Harbor Steps, the luxury apartments near Pike Place Market that helped fuel Seattle's downtown residential boom, is being sold by its original...

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Harbor Steps, the luxury apartments near Pike Place Market that helped fuel Seattle’s downtown residential boom, is being sold by its original developer, Harbor Properties.

Harbor said yesterday it has an agreement to sell the four-tower, 758-unit complex on First Avenue at University Street, which also includes restaurants, a small hotel and the steps themselves — a wide public promenade through the middle of the project.

The buyer is Equity Residential, a Chicago real-estate investment trust that is the nation’s biggest apartment landlord. With the purchase, Equity will own about 8,000 apartments in the Seattle area.

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The price was not disclosed, but Harbor Steps is assessed at $123.7 million. That would make the deal, expected to close this summer, one of the area’s biggest residential transactions this year.

“This was an offer that came to us unsolicited,” said Harbor Properties President Denny Onslow. “Sometimes you feel like the right time is upon you, and you need to capitalize on it.”

Harbor is gearing up to build more apartments, although focusing less on downtown and more on areas near downtown and on middle-of-the-market “work force” housing, Onslow said.

Harbor Steps was envisioned in the 1970s by developer Stimson Bullitt as a magnet for downtown living and a way to turn around a seedy stretch of First Avenue.

After complex negotiations, the city agreed to turn Post Alley into a pedestrian corridor.

In exchange, Harbor Steps maintains a public area through the middle of the project — a grand staircase with eight fountains that provides a view and a pathway from First Avenue to the water.

Construction began in the mid-1990s, and the final phase was finished in 2001, just as the dot-com bust hit Seattle and hurt demand for high-end housing.

Nevertheless, the complex won recognition by the Urban Land Institute, a development think tank, as one of the world’s best large-scale residential projects.

The neighborhood around Harbor Steps has been transformed since then, with construction of Benaroya Hall, the new Washington Mutual headquarters and Seattle Art Museum expansion across the street, and the planned Four Seasons Hotel on First.

Tom Boyer: 206-464-2923 or tboyer@seattletimes.com