Thanks to an innovative Canadian impresario who built a pass through the mountains—and an opulent train station to go along with it
They called him the Empire Builder.
James Jerome Hill was born in 1838 in a log house about 50 miles west of what we now call Toronto, coincidentally right about the time that the barely existent railroad industry kicked off its very first developments in the then-untouched wilderness of British Canada. Hill and the Canadian railroad system grew up together, and by the time Hill reached adulthood, the industry was well established but ripe for expansion. It would be the way he’d make his great fortune—and how Seattle’s grand transportation depot King Street Station would come to exist.
In the decades following the Lewis and Clark expedition, Washington was a wild, mountainous, largely unexplored (by white settlers, at least) part of the Oregon Territory that wasn’t even finished being mapped out yet, much less connected by roads or railways. The Puget Sound region in particular was almost totally isolated by the Cascade mountain range, accessible only by wagon or inland waterways. But in 1879, the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway Company formed with the express goal of expanding its routes in general—and Hill, its general manager and later its president, had his mind set on a new transcontinental route. It would be called the Great Northern Railroad.
Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 40311
King Street Station in 1944.
This plan was initially hatched a few years earlier, in 1873, by Philadelphia financier Jay Cooke, who pledged his fortune to a different company, the Northern Pacific Railroad, to build a route from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, ending in Tacoma. But Cooke’s fortune dissipated in the Great Panic of 1873—Cooke’s fortune suddenly dissipated, and the project was no longer bankrolled. However, the railroad had socked hundreds of thousands of dollars into investments in Tacoma’s Commencement Bay port, and they had no option but to stick to the plan. On December 16, 1874, the first steam train pulled into a lackluster new station in Tacoma, and the Northern Pacific railroad filed for bankruptcy (but survived) in 1875, for the first of several times.
Hill saw an opportunity to compete with the Northern Pacific by building his own railway from St. Paul to Seattle, not Tacoma (although he also openly teased Everett and Bellingham with feigned interest). Hill’s route would run nearer to the Canadian border, an extension of the mining route that he’d already built, which ran from St. Paul, Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin and through South Dakota before ending in Butte, Montana.
Hill busied himself with route planning, traveling by horseback along the proposed railway routes to check them out personally, despite being blind in one eye from a childhood accident. But Hill was not the most popular dude and had plenty of detractors in this endeavor. Tacoma resident E. G. Griggs, whose father had been a business partner of Hill’s back in Minnesota, told the Tacoma Daily News of Hill, ”He had the reputation of being an exacting man and hard to get along with, but at the same time it was recognized these qualities made him the forceful man he was, a man brilliant in large achievements.”
Perhaps thanks to his temperament, or just the enormity of the task, his critics called the project “Hill’s Folly.” Hill ignored them, of course, allegedly replying, “Give me Swedes, snuff, and whiskey, and I’ll build a railroad through hell.”
Meanwhile, the only train station serving Seattle until about 1880 was a tiny wooden shack set among the sawmills in the Elliott Bay tidelands, on Railroad Avenue, which we now call Alaskan Way. A slightly larger clapboard station, sometimes called the Columbia Street Depot, was wiped out by the Great Seattle Fire in 1889, along with most of downtown. Neither of these buildings were passenger-friendly; the idea was to load and unload freight, not people. The year following the fire, the Northern Pacific Railroad bought out the station and the tracks, replacing the station with one more accommodating to passengers, replete with benches and magazine vendors. But the station was small, the area was dirty, and Seattle was growing fast.
Hill’s Great Northern Railroad purchased the troubled, cash-poor Northern Pacific in 1901. The following year, a large plat of muddled tidelands at King and Jackson Streets were filled in preparation for development, and construction on the new train depot began in 1904, intended to support both the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railways. The L-shaped, steel-framed, brick-and-granite King Street Station opened to passengers on May 10, 1906. Designed by St. Paul–based architects Charles Reed and Allen Stem, who would go on to design New York’s City’s Grand Central Station, the lavish, palatial building contrasted starkly with all transit stations that Seattle had seen to date and would prove to be instrumental in the city’s evolution.
King Street Station’s distinctive clock.Shutterstock
Piazza San Marco in Venice—the design inspiration for King Street Station’s clock.
The architectural style was a mishmash of what’s now called Railroad Italianate, patterned after stations in King’s Cross and Paddington in London. John Caldbick describes it in over on Historylink.org in detail:
The ground floor was reinforced concrete with granite facing on the exterior and the upper two floors were solid brick masonry faced with pressed brick. A thick terra cotta entablature ringed the building where the walls met the roof, and additional terra cotta detailing framed the windows. Other decorative elements were of both terra cotta and cast stone. All was topped by a tile-covered hipped roof, and at the building’s rear long shed roofs gave shelter to those getting on and off the trains.
Right away, King Street Station was best known across the city for its iconic 242-foot clock tower (or campanile), featuring four 14-foot-wide clock faces made by Boston’s E. Howard & Co., which also created the clocks for San Francisco’s Ferry Building and Chicago’s Wrigley Building. The campanile itself is modeled after the one at Piazza San Marco in Venice and was the tallest structure in Seattle until the Smith Tower was finished in 1914. When the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railways later merged into Burlington Northern Railroad, the campanile served as a microwave tower—one of more than 100 such towers that formed a nationwide communications skyway beginning in 1951.
After the tower, the waiting areas were the most appreciated features of the new station. In comparison to Columbia Street Depot, where passengers were required to cross the muddy, dusty train tracks on foot and subject to all the noises and stenches of the trains themselves, King Street Station offered a grand, elegant, sanitary waiting space that made the previous station look like a bus stop. A heavily ornamented, coffered three-story ceiling hosted a second-floor gallery with a balcony that looks out over the crowd. Other original details included fluted Corinthian columns, white marble column accented with glass mosaic tiles, a colossal bronze chandelier, and inlaid square mosaic tiles on the terrazzo floor.
As time marched on and air travel became more common and passenger trains fell out of vogue, the station fell into disrepair. According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, “A series of renovations in the 1940s, 50s and 60s ... removed the plaster and marble walls, glass mosaic tiles and covered the plaster ceiling with acoustical tiles. The historic light fixtures were replaced with fluorescent lights. The terrazzo floor was cracked and in disrepair.”
Fortunately, the once-glorious station was still a priority for the city in the 1990s, with interest being stirred up in 1991, and by 1998, the SDOT had kicked off a plan for restoration. The city purchased the station for $10 (as it was unable to cut a check for $1) in 2008, and sank $56 million into the project via a number of sources, including $16.7 million from the Federal Transit Administration. The overhaul was designed by Portland firm ZGF Architects.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 191909
King Street Station’s grand reopening in 2013.
On April 24, 2013, after more than 20 years of slow-going progress, King Street Station’s refurbished passenger waiting hall reopened to a crowd of 500 and a celebratory brass band, showcasing improvements such as the restored super-ornate plaster ceiling—once marred by bolts and cables used to suspend the drop ceiling from the 1950s. The makeover featured replaced marble panels that had been previously missing, a huge new chandelier, a retiled and highly polished terrazzo floor, and a fresh new steel skeleton to hold it all up, unseen to the public eye.
Upon retiring in 1912, James J. Hill wrote about the Great Northern railway: “Most men who have really lived have had, in some shape, their great adventure.This railway is mine.” Seattle’s—and by extension Washington State’s—destiny was shaped enormously by Hill’s contributions in the form of that railway and the magnificent King Street Station he built along with it. Although Hill was memorialized in countless ways by prominent and ordinary citizens alike, through statues, museums, and newspaper tributes ,perhaps the most appropriate one is Amtrak’s busiest long-distance route: The Empire Builder, a passenger train connecting Seattle and Chicago, which is named in his honor.
Right in the middle of SLU, this one-bedroom loft in a newer building has an industrial vibe with concrete and exposed pipe for $2,446 a month—including the standard loft wall o’ windows. It’s a spacious 824 square feet, has its own in-unit laundry, and shares a resident garden, two courtyards, a gym, and grills with other tenants. It has bike parking, and is right in the middle of a job center—although it’s along bus lines, too. Pets can come along.
Up at the east end of Capitol Hill along the commercial drag of 19th Avenue, another pet-friendly, newer-construction one-bedroom—this one the regular kind, and 616 square feet—rents for $2,375 a month. It has a modern design with clean lines and tall windows, plus a small, private balcony, with more outdoor space, like courtyards and a roof deck, shared with the rest of the building. Laundry is in-unit, and there’s both car and bike parking available in addition to being on the 12 line. Photos appear to be of a model unit.
Via Avenue One
For a more ground-level experience, try this little hillside 650-square-foot house with one bedroom, custom woodwork, and cedar shingles for $2,395 a month. Vaulted ceilings, wood trim, and hardwoods give it kind of a cabin vibe—especially the dropped exposed-grain ceiling over the bedroom, the floor to a small loft above. A private balcony looks out to the back of the house, too. Street parking is generally available around here, and it’s a couple blocks downhill to the 14 and a 12-minute walk to light rail. No pets allowed, though.
Although it’s adjacent to downtown, this one-bedroom apartment is a true garden apartment: on a lower level, but as a tradeoff for a greenery-lined patio facing a central courtyard. The place has its own laundry, and has a suite of standard newer-building amenities: the courtyard, a dog run and dog wash station, a bike repair station, a shared office, and a gym. Parking’s available for extra, but it’s in a major transit corridor and walking distance to downtown and SLU. Rent is $2,395 a month.
More off the beaten path, this half of a duplex on the northeast side of Magnolia—just across the canal from Ballard—has two bedrooms for $2,350 a month. That includes shared outdoor areas with the other unit, both a front yard with space for gardening and a fenced, tree-lined backyard. Corner windows and accent walls add to the homey vibe. A garage can store a car, bike, or just some stuff, and although Magnolia’s not the most transit-rich neighborhood, it’s on the 31 and 33. No word on pets.
It’s a victory in a vocal campaign to save the venue—but nothing’s set in stone yet
It’s been almost exactly a year since the future of the Showbox was called into question after developer Onni Group filed for permits to build apartments on the site—and demolish the venue. The plans caused a vocal outcry from historic preservationists, local musicians, and fans.
Wednesday, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted unanimously to designate the building a landmark.
Specifically, the board found it met two of the criteria for landmark status: its association with cultural heritage of the area and its embodiment of “distinctive visible characteristics of an architectural style, period, or a method of construction.”
Landmark status doesn’t always mean a building is “saved,” per se, in part because it typically carves out specific parts of a building as historic. It’s one reason preservation groups Historic Seattle, Vanishing Seattle, and Friends of Historic Belltown rushed to get a comprehensive nomination in first—to make sure the building was preserved, and not just accents or signage.
The effort paid off: The board voted to preserve the entire exterior and the most popular parts of the interior. The main performance space and a small retail space at the front, formerly Kern’s Music Shop and currently a bar.
The most specific the board got, according to the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, is “the exterior of the building, and the following interior features: the entire interior of second floor and the First Avenue main entry lobby (including the adjacent bar area) that ascends to the second floor.”
Historic Seattle spokesperson Naomi West points out that the second floor includes the wood floors, columns, seating area, backstage area, and the stage itself. West says that includes the fly loft—the area between the roof and performance area. In the Showbox’s case, it’s known as the “secret graffiti room,” and includes relics like a Cheap Trick setlist, a portrait of early grunge band Malfunkshun (Temple of the Dog was formed in memorial for frontperson Andrew Wood), and others. Contributions date back to the 1970s, surviving the venue’s brief transition into a comedy club between 1990 and 1995.
Burger anarchy, a Cheap Trick setlist, a portrait of early/proto grunge band Manfunkshun, and other goodies in the Showbox’s “secret graffiti room” pic.twitter.com/nwttHTwQ6J
The vote comes a few weeks after another—albeit never intended to be permanent—preservation effort fell through. The Seattle City Council had voted to temporarily loop the Showbox into the Pike Place Market historic district, keeping it around until a longer-term plan could be figured out. The Showbox’s ownership group sued, and a judge deemed the zoning change illegal.
The cultural heritage piece of the nomination seems clear: Much of the fanfare around saving the Showbox has had a strong current of nostalgia around its time as a music venue. Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses, Ben Haggerty (aka Macklemore) and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam all prepared statements for the board. Eddie Vedder wore a “Save the Showbox” tee at the Seattle “Home Shows” concerts last year. Even Katy Perry signed onto a petition to preserve the venue.
But the ownership group of the building has been quick to point out that the building wasn’t always a music venue—it’s also been a warehouse, a furniture store, a bingo hall, and other things. It was first built as a showbiz destination, though, with a dance floor, a film screen, and even a Wurlitzer.
Still, the decision was somewhat of a blow to the ownership group, which had been informed in 2007 that the building wasn’t eligible for landmarking—and had been planning on the new development there.
“We respect the work of the Landmark Preservation Board to designate the property as a landmark, but disagree with both the reasoning and the decision itself,” says Aaron Pickus, spokesperson for the ownership group.
“1426 First Avenue has enjoyed a wide spectrum of uses and a broad application of design changes throughout its existence,” says Pickus. (The group has been avoiding saying “The Showbox,” preferring to reference the venue’s address.)
“We will further evaluate their designation as we consider next steps,” adds Pickus.
Building ownership is actually a key part of the next step of the landmark process: After the designation vote, board staff negotiates an agreement on what changes can be made with the property owner. That agreement then circles back to the board for a public vote.
After that, an ordinance for the designation heads to the Seattle City Council for a vote.
The least complicated preservation outcome, though—as both the ownership group an Historic Seattle have said—is for someone who wants the Showbox to live on to just buy the property, especially since a landmark designation doesn’t guarantee it will still be a music venue.
“The owner has and will always consider any serious purchaser that offers fair market-value for the property,” said Pickus when the landmark nomination first went through.
Historic Seattle’s director of preservation services Eugenia Woo says that landmarking is a “critical step that helps to save the building,” but that the organization is still looking into its options.
“Historic Seattle is continuing our due diligence to purchase the property through a fundraising campaign,” says Woo. “We have decades of experience in operating, rehabilitating, and maintaining historic properties, including unreinforced masonry buildings, that make us confident we can keep The Showbox safely in use for the public benefit for generations to come.”
Renovations over the past few years have helped the landmark go super green
The Smith Tower, one of Seattle’s most iconic landmarks, just got a thoroughly modern green-building certification—even though it’s 105 years old.
LEED certification (that’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a widely-used green building standard awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) that grades projects on emissions, energy efficiency, and other environmentally-friendly standards. Additional merits can add up to higher grades of silver, gold, or platinum certification by adhering to stricter standards.
While it’s not unheard of for older buildings to do a remodel and go for it—midcentury Fire Station 9 was recently awarded LEED Gold, the 1930-built Exchange Building was awarded LEED Platinum in 2016—it’s something typically new-construction buildings strive for, like the brand-new Hyatt Regency downtown or Sitka Apartments in South Lake Union.
The Smith Tower was built between 1911 and 1914, but achieved a higher LEED status than most, new construction or no: platinum, or basically an A+. Out of the Seattle projects catalogued in USGBC’s directory, around 12.5 percent were platinum-certified.
Unico Properties has managed the building since 2015, and still has a stake in the building after it sold as part of a portfolio deal with Goldman Sachs. The company still operates and manages the building, and has been doing a series of remodels to the building, including switching its manual elevators to automatic.
A landmarked building this old presented a unique set of challenges, says Unico VP of Sustainable and Responsible Investments Brett Phillips. Modern technology can be installed, but only very carefully.
“The primary issue is that as a historic building, the look and feel of the era must be maintained, so fixtures must fit in aesthetically, and HVAC work needs to be hidden or camouflaged,” says Phillips. “There’s an extra level of care required.”
In addition to preserving character, there are just some old building quirks (if you’ve ever flushed a toilet in an extremely old building, you have a sense of what challenges were presented here). Its age also means a bunch of work has been done on the building in the last century.
Plumbing constraints come with the territory, but so do years of remodels.
Courtesy of Unico Properties
Building upgrades include LED lighting in the common areas.
It takes much more effort—forensic analysis—in an old building to untangle layers of fixes and changes, identify what is working well and what is not working as well as it once did, and to determine the best optimization methods,” explains Phillips.
Changes implemented in the last couple of years include composting all paper towels in the restrooms, a new energy monitoring system that helped guide operators into a 15 percent reduction in energy use, and a waste-management program with ambitious recycling goals. Basic capital projects helped, too, like HVAC upgrades, a switch to LED lighting, and new boilers.
When it was originally built, the 38-story Smith Tower was the tallest building west of the Mississippi. It was replaced as the tallest building in the city by the Space Needle in 1962. (That honor currently goes to Columbia Center, more than double Smith Tower’s height at 76 stories.)
These towers were placed for big views—and now, they beckon adventure
From Forest Service employees and Jack Kerouac to Instagram influencers and day hikers, Washington State’s fire lookouts have been a destination for the masses for decades. Originally used for exactly what their name states, today’s fire lookouts are dwindling in numbers. There are currently just 93 fire lookouts still standing in the state, down from the 750 that once topped mountain summits around the region.
While the need and usefulness for fire lookouts has mostly been replaced with technology, the allure of the structures perched atop the peaks only grows with time. Today, they beckon adventurers up to the summits, where they can enjoy sweeping views of the Pacific Northwest. After all, fire lookouts were placed for surveying as much of the area as possible.
While you can hike and climb to all the remaining fire lookouts, there are a handful of great ones in the Cascade Mountains to get started on your adventure. Whether you’re headed to Stevens Pass, Snoqualmie Pass, or Mount Rainier, these fire lookouts are sure to leave you in awe at the mountainous beauty of the Evergreen State. Keep in mind that some are falling down and many have been vandalized in recent years, so practice Leave No Trace ethics and obey posted signs so all can enjoy for years to come.
A 47-mile drive from Seattle will put you on the trailhead to the Granite Mountain Lookout above I-90. While the drive itself is short, be ready for a steep climb to reach this fire lookout. At 8.6 miles round trip, the trail gains 3,800 feet, reaching a maximum elevation of 5,629 feet above sea level. This hike is tough, and you’ll need plenty of food and water, but those who do make the summit will be rewarded with amazing views of the Cascades. Mount Rainier looms in the distance, while shimmering blue lakes surrounded by endless green trees can be seen below you.
It’ll take you two hours to get to the trailhead of Thorp Mountain from Seattle, but those who do make their way across Snoqualmie Pass to Cle Elum will find themselves in a wilderness paradise. At nine miles round trip, gaining just 1,000 feet of elevation, this rolling trail gives you seemingly endless mountain views. The reward at the top is a classic fire lookout with impressive views of Lake Kachess and Mount Rainier. This is also a great hike for early season wildflowers, as it’s on the drier side of the mountains.
Red Top Mountain
Also on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains, Red Top Mountain and Lookout is a classic trip, easy enough for families with kids. At just a mile and a half round trip and gaining only 350 feet in elevation, the views from the lookout at 5,360 feet above sea level are stunning. During the summer months, the newly restored lookout is usually open during daytime hours, giving you a chance to see the inside of a working fire lookout. This is an easy trek and a perfect option for an adventure if you’re already in the area.
Near Stevens Pass
Getty Images/Mint Images RF
Two hours north of Seattle by car, the classic 2921 fire lookout on Mount Pilchuck is one that should not be missed. Found near Granite Falls a short drive from Highway 2, this short, 5.4-mile round trip hike is a little steep, gaining more than 2,000 feet. The combo of gain and distance makes it a good trip for intermediate hikers. There are some sections of scree and loose rock, so come prepared. Those who do make their way up will find an incredible view of the Puget Sound and North Cascades.
Located off Highway 2 north of the small town of Skykomish, the Evergreen Mountain Lookout is a remote destination that shows off forests and peaks of the region. At just 2.8 miles round trip, the drive here may take you longer than the hike itself, but if you pair this with a trip to Leavenworth, it’ll be totally worth it. On this hike, you gain 1,400 feet of elevation, making it quite steep for the short distance—a pretty advanced hike. The views at the lookout are impressive enough, but the true draw to this hike is the remoteness and solitude you’ll find.
Above Lake Wenatchee, the Alpine Lookout is a great option for those already in the region. A few hours from Seattle, this 10-mile-round-trip trail climbs 2,600 feet before showing you a truly magnificent view from the top. The hike is a good, moderate adventure, climbing through old-growth forests and up the hillside to the last remaining lookout above Stevens Pass. With views of Mount Rainier, Mount Stuart, and Glacier Peak, you may never want to leave.
Near Mount Rainier
As one of the strangest named hikes in Washington State, Gobblers Knob is a fun lookout to reach in Mount Rainier National Park. Eleven miles round trip, the trail here is for moderate hikers who are comfortable gaining 2,500 feet in elevation over that distance. The reason to come here, like many a lookout, is definitely the views. You’ll bask in the glory of the region’s mountains: Mount Adams, Mount Hood, and Mt. St. Helens rise up in the east, while the Olympic Mountains are visible off to the west. The star of the show is ahead of you, with mindblowing views of Mount Rainier and Tahoma Glacier.
High Rock Lookout
High Rock Lookout, built as a fire lookout in 1925, is one of the most spectacular places to stand and gaze at the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. With views almost as dizzying as the 600-foot vertical drop at your feet while you stand facing Mount Rainier, High Rock Lookout is a true bucket-list hike. The easy-to-follow trail climbs 1,365 feet in 1.6 miles, making it a bit of work for those not used to the climbs of the Cascades. While some consider it steep, this local favorite trail is frequented by visitors of all ages and hiking skills. After you reach the top and see the view, you’ll understand why.
The drive to Tolmie Peak is just 72 miles from Seattle, but expect it to take a few hours. As you approach Mowich Lake, the paved road fades away, leaving you with a bumpy, gravel road to the trailhead. The effort is worth it though. This hike is a classic Pacific Northwest trek, letting you explore a small section of the Wonderland Trail. To reach the lookout, you’ll hike 7.5 miles round trip and gain 1,100 feet in elevation, but the hike goes by quickly. You’ll pass forests, lakes, wildlife, and wildflowers as you work your way up. Once atop Tolmie Peak, the views of Eunice Lake and Mount Rainier are staggering.
A few hours drive from Seattle in Mount Rainier National Park, the Shriner Peak Lookout is a great place to get away from it all. While the trailhead is found directly off of the paved road past Crystal Mountain, few hikers take this trail. Their loss is your gain, as the 8.5-mile-round-trip trail gives off views in all directions. While it does climb up more than 3,000 feet in elevation, those who make the slog up the slope will have wildflowers in the summer and fall colors in September and early October, with unrivaled mountain views on clear days.
Starting at Mount Rainier’s Sunrise region, the Mount Fremont Lookout Trail is a yet another classic hike that shows off the grandeur of the Pacific Northwest. From the top of this 1930s lookout, you’ll be able to see the Olympic Mountains, the tall peaks of the Cascades, and the wilderness around Grand Park. To get here, you’ll have to hike 5.6 miles round trip and gain just 900 feet of elevation. Not bad for being less than two hours from Seattle.
The fictional place was built in the Pacific Northwest’s woodsy towns
Twin Peaks has a special place in the hearts of Washingtonians as one of the most beloved TV shows ever filmed here—first in 1990 and then again more than 25 years later with Twin Peaks: The Return in 2017.
Like with most series that take place here, some locations were actually in California. But both the 1990 series and the 2017 revival were partially filmed in Washington, including the town’s most iconic locations, like the Double R Diner and the Great Northern Hotel.
Those who haven’t spent a lot of time in the woodsy areas of the Eastside—beyond Bellevue, toward the edge of the Cascades—will find that it’s both beautiful and a little eerie, especially when we get some of that classic foggy, dark weather that defines are area.
First, we head to the Cedar Park area, where a 550-square-foot one-bedroom apartment with a fireplace is renting for $1,450 a month. It’s been modeled recently—evidenced by an abundance of subway tile—and has its own outside entrance. Tenants share a garden space, and laundry and all pay a share of internet service. It comes with two parking spaces, or catch several buses on 522 nearby.
Although it’s not the biggest at 323 square feet, this new-construction studio has a clever layout with a functional room divider, and it still fits in a full (but small) kitchen and a full bath. It’s on the top floor, with large windows for light and views of Ballard. It has its own washer and dryer, and allows pets, too. Tenants share a pet grooming station, a gym, office space, and a roof deck. It’s right on the Rapidride D, and has both car and bike parking.
Right by the light rail station, this one-bedroom apartment is packed with vintage features, including wood trim, hardwood floors, and archways—even the building’s elevator. 530 square feet includes a full bathroom and an eat-in kitchen, too. Cats are allowed (no dogs) and tenants share laundry and a bike parking area with a pump and room for electric bikes. Rent is $1,495 a month.
In the Highland Park area, this basement mother-in-law apartment (an ADU!) with a quirky two-bedroom layout rents for $1,500 a month on the dot. 840 square feet fits in a utility room with laundry and storage in addition to the two bedrooms, plus a full bath and galley kitchen. Tenants have access to the grassy backyard and a patio with a grill. No word on pets. There’s a garage with storage, although the listing notes street parking (there’s actually a good amount available in this area). The area’s served by the 131 line, too.
For a real iconic Pioneer Square experience, this one-bedroom loft apartment in a historic former warehouse rents for $1,500 exactly—complete with the exposed brick and high ceilings that define this style. It has its own laundry and garage parking, too (although it’s on plenty of transit and walkable to downtown), and allows pets, but with extra pet rent. A bathroom and a half includes an en-suite with the bedroom. A large top-floor deck has views of the Puget Sound.
After half a decade of planning, changes to laws governing backyard cottages are on the way—with more experimentation ahead on making them feasible
Earlier this month, the Seattle City Council approved legislation that could make it easier to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs)—like backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments—along with language that would rein in McMansions in single-family zones. Tuesday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan signed the legislation, and tacked on an executive order directing city agencies to make building ADUs less costly and onerous.
The legislation itself gives more maximum square footage to ADUs to be larger (1,000 square feet), allows two on one lot instead of one, and axes a requirement for off-street parking, a sometimes complicated and expensive hurdle for homeowners to jump. It removes a requirement for owners to live on the lot where an ADU is constructed in order to rent it out.
The measure has more far-reaching implications, too: It sets the floor-area ratio (FAR) limit in single-family zones, which limits how much square footage a house can have in relation to its lot, to .5. For example, a single-story house could only have a footprint of half the lot, or a quarter for a two-story house with equal square footage.
Despite more flexibility with how ADUs are built, it can still be extremely costly and time-consuming to get one built. ADUs are still subject to city permitting, which adds to the price tag even before construction and utility costs come in.
Durkan signed the legislation itself, but added an executive order telling various city agencies that handle construction, building code, housing, and neighborhoods—the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI), the Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD), the Department of Neighborhoods (DON), and the Office of Housing (OH)—to reduce economic and bureaucratic barriers for homeowners trying to build an ADU.
Among other things, the order directs city staffers to:
Pre-approve some ADU plans to streamline the permitting process and implement shorter timelines for homeowners using those plans,
Appoint a new city position dedicated to helping homeowners navigate the process,
Build online tools for homeowners to get more clarity and explore feasibility,
Convene an “ADU working group” with advocates and building professionals (like arborists and builders) to run programming for homeowners and make recommendations,
Use an existing Home Repair Program to run a small-scale pilot to provide low-interest financing for ADU construction—especially ADUs that will become affordable housing, and
Monitor ADU development trends and statistics, reiterating a part of the City Council ordinance that requires regular reports and adding participation in city programs to the mix.
Now that it has the mayor’s signature, the new ADU rules will go into place August 8, 2019.
Here’s what to be aware of before you sign your lease
Slightly less than half of Seattle’s residents rent their homes, whether they live in luxury penthouses, two-story houses, or 200-square-foot micro units. But no matter who you are or what type of space you’re renting, all tenants are entitled to live somewhere safe, secure, and clean.
There are plenty of laws in place to ensure your rental meets these standards, and all of them can be found in the Seattle Municipal Code and Washington’s state law. Seattle also recently launched Renting in Seattle, an extremely comprehensive online database detailing some of the key rules and best practices when it comes to renting in the city. If you need extra assistance, try the city’s helpline: 206-684-5700.
We’ve saved you from having to go through all of the laws and codes, and put some of the most important—and yet often overlooked—rules below.
1. You can—and should—stand up for your rights.
Tim Thomas, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington who researches neighborhood change and housing inequality, says there is not a lot of oversight when it comes to making sure your landlord is doing everything properly. “If you don’t raise it yourself, the issue won’t be solved because a lot of the stuff falls through the cracks,” he says.
Depending on the severity of the situation that could mean simply calling and sending a written note to your landlord explaining the problem (you should always do both). It could also mean getting a lawyer involved (the Housing Justice Project or the Northwest Justice Project are both good options if you need assistance paying for legal services). But it’s up to you to recognize that there’s an issue and kickstart the process of getting it fixed.
2. If a rule isn’t in your lease, it’s unenforceable.
It’s against the law for landlords to enforce rules that are not included in your lease, and they can only make changes to the lease if you agree to them. Take a close look at your lease and any proposed changes before signing anything at any point in your tenancy. Mark Chattin, an adjunct professor at Seattle University School of Law, recommends making sure everything looks standard. “Weird stuff that gets in there, that always gives me a little bit of a concern,” he says. For example, if your lease says anything about you waving your rights to any of Seattle’s renter protection ordinances, like Just Cause Eviction, that should be a red flag (see below for more on Just Cause Eviction).
3. Seattle tenants can’t be evicted without proper cause.
Renters with a month-to-month lease or verbal lease agreement are protected by the Just Cause Eviction Ordinance, which requires that a landlord or property manager provide a city-approved reason for ending a lease. Some examples include: failing to pay rent or refusing to comply with the lease agreements. For example, if you agreed to adhere to certain quiet hours every night, but you still regularly blast your music at 2 a.m. (There are eighteen total approved reasons a landlord could end a lease.) Dulcie O’Sullivan, head of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections’ Renting in Seattle program, writes in an email that he considers this the most overlooked tenant’s right in Seattle. “It is the gold standard of tenant protections and the one ordinance that prevents arbitrary evictions,” he says.
That’s twice as much time as was previously required. The change was made by lawmakers during the 2019 state legislative session and will surely have an important impact on residents, given how common rental increases have become.
5. Your landlord needs to give you at least 14 days’ notice to evict you for nonpayment.
Lawmakers also recently approved legislation that more than quadruples the amount of notice landlords must give tenants before they can start the official eviction process for renters who have overdue rent.
If your landlord wants to kick you out because of overdue rent, they must give you at least 14 days to either pay or vacate, and also provide you with detailed information about how much you owe and why. They also must provide you with information on accessing low-cost legal help through the Attorney General’s office.
6. If you’re forced to move—but can’t afford it—help is out there.
If you’re a low-income resident in Seattle, you may be able to get some funds to help offset relocation costs if you’re being forced to move for reasons beyond your control.
Those living somewhere that’s set to be “demolished, substantially rehabilitated, changed in use, or [no longer part of the assisted housing program]” could be eligible to receive $2,000 from the city, according to the Seattle Municipal Code. There are a lot of restrictions tied to this assistance, but if you think you might be eligible, it would be worth taking a look at the code.
7. There are plenty of rules in place to make sure your landlord keeps up with repairs.
It’s important to keep in mind that it’s up to you to promptly request the repair. But once you do, there are firm deadlines in Seattle for how long your landlord can take to fix the problem. If, for example, the malfunction has resulted in you not having water, electricity or, during the winter, heat, then the landlord has to make the fix within 24 hours. But if it’s a matter of a malfunctioning stove or bathroom plumbing issue, they can take up to 72 hours. Your landlord also can’t raise your rent until they fix any serious housing code violations in your building, such as rodent or roach infestations.
8. Unless there’s an emergency, a landlord can’t enter your unit without both getting your permission and giving you notice.
The amount of notice they’re required to give you will depend on why they want to enter the unit. If you’re planning to move out and the landlord wants to show the space, they only have to give you 24 hours’ notice. But if it’s a matter of repairs or inspections, they have to give you 48 hours.
9. Landlords have a strict timeline for giving deposits back.
When it’s time to move out, your landlord only has 21 days to return your deposit. If they’re not going to return your full deposit because of, say, damages to the apartment, they must also provide an explanation about why they’ve withheld certain funds.
10. Your landlord can’t retaliate against you for bringing up your rights.
If you assert your rights as a renter by requesting a repair or complaining about your landlord entering your unit without your permission, your landlord can’t retaliate by doing something like raising your rent. If they do, Seattle has a variety of resources that help protect tenants against this type of treatment. The city recommends contacting the Seattle Office for Civil Rights if you have questions or are interested in filing a complaint.
All you need to know to make the right choice for your budget and lifestyle
Today there is nearly an even split between Seattleites who rent and Seattleites who buy. It’s a personal decision, one driven by factors such as your career stability, family plans, and, of course, your savings. To help you figure out what to do, we’ve put together this guide, which details both the positive and negative sides to either route.
The best place to start if you’re considering buying is with some questions about your financial stability, according to Matthew Gardner, chief economist for Windermere Real Estate in Seattle. First, he suggests asking yourself: Are you comfortable in your job? (i.e.: Do you feel like it’s a stable position that you can potentially count on for years to come?)
Second, ask yourself: Do you feel comfortable with the debt and mortgage payments you would need to take on if you made this purchase?
Both the New York Times and Zillow have valuable online tools that you can tailor to your personal financial situation to help you better understand the specific factors at play for determining if renting or buying is a better decision for you, but here’s a broad idea of what both cost.
Seattle has some of the highest housing costs in the country for both renters and buyers. The median rent price for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,945, while the median home value for a three-bedroom home is $751,000, according to Zillow.
If you’re going to rent, you’ll need to pay a lot less up front. You’ll likely be asked to pay a security deposit and some non-refundable fees, such as a cleaning fee. In Seattle, these cannot cost more than one month’s rent, and all tenants have the option of setting up a 6-month payment plan with their landlord in order to cover these costs.
There are a lot of new apartments being built right now in Seattle, which means prospective renters are seeing more options for housing popping up. That also means that while rental prices are still fairly steep, some landlords have started offering perks, such as a free month of rent or free electronics, in the hopes of enticing tenants.
If you’re going to buy, the standard down payment in Seattle is 13.6 percent, according to Gardner. So, the down payment for an average-priced home would be around $100,000. However, you might be able to save on property taxes—they’re going down by 1.2 percent. The Seattle Times reports that if you have a median value house, your property taxes last year were $5,709, and this year they will be $5,642.
Plus, overall, home prices appear to be on their way down. Over the past year, Seattle’s home values have declined by 4.5 percent, according to Zillow. The online real estate database predicts that over the next year prices will fall an additional 3.8 percent. So if you are looking to buy, now might be a good time.
Finally Gardner says to ask yourself: Are you comfortable with the idea of living in a house for the next seven years (A number he said he considers a sweet spot when it comes to buying a home)?
Buying a home means taking on repair and maintenance responsibilities that, in a rental property, would be handled by the management company. If your toilet clogs or your oven stops working, you’re the one who has to find and pay for a plumber or electrician. It also means handling noise complaints and other issues that may arise with your neighbors yourself.
In a city as pricey as Seattle, buying a home you can afford may also require living far away from where you work. Gardner explains that the closer you get to the area’s job centers, the more expensive prices become (this can be true for rentals too, but financial outlay is much greater when you’re buying a home). Depending on your budget, you may need to ultimately choose between avoiding the congestion by renting a place close to where you work, or buying a home but having to spend potentially hours commuting each day.
“For some people, that proximity is important and because of that they might end up choosing to rent just to stay closer to their office,” he says.
Deal-seekers are looking to neighborhoods and cities outside of the center of Seattle or even in surrounding cities where new Link Light Rail stations and routes will be installed over the next decade. For example, a light rail station is under construction in Northgate, a neighborhood in north Seattle. It’s set to open in 2021, and home prices in the area are still fairly reasonable. The median home value in the neighborhood is just under $400,000, according to Zillow.
“When you have light rail then you can be farther out because you know how long your commute is going to be,” said Gardner. “A lot of people are now being thoughtful about that, about moving out to somewhere that is in the path of mass transit areas.”
Tim Thomas, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington who researches neighborhood change and housing inequality, said there is a lot of hassle that comes with finding and buying a house. But once you do, you will be able to enjoy a lot more stability compared to renting.
“If you can afford buying, that definitely provides security, and you don’t have to be at the behest of a landlord,” he says. “It definitely solidifies your housing opportunities, which allows you to start improving circumstances, building community; it allows you to stay in one area, and that has a lot of social and economic benefits.”