Originally published Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 10:00 PM

Apartment builders target long-ignored Interbay

Virtually nobody lives in Seattle's Interbay neighborhood despite its proximity to popular areas like Ballard and Queen Anne, but developers such as Unico hope to change that with new housing projects.

Seattle Times business reporter

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Prominent Seattle developer Unico Properties plans to break ground in the next few weeks on a project in Interbay that will provide the gritty neighborhood with something it long has lacked:


Almost no one lives in this valley between hilly Queen Anne and hilly Magnolia. "It's always been a place people passed through," says Bruce Wynn, who heads the Interbay Neighborhood Association.

He and other advocates of the neglected area have maintained for years that Interbay could become a vibrant urban center if only a critical mass of people lived there.

Unico's 236-unit apartment complex should provide the first big infusion. More apartments are in the pipeline.

Unico calls its project Slate Apartments + Lofts. That's partly because Interbay is a blank slate whose story hasn't yet been written, says Jonas Sylvester, Unico's senior vice president for investment and development.

He anticipates the story will have a happy ending: "In five years," Sylvester says, "you'll look at this neighborhood and say, 'Duh! Why didn't we see that coming?' "

Between 2 bays

Interbay, as its name suggests, once was a marshy area between two bays, Elliott and Salmon.

A garbage dump operated there for decades. During the Depression, Interbay was the site of one of the city's "Hoovervilles," shantytowns for the homeless.

BNSF Railway's sprawling, century-old rail yard remains a dominant presence.

Today people come to Interbay to golf at the city-owned nine-hole course or to watch college soccer matches at Interbay Stadium.

They come to work in factories that make everything from cutting boards to harps. They come to shop and eat at the new Whole Foods shopping center near Interbay's south end, or at the QFC and restaurants that line West Dravus Street to the north.

11 residents

Then they go home. Just 11 people reside in Interbay's core, between busy 15th Avenue West and the railroad tracks, according to census data.

Wynn, whose home is a few blocks away on Queen Anne, says he has no idea where those 11 are.

The blocks north and south of Dravus are a jumble of squat industrial and office buildings and fenced-off storage yards. The few old houses are empty. Even Interbay's strongest supporters describe it as blighted.

"It's always been the dumping neighborhood of the city," Wynn says.

But he and others insist Interbay has potential. It's close to downtown and to some of the city's hottest neighborhoods — Ballard, Belltown, Lower Queen Anne.

A flat, nearly car-free bike path links Interbay with the downtown waterfront.

And there is good bus service that should get even better next year, when "Rapid Ride" buses, scheduled to run every 10 minutes during peak periods, start rolling down 15th.

The campaign for a new Interbay began about seven years ago. The neighborhood association and property owners led by developer Freehold Group, which had invested heavily in north Interbay, began pushing city officials to allow taller buildings on the blocks around Dravus.

They said the zoning change was key to attracting residential development, which in turn would allow Interbay to blossom.

The Seattle City Council finally raised the height limit around Dravus from 40 to 85 feet three years ago — just as the economy tanked and financing disappeared.

Now lenders are lending again, especially for apartment projects, and Interbay's time has come, Unico's Sylvester says.

His company probably is best known as the developer of the University of Washington's 10-acre Metropolitan Tract in downtown Seattle. It owns or manages 15 million square feet of office, apartment and retail properties across the West.

Slate, Unico's Interbay complex, will fill most of the block south of Dravus between 16th and 17th avenues West, property occupied by a deteriorating office building and several vacant houses.

Unico plans to finish the project in spring 2013. Bank of America is providing construction financing.

About 5,500 square feet of retail will front Dravus at 16th.

The apartment lobby will be around the corner on 17th; Sylvester says it will be furnished with light fixtures and paneling salvaged from Washington Mutual's former downtown headquarters, a tower Unico now manages.

In return for a property-tax break, Unico is setting aside 20 percent of the apartments for tenants whose incomes are slightly below the Seattle area's median.

The complex will include a workshop for bike repairs, a pea patch, charging stations for electric cars and a lobby kiosk with real-time information about bus arrivals and other transportation options.

Slate's target tenant? Someone who wants commuting choices, Sylvester says. Someone who wants to live close to downtown but not right in it.

More for less

And someone who wants a bargain, at least compared with new apartments in Ballard or Queen Anne. "We'll be offering a little more for a little less," Sylvester says.

That's probably smart, says Tom Cain of research firm Apartment Insights Washington.

Interbay is virgin territory for apartment dwellers, he says; it lacks the amenities of better-established neighborhoods.

"There's lots of traffic, and there's the railroad noise. ... It's kind of an odd area now."

But if the apartments are priced right, Cain adds, Interbay's location and good transit service could appeal to some renters.

Unico isn't the only investor that has targeted Interbay. Seattle Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder bought three properties in the neighborhood earlier this year.

"It's a great part of Seattle that's been a little neglected," she says.

Now, in partnership with Goodman Real Estate, a big-time apartment developer, Gilder is seeking permits for 118 apartments on one of those sites, across 16th from Slate.

The city's Queen Anne/Magnolia Design Review Board is to consider the four-story project Dec. 7.

Freehold, the developer that led the campaign to rezone Interbay, sold Gilder all three sites. It also once had an ownership interest in the property where Slate will be built. The company still owns several other properties in the neighborhood.

"Those two [apartment] projects are really going to transform the area south of Dravus," says Jeff Thompson, Freehold's president. "After all this time, I couldn't be more delighted that things are finally coming together."

Wynn concurs. "It's been a long time coming," he says.

Seattle Times staff reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this report.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231

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