its projected ROI? Despite uncertainties, CEO Michael Christ was confident and saw massive potential in Renton. Southport’s location is an optimal one—not only does it sit on Lake Washington and boast exceptional views, but the ease of access will appeal to guests and tenants alike. The site is close to airports and major interstates, and a proposed water taxi route (funded by SECO) would ferry riders from Renton to South Lake Union in 50 minutes.

Southport is also neighbor to The Landing, which includes 600,000 square feet of retail, and the 57-acre Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park, which offers walking trails, tennis and volleyball courts, boat launches and fishing docks.


Establish a Long-Term Vision: Now that the project is approaching completion (in early 2019), it’s easy to picture what the future could resemble at the campus—tenants putting down roots in Renton and calling Southport home; commuters depending on the water taxi for their everyday route; event planners turning to the Hyatt Regency to host conferences; and even couples booking the hotel’s deck for wedding ceremonies. Much credit is due to Christ and the SECO team for believing in Renton, realizing such an incredible campus for the waterfront parcel, and remaining loyal to their vision for many years.

Be Future-Focused: Southport has planned for the future in both design and function. The property’s office space, in particular, reflects SECO’s understanding of creating flexible spaces that can be customized to tenant needs. Designs (floor-to-ceiling windows, top- quality finishes), amenities (rooftop lounges, bike storage, outdoor gathering spaces), and technology elements (Fiber WiFi, elevated electrical service, back-up generator pads) all work together to create an office environment appropriate for a modern organization, especially large technology teams.

Manage the Story: Managing the story is important for any new venture or project, but especially one that requires years of construction, community engagement, and ultimately tenants, residents and guests buying-in to a new location and idea. During construction, Southport’s website shares concepts and live feeds of the building process. Today, the site provides important Southport information to stakeholders, all in one place, highlighting the waterfront campus’s various features, including the Hyatt Regency, Bristol Apartments, and Class A office spaces — as well as showcasing the broader Renton community, The Landing, transportation benefits, and life on Lake Washington.

Daniels Development Co. | Gridiron

Developer: Daniels Development Co. 
Architect: HEWITT
General Contractor: Chinn Construction LLC
Structural + Civil Engineer: Coughlin Porter Lundeen

Gridiron is a Kevin Daniels project in the heart of Pioneer Square. It features 107 contemporary condos (including affordable units) and sophisticated amenity spaces. As CenturyLink’s newest neighbor, it kept things interesting for both our structural and civil teams with historical preservation needs, a crazy site shape, and ongoing streetscape improvements.

A significant challenge included the historic preservation aspect of the project. The team restored the Johnson Plumbing Building’s 1904 brick façade, converting the deficient element into a special building feature. In addition to collaborating with the Pioneer Square Review Board, through whom all designs needed to be approved, the team also needed to communicate with Gridiron’s next-door neighbor, the Provident Building. The two buildings share a bearing wall, and it was important to make sure Provident Building residents weren’t negatively impacted by construction, but instead appreciated their new neighbor as a positive addition to the area.

In addition to historic preservation elements, the team faced the challenge of a very difficult site. Gridiron’s strange, triangular footprint required that our structural engineers support unique designs, creating never-used-before systems. As condominiums, it was important that unit layouts maximized square feet and tenant experience. On the ground, the team coordinated extensively with both CenturyLink and Seattle Waterfront teams, ensuring that Gridiron was a seamless addition to the area. A further undertaking, especially for our civil team, was the development of a Master Plan for Gridiron’s front yard, as eventually Railroad Way South will be replaced with a pedestrian plaza, The Stadium Plaza park at Seattle Waterfront.

A final but significant challenge was living up to the Daniels Development Co. mission. The organization strives for, “Always exceptional, never ordinary” and “tackles large and complex development projects that provide a building block for stronger and vibrant communities.” With the bar so high, project teams are challenged to uphold the exceptional standard, which we consider a positive motivator and the most exciting kind of work!


Commit to Getting the Details Right: Arguably, you can’t get the details right if you don’t know who you’re designing for. By taking the time to forecast potential tenants, the team was able to create a space tailored to its future residents. Details and finishes are not only high-end, but thoughtful and purposeful. For example, wine lockers are located just outside the exceptional rooftop space which features a dog run, entertainment rooms, outdoor fireplaces and views of the city, stadium, Sound, and Olympic Mountains.

Embrace Differentiators: Often, what makes a building different has the potential to make it great. Gridiron embraces its distinctiveness at every turn and leverages it to attract tenants. Its location near the stadium is complemented by entertainment-ready floorplans and the historic façade is a charming element and contrast to the contemporary units. Even the small, pointed portion of the units became a centerpiece, when wrapped in glass, yielding phenomenal views, and aptly named “the prow.”

Inspire Your Team: We’ve been privileged to be a part of many Kevin Daniels projects and during our decades-long relationship, can attest that his approach motivates the project team in a special way. It’s exciting to partner with a visionary who is such a genuine advocate for the city, and an honor to contribute to projects that often become Seattle standouts. We find that the Kevin Daniels attitude and mission is infectious, making us push one another creatively, and ultimately delivering a superior final product. After all, when every level of a team is bought-in, results sing.