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Dressing Up Old Seattle

For decades, Seattle's South Lake Union section was known for the remnants of its industrial past — an old sawmill, an early Boeing airplane plant, a Ford Model-T factory, and shipping wharfs. It was also known for faltering warehouses and crime — before its renaissance began about five years ago.

Ada Healey, vice president of real estate development for Seattle-based Vulcan, a technology, medical and film company founded by philanthropist Paul Allen, has transformed large swaths of South Lake Union into attractive apartments and workspaces, including 1.7 million sq. ft. of medical research facilities, in one of the nation's largest urban revitalizations.

Healey, who joined Vulcan in 2001, controls $1.6 billion in real estate assets, most of it facilities for lease, and has embarked on a long-term path to redevelop 10 million sq. ft., including the 2.5 million sq. ft. now under construction. Vulcan is building the projects on 60 waterfront acres it owns adjacent to downtown in South Lake Union.

“It's very centrally located, but it has been known for decades and decades as a place where you drove through — not to,” Healey says. Now, it's becoming a destination.

In a coup for Vulcan, Amazon, the Web marketing company, has leased a 1.6 million sq. ft. headquarters location being developed by Vulcan, comprised of 11 buildings. The transaction is estimated at $750 million. Amazon is expected to move in 2010 and 2011.

In 2006, Vulcan opened what was then downtown Seattle's largest mixed-use project at 2200 Westlake. With 550,000 sq. ft., the $200 million project's retail space included a 47,000 sq. ft. Whole Foods market and restaurants, plus 261 condos and a 160-room Pan Pacific Hotel.

Another project, Alley24, attracted tenants with a design that uses more natural daylight than traditional buildings. An appealing feature for the 1,000 workers in the building is the adjacent European-style walkway with 28,000 sq. ft. of boutiques and cafés.

More innovative spaces are on the way. In 2009, Vulcan will open a 19-story, 131,000 sq. ft. condo tower with 135 units priced from the $400,000s. The Rollin Street Flats, an 11-story, 240,000 sq. ft. building, will offer 208 units priced from $400,000 to $1 million.

The University of Washington School of Medicine leased space in 2003, and Merck Pharmaceuticals signed up as well. “Those early successes allowed us to build momentum and it gave others confidence to make the decision to move to South Lake Union, because other world-caliber organizations had chosen to locate there,” Healey says.

The developer traveled to Miami, Portland, Ore., Santa Monica, Calif., Vancouver, B.C. and other cities to study innovative designs before applying her insights in Seattle. Along the way, Healey shifted Vulcan's basic real estate strategy. “I transitioned the group from an institutional investor to an active developer.”

She championed the 1.3-mile South Lake Union streetcar line, which began operating in December. The city's department of transportation reports that it cost more than $40 million per mile and 330,000 riders are expected to use it annually. New streetcar lines are proposed.

Building her 40-person team and creating a new real estate division within Vulcan proved highly rewarding, Healey says. By 2011, she expects to have completed half of Vulcan's planned 10 million sq. ft. of development, and she's considering projects in California and Arizona. “We'd like to expand our holdings to other West Coast markets.”

Development is in Healey's blood, and she found a role model in her great-grandmother. Years ago, her family was in the real estate business in Georgia, where she grew up. “My great-grandmother, who I'm named for, developed two buildings in downtown Atlanta.” The Healey Building was named for the family, and the William Oliver Building was named for her two sons. Both office buildings, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, were later converted to condos.

“I had some aspirations to be a builder,” Healey says, “and those aspirations have been realized.”

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