With a $10,000-a-month rent increase, even the well-off can get gentrified out of Seattle.
You may be wondering: How stratospheric can Seattle go?
How about the rent going up by $10,000 a month.
“It’s crazy, I took one look at the lease and I said: ‘We’re done, we can’t do this,’ ” says Steve Sarkowsky.
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This rent-horror story is for a business, so it’s on a different scale than typical residential rent. Still: How many small businesses could absorb a $10,000-a-month rent hike?
Not the Highway 99 Blues Club. It’s a juke joint in a windowless, leaky basement of a hundred-year-old brick building hard up against the Alaskan Way Viaduct. There’s beauty in being that close to what Sarkowsky calls “the beast” — if it meant some of the lower rents in town.
“Nobody wanted to be down here,” says Sarkowsky, a drummer and blues fanatic who launched the club in 2004. “When I found this place it had been sitting empty for three years. Before that it was a Godfather’s Pizza.”
It has also meant blues heaven. At a time when live music clubs are disappearing, this Chicago-style house features blues bands four or five nights a week, year-round. It was named the best blues bar in the state eight out of the last 10 years by the Washington Blues Society.
But last year the building at 1414 Alaskan Way sold — for $12.4 million. Then last month the club co-owners got a letter they thought must be a misprint. They knew their rent of $4,600 per month was likely to go up on the 7,000-square-foot space. The new rent was listed at $14,959 — an increase of 225 percent, or $10,359 more per month.
“That’s an eviction notice,” says Ed Maloney, the other owner.
“Nobody triples the rent,” Sarkowsky says. “Do they?”
The property manager of the building, Goodman Real Estate, did not return a call about the lease. But in the letter to the club, it says the higher rent was “due to predetermined loan requirements that have to be met,” and also that there would be no negotiation.
This is the biggest rent increase that I’ve heard of in Seattle. The only similar stories have been from those cities-we-aspire-to-become, New York and San Francisco. In New York it made the news when a storied Italian restaurant was forced to close after the landlord boosted the rent from $8,000 to $18,000 a month.
The co-owners of Highway 99 Blues Club said they figured their days along the viaduct might be numbered. If Bertha ever digs that tunnel, the plan is to replace the elevated freeway with a park, turning the rows of railroad-era loading warehouses and brick buildings on the east side of the viaduct into the hottest real estate in town.
“It’s like a gold rush along Alaskan Way,” Sarkowsky said. “It’s not going to be a basement-blues-club kind of place.”
Landlords are free to charge whatever they want. Sarkowsky, who is a landlord himself, made a point of that repeatedly — he’s not suggesting there should be caps on rent. But as the owner of a blues club that may be forced to move, he realized there’s an even bigger problem. Where could it go?
“Think about Seattle right now,” he said. “For the same reason we can’t be here anymore, we probably can’t be in Ballard, in Capitol Hill, in Belltown, even in Sodo. When you’re in the middle of this, and you’re staring at a triple rent bill, you start to wonder about the fabric of the city.”
The club’s old lease, at $4,600 a month, expires in December. So it will be open at least until then, Sarkowsky says.
Ironically, the plans for the completed waterfront often show the Highway 99 Blues Club sign in the background, “rising like a cockroach behind families frolicking barefoot in tall grass,” Sarkowsky jokes. The premise of those plans is that we can shiny everything up while also preserving what’s there. It’s a mirage.
Besides traffic, this is the talk of Seattle. What is this city becoming? Who will live here? Will you have to be rich? Will there be any arts, at least of the kind that spring up organically in old basements?
“I think people feel that there’s this force that’s way bigger than all of us and it’s rolling across Seattle and there’s nothing anybody can do about it,” Sarkowsky said.
Maybe you recognize that name. Steve’s dad, Herman, who died last fall, brought the Seahawks to Seattle and built countless homes as well as a 62-story skyscraper (the Key Tower, now Seattle Municipal Tower). So they are old-money Seattle. It’s not like this blues club is owned by powerless people.
It’s a sign of the stratospheric times in Seattle, if even the Sarkowskys are getting gentrified.