The Frye Hotel in downtown Seattle evokes a certain nostalgia. Two towering brick buildings are connected by an awning where one imagines a white-gloved doorman standing.
But outside, facilities manager John Syverson doesn’t hide the less charming problems with the building.
“You can smell the urine,” he said.
The Frye, now run by Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute, is part of the new City Council District 7, which includes downtown Seattle, Queen Anne and Magnolia. It’s a district of renters and mega-projects. Homeowners in the quieter corners of this district worry their voices will be drowned out by the construction noise.
A little north of the Frye on First Avenue, a group huddled expectantly around a city parking meter. A woman said, laughing, “THIS is why we never come to Seattle anymore.”
Finally, with assistance from some bystanders, the meter emits a receipt.
Winnie Wiatrak and her friend Courtney Botham were visiting from Bellevue. They like the shops in Pioneer Square but don’t come as often as they used to. Wiatrak said the new bicycle and bus-only lanes are confusing.
“Part of it is the cost of parking – $20 for two hours?” Wiatrak said.
“Eighteen dollars,” Botham clarified. But those two dollars don’t make much difference, according to business owners who say parking rates are hard on their customers.
This part of District 7 also is being transformed through tunnel and Seawall construction. Phil Bevis said he’s just moved his business – Arundel Books – upstairs into a new location facing Occidental Square. He used to be in a basement space in the same building.
Bevis blames sinking related to the Bertha tunnel project for “a series of incidents” last year. “A skylight failing, resulting in a significant water leak,” he said. “Some mold appearing in some books. Flooding in different parts of the building.”
Bevis said the damage and resulting move cost him “well into six figures.” On a table in his bookstore he inspects three large volumes published in the 18th and 19th centuries. He’d had them frozen to try and save them. But their pages are still sticking together from water damage.
“I think we’re going to wind up pitching these,” he said paging through them. “Yeah, that’s toast.”
The Washington State Transportation Department disputes Bevis’s claims and said that although ground settlement was documented in the area, his damage may be unrelated.
Farther up First Avenue, the buildings get taller and the rents get higher. Just north of Pike Place Market on Stewart, a luxury hotel and apartment building is taking shape on a former parking lot. The illuminated glass front will be visible from as far down as Pioneer Square.
Touchstone Corp. is the developer. Douglas Howe is the firm’s founder and former president. He also lives downtown. He said his response to the anxiety about growth in Seattle is, "Aren't we lucky?"
Seattle is “fortunate” to be one of “a handful of vital employment centers in the whole country. I mean, most cities in this country would die for what we have right now," he said.
Howe said technology companies are driving the demand for office space in Seattle, and this is the busiest his firm has ever been. They have 2 million square feet under construction and $2 billion worth of projects in the pipeline.
He said the recommendations by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability advisory committee strike him as “very positive.”
“I know this is controversial, but if we’re going to continue to be a viable, growing city we need to all take a little bit of growth and actually in that process we’ll create better neighborhoods that have more amenities. More density actually creates better urban places and spaces,” he said.
Howe’s firm has also built several major projects in Seattle’s most transformed neighborhood, South Lake Union. It’s a clean and cheerful several blocks, where local Mike Mackley is willing to act as a guide – if he can make himself heard over all the trucks and construction noise.
Mackley manages the pizza restaurant Serious Pie. In contrast with Pioneer Square, he said he’s never heard anyone complain about crime here. Traffic is the greater concern in this part of District 7. His own commute is a 20-minute walk from lower Queen Anne or a 45-minute drive at rush hour.
Even the traffic on the sidewalks is striking. Pedestrians travel in packs, wearing their work badges.
“You get overwhelmed,” Mackley said laughing. “If you don’t walk fast enough you just get consumed by these gigantic mobs.”
The pedestrians, food truck lines and traffic disappear by evening. Mackley said this is a very young neighborhood, and at night it can be strangely quiet. He’s had to reduce his restaurant’s hours as a result.
“Now we’re open till 11 on Fridays and Saturdays, but other than that we close at 10 o’clock because there’s just nobody down here, nobody to feed, nobody to entertain down here.”
No one knows how many of the new residents in this neighborhood will vote or how they’ll make their mark on civic life. Mackley said his uncle, Seattle restauranteur Tom Douglas, gave him a pep talk on civic participation.
“He challenged me several years ago, I was talking about voting and how I didn’t see the point and he just looked at me and was like, ‘You know what? You’re better than that and you need to start thinking about the bigger picture.'”
Mackley said that’s something he’s still working on, as he tries to build a sense of community in this fledgling neighborhood.
Queen Anne, by contrast, is one of Seattle’s older, established neighborhoods.
Vicki Katzman lives in upper Queen Anne. She’s a bit dismayed that her new district includes downtown instead of the more similar neighborhoods north of her. She said it might be hard for her neighbors to get their council member’s attention.
"I think I assumed it’s better to have districts that have common goals and interests, so I didn’t really think I was going to get lumped with a very urban part of the city,” she said. “If I had, I might have thought that probably isn’t the way to go.”
Katzman said she was alarmed recently to hear that her home on its 5,000-square-foot lot is considered an “outdated ideal” by the mayor’s housing advisory committee. Like many homeowners in her district and around the city, she’s wondering how personal all this talk about growth will really become.
Back at the Frye Hotel downtown, a man entered the alley while Syverson spoke with a reporter. The man proceeded to use the ally as a latrine, illustrating Syverson’s earlier point.
It’s the sort of nuisance that irks the residents of the Frye Hotel.
Resident Ruthie Ringler explained: “We got bedbugs, we got cockroaches, we got drunks, crazies, drug addicts who will go out in the front yard and do their thing.”
Crime in the area is not limited to urinating the alley. Someone was also stabbed there in the past week. Fellow tenant Joseph Spiegner echoed a common call for more police presence.
“If we had police presence out there that would not go on. Drug addicts – and I’m an ex-addict – would move to another location. As long as you do your job, you know. Raids – whatever it takes!”
But a soft-spoken artist who goes by the name Eido said his one-bedroom apartment here is still a refuge. He moved into the building last November, where rents top out at $300.
“My place is incredible,” he said. “I’m a happy camper, you know, considering I used to live in a dirt hole.”