The building on the corner of Ninth and Westlake avenues doesn't exist yet. When it is finished, a year from now, it is going to be a curved, glassy, 19-story condominium tower called Enso, which is the name of a Zen Buddhist symbol for the perfect meditative state. But right now, it's just a few stories of dark, naked structure with the wind blowing through it.
The 135 condos in the building went on sale in mid-2006. The smallest start at $460,000 and the penthouses start at $1.9 million. It's hard to sell anything sight unseen—let alone a luxury condo—and if you're going to spend $460,000 on a home, you have to be able to imagine what it's like inside. That's why there are model kitchens, model bedrooms, model bathrooms, and an array of "finishes" for every room in every condo. But this is a city that prides itself on views, and modeling a view from a room that isn't built yet is far more complicated.
Two summers ago, in 2006, Fred Cavazos showed up at the Enso site, which was just a parking lot at the time, with an 18-foot-long helium blimp. Cavazos is the owner of Above the Rest Aerial Photography. The blimp is white with red fins and has "atrphoto.com" printed in black letters on its side. He attached a digital camera to the blimp and unspooled it up into the air like a kite. He had made markings on the tether to correspond with each of Enso's planned floors. Cavazos maneuvered the blimp by hand and the camera, when the wind conditions were right, took dozens of pictures in every direction at each level.
That took the better part of a workday, and then Cavazos yanked the blimp back down to earth. He drove back to his low, viewless house in southwest Seattle and spent the next two days altering the photographs to even out the light and digitally stitching together a 360-degree panorama for every floor's view. Now those photos are on display at the South Lake Union Discovery Center. The Discovery Center is a large, handsome showroom full of high-tech propaganda for the growing neighborhood. A metal dog named Slupy who has TV cameras for eyes, for instance, "reads" the script that hangs in front of him, explaining that dog-friendly South Lake Union has 379 telephone poles and 46 fire hydrants.
The views that Cavazos made are on big, flat touch screens mounted slightly above eye level. You click on an individual floor and then drag the panorama all the way around with your finger. The views are a little funny, because their perspective is straight ahead, rather than up and down, as if you're envisioning wearing a neck brace while standing on your future balcony. From the top floors of Enso, it looks, magically, as though the ground doesn't exist. Everything is treetops. This is about seeing the future, even if it's underwhelming: From the middle floors, you're stuck with the giant jumping-whale mural on the La Quinta Inn next door. (What's really underwhelming, almost comically so, are the eyesore views of parking lots and rooftop appliances from the six stories of the unfinished Veer Lofts, which are clickable on a different screen at Discovery Center.)
The truly enveloping experience at Discovery Center is the model condo in the back, advertising another neighboring building. In the dining room, where the table is set for four, one whole wall is a floor-to-ceiling "window" showing a time-lapse video of views. These views are different from Cavazos's panoramas. "Views are an approximation," the small print on a placard reads, going on to explain that these photos are taken "from a rooftop perspective with various camera lenses and focal lengths." This is, in other words, a fantasy of what your naturally occurring broadcast at various times of day would be: boats gliding by, shadows climbing up the sides of other towers at sunset, guests up and down the nearby Westin Hotel towers snapping their curtains open and closed.
The developer of all those buildings is Vulcan, the many-limbed company owned by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen that's responsible for condo towers popping up all over the South Lake Union neighborhood. And it's not just South Lake Union. The Seattle Times declared 2007 "The Year of the Condo," and estimated that something like 3,000 units were in development. There are imagined properties for sale all over town.
Views are big business, and marketers go to great lengths to frame and sell them. The summer before Cavazos was out shooting Enso with his kite-blimp, a miniature, remote-controlled helicopter came all the way from Chicago to buzz around above a pile of dirt at Olive Way and Eighth Avenue, where the 39 stories of Olive 8 would eventually begin to rise. Leslie Williams, head of Williams Marketing Inc. and the epitome of the successful entrepreneurial real-estate marketer in Seattle, is the one who hired the helicopter, which came with a trained pilot. The Chicago company SkyPan invented and patented the helicopter for the sole purpose of shooting views that don't exist yet, because at certain heights, blimps are unsteady, and in certain urban zones, cranes are too unwieldy.
Before Olive 8, Williams, who has been in business here since 1977, did the marketing for Cristalla, another Cadillac of a condo tower just a few blocks away. For that building, she did something almost unheard of outside of commercial real estate in Seattle: She negotiated a deal to buy the air over the building to the west of Cristalla, to make sure that building never got any taller. That way she could promise the views that she was marketing. "It was worth lots of millions, but it was worth it to us," she said. "It happens in commercial real estate all the time in Seattle, but this is the first time, as far as I know, that it has happened in residential here."
That's called buying air rights, which means what it sounds like. You literally buy emptiness. But it's emptiness that's full of value, like every view.
Seattle is mad for views, probably because we have so many of them. It may just be the best view city in the country. There's Puget Sound, Lake Union, Lake Washington, the Olympic Mountains, the Cascade Mountains, Mount Rainier, numerous islands, and two glittering skylines (Seattle and Bellevue). In the database that real-estate agents use, the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), there are 13 possible categories of views that apply to properties in Seattle: bay view, city view, jetty view, mountain view, partial view, sound view, territorial view, canal view, golf-course view, lake view, ocean view, river view, strait view. Some of these are virtually meaningless. Take "territorial." "Unless you're living in a windowless hovel, you are looking out on some kind of territory," said John L. Scott agent Sarah Rudinoff.
Modern Seattle was founded on the appeal of its hills, valuable for their vantage points. Starting in about 1900, Seattle was advertised as a city of "seven hills," in comparison to the seven hills of Rome.
The truth is, "The number is arbitrary and does not accurately describe Seattle's topography of numerous hills, ridges, and bluffs left behind by the retreat of the Vashon Glacier some 14,000 years ago," according to HistoryLink. "Regardless, the Roman allusion apparently helped to attract land buyers and new families to the growing 'Queen City of the Pacific Northwest' (another real-estate slogan coined in 1869 by promoters based in Portland, Oregon)." Nobody even knows what the original seven hills were supposed to be. There are more than seven hills here. (The highest point in the city is the top of West Seattle, at 522 feet above sea level.)
Real-estate agents can easily rattle off view neighborhoods: "There's Green Lake, Phinney Ridge, Fauntleroy, Admiral, Belvedere, Sunset Hill, Magnolia, Queen Anne, Belltown, Capitol Hill, Leschi, Madrona, Mount Baker, Madison Park, Montlake, Laurelhurst, Windermere, Eastlake, View Ridge, even parts of Greenwood," Windermere agent Alex Eckardt said, off the top of his head. "There's probably more than that."
Real-estate agents will tell you that the most valuable views are the ones that wrap around the main floor of a house and include as many natural elements as possible. Water views are notoriously coveted, but even within that category there are lake people and sound people. And then there are the Mount Rainier people.
"I think Rainier is the best view—it's like Fujiyama to the Japanese," said Bill Bain, a leading light of architecture in Seattle for more than 50 years (his father cofounded NBBJ). "But the sound, the lake—we'll take anything. Views are a huge commodity here. Everybody thinks they have to have a great view here, usually except for the people who were born here."
Leslie Williams not only hired the helicopter to take the view pictures for Olive 8, she also fell for her own marketing. She bought an Olive 8 condo with a 180-degree view of Elliott Bay, Lake Union, and downtown.
"I'm from Iowa, and when I first toured the University of Washington and I saw Mount Rainier at the end of the lane, I said, I'm going to live here," Williams said. "The views are just like a beautiful piece of art. It brings on an emotional response."
Sometimes it's a crazy response. People do outrageous things for a view.
In 2002, federal judge Jerome Farris—a senior judge on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals—had his Vietnamese gardener cut 120 trees down to the stumps in Colman Park to improve his view of Lake Washington. He was fined a half-million dollars.
A year ago this month, thirteen 100-foot trees on Dean Overton's family property in West Seattle were butchered when somebody cut 20 feet off of them at the top. Overton found chopped treetops on the ground and resting in other trees. The butcher was never caught.
Two weeks ago, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported another case of illegal tree-cutting in West Seattle—at least 10 maples, about 25 feet high, on a greenbelt. In that story, city arborist Mark Mead told the P-I that "we're going to start to see more of this as the summer heats up."
Then there's the highly publicized case from last year of people who had paid top dollar for condos high in the new Cosmopolitan tower downtown. They decided to sell them before even moving in when they found out that a building next door that was supposed to be 13 stories high had changed its plans and would rise 34 stories. Their views were destroyed before they ever saw them.
It's hard to quantify how much views are worth, especially when it's hard to tell what houses are worth. Across the nation, the housing market has gone bust. Seattle has held out longer than most cities, in large part because of phenomenal job growth through the end of 2007, said Todd Britsch of New Home Trends, a provider of information about local real estate. His outlook is that, in new construction, things will only get better. "We've hit rock bottom," he said.
But a report last week from the Standard & Poor's S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices showed the first year-to-year decline in King and Snohomish County house prices since 1991. It was a drop of only 1.3 percent from last January to this January, but Doug Pedersen, publisher of the quarterly newsletter Puget Sound Economic Forecaster, considers the overall picture gloomier. "My sense is that prices still have a little more to go before they bottom out, and I kind of expect prices to rise just with the inflation rate after 2008," he said. In other words, he doesn't expect the market to bounce back very quickly. Cavazos, the aerial photographer, is already wondering whether he's going to need to downsize the business that has been supporting him and his wife—whether we're in the twilight of things like luxury-condo marketing.
In any kind of market, agents Eckardt and Rudinoff estimate that a great view can constitute up to 20 percent of a home's value. Real "view homes," as they're called, with entire walls devoted to views, are rare and expensive. They're slow to sell even in a busy market, because only so many people can afford them.
It's obvious that views are great, but what's so great about them? What do you get from mountains versus water? And does owning a spectacular view amount to privatizing it for yourself, or is it more that you're taking part in a shared public experience?
I wonder whether hikers are more or less likely to want views of mountains. It seems entirely possible that the appeal of expensive views is that they represent inaccessible spaces—places out in the middle of the ocean or high in the air—but ones tethered to our own dimensions. They rise from the same ground we walk on, begin with the same shoreline where we stand and look. They're like personal appendages that stretch farther than we ever could, and yet they represent forces that continue to defy us. Instead of the common wisdom that grand views represent success, maybe they are a relief from believing that we can do anything. Then again, only the wealthy need that sort of relief.
An encounter with a view is visual, not participatory, like looking at landscape art. Beginning in the 18th century, there was a cottage industry of "view" painters—painters who made portraits purchased by gentlemen on their travels. At home, the paintings didn't just show off the traveler's sophistication; they also provided cold, damp, dim northern homes with false windows that "looked out onto" the warmth and light of southern climes. Seattle Art Museum has one of these paintings on display right now, in the European art exhibition on the fourth floor, by Luca Carlevariis, made around 1710. It depicts a storm brewing in dark clouds above the Grand Canal in Venice, but a balmy late afternoon hitting the side of the Doge's Palace anyway, warming the people strolling there.
Don't people with spectacular views start to take them for granted, just a little? Michael Darling, modern and contemporary art curator at SAM, says he's tracking himself to see if he starts to become blasé about the lake-and-mountains view he bought two years ago when he moved up to Seattle from L.A. For him, it's not just a pretty sight, but a field of depth that's constantly shifting depending on what the weather is doing. It works like a camera lens with a mind of its own, fuzzing elements out of the picture and then bringing them back as clear as can be.
It's not just spectacular views that count. Underdog views can turn out to mean so much. Take the view out the window in front of me right now, as I'm writing this. I'm in my house in the Central District, looking out the front picture window. What I see is the front yard of the house across the street, which, instead of a lawn, is a slab of concrete fenced in by chain link. It sounds like a sorry excuse for a landscape, but it has animals. Several of them. Woodland-creature types. I can make out a deer, a bear, a baby bear, two frogs, a seagull, a pig, and two turtles. They're garden sculptures with no garden. An elderly black couple lives in the house. By contrast, I've planted a high-maintenance number of trees and flowers over here. Every time I look out the window I'm embarrassed by the old stereotype: Why are white people so obsessed with lawn care?
Before the house in the Central District, we lived in a house in Tacoma that had what real-estate agents call a "peekaboo" view of Puget Sound (meaning we had to stand funny to see it). Before that, we lived in a loft in Tacoma, in a building obsessed with views of Mount Rainier, but we lived on the back side, so our big bank of windows had a "territorial" view of an old brick wall with a giant word spray-painted on it. The word was OPAL. That piece of graffiti figures prominently in family photographs from that time. One day we came home and it had been cleaned off. It had been the largest work of art we ever owned.