Hung over in seattle

dsc09352Having just exited the bar car on the unusually deserted Coast Starlight, I’ve returned from a trip to Seattle, to work on the penthouse garden owned by my friend Bob.  It’s always enjoyable going up there; reading on the train, fussing over the now beautifully mature garden that I designed and planted  ten years ago this summer, talking politics with Bob, drinking even more than usual, and walking downtown to great meals at Bob’s favorite places.  The walks were at times surreal, baffling, and in some ways scary; something like the end of the fireworks, when what passes for a finale is merely blowing up everything left in the pile all at once, and people are usually expected to marvel.  Perhaps an “ooh” or so.

Of course, what Seattle is shooting into the sky, dozens of skyscrapers, last a tad longer than fireworks.  These chockablock behemoths, which in ten years have nearly obliterated  Bob’s view of the sound, Olympics, and soon, the Space Needle, will literally take a generation to be absorbed.  Nearly all are condos; what few commercial properties have been thrown in are mostly hotels, and what used to be a dreary nowhere north of the downtown retail area toward Lake Union, dominated by flyblown light industrial and flat parking lots, remains so, except now, there are 60-story, million dollar condos for sale on every other corner.  Takers, as one might imagine, seem few.  Literally, thousands of units in one neighborhood amongst the parking lots, each with a grander, pushier branding effort out of all proportion to what is being sold, and though many land use signs have expired, and at least two projects abandoned after excavation (these look especially cheery and inviting with graffiti on the retaining walls), the number still under construction is staggering.  While the collapse of the boom will provide some needed breathing space for a city whose Topsy-like growth has left it a cacophonous, disorienting mess,  the thousands of good, union paychecks these construction jobs are providing will soon be gone for a long time.

This happened to New York after the 80′s bubble…  construction cranes that dominated the skyline in 1988 were virtually nonexistent in 1990.  Fret though we may about job losses so far, the bubble, funny money, and good old American flim-flam is still allowing a hell of a lot of people to put food on their families, even while they build lookalike condos no one wants to buy in a neighborhood no one wants to live in.  Portland slid into this trap somewhat with the overambitious South Waterfront project, a lovely, city-financed aerial tram connects the now-contracting OHSU to a few half-empty towers separated from downtown by a formidable overhead freeway and a barge factory, and everyone seemed surprised that hardly anyone wanted to live there.  

One benefit to such enormous gluts of housing units is that they tend to drive down housing costs over time, but these “luxury condos,” as they’re universally called, will certainly not contribute much to housing affordability in most cities where they’ve proliferated, since obviously they were intended to do the opposite.  Upper middle class people will have more housing choices, and for the rich, well, there are bargains galore, but certainly in the case of South Waterfront, where those commies at City Hall demanded some “affordable” units, alas, they were part of the cancelled Phase II, or something.  That’s the way the cookie crumbles.

Most of these construction guys (and gals) probably can’t afford to live in Seattle, and drive in from Kent or Renton, but I bet they feel lucky to be working, and I bet they’re as worried as I am what will happen when the current job ends.  They’ve even got a slump in Dubai.

If one needed a clearer sign of a desperate need for large, long-term public investment in infrastructure to counter massive, looming unemployment in the construction industry, an evening walk in Seattle would provide it.


  1. Karen M says:

    They’ve even got a slump in Dubai.

    That pretty much sums it up.

    Tony, maybe you could come up with something pictorial for the housing “bubble.” What do you think?

    • cocktailhag says:

      I’ve been thinking about that. Of course, the bubble would be more of a porcupine meatball, with cranes sticking out. It seems as though there are going to be a lot of cranes lying about soon. Maybe they’ll finally retire those crappy old ones that are always collapsing.

      • Dirigo says:

        They’ll have to haul them out to the desert and chop them up like they did the B-52s at the end of the Cold War.

        A scrap-o-rama.

      • Karen M says:

        Coincidentally, I just came across a recipe for porcupine meatballs on Open Salon, and thought I’d try to make some. No bread crumbs! Hooray!

        • cocktailhag says:

          Those are tasty… it’s rice, not bread crumbs, in the traditional recipe. I like to make those comfort food things that remind me of childhood; coincidentally, they seem to usually be cheap and easy.

  2. cocktailhag says:

    They did a crane jump over the weekend… quite fascinating to behold, and the crane is in the picture. They put in two sections, about 2.5 stories worth each. Seems like a bit of a hurry.

  3. rmp says:

    Maybe you can use electric cars to buzz around the bubble

    As electric cars gain currency, Oregon charges ahead
    ‘Green’ state is working on plan for public charging stations; Nissan will debut its electric vehicles here.

  4. cocktailhag says:

    Well, since I currently use buses and trains, that would be kind of wasteful. Good article… especially with that miserable freeway bridge in the picture. The bubble created two condos that block my view of it, but the boxy condos in the background are right in my neighborhood. Portland does always get good press on the eco front… mostly deserved. Especially compared to Seattle.

  5. bystander says:

    These chockablock behemoths [...] will literally take a generation to be absorbed.

    This is so crazy. Most free marketeers are vehemently opposed to industrial policy, but boy could we use one for the next several years. Maybe even for a generation of so.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Did you see, Karen, that in Chicago, right on the lakefront, one “building,” which in someone’s pipe dream was supposed to reclaim the title of tallest, is just a hole in the ground; another, stopped at a 20 story shell. That’s a really nice thing for a city to have. I’m not sure whether one policy would do it, but certainly no demolition permits should be issued until all financing is in order. That’s the pesky thing about a boom; no one knows it’s over until, suddenly, it is.

      • Dirigo says:

        This a quasi-socialist idea I know, but for years, I’ve wondered why there isn’t a national land reclamation program in place where people who build things, especially commercial structures like strip malls (where, apparently Cheney has rented an office and is holding court, furtively no doubt), old lug nut factories, other varied manufacturing sites, gas stations, et al, aren’t required to contribute to a fund for reclaiming the land, through demolition, upon the abandonment of a parcel, if the building on it can’t be rented or sold for re-configuration after a period of time.

        It’s accurate to talk of old, closed commercial buildings that sit for years, with no tenants, as blight.

        Why hasn’t there ever been a program for businesses to pay something for what they leave behind ( like a use or property tax) so there’s a way, say, for states, cities, or towns to knock down dilapidated structures and clean up the land?

        Put in the “green” section of the stimulus plans. Could be a few jobs in that, maybe a whole bunch of new contractors, working with recyclers and junk dealers.

        Hey! Ya never know.

        • cocktailhag says:

          Well, I’ve long advocated something like this, owing to the fact that most local governments only require a 20-year “design life” for building materials. In Europe, it’s 50-100. I think raising building standards would be better, but Americans always seem to prefer quantity over quality, and will not pay for the stone, steel, and masonry products required. I do think that strong land use controls that direct development to area served by existing infrastructure also helps, and raises the stakes enough to push builders toward higher quality; there’s evidence of that here.
          Another possibility would be requirements regarding equity; builders being able to take the money and run, with their crappy product left in other hands, is also a problem. Flash in the pan, one building LLC’s, who exist only as long as the money’s coming in, then disappear when the building falls apart, should be eliminated.

          • Dirigo says:

            R. Buckminster Fuller once nailed the American construction industry, calling its practices: “craft and graft.”

      • rmp says:

        My next door neighbor who is a senior salesman for Kohler had the contract for that spiral building (hole) and he is losing a big commission because of it. He also sold Trump all the kitchen/bathroom stuff for the Trump tower here which did get finished. I read somewhere that there will be no new condos built for at least ten years.

  6. cocktailhag says:

    Somehow I’ve missed out on the “craft” part, and that’s certainly part of the problem. Lacking skilled labor, and unwilling to train people, who might then get uppity and demand good pay, the building industry has relentlessly adopted more and more factory-made products, supposedly “idiot-proof.” Basically all they do is slap together junk from factories on site, as quickly as possible. Even as we’ve outsourced more and more of our manufacturing of other things, our buildings are more factory-made than ever. But they have learned a few lessons; unions = bad; planned obsolescence = good. Quality = bad; marketing = good.

    • Dirigo says:

      Most of the craft is based on marketing claims. A hidden cost.

      “Your condo has a water view, and all, ALL, the amenities you could ever wish for.”

      • cocktailhag says:

        Dirigo, you would not believe the claims, the pictures, the over-the-top lifestyle being sold. Each one competing for attention, although it was like trying to tell the subtle differences between a roomful of refrigerators. That money got spent, anyway.

    • bystander says:

      Okay… I know mortgages. Been in the mortgage business. Know home loans, and the construction of homes. Not a whit about commercial construction. I’d really like a series of posts which elaborate on the issues you’ve highlighted in the comments here. Okay. Right. I’ll take a ham and swiss on rye with mustard please. Still. Whether you take requests or not, it’d be real interesting to read your thoughts on the building trades. Or, maybe you have some links which a stupid person could investigate.

      • cocktailhag says:

        Actually, Bystander, I’ve been thinking of just that… I’ve been working with the Development Office here for years, and know a lot of people there, so I know quite a bit off the top of my head. Plus, I also work with contractors and architects, and I’ve heard their stories. A model I was thinking of comes from an excellent book, “High Rise,” by Jerry Adler. He recounted the history of the fizzling NY boom based on one building and its travails. I highly recommend it. I was thinking about tackling South Waterfront…. I talked to a realtor friend who might have some more input, too. I’m glad you’re interested; as WT once said about me, “how do you get that hard hat on over your curlers?” I’m a builder, you know, and I watch my craft with my usual gimlet (npi) eye.

        • Dirigo says:

          hag, maybe you can enlighten bystander on the magic of change orders.

          • cocktailhag says:

            They’re only as magic as you make them… But that gets me started on my other theory; that all architects should work in the trades for whom they design. There would be less change orders and bonkers, costly flourishes no one cares about. It’s especially galling to me that “minimalist” architecture can be made to be so damned hard to build. I could do French second empire cheaper.

    • Karen M says:

      Even on This Old House. There’s still some craftsmanship there, but not in the way that you mean. A lot of it is about new materials and more sophisticated tools and engineering.

      But, I still watch it.

      • cocktailhag says:

        Mostly what I do is restoration, not unlike that show, but every job is different. My connection to new construction is only building additions on existing houses, respecting the original architecture. One bible of building to which I constantly refer is “A Pattern Language,” by Christopher Alexander. It examines buildings that work, and why, throughout history, and their relationship to the communities they inhabit. The book is very elegant, and bible-like in more ways than one. It’s also about $70 new… I’ve given away many copies, so I know. If you come across a used copy, get it.

      • Dirigo says:

        hag, you know as well as I do, architects are gods. Gods do not pick up hammers, or push wheelbarrows, lest they cease to appear omnipotent to the help.

        On the other hand, my best friend, a general contractor for forty years (we used to paint houses for his father), said to me many times: “I hate architects.”

        My pal and I learned well (often by trial and error) the business end of a wheelbarrow loaded with cement, as we headed, gamely, for a makeshift two-by-twelve ramp, up to a gaping hole of some kind.

  7. Karen M says:

    Slightly tangential, but speaking of things union…

    Check out this post (and the attendant discussion) on Open Salon. As the warning says, it is not safe for work. ;~)

    • cocktailhag says:

      I liked that video. I like the idea of some foul-mouthed, ballsy people on our side, for a change.

      • Karen M says:

        No more room on the design-build sub-thread, but if we could afford it (but we can’t right now), you could fly here and do some of the work that our house needs so desperately.

        Paul finally seems to be into a line of work that will give him a more regular and predictable income. So, we’ll see…

        • cocktailhag says:

          Send me some pictures; after 19 years, I’m pretty good with scanty evidence…

        • rmp says:

          That’s really good news especially in these economic times.

        • cocktailhag says:

          That’s fine, Karen, but my theory is that the best remodeling requires years of thought. Less mistakes that way, and you can try to mesh your hopes with your house and budget. Keep me posted. I design many things that never get built, too, and that’s not a bug, but a feature.
          Post anything saucy today I should know about?

  8. Sir N.W. Woods says:

    Mrs. T,

    Love what you’ve done with the place.
    I’ll have to bring my friends by for a look-see.

    These images offer an alternate vision of a 21st century Utopian city-scape…not for everyone, I don’t expect. Great photos, though.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Those pictures are great; I just worked on a house with a shipyard view, and liked it a lot.

    • Karen M says:

      They’re beautiful!

      Imagine making a sci-fi movie in those spaces.

      • cocktailhag says:

        I’ve grown increasingly fond of industrial-style structures and installations. They have the kind of “expressed utility” architects always invoke when they’re doing something nasty like leaving HVAC ducts and trusswork exposed in some place people are supposed to frequent without hard hats. A refinery that looks like a refinery is cool. A grocery store, not so much. What’s really interesting, perhaps enhanced by the right libations, is seeing this giant lighted mass that seemed to be a building start moving, because it’s actually a freighter. Much more arresting than a mere mountain or townscape. As shown in the pictures, industrial sites are the most exciting at night; in the daytime, picturesque still rules.