Downtown construction projects reach new peak

Seattle’s historic building boom somehow keeps soaring to new heights, and probably won’t slow down anytime soon.

Last June, the Downtown Seattle Association found a record number of buildings were under construction, at least since it began counting in 2005.

But that mark didn’t last long. In its newest tally, released Thursday, the group found 68 major buildings under construction in the greater downtown area at the end of 2016, a new high point from at least the previous 11 years.

The construction nearly doubles the number of buildings underway at the end of 2015, and is up slightly from the 65 projects counted last spring. At the peak of the previous building cycle, before the recession hit, the downtown region had 51 major buildings under construction; during the downturn, there were just 12.

Development is expected to remain steady or perhaps even increase slightly this year, based on plans submitted to the city. And developers have a vision to keep up that pace through at least 2019, though many of those future projects exist mostly on paper and could still fall through if the current boom goes bust.

The semiannual report covers the full core of the city, spanning from Sodo to South Lake Union, and from Lower Queen Anne to Capitol Hill, with projects most tightly packed in South Lake Union. It doesn’t chronicle the full construction frenzy spanning the entire city — but Seattle as a whole has the most construction cranes of any city in America.

So what is everyone building here? Apartments, mostly.

About two-thirds of the buildings under construction are residential, and while a couple here and there are condos (which are homes for ownership), nearly all will be rental units.

Greater downtown can expect about 6,000 new units to open this year, 66 percent more than any year since at least 2005. Seattle is expecting nearly twice as many apartments to open this year than in any year in the city’s history.

The current total of 47 residential developments downtown easily tops the previous year-end high of 34 in 2014.

During the recession, there was one point when only four residential buildings were underway.

Most of the other big buildings are offices — and you can probably guess which company they’re mostly for. Of the 2.5 million square feet of new workspace added downtown last year, an amazing 69 percent was for Amazon. The behemoth is on pace to top 10 million square feet in Seattle by the end of the decade.

By the end of the year, downtown as a whole had 5.4 million square feet of office under construction, which was actually down a tick from the year before, although there is another 6.5 million square feet in the pipeline for the rest of the decade. Google and Facebook are expanding downtown while Weyerhaeuser just moved in last year.

Lastly, hotels are making a bit of a comeback downtown, with a couple big new projects underway and a total of 6,000 rooms planned after very little activity earlier in the decade.

The construction continues to be an ever-present flashpoint for Seattleites.

Plenty of people like it since the work creates more apartments (which, in theory, could help finally ease soaring rents) and more offices for the region’s growing workforce. But plenty of people hate that it represents a rapidly changing Seattle that is transforming into more of a big-city metropolis — not to mention the constant headaches trying to get around construction roadblocks.

A recent poll of millennials in Seattle found they were evenly split — with half saying the growth was a good thing, and half saying the construction should slow down.

Another point of animosity is the sense that developers are getting rich at the expense of neighborhood character. The downtown report found developers were putting up $4.4 billion worth of buildings at the end of 2016, also a record and up 27 percent from the pre-recession high.

The most expensive project to finish up last year was Amazon’s $250 million Day One tower in South Lake Union. The priciest one still under construction is The Mark, a $450 million office and hotel tower scheduled to open in a few months on Fifth Avenue.

The biggest development in the pipeline is the $1.6 billion expansion to the Washington State Convention Center, which could break ground as soon as this year.

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