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Thought everyone would get a kick out of this! Don't know if Four Seasons' plans for Toronto are in quite this price range.....

Record setter: Condos hot at Four Seasons

By Jeanne Lang Jones
Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle)
Updated: 7:00 p.m. ET Nov. 20, 2005
Downtown Seattle's splashy Four Seasons project, a $120 million mix of hotel and condominium facilities, is driving high-rise condo prices to levels never before seen in the Pacific Northwest.

The 21-story building won't be finished until early 2008, but that hasn't stopped buyers from purchasing 20 of the 29 condo units available since April at record-setting prices averaging $2,100 a square foot, according to John Oppenheimer, chief executive of Seattle-based Columbia Hospitality Inc. and managing partner of Seattle Hotel Group LLC, the backer of the Four Seasons project.

With available units ranging in size from about 1,300 square feet to about 3,200 square feet, prospective buyers could be shelling out $2.7 million to $6.7 million apiece for the luxury residences.

Prices at the Four Seasons far exceed those in the rest of the already-hot Puget Sound area condo market. By comparison, condos in the nearby Hotel 1000/Madison Tower are selling for an average of $825 per square foot, according to the FatReport, a weekly survey of the local condominium market by Brett Frosaker, principal of Seattle-based Frosaker Real Estate Co. The median price for a unit at Madison Tower is $1.05 million.

Prices at the Four Seasons are comparable to some of the nation's highest priced high-rise homes. The Four Seasons condo prices may rival those of San Francisco's new St. Regis Hotel and Residences, for instance, where the least expensive unit is priced at about $1,200 per square foot. The Seattle Four Seasons prices would be competitive with many luxury condos in New York City, though select penthouse units there can go for more than $5,000 a square foot, according to Greg Heym, New York-based director of research and chief economist at Brown Harris Stevens, publisher of a quarterly residential market report.

What's driving the Four Seasons prices so high? In part, it's the cachet of the Four Seasons itself, a hotel brand known for its cushy service and luxury quarters. But the vigorous sales activity also reflects a frothy condo market that's surging, even at its upper reaches, alongside a robust single-family-home market in a strong and rising local economy.

There's also a growing acceptance of condo living nationwide. According to a recent member survey by the American Institute of Architects, twice as many participants reported an increase in condo-related projects compared to move-up or custom/luxury homes.

While he won't identify individual buyers, Four Seasons project spokesman Oppenheimer did say all of the buyers so far are from the United States and most are local Puget Sound area residents.

"These are people who have big, gorgeous estates who are changing that to reside in an estate in the Four Seasons," he said.

Seattle's Four Seasons project has generated considerable interest ever since it was first announced just over a year ago. With no formal advertising campaign or comprehensive sales packets, the building's residences have been marketed through word of mouth and one-on-one conversations between buyers and project backers. Actual sales began in late April. The first sales agreement was scratched out on a piece of note paper, Oppenheimer said.

Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts has more than 60 luxury hotels worldwide and a long history in Seattle, though the chain was displaced when rival Canadian hotelier Fairmont Hotels & Resorts took over management at the Olympic hotel.

Four Seasons is partnering on the Seattle project with Oppenheimer's Seattle Hotel Group LLC -- which includes, among others, former mayor Paul Schell, venture capitalist Tom Alberg and cellular-phone entrepreneur Bruce McCaw. It's located on First Avenue, one block south of Pike Place Market and across the street from the new high-rise tower the Seattle Art Museum and Washington Mutual Inc. are building.

The high-rise homes will feature top-end appliances, luxurious finishes and stunning views of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains. Just as appealing to buyers may be the range of services afforded to those living above a four-star hotel: room service, for instance, a spa, and an "infinity" pool configured so that it appears to fall off into the bay far beyond.

Dean Jones, principal of Seattle-based Real Project Marketing, suggests the Four Seasons could open the door for other ultra-high-end projects in this market.

"We've got an extraordinarily affluent demographic in the Pacific Northwest and an emerging downtown residential presence," Jones said.

"But you really need to have a perfect balance in a recipe that offers location, amenities and views and, if there is a brand, that brand needs to have high brand confidence to attract a premium price," he said.

Real estate consultants suggest it would be hard to overstate the value of the Four Seasons brand in the condo pricing differentials downtown. At the second most expensive high-rise in the city, Madison Tower, there's a hotel run by a well-regarded local company that also manages The Sorrento and other high-end boutique hotels.

But, said Leslie Williams, president of Seattle-based Williams Marketing Inc., the Four Seasons name "is known worldwide, and they have sold to people that appreciate the name and the service that it stands for."

After these two luxury boutique hotel/condominium projects, unit prices drop off sharply, according to the FatReport, with average price per unit at:

The Water's Edge, 905 Lake St. in Kirkland, $757 a square foot;
Millennium Tower, at 715 2nd Avenue in downtown Seattle, $597 a square foot;
Harvard Estate, Harvard and Roy on Capitol Hill in Seattle, $596 a square foot; and
One Lincoln Tower, across from Bellevue Square in downtown Bellevue, $594 a square foot.
Even with the world-class Four Seasons brand behind it, the project is still a gutsy play. Many developers offer a range of smaller, less expensive units to increase their project's appeal to a wider range of buyers, Jones said. But the Four Seasons offerings are more cohesive, with no studios and some buyers snapping up several units to assemble larger quarters.

It also helps that the Four Seasons tower has so few units, making it easier to leverage supply with demand than in projects with more than 100 units.

"When you buy high-end real estate, part of the equation of what you are willing to pay is what you believe you can sell it for," Jones said.

A look inside
So here's what you get in condominiums that cost an average of $2,100 a square foot: astringent beauty.

In residential units characterized by neutral colors, sharp lines and honed stone surfaces, Seattle interior designer Susan Marinello has created spaces that evoke the austere serenity of a Japanese shrine.

Far from the rococo aesthetic of someone like developer Donald Trump, residences at the Four Seasons hotel/condo project in downtown Seattle are intended, in the words of Marinello, "to complement the modernity of the project" -- perhaps the most modern of any Four Seasons to date.

With only nine of 29 units still available, the largest remaining residence has an asking price of $5.9 million, according to John Oppenheimer, chief executive of Seattle-based Columbia Hospitality Inc. and leader of the local development group that is partnering with Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts on the project.

With the exception of the customized units, the interiors of the Four Seasons condominiums are the handiwork of Susan Marinello Interiors Inc. in Pioneer Square.

"It's clean, contemporary, with pared-down, elegant finishes with the emphasis on the water and the strong connection to Elliott Bay," said Marinello, who has designed other prominent projects, including One Lincoln Tower in downtown Bellevue.

With spectacular views of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains just outside, Marinello has kept the interiors very spare, using Northwest materials and a quiet palette of ivory, warm beige and a soft gray-green. After her design firm selected materials, she said, staffers went through a two-week editing process.

"We approached it like a German engineer in mind-set," Marinello said. "The details are tight, like a Swiss watch."

Marinello's design emphasizes the horizontal lines of the rooms -- from the layout of the cabinets to the thin slices of tile that run crosswise across the bathrooms. The gas fireplaces have no fake logs, only the thin line of flames from a pipe surrounded by stones or sand.

There are no moldings in Marinello's interiors. Some walls have a gap, or reveal, at the bottom.

"It enhances the sense of height," Marinello said. "The walls are more gallerylike. Many of the owners are art collectors and for the most part they are coming with their art collections."

Besides brushed-nickel door levers and faucets, and stainless steel appliances, there is little else that has a glossy surface in Marinello's design. Even the flooring, in 5-inch planks of white oak or ash, has a matte finish, in either a dark chocolate brown or medium chestnut color.

Only the bedrooms have carpeting, a low-pile wool and silk blend that comes in either a subtle checked geometric pattern or striations like a fine corduroy.

Working with such soft colors isn't easy, Marinello said.

"It's harder to work with this palette than in stronger palettes," she said. "You have to consider the light and how it reflects. Particularly in this project, there is a lot of light and you want it to feel bright and warm, not cold.

"It really is a study in luminosity," she said.

All of the Four Seasons signature residences will be outfitted with expensive Miele appliances and amenities such as electronic window shades and built-in espresso machines.

Marinello's carefully restrained interior design seems to have resonated with prospective buyers, who meet with Marinello after they express interest in buying.