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Originally published Friday, May 20, 2011 at 10:00 PM

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New apartment complex a test of light-rail's lure

The Station at Othello Park is just the kind of redevelopment Seattle planners and politicians envisioned more than a decade ago, when they decided to run light rail down Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.

Seattle Times business reporter

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Alan Anderson sold his car the same weekend he moved into his new apartment last month. With a train only steps from his front door, he figured he didn't really need one anymore.

"I don't miss it at all," he says unequivocally.

Anderson's new home is a studio in the Station at Othello Park, a just-completed complex in Southeast Seattle that may be the city's most closely watched new apartment project.

It's right across the street from Sound Transit's Othello Link light-rail station. If the project shows that rail will draw new residents to a corner of Seattle that for-profit developers have long ignored, more transit-oriented projects could follow.

"Everybody's got their eye on it," says Jon Hallgrimson, an apartment broker at CB Richard Ellis.

It's the kind of redevelopment planners and politicians envisioned more than a decade ago, when they decided to run light rail down Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, one of the city's poorest, most neglected, most ethnically diverse corridors.

At seven stories, the Station at Othello Park is the tallest, most imposing building in the Othello neighborhood. From the hot tub on the rooftop deck you can see Mount Rainier, downtown skyscrapers and slices of Lake Washington.

The project features touches usually found in apartment complexes in more upscale parts of town: granite countertops, original art, Wi-Fi in the common areas.

Nothing like it has been built in Southeast Seattle before, says Tom Cain of Apartment Insights Washington, a research firm — "and it's only there because of the light rail."

Not surprisingly, the train figures heavily in developer Othello Partners' marketing campaign to fill the building's 351 apartments. "Ditch your car!" its website proclaims.

"Our No. 1, key amenity is the light-rail station," says Steve Rauf, the firm's president and chief executive officer. "You're saving time. You're saving money."

That pitch helped lure Alan Anderson. Rauf isn't the only developer who wonders how many more renters like him are out there.

Texas partner

Sound Transit opened the Link light-rail line from downtown to the airport in 2009. The Station at Othello Park broke ground that same year — a time few other projects were getting started — largely because Rauf found a partner with deep pockets: Texas-based USAA Real Estate, subsidiary of a Fortune 500 insurance and financial-services company.

Tenants started moving into the building in late March. Rauf says about 40 apartments have been leased, for rents ranging from about $900 to $2,000.

The light-rail station isn't the only reason tenants have chosen the project. The state Department of Services for the Blind, for instance, is leasing six two-bedroom units to house students enrolled in independent-living and job-training programs in nearby Columbia City.

The apartment complex has Braille labels on the doors and other features that cater to the blind and others with disabilities, said Keiko Namekata, an agency program manager.

"There's just nothing else in this area," she said. "It seems they really are inviting diversity."

Alan Anderson, 27, who moved to Seattle from Texas last year, says he was attracted to the building in part by its many green features.

Still, the light-rail station is what sets the Station at Othello Park apart.

Anderson works as an accountant in Pioneer Square, an 18-minute train ride from Othello. He says that's a much shorter commute than the bus he used to ride from his old apartment in Northgate.

He figures that, by giving up his car, he's saving more than $1,000 a year just on insurance and parking. And he has a Zipcar membership for when he does need to drive.

Bob Anderson — no relation to Alan — was among the building's first residents. He's lived without a car for several years, but the prospect of a shorter commute attracted him — and Othello Partners sealed the deal with a $300 Orca card, good for train, bus or ferry fares.

Anderson, 43, works at Starbucks' Sodo headquarters. The train ride from Othello to Link's Sodo Station takes 12 minutes. Even with a half-mile walk to the office, Anderson figures he goes door-to-door in 25 minutes or less.

That compares with a 50-minute bus commute from his old home in Ballard.

"What I particularly like is the regularity of it," Anderson says of light rail. "During the peaks there's a train every 7 ½ minutes."

He takes light rail to the airport, to see movies downtown with friends, to shop for groceries in Mount Baker.

Anderson says he like his new one-bedroom apartment and the building's amenities. Still, he says, "if they put this building somewhere that wasn't on light rail, I probably wouldn't have chosen it."

Apartment surge

Other developers will judge the Station at Othello Park's success by how much rent it can charge and how quickly it fills up.

A new project is doing well if it leases 20 apartments a month, researcher Cain says. By that measure, the Station is right on target.

As for apartment rents, Cain says, the Othello project is charging about 40 percent more per square foot than older buildings in the Rainier Valley, Beacon Hill and the Central District — but about 12 percent less than the average rent at similar new buildings on Capitol Hill and other neighborhoods closer to downtown.

From a landlord's perspective, the Seattle apartment market is on the upswing. Vacancies are falling, rents are rising and developers are rushing to build more units as they anticipate a surge in demand fueled by young adults.

"I don't know if there's been a better time to be in the apartment industry than right now," George Petrie, CEO of Goodman Real Estate, a major apartment developer, told a real-estate forum this week.

But Southeast Seattle is a new frontier for the industry. Before the Station at Othello Park, "that area hadn't seen any conventional [for-profit] new construction in many years," Cain says.

Harbor Properties plans to break ground this fall on Greenhouse, a 124-unit project in Columbia City, four blocks from that neighborhood's light-rail station.

But it is an exception. Other developers haven't pulled the trigger yet.

The Seattle Housing Authority, for instance, has been trying on-and-off for years to sell sites it owns near the Othello and Columbia City stations for market-rate residential/ retail development. Tentative deals with developers Unico Properties and Opus Northwest fell through when the economy tanked.

And now?

"I have heard lots of developers say they are waiting to see how the Station at Othello Park does," said Al Levine, the authority's deputy director.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

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