As mentioned earlier, Mike Gain and Roger Cayce granted our request for an interview about their proposal to upzone a stretch of California Avenue south of Admiral, and sat down with us for an hour and a half at midday today. Here’s our long-form writeup:
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Anyone driving the streets of West Seattle in the ’90s could have concluded that Cayce & Gain were the most famous names in town. You saw those names on signs dotting almost every street, as they dominated the West Seattle real-estate and property-management businesses.
Their names have not been quite so prominent since 2002, when they sold their real-estate business to Prudential Northwest. But now, five years later, Roger Cayce and Mike Gain are in the spotlight again because of the biggest rezoning proposal currently on the table in West Seattle — seeking to change the zoning on both sides of California between Hanford and Hinds (plus a section of the west side of the street south of Hinds). They are insistent that this is not just a Cayce & Gain proposal; other property owners are involved as well. However, because of their prominence, and the fact they are the major landowners on both sides of the street, they have found themselves front and center.
With the bulk of the news reporting on the upzoning proposal having happened here on WSB, so has the majority of the online discussion, which they have been watching — and participating in. One of the 96 comments following our November 30 report on the public meeting about the proposal features Mike Gain offering to talk with anyone who had questions or concerns. We took him up on that offer and scheduled an interview.
Gain and Cayce met with me this morning for more than an hour and a half in Gain’s office at their property-management business’s headquarters at 3210 California, the address of record for the upzoning request. It’s a small, simple building, and a family-involved business (two Gain children were at work there during my visit); after you climb the aggregate-concrete steps to the second floor, you note that the front windows look out over the buildings they own across the street — their former real-estate business and the adjacent-to-the-north building that Gain says they just bought this year — while the back windows show rentals to the rear, plus a glimpse of one of the neighborhoods to the east whose worried residents joined the November 29 public meeting on the proposal.
During that meeting, and in others since, it was suggested that Cayce and Gain might not have encountered quite so much criticism, concern, and anger if they had brought their idea to the neighbors first, before applying to the city for a full block of rezoning. (The first public word of their application came in the city’s November 8th Land Use Information Bulletin, which we quickly reported here on WSB. Their names didn’t emerge in association with it until their representative Josh Stepherson made an informal presentation at the Admiral Neighborhood Association meeting five days later.) They allow that, in hindsight, an early public presentation might have indeed been a better way to go about it; they say they pursued the process in the manner that “experts” advised them to — “We’re not zoning experts,” Gain explains, “we’re real-estate guys” — and didn’t realize there might have been a better way. But for now, they say, they are where they are, and they are going forward.
Before we talked more about what that might mean, Gain wanted to explain the roots of the rezoning proposal, and their vision for the area, which previously had been alluded to (most recently, by Stepherson at the Dec. 11 ANA meeting), but not fully explained.
As the first exhibit, Gain pulled out a photocopy of an article from the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce, dated 12/14/06, headlined “Couple builds a legacy in the U District,” subheaded “Tom and Kristen Ferguson are developing a $22 million apartment (building) with office and retail space on the Ave. Someday their kids and grandkids may own it.” The article is about a building called the Lothlorien. (Here’s a link to the full article.)
The article, Gain said, inspired him to contact the Lothlorien’s architect, Roger Newell – a West Seattle High School graduate, they note – to talk about possibilities for their land in the 3200 block of California. By early March of this year, for a fee of about $5,000, Newell did a feasibility study to come up with a rough plan — “very preliminary,” Cayce cautioned repeatedly during our conversation — for what could be done within the existing zoning, NC1-30 (which basically means 3 stories max and ground-floor retail no bigger than 10,000 square feet per business).
The resulting sketch shows a large, but attractive, building, with car entrances on the north and south ends of its California frontage. “What Roger (Newell) does is never a ‘box’,” Gain explains. “It’s always modulated,” Cayce adds, going on to say that he visited other Newell-designed multifamily projects around Puget Sound while they discussed what they could do with their headquarters’ site.
But in order for the originally roughed-out building to have adequate parking without extensive excavation, Newell’s sketches show, stalls would take up half the ground-floor retail space, leaving potential room for two businesses of less than 5,000 square feet each.
While showing the sketch and other documentation of the original rough plan, Gain stops to make a point that he feels has been lost in accusations that he and Cayce want to build a big project, take the money and run: “We would like to still have our business here [with offices in the new building]. We’ve been here since 1981. We want to build something that we want to use as well.”
So why not build that 3-story building Roger Newell sketched out for you, I ask? Cayce and Gain say even Newell told them the building wouldn’t work out economically without bigger retail space and another floor of residential units. They say they hope it will be apartments, but it could be condos; hard to tell where the market will go (as evidenced by the Strata and Gables condo cancellations).
When pressed for more specifics on the economic discrepancy between building sizes, Cayce points in particular to the major excavation and retaining wall required for underground parking, because of the site’s terrain, and the lack of an alley between their property and the homes behind it. They don’t have exact figures handy on how much more that will add to the project, but they believe it’s at least in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
They are acutely aware of how upset some of the east-neighboring homes’ owners are, regarding the prospect of a big building going up on the C & G land. “We’ve been accused of not listening,” Gain says, “but I wish people would understand, it’s not that we’re not listening, we just disagree. It doesn’t mean we’re wrong or they’re wrong – we just disagree.” Later in our discussion, he elaborates, “We sympathize with the neighbors, but it’s not just about them. … It’s about, let’s look into the future. Ten years from now, when (the neighbors’) daughter is looking for an apartment to rent, wouldn’t it be nice to be close to home? Or 20 years from now, when (the neighbors themselves) want to move out of the house (to something smaller), wouldn’t it be nice to be able to stay in the neighborhood.”
He goes on to muse about the drawing a neighborhood 10-year-old made after the Nov. 29 public meeting (featured in the WSB report about the meeting): “I thought her letter was great. But we just see things differently. Maybe when she grows up, she’ll be able to use the businesses in the neighborhood [that could come as a result of this project].”
And Gain (at right in photo above) and Cayce freely acknowledge, this project is about their futures as well, not just the fact they hope to keep their offices in that location. Though they sold their realty, they say, they are far from retired, or wanting to retire. We told them we wondered why they hadn’t sought to develop the land before, considering how long they have owned most of it. Other priorities, they say: Until 2002, Gain points out, “we owned a large company.” “And,” adds Cayce, “we had kids living at home.” Gain jumps back in: “We just didn’t have the time. I was also the president of the Northwest MLS, before that the Puget Sound MLS, the Southwest Seattle MLS, the Independent Brokers’ Association … very busy, working 12-hour days, often 7 days a week.”
“The last thing in the world we would have wanted to do then,” Cayce interjects, “is tear up our offices.”
“Then in 2002,” Gain continues, “we sold (the realty). I kept a role in it until 2005, then I took some time off to just do nothing. But now – we’re ready to move into the next phase, to try to make some financial sense of what we’ve accumulated [real estate-wise] over the years.”
During our conversation, Gain repeatedly returns to the topic of criticisms and questions posed by WSB readers, as well as area residents who spoke at the Nov. 29 public meeting. An oft-heard question is “why can’t this area just stay the same?” Their answer – besides the earlier point about creating residences and businesses that will be needed as thousands more people move to West Seattle in the coming years – is that many of the buildings on the block are falling apart. As landlords, as well as business owners who work on the block, they say they have a unique perspective. Our meeting this morning, in fact, was delayed a few minutes while Gain handled a situation involving a heating-system upgrade for one of their buildings across the street — one that will cost thousands of dollars. Throughout most of the block, Cayce says, the buildings are “rotting … everything’s old, everything’s wearing out.” The rents they can charge on some of their properties may be going up, but so are the expenses of keeping old buildings inhabitable.
As a data point to illustrate the relative worthlessness of some of the old buildings, Gain hands me a packet of printouts – one of several collections of printed information he has gathered for me in advance of the interview. This one details the characteristics and assessed values of their properties on the block — 3210 California, home to their offices, for example, is assessed as $282,800 worth of building(s), but $1,000,000 worth of real estate; 3220 California is assessed at $1,000 for “improvements” (buildings) and $750,000 of real estate; same for 3228 California; on the other side of the street, $1,000 is also the “improved assessment” value for each of their parcels at 3211, 3219, 3221, and 3239 California, while the value of the parcels’ land totals more than $2 million. New buildings will be built on these sites, they reiterate, the only question is when.
Looking out the back window of Gain’s office again, they note several relatively new homes that will be among the houses to lose views whenever their property is developed, whether it’s done under the existing zoning or the NC2-40 that is requested in the current proposal. Cayce says he tried to get word to the builder of those homes that they planned to redevelop their land, but was asked at one point to stop pushing that issue.
So what now? For Gain and Cayce, the focus is on going through the rezoning process, which awaits a recommendation from city planners, then eventually a City Council vote. To counter the suggestion that the higher zoning isn’t appropriate so far from the heart of the Admiral business district, they produce a list of other parcels further south that hold 4-story buildings: Swedish Medical at 3400 California, and apartment buildings at 3435, 3614, 3705, and 3911 California, as well as a 1987 document they have mentioned before, showing the 3222 California parcel was zoned NC1-40 that year (which means the same height they are pursuing permission for now, but smaller maximum sizes for the retail space).
They will continue to work with architect Roger Newell, they say, though there is no sketch for what they would want to build with the higher zoning designation. And they say they hope to talk again with Admiral Neighborhood Association president Mark Wainwright, whose organization is on the record as saying it cannot support the proposal because, among other reasons, it runs counter to the existing neighborhood plan. They are also eager to dispel any rumors of what might go into their future building (a hotel? someone had asked; no, they say; Trader Joe’s, someone else asked? they haven’t talked with any potential retailers at all, they say).
We have a message out to the city planner assigned to this project, Malli Anderson, to get the latest on its status. In the meantime, she is still accepting comments, as far as we know (her contact information is in our coverage of the November 29 meeting), and Mike Gain is repeating his offer to talk with anyone who still has questions and concerns (his contact info is in the comments posted in the same writeup). He also sent us statements that he and Cayce have written regarding the project and criticism of it as well as their West Seattle history; we have uploaded them for you to read here.
They have been through controversy before — even through rezoning, with a project on 54th Place more than a decade ago that involved rezoning hillside single-family lots to multi-family to facilitate a development at the bottom of the hill. They seem ready to weather this one, but also sincerely concerned that they be recognized as longtime local businessmen, and not seen in the same light as out-of-town developers who have parachuted into West Seattle in recent years. And once this is settled – however it is settled – they will, as Gain puts it, “decide what to do with the other side of the street.”