One's first thought about the possible conversion of the historic Smith Tower to condos is likely to be, "Well, sure, I'd love to live there--if


The Condo Apocalypse?

How the Smith Tower conversion, Viaduct morass, and proposed "civic square" all fit together.

One's first thought about the possible conversion of the historic Smith Tower to condos is likely to be, "Well, sure, I'd love to live there--if I had a million bucks." Or two. The upper floors of the skinny 1914 landmark would feature panoramic, 360-degree views ("four exposures" in real-estate parlance). You'd have turn-key elevator rights to your own private landing at each 2,000-square-foot urban aerie. Meaning those precious upper floors would be priced around $1.4 million and up. Unquestionably, it would become one of downtown's premier residential addresses. Unquestionably, it would also exert further gentrification pressure on the region south of Yesler to the stadium district (where more condo development is planned). In other worlds: good-bye to those bodegas selling 40-ouncers and fortified wine, and hello to Whole Foods.

Next thought: though the venerable building is legally protected and could never be razed, conversion to condos isn't the worst thing in the world. And I'll bet that potential buyers, most of them boomers and empty-nesters cashing out of the suburbs, would see a Smith Tower home as a hedge strategy against commute-time inflation. Anyone who drives downtown for work (or culture, or sports) can see the Viaduct Armageddon approaching; our meaningless March 13 advisory ballot will only contribute to city-state transit planning inertia, Nickels versus Gregoire, ad infinitum. So those affluent enough to trade addresses from Mercer Island or the Sammamish Plateau or even Laurelhurst would be able to avoid paralyzing, permanent gridlock. Horrendous traffic jams would be something to enjoy, even laugh at, while looking out the windows of Smith Tower, martini glass in hand.

Which is not to imply that Mayor Nickels planned it this way. Downtown will gain more full-time residents (a goal since the '70s), who will be wealthy, pay hefty property taxes, and spend heavily at local bars, restaurants, and shops. Again--not so terrible. Developers will surely prosper, including Triad, which has proposed a 32-story condo-office tower (with open public space) west of new City Hall. (But, it’s worth noting, somebody makes money no matter which way the Viaduct goes: Contractors will benefit whether tunneling or building above ground; adjacent property owners stand to gain from the "no-build" option.) The Triad project will almost certainly entail a low-income housing component (whether on-site or elsewhere); the Smith Tower project, as a conversion, would likely avoid such requirements.

Still, a pattern emerges: Commuting is for the poor, for the powerless, for those dispossessed from Seattle and its politics. And for those who want to avoid our city’s ongoing clusterduct, start playing the lottery and perhaps you, too, will be able to live at 506 Second Avenue.

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