The College Club of Seattle, a social club founded a century ago, sold its sand-colored building on Fifth Avenue and Madison Street in the winter of 2008 to Schnitzer West, an ambitious local developer, for $10 million. Schnitzer laid out plans for a sleek 37-story office tower on the site. Added to a bundle of other office towers and lofty condos the company was building, Schnitzer was poised to hit a grand slam.
But the company now appears to be striking out. Schnitzer's construction crews are finishing hundreds of new condos and scads of office space just as the real-estate market is bottoming out.
"They either had the foresight to be the only game in town, or they had no foresight at all and they didn't know the economy was going to crash the way it did," says James Stroupe, a downtown residential real-estate agent. Indeed, many developers, foreseeing the economic crunch, postponed large projects, such as the 38-story AVA condos on Eighth Avenue and Pine Street (proposed by the Fana Group and the Executive Development Group) and the block-long Pine and Belmont building (proposed by Murray Franklyn). According to developers and market analysts contacted by The Stranger, Schnitzer has more real estate in development than any other company in the area.
"They are one of the largest developers on the market today—if not the largest—in terms of the number of units," says Matthew Gardner, principal of real-estate analysis firm Gardner Johnson. As the new inventory sits unsold and unleased, he says, Schnitzer must pay property taxes, interest on construction loans, and other costs. "The longer a project takes to sell, the more that leaches from profit margins," he says.
And Schnitzer's condos are barely selling. At Gallery in Belltown, which began presale in October 2006, deposits have been put down on fewer than half of the 233 condos, and King County tax records online show that buyers have closed on only 22 of those condos—less than 10 percent. Brix Condos on Capitol Hill, which has 141 units, also started preselling in fall 2006; so far, according to a sales representative, fewer than half have sold. And at the Equinox on Eastlake Avenue, a sales representative says people have signed contracts for fewer than 30 percent of the 204 condos in the building, which is still under construction. Meanwhile, Schnitzer's Bravern, which is under the crane in Bellevue, has contracts on fewer than one-third of its 450 condos.
But at least those condos have some tenants. In February, Schnitzer managing investor Dan Ivanoff told the Daily Journal of Commerce that the company has zero tenants for a 660,000-square-foot, 36-story office tower under construction at Eighth Avenue and Virginia Street. And a 14-story office tower that Schnitzer opened last year, also at the northern edge of downtown, is still 35 percent unrented.
Martin Selig, a veteran office developer who built the Columbia Center, says Schnitzer may have erred by building office towers on the "outskirts" of the central business district. "If somebody wants downtown, they want downtown," says Selig. "You can't misplace it."
But the College Club site is in the center of downtown—and it isn't viable either. Schnitzer put the property, along with its pending permit to build the 37-story office tower, up for sale in February.
But Selig says that when the market picks up in a few years, demand for Schnitzer's projects could surge. "This is not the first time we have been through the cycle," says Selig. "We have been through five or six of them, and we always end up okay."
On the other hand, this recession is far worse than the recent dot-com dip: Financial markets have fallen lower, and because this recession was caused in large part by flawed real-estate investments, developers and buyers will find it harder to secure financing in the future. If the investment market snaps back in the next year, Schnitzer could come out swinging. But if the recession lasts several years, it's unclear how long the company can survive.
Stroupe says that people in the local real-estate industry "feel that there is going to be a shake-up high up in the company."
Schnitzer West's Dan Ivanoff declined repeated requests for comment.