Boomtown Seattle

Paul Allen and monolithic development corporation Vulcan are evidently constructing an apartment building near where I work. The Puget Sound Business Journal has details and a rendering from Runberg. Apparently the lot once contained the Computer Center Corp where Bill Gates and Paul Allen coded as youngsters. There were two junky old buildings on that lot — one brick and one wood — and I assume that one of those contained the computer center. Earlier this summer chain link appeared around the parking lot and an excavator demolished both with surprising speed.

First off, I tried to do some back-of-the-envelope calculations on the new building’s hypothetical cash flow once it is complete. Per the article linked above, “The seven-story Augusta will have 208 market-rate apartments, some ground-floor retail space and parking for around 150 cars and 100 bicycles.” Assuming an average rent of $1850 and 90% occupancy, this works out to about $4 million a year just from the residential space (there will also be ground floor commercial). Jeez oh man! In the immortal words of MacGruber, that’s a lot of wampum. Possibly expect to see in a year or two “Vulcan Sells U-District Apartments for $50 million”, which seems pretty plush given that they paid $2.8 million for the site in 2001.

Also it probably bears commenting that the building allocates about 0.75 car parking spaces per unit and 0.5 bicycle parking spaces per unit. It’s a pretty common theme among urbanists that building a bunch of parking makes buildings and hence rent much more expensive, and further contributes to the traffic disaster that is Seattle by incentivizing more automobile reliance. I don’t know enough about parking requirements and typical ratios, but less than one space per unit seems pretty good. I’d wonder if the bike parking, even though it may seem high at 100 spaces, isn’t quite enough. As far as I can tell, young people (like for example people who would rent small apartments near a university) want to walk and bicycle everywhere, and have little interest in fuming on the freeway.


Secondly, this reminded me that the construction permits are publicly available data from the City of Seattle. I thought, hey, I could quickly download some building permitting data, throw it onto a static Google Maps image, and whammy, instant insight into the construction trends of this rapidly changing city.


Let’s just say we’re going to need a bigger boat. Among applications submitted year to date, nearly 1300 single family/duplex permits have been approved, and nearly 600 commercial. Notice the caveat about dollar value greater than $1. There are a bunch of permits with zero dollar value recorded for things like, “Temporary structure permit to erect stage and field seating for a private concert July 23, 2015, per plans”, “Shoreline exemption for repairs made to dock (violation# 1022274.”, or “Establish use for record as duplex dwelling per plan.” Below are non-zero dollar values for commercial and single family/duplex.


The permitted single family/duplex actions mostly span dollar values $1000 to $1 million, with a lot between $10,000 and $100,000. The million dollar single family permit was on Capitol Hill for alleged “Interior alterations to an existing single family residence subject to field inspection”, which seems a bit odd. A million dollars of interior alterations? The highest value single family permit anybody has applied for in 2015 was just last week for a South Lake Union location for “construction of residential high rise building with below grade parking and occupy, per plan.” As usual, City of Seattle public data suffers from extensive quality problems. I’m a bit skeptical about this alleged $5 million dollar “high rise” “single family /duplex” building with “below grade parking” in South Lake Union.

In contrast, the highest value commercial permit issued so far in 2015 was a $6 million project to “Construct a new retail building, and occupy per plan” at the U-Village shopping center. The next highest value commercial projects permitted this year were several other multi-million projects for things like “Tenant improvements to office and research laboratory” on Eastlake (apparently across the street from where I used to work), “Alteration to fully renovate approximately 180 rooms and partially renovate approximately 271 guest rooms for Fairmont Olympic Hotel” downtown, and “Excavation and shoring only for new commercial building per plan” on Dexter Ave, among others. Mildly amusing.

The highest value commercial permit issued in the past five years was for a “Phased project: Construction of office building with below grade parking and occupy, per plan (Phased project:  Construction of an office building and meeting center building with below grade parking and occupy, per plan.” This project is located at 2021 7th Avenue and valued at $280 million. Whoa. A quick Google search informs me that this is some sort of new totem to ruthless e-commerce efficiency. It’s interesting that there haven’t been any huge commercial projects permitted yet this year, at least not from applications submitted this year.

It seems as though the City of Seattle issues building permits in such volume that, for effective visualizations, I should probably map to Census tracts/blocks. Hopefully this will also become a running theme of inquiry. In the meantime, I’ll play myself out with a wordcloud of the descriptions of dollar value construction permits issued so far in 2015:


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