The story of a city, even one as relatively young as Seattle, can often be read through its geography. The many deep waterways and thick forests around Puget Sound all but assured that Seattle would become a timber and maritime hub after settlers first began carving street grids into Salish territory 170 years ago. Seattle’s urban story is perhaps told loudest on the shores of Lake Union, so named prophetically by city pioneer Thomas Mercer as the place that would eventually become a “union of waters” as the city grew.
Back when it was very much an industrial waterway in the early 20th century, the lake was encircled with businesses, including boat builders, sawmills, a Boeing seaplane hangar, a cement plant, and a coal gasification plant. By mid-century, the focus of the lake began to shift towards more recreational uses, which led to Gas Works Park, the Center for Wooden Boats, and the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI).
Today, another chapter to the lake’s evolving story is being written by Vulcan Real Estate, the owner since 2000 of much of the land in the tech-heavy South Lake Union neighborhood. The project, called Lake Union Piers, is nearing completion of its first phase this year and is slated to be fully completed by the end of 2023.
The scope of the project is broad, ambitious, and inspiring; the development will cover 8.3 acres of prime lakefront real estate and encompass 60,000 square feet of commercial space. The four main buildings on the property—one of which contains the still-operating Daniel’s Broiler restaurant—will remain intact but be heavily modified with new roofs, modern exterior finishes, more energy-efficient infrastructure, improved outdoor lighting, seismic upgrades, and expanded outdoor seating.
The driving purpose behind the Lake Union Piers design is to eliminate barriers from the rest of the city, said Kiki Gram, senior development manager at Vulcan. Visitors from downtown used to have to navigate the infamous “Mercer Mess” traffic, then go through a patchwork of parking lots, streetcar tracks, and cement curbs just to get to the lake.
“One of our goals was to upgrade these buildings and reconnect the indoors with the outdoors,” Gram explains. “The main emphasis is on making connections between the adjacent sites and tying them into the Cheshiahud Loop trail around the lake.”
Sketches and renderings of the development from Seattle-based project architect Miller Hull show how open-air plazas stretching between the renovated buildings will create 5,700 square feet of welcoming space to encourage more pedestrian traffic.
The new dining, shopping, and entertainment choices will also give boaters arriving at the marina more reasons to leave their vessels.
Case in point: The first eatery to emerge from the construction tenting was the Lakeside restaurant from Waterways Cruises and Events that opened its doors this past summer in the space that formerly housed the Seattle Kraken team store. The polished dining room and accompanying waterfront patio boast views that are rivaled only by the food emerging from the kitchen, which include curated cocktails, chef-driven prix fixe meals, and even order ahead for charcuterie picnic boxes built specifically with boaters in mind.
As exhibited by Lakeside and others, Seattle restaurants in general are undergoing a post-Covid renaissance in outdoor seating development, which should also benefit Lake Union Piers. Current designs include a combination of up to 8,000 square feet of new outdoor dining patios, some of which will have 270˚ views of the lake.
“Even in the winter, we still think it’ll be a big draw,” said Robert Arron, Vulcan’s senior director of real estate marketing and leasing. “A lot of these restaurants have figured out how to make patios comfortable in cold weather with heat lamps,” he added. “These buildings could become an exceptional destination. It literally is the center of the city.”
Some of the most noticeable improvements in the Lake Union Piers project will be seen on the west side of the property, adjacent to MOHAI and the Center for Wooden Boats, Gram said. “We will be converting some of it to green space in between the two properties and adding bench seating, newly planted trees, and public art,” she said.
While it is de-emphasizing the acres of asphalt on the property, Vulcan said it is sensitive to the needs of car access in the neighborhood. “It’s been a delicate balancing act to create more open spaces that can be used for events and also preserve the existing parking lots for restaurants and retailers,” Gram said. “We did reduce parking space a little bit, but not a lot.”
Vulcan will be adding more electrical connections to the piers and making deck improvements to the existing marina, as well, slipping in a few extra dock spots. “The marina is still zoned mostly for commercial yacht sales, and we didn’t want to change that since it’s so important to have spaces for the yacht brokers,” said Arron, Vulcan director of real estate and marketing. “But we’ll be converting some existing space to more daily use moorage, which should add about 12 more slips.”
However, one important tenet that will not change are the tenants themselves, Vulcan says, demonstrating Lake Union Piers’ tight relationship with the region’s boating community. Many of Seattle’s top yachting brokerages are located on the property, including Hampton Yacht Group, Worth Avenue Yachts, Chuck Hovey Yachts, and Silver Seas Yachts. During renovations, the offices for these businesses, as well the Northwest Yacht Brokers Association (NYBA) headquarters, were moved to a nearby temporary location but will be moving back to their originals spaces this fall. Formerly known for decades as Chandler’s Cove, this southeast corner of Lake Union is particularly synonymous with the Boats Afloat Show, NYBA’s twice-a-year exhibition that continue on in this location, with the next show scheduled for April 2023.
The adoption of the new Lake Union Piers name, however, was not taken lightly.
“It was really big decision, and it took a long time to make given the familiarity of the Chandler’s Cove name,” Gram said. “But we want to celebrate these buildings for the next 50 to 75 years, and we felt Lake Union Piers really links all the elements together. It got a lot of support from the tenants.”
In recent years, Arron said Vulcan has also signed on some newer maritime tenants to Lake Union Piers, including boat rental company Boatsetter and the aforementioned Waterways Cruises and Events. There is also talk of adding a winery operation with a tasting room—something every yacht enthusiast would surely enjoy—and Vulcan expects to start announcing signed tenants in the next month or two before the start of the new year.
“We do a lot more complex office projects with clients like Amazon or Google,” Arron concludes. “But this project, even though it’s a little smaller in square footage, is as meaningful and important to us as anything else because it’s such a significant site.”
>>To follow along with the latest details on the Lake Union Piers construction and development, visit: lakeunionpiers.com.