I speak with some authority on this.
For almost two years, I drove back and forth from my house to downtown spying on one such property as a soaring modern shape began to emerge from what was a rat-infested ruin. Every day, I'd do a slow pass and take a look.
As a serious snoop, I wanted more detail. I was also jealous of that incredible view. Of course, my mind was going right to the finished product, while at the time I knew full well that whatever was going on in there had its significant challenges.
Little did I know.
When Ken and Sharon Coleman first spotted the property some six years ago, it seemed ideal. Situated at the ridge intersection of the Mount Baker, Leschi and Central District neighborhoods, it had a fourplex in teardown condition and a fantastic view to recommend it. The property was zoned commercial, but the possibility of getting a conditional permit for dual business/residential use certainly seemed viable. Nice, too, was the fact that a small restaurant and a few other businesses were just half a block away.
But when the couple discovered the property had been owned for years by the Washington State Department of Transportation, they thought this particular dream was a lost cause. The story of how the state came to own the properties was the stuff of urban legend.
In the 1970s, state planners were getting ready to construct the Mount Baker Tunnel, connecting Seattle to the I-90 Floating Bridge. The tunnel was to run under the neighborhood, causing some property owners to worry that the construction might damage their homes. The state offered to buy the homes of those concerned; some agreed, many didn't.
For a host of reasons, the so-called "surplus" homes were not immediately put back on the market when construction was complete. Over time, they fell into disrepair, and the thriving commercial nature of the neighborhood withered. More slowly than many wished, the state put the properties up for sale a few at a time.
The "choice" of the Colemans couldn't have been more auspicious. Both trained as architects, the couple had the skills to confidently plan and stage a structural transformation. As for the challenges of creating a custom live/work home, Ken (who owns Compass Construction, a firm that builds mixed-use, multifamily developments) had the expertise and the crew access to take it on.
And since neither Ken nor Sharon practiced residential design professionally (she's a real-estate-development manager with Vulcan who maintains her status as a licensed architect), they were full of fresh enthusiasm and ideas. To help negotiate the design standoffs they were sure would come, the couple asked friend and architect Matthew Stannard to act as mediator throughout the process.
The couple knew improvements to this neglected stretch of street could set other community-revitalization projects in motion. "We bought what was undoubtedly the ugliest house around," Sharon says. "The idea of taking that away and doing something nice was great. We felt we could do what we wanted in terms of design because there wasn't a particular neighborhood style there wasn't a row of Victorian homes or cottages, for instance."
Good thing, too. "The massing of space we decided on certainly didn't make for a 'Leave It To Beaver' kind of house," says Ken, who admits people either like its vertical, multi-terraced shape or they don't.
The site did have some serious constraints, including the fact that the narrow, 40-foot-wide lot had no alley access. That meant the garage had to front the street, something no one wanted. Still, it was the only option.
The narrow lot (and the traffic noise from the street) also dictated the organization of space. To address both issues, the couple decided to run the business space up the entire front of the structure. This "solution" had an added bonus: It left the back side of the house open to the exceptional view.
Today, the residential entry door opens to a soaring space that leads to the living, dining and kitchen areas. At the far end of the main area, the first of several outdoor decks that overlook Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains and downtown Seattle.
On the third penthouse level, a large conference room, extra workspace and a compact kitchen plus a huge view deck with hot tub. In addition to corporate functions, the Colemans often use this area to host community-group meetings and fund-raising parties. Less visible but no less programmed are the two lower levels. The original just-below-entry level contains two bedrooms, an art studio, a wine cellar and a small view deck. Below that, a daylight-basement woodworking shop.
In all, the Colemans ended up with 2,584 square feet of living space.
According to the couple, nailing down the layout was the easy part. It was agreeing on the small things the colors, specific finishes and custom built-ins that took time. Now that the house is done, the Colemans have turned their attention to another community-improvement project: raising funds for the Mount Baker Viewpoint Park. When the city purchased the property last year with just such a park in mind, it was up to the neighbors to raise the money to build a deck and shelter that would make the most of the public-access view.
On the ridge, yet another "big dream rising."
Victoria Medgyesi writes about interesting people and the houses they live in. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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