Belltown: A Changing Neighborhood | REC 2019 [March 2019 Breakfast Recap]

Stack of three photos showing college students presenting to a group at a tableAt the March breakfast, we joined the Real Estate Challenge Committee for the culmination of the 16th Annual Challenge with three university teams presenting their proposals for Merlino Properties’ 5th and Bell site, and we heard from four Belltown neighborhood experts on the area’s future growth.

Before the program started, we talked about current legislation and community enhancement day.

Ian Morrison, who leads the Coalition for a More Affordable Washington, an organization that educates and advocates on behalf of NAIOP WA in Olympia, kicked the morning off. Currently, the coalition is focusing on eight initiatives, and one of the most important is advocating against the proposed graduated real estate excise tax (REET). Ian urged everyone in the audience to get ahold of their three legislators to oppose the fast-tracked increase, which would take effect as soon as July, if passed. Please stay tuned for more information, including how you can get involved. 

Next, there was an invitation to send site or organization ideas for this year’s Community Enhancement Day on Saturday, October 5. The site needs to hold about 400 volunteers for the day. The committee is already scouting a few places, but they would love to scout out more! Please get contact the committee chairs, Doug Baker and Drew Mark, with suggestions. 

The Real Estate Challenge portion of the program started with impressive presentations from the University of Washington, University of British Columbia and Portland State University who competed yesterday for this year's top honors. Each team came with unique ideas and concepts around the three-building site on 5th and Bell, owned by Merlino Properties.

UW proposed the “BellTop,” UBC proposed “The Bellside,” and PSU proposed “Bell V.” There were many unique features from each presentation, and I wanted to share one aspect I personally liked for each (beyond the financials, although I’m sure that was compelling, too!). The UW team was innovative in harnessing the Living Building Challenge first and foremost in all aspects for their approach. UBC realized that art and culture would be extremely important in the success of the development, especially for this area, and prioritized design features like an expansive mural. PSU mixed a small portion of the stack to six floors of hospitality along with adding residential with three-bedroom options in the stack, which allowed for a great array of amenities for businesses, hotels, retailers and the community alike.

I was not privy to any judging, and it was said this morning that it was very hard to make the decision and in just getting cursory taste of the financials, design, and stacking among all of the requirements, I can see why! 

At the end of the breakfast, PSU was crowned the 2019 winner! Many congratulations to the winners and all who participated. Many thanks also to Merlino Properties, the 2019 Site Sponsor.

The program continued with a panel on Belltown’s growth. The speakers were:

  • Jacqueline Gruber, Senior Manager, Economic Development, DSA, (moderator)
  • Dayna Dealy, Director of Real Estate Development, Skanska
  • Maria Royer, Principal, Real Retail
  • Dylan Simon, Executive Vice President, Colliers

Jacqueline cited statistics about the growth underway in Belltown. With 5,000 residential units anticipated to come online in about 20 towers by 2022, Belltown’s residential population has the capacity to increase by 50 percent. In downtown overall, with 300,000 new jobs and the demographic of children doubling since 2010, it is clear that the change is not just coming, but right on top of us.

Saying the neighborhood will change within the next three years is more than an understatement: It is like saying that boiling water tends to be warm.

Jacqueline asked Dayna how the students’ projects were similar to Skanska’s new development, a 30-story tower on 4th Ave in Belltown. She replied that there were many similarities and enjoyed seeing the activations proposed by the students, the market hall concepts for the retail, mixture of uses such as with hospitality, and seeing how the students would approach the new influx of workers in a traditionally residential area that has many historic buildings and trees. She underscored the importance of community involvement every step of the way.

Dylan responded to the next question from Jacqueline about what he sees as the opportunities for the next several years for the area. Dylan is excited and believes the area will be completely transformed; that the leakage from the area of retail and restaurants we have seen in the past couple years will be reversed, and that the most exciting opportunities are yet to come, predicting many vibrant future uses.

Next up, Maria answered Jacqueline’s question about what is unique about Belltown. She replied that the rich history, location, walkable, flat streets, and tremendous heritage are unique features to name just a few, and that the spirit of the area can be maintained, and growth can be this neighborhood’s biggest asset as long as it is scaled respectably.

The questions were followed by a discussion on the fact that 5,000 new resident units are expected to be delivered within the next three years. The panelists agreed that community participation at all phases of the development, arts and culture at the forefront, amenities that are scaled appropriately like good grocery activations, and the like are needed in order to maintain the character or “grit” many locals feel nostalgia for and/or enjoy right now. It was noted that making sure to engage the community often and, at all times of the process, is essential to maintaining what the community loves about the area. Along with this, it will be important to tap into the energy that is already there and how people are living by ensuring an “18-hour neighborhood” where one can truly “work, live and play.” It was noted that, really, very few and perhaps only one other neighborhood in Seattle can claim this: Fremont. Belltown could be the other neighborhood to achieve this idyllic goal. The panelists continued that if there is a way that development can enrich culture, it has to be responsible, preserve history, responsibly change the pedestrian plane, represent a diversity of opinions, and build upon the culture already ingrained in the fabric of the neighborhood.

Download the final attendance list on the NAIOP WA app. Look for the paperclip icon (materials) for the 2019 March Breakfast.

This article was written by NAIOP Washington State and Marcom Committee member Sarah D. Fischer, Burgess Design.

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