Share story

If you want to see what South Lake Union looked like before Vulcan, before Amazon, take a walk down Fairview Avenue North.

But you’d better do it soon.

Fairview, one of South Lake Union’s principal thoroughfares, has remained largely untouched so far by the area’s dramatic transformation. With a few exceptions, it still looks much as it did 30 years ago — a collection of older warehouse, light-industrial and low-rise office buildings, many of them now empty.

The five-block corridor contrasts sharply with the sprawling headquarters campus that Vulcan Real Estate has built for a block to the west, and the hundreds of new apartments in the Cascade neighborhood a block or two to the east.

But now Fairview, too, appears to be on the brink of big changes.

At least two large projects — a 13-story office tower and a 489-unit apartment complex — are expected to break ground in 2013. They could be just the start.

Altogether, developers have proposed projects along Fairview with a total of 1.5 million square feet of office space — as much as downtown’s 76-story Columbia Center.

They’re also working on plans for at least 270 more apartments. And three big properties, all candidates for redevelopment, are up for sale.

“It’s ripe for change,” said Lisa Picard, senior vice president with Skanska USA, developer of the 13-story office tower. “It definitely has an opportunity to become a real spine for the city, an active, vibrant street.”

Most of the office projects in the pipeline are taller than zoning now allows. Skanska and other developers are betting the City Council will approve Mayor Mike McGinn’s controversial South Lake Union rezone.

It would raise height limits, now 65 or 85 feet in most of the corridor, to 160 feet for offices and 240 feet for apartment towers. Some neighbors contend that’s too much, at least for some locations. A decision could come in the next few months.

But John Pehrson of the South Lake Union Community Coalition, one of the rezone’s fiercest critics, agrees Fairview won’t remain as it is for long. “There are definitely opportunities for growth here,” he says.

Some new projects

Fairview hasn’t been entirely ignored by developers. There’s a newer project at either end of the corridor — the 12-story Mirabella retirement community, where Pehrson lives, at Denny Way; and the five-story Fairview Research Center office/ lab building at Mercer Street.

But the newest building on the blocks between them, a vacant florists’ warehouse, is 35 years old. And most of the neighboring buildings are decades older.

Picard and Seattle Planning Director Marshall Foster say Fairview didn’t get much attention from developers until recently because Vulcan, South Lake Union’s largest landowner, was doing most of the building — and its properties were to the east and west.

“Essentially, those areas had to mature first,” Picard says.

The Fairview corridor’s extra-large blocks — up to 2.5 acres — also gave developers pause, they say, as did the protected historic buildings and environmental contamination on some properties.

Attention is focusing on Fairview now, in part because much of the rest of South Lake Union already has been redeveloped, says Kenny Dudunakis, a senior vice president with apartment brokerage Hendricks & Partners:

“They’re running out of space,” he says. “And everybody wants to be in South Lake Union.”

There’s something brewing now on almost every block fronting Fairview. Here’s a roundup:

• Skanska expects to break ground this year on its 320,000-square-foot 400 Fairview office project, on the east side of the avenue between Harrison and Republican streets. Construction could start without a signed tenant, Picard says.

The 13-story building’s ground floor would feature a 25,000-square-foot “market hall,” an indoor-outdoor retail space — inspired by Capitol Hill’s Melrose Market — that would be geared to smaller vendors.

Picard hopes it will become the neighborhood’s shopping hub.

• Two other developers, Touchstone and Walsh Construction, are seeking permits for office projects on the west side of Fairview with a total of four 11-, 12- and 13-story buildings.

Touchstone’s full-block development would be huge — 800,000 square feet — but groundbreaking may be a year or more away. First the developer must remove tons of contaminated soil, a legacy of the industrial Troy Laundry that operated there for nearly 60 years.

Another complication: The 1927 laundry and another building on the property are protected historic landmarks. Touchstone approached city historic-preservation officials last month about tearing down all but the brick facades to allow easier and safer excavation.

• Chicago-based Equity Residential has said it plans to start construction this year on a seven-story apartment complex on the block between Fairview, Minor Avenue North and John and Thomas streets.

The proposed rezone would allow a 240-foot apartment tower on the half-block fronting Fairview, but industry observers say a shorter, wood-frame building that would be less expensive to build probably still pencils out better than a high-rise.

• BioMed Realty Trust of San Diego, owner of the Fairview Research Center, won city approval a year ago for a seven-story, 105,000-square-foot office/lab addition at Republican Street.

The company didn’t return a call seeking an update on the project. But the two-story office building that now occupies the site is vacant — the tenant moved out last fall — and BioMed is seeking a demolition permit.

• The Seattle Times Co. put its two big blocks on Fairview’s west side up for sale early last year, and a deal may be in the works for at least part of one.

Dallas-based Mill Creek Residential Trust filed a preliminary site plan last month for a seven-story, 270-unit apartment project on the north half of the block where the Times’ mostly vacant former headquarters now stands.

The second Times block, on Denny Way, is now mostly parking lots but potentially is the corridor’s most valuable property. The rezone would permit office buildings up to 240 feet and apartment towers up to 400 feet tall there.

• The older buildings that line the west side of Fairview between Harrison and Republican, across from Skanska’s 400 Fairview, also were listed for sale nearly a year ago. Apartment development seems likely; the listing agents are leading apartment brokers.

• Finally, the city Transportation Department, which bought three-quarters of an acre at Fairview and Harrison in 2006 for the South Lake Union streetcar’s garage, says about half that property — the frontage along Fairview — is surplus to its needs, and probably will be marketed to developers in a couple of years.

That’s a lot of potential development, says Pehrson of the South Lake Union Community Coalition — in some cases, too much.

A 400-foot height limit on The Seattle Times’ parking-lot block is “over the top,” he says.

Touchstone’s office project is too big, too, he says: “It’s a massive building. … It looks like a wall.”

And if the height limits along the east side of Fairview are raised to permit projects like 400 Fairview, Pehrson says, the new buildings will tower over five- and six-story apartment buildings a few feet to the east: “That isn’t very good planning.”

But city planners say their proposals for Fairview are in keeping with surrounding zoning. And they say the rezone aims to let the street redevelop and lure new employers to the area while also protecting the corridor’s most distinctive features.

Those include a tiny, Seattle Times-owned park with big trees at John Street, and historic landmarks including the Troy laundry and 80-year-old former Times headquarters.

The rezone legislation would allow developers of those properties to build bigger office buildings if those features are preserved.

Until now, Foster says, Fairview “has been the boundary between two distinct parts of South Lake Union, between the [mostly residential] Cascade neighborhood and the hub of major employers like Amazon, Group Health and others west of Fairview.

“We want Fairview to be a great street, a zipper that connects these distinct areas.”

Eric Pryne: or 206-464-2231