Editor’s Note: Want to hear Carolyn Ossiorio chat with Michael Christ? Check out her podcast at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/carolyn-ossorio-aka-pippimamma/id1128481826?mt=2.
Albert Einstein was fascinated with swarming birds. You know, the thing that happens when birds — seemingly at random — twist and twirl together in a very ad-hoc, yet beautiful dance that is both chaotic and totally synchronized.
Einstein said birds see things we can’t.
So that idea of birds and geniuses “seeing things” hit me the other day while interviewing Michael Christ, sole proprietor of SECO Development that’s on the shores of Lake Washington in Renton.
In the early 90s Christ observed the explosive growth of Microsoft.
“There had been no housing built in Bellevue’s downtown since the 70s and there was this enormous force down the street with Microsoft. I ended up building 11 acres of housing in downtown Bellevue, before anyone was paying attention.”
Christ is a musician, a lover of art and technology, and a world traveler (he’s travelled to China over 150 times) with degrees in philosophy and mathematics.
He has a knack for building multi-use housing across the Pacific Northwest. Part of his success comes in the form of recognition.
“I’m not a visionary so much as recognizing what seems obvious to me,” Christ said in earnest. “I’m an observer.”
Seventeen years ago, when others were distracted by Boeing’s birds blasting out of the Renton plant, Christ observed a different paradigm evolving — a new high tech empire where Renton would be at the seat of the table.
Christ saw Renton not as it was, but what he believed it would inevitably become.
“What’s unique about Renton is we are less than 5 miles from I-5, which is Canada to Mexico. We are less than 5 miles from I-90, which is Seattle to Boston. We are about 8 minutes from the airport… the companies that are a part of this new paradigm of techno-growth, none of them are local. These are international companies, some of them have started here. This is an important triangle,” Christ said.
The city of Renton couldn’t have been more in line with their new dance partner; they had been in a manufacturing two-step with industry for over a century and Boeing was the only titan left on the city’s dance card.
“In the early 90s, I had a civil construction company in mainland China and I watched absolute cities being created and I recognized common characteristics — transportation and the power grid. Those two things are absolutely fundamental for growth. So when I saw this site in Renton, 17 acres on the lake, that’s unheard of, and centrally located for mass transit with access to power grids… this is an area that will work.”
Christ bought the property — sandwiched between the Boeing plant and the 57 acre Coulon Beach — lock stock and barrel from Puget Sound Energy in 1999. Smack dab in the center was the shuttered Shuffleton Plant looming large like the Statue of Liberty eroding in the Planet of the Apes.
Christ’s “new” property was just one piece of Renton’s defunct “working waterfront.”
Downstream other remnants of Renton’s manufacturing past, muddied the waters, (literally with creosote and arsenic) a saw mill, coal tar refinery, and creosote plant.
Christ had enough time to level the Shuffleton Plant, clean up the property and woo the city of Renton with visions of sugar plumbs — to transform the 17 acre waterfront site into a mixed-use high tech oasis. A four star hotel, 40,000 square feet of meeting and convention space, 750,000 square feet of office space in three, nine-story towers, 395 residential units, retail shops, and restaurants along a lakefront promenade.
This city of Renton was eager for change. Desperate to spruce up the place. They rolled out the red carpet to new businesses, particularly high tech. They streamlined the permitting process, reduced fees, lowered mitigation and decreased taxes.
Then Sept. 11 hit.
“All I did was basically held that dream until it was ripe,” Christ said.
Christ wouldn’t have to wait too long.
A canoe ride away on the lake, another visionary had seen the birds dance in Renton way back in 1997.
Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, purchased 19 acres of Lake Washington waterfront, (the defunct saw mill part of Renton’s “working waterfront”).
In 2006 Allen, broke ground on a state of the art training center and headquarters for his team — the Seattle Seahawks.
Meantime, other pots were percolating. Barbee Mill, the 22.3-acre waterfront property that was formerly a creosote manufacturing plant had been designated a Superfund toxic waste site for federal cleanup. When up to snuff, the property was sold to a developer with plans to build luxury waterfront duplexes.
Within walking distance, an outdoor shopping plaza with stores, restaurants, services and a multiscreen movie theater was underway.
Christ’s mothballed dream after 9/11 was resurrected in 2008. He broke ground on the first part of his vision of Southport — 395 units of housing, 14,081 square feet of retail, and 653 parking spaces.
Fast forward to 2017. Boeing’s birds are still taking off from the hangars next door at a record rate, and Christ’s vision has ripened into fruition.
In July, the 12-story, four star Hyatt Regency Hotel with 43,000 square feet of conference facilities will have its grand opening.
Steps away from the hotel and conference space, when complete, will be three nine-story towers with stunning 360 degree views of waterfront office space and outfitted with all the bells and whistles with the power to woo high tech companies.
Christ envisions one tenant, a Google or Amazon, to occupy all the office space.
“Renton had something very precious… the Highland Grid, which is the grid that feeds Bellevue which is exhausted now, and also the Paccar Grid. When you have companies that are providing about 130 square feet per employee… the power needs are significant.”
And unlike Seattle and Bellevue, housing is still affordable.
“You can afford to buy your house in Renton. When we were in Bellevue, it got to the point where entry-level housing started at about $800,000, so there’s a disconnection there.” Christ said.
Plus there will be plenty of space to park your cars and bikes, (the spirit of Washington dinner train route from Renton to Woodinville is being converted into a bike trail).
One of the most surprising details of Southport is Christ’s plan for high tech water taxi commute on Lake Washington. Christ’s goal is to have an updated water taxis by 2019. He’s reaching out to strategic partners within technology firms that will occupy the new office space.
The first route would connect Renton to South Lake Union, Mercer Island, Bellevue, Kenmore and the University of Washington.
“It’s a new paradigm, you don’t have a time card anymore. People work all the time, you press a button where your seat is and a latte appears, it’s quiet, it’s peaceful, you got this great view, you’re working during your commute, it’s not far-fetched because it could happen right now.”
If you’re a Seattle local your perception of Renton could be as outdated as the mullets, Camaros and the blue collar roots the city was once so famous for.
Christ has a knack for seeing things other people can’t. Here’s a birds eye view of the new paradigm in Renton, Southport on Lake Washington. http://www.secodev.com/southport-hotel.
The next Silicon Valley could just be in Renton.