When Council Member Andrew Lewis kicked off his reelection campaign, he told voters that he wanted to use a second term to make headway on lidding I-5 and, more controversially, to turn empty office buildings into apartments.
On social media, urbanists fight with normies about this idea all the time, arguing that high costs and low amounts of usable office space prevent Seattle from retrofitting itself out of a housing crisis. However, Lewis said critics need to look at his idea not as a strategy for fixing the city’s most pressing issue, but rather as a tool to “reactivate” downtown now that all the tech bros work from home.
Cutting Some Tape
Of course, Lewis can’t just put his council colleagues in hard hats and make them gut an office building with their bare hands. Instead, he plans to “cut red tape” for developers, offering them a quicker permitting process without any frivolous steps like design review. The hope is that a speedier and thus cheaper process would lure developers into proposing more retrofit projects.
But that’s all he’s going to do to encourage it. Though the city’s new public development authority could feasibly acquire office space for housing, Lewis said he won’t give it money specifically for that, and he won’t propose additional incentives or tax breaks to further pique interest.
Floor Plate Problems
Sure, some developers love turning soulless office buildings into homes, but to nonprofit housing developer Ben Maritz, Lewis’s plan doesn’t seem like enough to make the projects worthwhile for developers.
The costs of redoing plumbing, electrical, and other internal systems present more of a hurdle for developers than permitting costs do, he said. In almost every case, it's cheaper to build something from scratch. Also, he wouldn’t expect lenders to take the risk on such an “unconventional” project.
Even if a developer could find a way to make everything pencil out, Maritz said there’s just not that many office buildings that could realistically become housing, mostly because their floor plates wouldn’t allow for proper window placement. Nevertheless, Lewis insisted that a “handful” of older office buildings have the kind of floor plates that would ensure enough natural light for residents.
BuT iT’s NoT aBoUt HoUsInG!! iT’s AbOuT rEaCtIvAtIoN!!!
But even if there are only a few buildings ripe for conversion, Lewis thinks that’s okay! He doesn’t expect office retrofits to solve the city’s housing deficit. To meet that need, King County needs to build 337,000 units of housing over the next 20 years, according to a recent report from the Department of Commerce.
After a fair bit of prodding, Lewis finally said he expected retrofits to add “thousands” of units of housing, but he wouldn’t specify whether “thousands” meant something closer to 1,000 or closer to 10,000. To really bolster Seattle’s housing stock, he said, the City will have to upzone and increase density in neighborhoods with exclusionary zoning.
He does think more office-to-apartment conversions could get more people downtown, a neighborhood that’s now apparently all tumbleweeds after employers decided to let desk workers stay home to avoid mass death.
Between 2019 and 2021, the number of at-home workers in Seattle ballooned from 36,000 to 205,000. Downtown activity has yet to bounce back, according to a study out of the University of California Berkeley and the University of Toronto that found downtown Seattle has only regained about 44% of pre-pandemic smartphone activity.
Measuring “vibrancy” is a little more nebulous of a marker of success than just counting up units of housing, but Lewis thinks it can be done. The City could count up vacant storefronts or track foot traffic as a proxy for “vibrancy,” he said.
And even if the City can quantify vibes, he said we won’t ever know to what degree this specific proposal contributed to making downtown vibrant once again. Lewis said “reactivation” will require a lot of ✨stuff✨ that he will work on in collaboration with his council colleagues and the Mayor.
For the Mayor’s part, he’s keeping quiet about what exactly that ✨stuff✨ entails. During his State of the City address last month, he only teased that he “may” make retrofits easier for developers, and he labeled those who want to see a real plan as “cynics.”
Though Lewis heavily promoted his downtown office retrofit proposal in an interview with The Stranger as part of his reelection campaign launch, he’s not going to wait until next year to act on legislation that might increase future vibrancy if not make a dent in the housing crisis.
As a self-proclaimed member of the “Do Something caucus,” he said he will propose his new rules for developers before the council’s summer recess. He hopes to see “at least some” projects permitted and underway by the end of his second term, should he earn his job back.