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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Town Housed

posted by on June 4 at 13:58 PM

Seattle city council member Sally Clark has an opinion piece in today’s Seattle Times about town houses. Apparently many Seattle residents are dissatisfied with town house design in general, and with thousands of new town houses already constructed in particular. With a housing bust all but certain to grind new town house construction to a halt, now is probably a good time to launch a little Seattle process at the problem. So Clark is convening a panel of “developers, neighborhoods activists, architects and planners” to hammer out some new design guidelines. Now that, you know, the damage is mostly done.

In politics, as in comedy, timing is everything.

Hey, want to make the design of town houses a little bit better? Eliminate parking requirements and we’ll see fewer skinny little little townhouses awkwardly perched atop garages. I’d tell the panel myself but there are other brick walls that I need to go bash my forehead against.

Anyway, reading Clark’s opinion piece reminded of a very lovely—and very empty—town house on Capitol Hill.


This place is on Thomas, I think, between 13th and 14th. It’s behind a large brick apartment-gone-condo building that faces 14th, and it’s built over—and moodily looms over—the parking garages for, I believe, the lovely brick apartment buildings that face 13th. And there’s a really interesting, overgrown garden that runs out the back.


I’ve always found this brick town house to be really intriguing, really interesting—especially with the garden out the back and the lower floors below sidewalk level but still way up in the air. This place has been boarded up for years—does anyone know why? Most folks I’ve asked assume there was some sort of structural damage during the Nisqually Earthquake in 2001, but I seem to recall this place being boarded up long before that. Anyhow, it’s a mystery—well, to me at least. Someone out there knows what’s up with this place. Care to share?

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That was boarded up when I still lived on the hill until 2000. It's such a nice building, I was always curious about it as well,. It must need ton$ of work to make it inhabitable by now. Probably why it still sits.

Posted by Dougsf | June 4, 2008 2:07 PM

It has something to do with the nine hyphens you used in one post

Posted by Non | June 4, 2008 2:10 PM

I'm pretty sure I remember seeing squatters in there when I last lived on the Hill in the late 90s.

Posted by Fnarf | June 4, 2008 2:13 PM

I'm pretty sure that place has been boarded up since at least 1991. I used to walk up that stretch to work every day when I forst moved here and I don't recall it ever being inhabited (by anyone other than squatters, that is). I agree that it looks like a groovy place to live and would love to see it rehabbed. I don't know if that's remotely realistic, given the probable need for significant seismic retrofitting, but a girl can dream.

Posted by genevieve | June 4, 2008 2:17 PM

I've always thought that building was interesting as well. I especially like the old style garages with the wood doors.

Posted by Ashley | June 4, 2008 2:17 PM

Me too! I've always wondered about that place.

Posted by trent moorman | June 4, 2008 2:23 PM

Reminds me of the ones near Woodland Park Zoo on N 49th ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | June 4, 2008 2:24 PM

That place was already boarded up and looking grungy when I moved to Cap Hill in 1992--I've always wanted to know the story. I guess you could look it up on the King County Tax Parcel website to see who owns it, if you knew the exact address:

Posted by Shannon | June 4, 2008 2:24 PM

I always suspected it'd been designated a landmark and that was part of the issue, but I didn't see it on the Seattle landmarks Capital Hill page.

If you knew the actual address, you could find out a lot more on it. (I tracked down a similar abandoned property here and found out a ton online - date of last property tax paid, history of bids, etc.)

Posted by Dougsf | June 4, 2008 2:27 PM

It's interesting that it's been abandoned so long.
But how about those three similar looking town house developments all going up within two blocks of there? Nice, huh?

Posted by hairyson | June 4, 2008 2:27 PM

Sally Clarke is the worst of the worst. She votes with the oppressors, and even leads the way in destroying this city's beauty. She's worthless.

Posted by Vince | June 4, 2008 2:30 PM

from looking at the parcel map, it seems to be part of the property next to it. May be owned by the condo association next door

Posted by jonglix | June 4, 2008 2:30 PM

Something else: What is that, 14 garages for how many units? Four? It's like a NIMBY dream home. You could probably make you mortgage on parking alone if modern cars actually fit into those spots.

Somebody's using some of those spots - so it's either the best kept secret in the neighborhood, or someone still owns the building as is eeking out a little revenue on vacant the property.

I'd love to see it restored.

Posted by Dougsf | June 4, 2008 2:32 PM

Once again, though...the Stranger cuts off its nose to spite its face.

When are you folks going to realize that you can't just eliminate parking and have everything be okay? Roughly 90% of the reason that the Hill is a dying commercial neighborhood owes to the fact that it's impossible for people to park and patronize the few businesses that are left.

Want to support hipster-trendy local businesses? Enforce parking regulations on new development. The solution is to make the developers put in real parking...not to eliminate parking entirely.

Posted by A Non Imus | June 4, 2008 2:43 PM

It's on the same parcel as the three apartment buidlings on the SE corner of 13th Ave E and E Thomas St.

Parcel: 6003501765

(Note: the property report says there are only 3 buildings, but it's definitely NOT part of the condo complex on the SW corner of 14th Ave E and E Thomas St.)

The only items I can find on ESTER, LORRAINE M and ESTER, EDWARD R is that they've been involved in some real estate contract disuputes.

Posted by Hey wait | June 4, 2008 2:48 PM

I too have long been infatuated with this building... In fact, my friend and I made our way into the backyard many years ago with the intention of breaking in... Until some old bat in the apartments next door saw us and threatened to call the cops. I can tell you this, it looks like there is some pretty significant fire damage on the top floor of the rear west corner. I would imagine thats how it ended up in its current state. I did see some people doing some kind of work on the front a couple years ago so I thought maybe something would happen with it, but alas nothing. :(

From what I can tell from iMAP the building is either owned by the same people who own the apartment building on 14th, or the one on 13th. Hard to tell and it doesn't seem to be listed in the property information for either.

Posted by Queen_of_Sleaze | June 4, 2008 2:52 PM

It is a cool building and has been empty since at least 1990 when I moved up here (a friend of mine lived across the street).

Unrelated, I wish we had brownstones or whatever those houses in San Francisco are called (they are all over the Mission District and the Haight).

Posted by elswinger | June 4, 2008 2:55 PM

@15 you're right the building its owned with on 13th is an apartment not a condo. the driveway behind always seemed like a weird dead zone to me

Posted by jonglix | June 4, 2008 3:03 PM

14, no one said anything about eliminating parking. The idea is to eliminate parking requirements so that developers have more flexibility.

Capitol Hill has had tight parking for as long as I can remember, so I don't know how you can associate lack of parking with the current commercial decline. It's also worth remembering that eight years from now there will be a light-rail station in the neighborhood, and if Sound Transit expansion passes there will be a streetcar spur as well shortly thereafter. That transit will spur new retail development.

Posted by Cascadian | June 4, 2008 3:12 PM

Stop saying "eliminate parking".

Think "building more transit" instead.

Posted by Will in Seattle | June 4, 2008 3:18 PM

you're insane if you think the "instant ghetto" townhouse phenomena is grinding to a halt.

1. design review has to be extended to ALL non SF zones, regardless of the number of proposed units on a property.

2. the Land Use Code encourages Fee-Simple Townhomes at any cost - it must be revised to discourage this crap.

3. the architect who invented this formula must lead the charge in defeating it or be burned at the stake.

Posted by max solomon | June 4, 2008 3:18 PM

Hey Wait @15 beat me to it, and seems to be right that it's part of the SE corner lot at 13th & Thomas.  (My first effort was to judge from Google Maps' aerial photo and the nearly dead strait north-south property line through the entire block, but the west-opening garages the building sits on top of should have been a more obvious clue.)

There seems to be plenty of reader interest in the building.  Maybe we'll see a Dominic Holden investigative report on why it's been vacant for most of two decades?

Posted by lostboy | June 4, 2008 3:25 PM

Me and another guy broke in there one night and fucked. Just thought you would want to know

Posted by Cato the Younger Younger | June 4, 2008 3:33 PM

yeah right Cato

Posted by Non | June 4, 2008 3:41 PM

I dug through the parcel records, like others above have done. It does seem to be on the same parcel as those three apartment buildings facing 13th, but the parcel record contains nothing about it--it appears to be considered part of the parking garage for building purposes.

The public record has the owner's name and address:

so maybe drop him a note and ask? -cow

Posted by Cow | June 4, 2008 3:42 PM

That's all that remains of the house from the estate in "Steven King's Rose Red" miniseries from a ways's rumored to be haunted by spooks and some major plot holes.

Posted by michael strangeways | June 4, 2008 3:57 PM

So, I used to live in the condo building on 14th that it abutts (the Bering), and no, it is not owned by the Bering, nor by the apartment building on 13th. There was a fire some time ago, as a result of which it was no longer safe to live in. However, because of the various setback requirements, permitting changes, etc, there is pretty much nothing that can be done with that space, or at least nothing that would get approved by the city. It's a shame, because it really does have some potential to be cool.

Posted by Paulette | June 4, 2008 4:07 PM

Dorpat did a thing on this building in Pacific Northwest ages and ages ago, if I recall. Additionally, similarly long ago, I came across a fellow who was selling a really interesting office desk out in front of those three apartment buildings. The desk, he said, was his grandmother's and he was currently living in and 'managing' the three apartment buildings which were built and still owned by his grandmother (and grandfather, deceased, I think).

Having been long intrigued by the building out back, I asked, and yep, it was originally to be the house for his grandparents, who planned to manage the apartments and live in the building.

I asked if they would ever sell it and got a non-committal answer.

I can't recall how things changed such that the house was left vacant, but fire sounds plausible, as does familial indecision amongst heirs.

Finally, I should note that the fellow selling the desk had a vaguely sketchy air, so for all I know, he could have broken into the vacant house's storage space to find saleable items, but he was totally not stressed or showing any signs of the brazenness that would be required to try to fence your loot right in front of the place you swiped it from.

Finally, I also have a memory of climbing up to the garden one summer day, also long gone. It was overgrown as hell, but EXCELLENT. I surely hope the place finds its' way for another 80 years or so.

Posted by mike | June 4, 2008 4:33 PM

@19: if you eliminate parking requirements, the developers will stop building parking. Why do you think they want to do it? Happy Legal Fun Time?

Also, lemme see if I understand your logic: Capitol Hill has had bad parking for a long time, so therefore it can't be affecting businesses now? Yeah....that makes sense.

Someday, Seattle will have effective, efficient mass transit. Someday, the sun will go supernova. Both are true statements, but it doesn't make sense to make stupid decisions now, while waiting for either eventuality.

Posted by A Non Imus | June 4, 2008 5:32 PM

It sits on the same parcel as the apartments. Unless it's been "condo'ed" off, it's owned by the same folks that own the apartment.

Posted by Hey wait | June 4, 2008 5:36 PM

@ 27: Non-conforming structures are allowed to be repaired and (I presume) modified, so long as they do not become _more_ non-conforming.

In brief: stay within the existing building envelope and let your imagination run wild.

BTW it is DETACHED from the Bering building to its east by about a brick's width of air!

Posted by Andrew Taylor | June 4, 2008 6:03 PM

Non @2: I think I love you.

Posted by Conchis | June 4, 2008 6:16 PM

15 and 25..
it's owned by the ESTERS ?!!
they're a mother and son team. mostly absent landlords and they own a variety of fairly cool albeit run down properties on the hill that i know of.. one is a large aprtment building on madison across from madison market.. and the other is the capitol hill famous laurelton on 16th and denny across the street from the xtian science church.. the esters have been around like since the jurassic period and are quite possibly the hardest landlords to get ahold of. the aprtments haven't been renovated and many are in such need of repair that it's possible they might come close to violating a code or two..still they only raise rents when they rent to new tenants and turnover is very rare. the residents of the laurelton pretty much assume the large part of resposibility for living there and it's run more like a co-op than an apartment building. that is until john ester shows up to wag his ownership around a bit... i'm sure there are quite a few laurelton stories out there and i'll spare mine for now ( my boyfriend lived there for 3 years ).. but if the esters own the other building in question, then it's no wonder that the building has been untouched and undeveloped for so long.

Posted by reverend dr dj riz | June 4, 2008 7:11 PM

That's a fantastic and fascinating building. I've been enamored of it since moving into the co-op on the other side of the wall at the far end of the garages in 1995. Given that the townhouse is on a single parcel of land that includes the garages and three brick apartment buildings on 13th (just out of the photo to the right), I'm guessing that it'd be virtually impossible to subdivide and sell the townhouse, meaning that the owner of the whole parcel would have to repair and either live in or rent the townhouse. Still, a shame that it sits empty. Actually, the whole parcel has an air of genteel decripitude that's pretty appealing, especially these days. Someone in the apartments used to take care of the garden on top of the garages (accessed through the townhouses), and it was wonderful.

Posted by avatar | June 4, 2008 7:44 PM

Disclaimer: I don't know anything about the Esters or their properties. But I'd like to make the following public service announcement:

Renters everywhere... the only way the City knows about code violations is if you report them. (First write a letter to the landlord and keep a copy for your records, but DON'T write a crazy rant or get in their face, because you don't want your landlord being sure it was you that squealed. They'll try to pull some eviction/rent hike bullshit on you. [See recent Stranger story about illegal rental units. You'll have better luck in a larger building.])

Posted by Hey wait | June 4, 2008 10:02 PM

Thanks for this post and to all who commented. Good read.

Posted by elenchos | June 4, 2008 10:19 PM

#31: yes, it's not attached, but does abutt. My understanding was that the owner of the building found that she could do anything with the building that would be cost-effective (the amount of work to make it to code, etc, in the current footprint, was not going to pay out), and it wouldn't qualify for anything more than a single-family property, which, in order to make up for the work needed, would outstrip the opportunity for sales. The size and location of the lot would not allow it to qualify for more than a single family house.

If you ask the dude who bought the gorgeous old house next to the Bering on 14th like 3 years ago, he would probably tell you that it would he nothing more than a phyrric victory to do anything with that Thomas St property.

Posted by paulette | June 5, 2008 1:28 AM

Paulette, I bet!

Still, whoever bought that place should be celebrated as a hero. When it sold and it became clear that the new owners were gonna save the place, it made me very happy, and I bet I am not alone.

The economics of rehabbing to condos on the Hill are TERRIBLE. I lived in the Anhalt at 12th and John for fifteen years, and seriously looked at buying it when the owner's family decided to sell. They were asking $3m, and there are seven units in the building, from about 4000 sqft to 2 800 sqft units. The building needed significant upgrades and we estimated that the amount of work required would put rehab at $1.5m. So before we could even get to a profit the building would be in the hole to $4.5m; just riounding that to $4.7 for resale means you'd need to sell the 4000 foot unit for over a million bucks and distribute the remaining $3.xm over six units ranging in size from 2000ft to the aforementioned 800.

550k x 3 + 650k for the four biggest units takes us up to $2.2m for a total resale revenue of 3.5m, leaving us in the hole at least $1m, and the best that could be expected for the 800 sqft units would be $300k, outrageously high.

So we passed, and expected the building to get knocked down.

Still, over time the valuation of any Cap Hill parcel is really going to do well. Too bad I'll never be able to afford to own there. I miss it deeply.

Posted by mike | June 5, 2008 11:39 AM

I'm pleased to see some information on this property. I've walked by it for years and always wondered what the story was.

My fear is that someone will eventually buy it, tear it down and put up another hideous but typical Seattle-style complex complete with corrugated metal siding and ugly architecture.

Posted by Jack | June 5, 2008 11:40 AM

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