AKA: Bank of America Tower, Downtown, Seattle, WA; Columbia Center, Downtown, Seattle, WA

Structure Type: built works - commercial buildings - banks (buildings)

Designers: Lindsey, Chester, L., and Associates, Architects (firm); Magnusson Klemencic Associates (MKA) Structural + Civil Engineers (firm); Robertson, Leslie E., Associates (LERA), Structural Engineers (firm); Selig, Martin, Real Estate (firm); Skilling, Helle, Christiansen, and Robertson, Incorporated, Engineers (firm); Skilling, Ward, Rogers, Barkshire, Incorporated, Engineers (firm); Wright, Howard S., (HSW) Construction Company (firm); John Valdemar Christiansen (structural engineer); Helge Joel Helle (structural engineer); Ronald Klemencic (structural engineer); Chester Loren Lindsey (architect); Jon Magnusson (structural engineer); Leslie Earl Robertson (engineer); Martin Selig (developer); Chris Simonds (architect); John Bower Skilling (structural engineer); Howard S. Wright (building contractor/developer)

Dates: constructed 1985

76 stories, total floor area: 1,952,220 sq. ft.

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411 Columbia Street
Downtown, Seattle, WA 98104

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Overview

The Columbia Center takes up the whole city block bounded by 4th and 5th Avenues and Columbia and Cherry Streets, and was the ninth tallest building in the world when first erected. Its huge scale aroused controversy in 1983 and 1984, as the skyscraper contained 1.5 million square feet of space, three times larger than any existing office tower. The tower would cause a glut of space, some claimed, driving down the value of existing office buildings. Some critics worried that it would deflect and funnel excessive winds onto Seattle streets. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) demanded that the developer, Martin Selig (b.1937) lower the building so that it would not block flight paths to Seattle's airports; as a result, each floor's height was cut by six inches. In 02/1983, at a time when American manufacturing jobs were being lost to overseas companies, consternation developed when news leaked that the US Steel Corporation had out-sourced steel from Japan, enabling it to submit a bid of $13 million for the tower's framing members, undercutting other domestic supplliers by $4 million. Looming above the city's skyline, some have criticized the Columbia Center's dark coloration and minimal form. Yet, due to its great views, it has remained a popular place to lease office space, and some of the city's most powerful organizations--from banks to law firms--have rented quarters here.

Building History

At 76 stories (937 feet), the Columbia Center remains one of the tallest buildings west of Chicago, IL, and north of Houston, TX; only the First Interstate Tower (310 m., 1,018 ft.) in Los Angeles, CA, and the Texas Commerce Center (later known as the J.P. Morgan Chase Tower) (305 m., 1,002 ft.) in Houston, TX, (both designed by New York architect, I.M. Pei) were taller since 1989. The Seattle architectural firm of Chester L. Lindsey and Associates designed the Columbia Center for the developer, Martin Selig Real Estate of Seattle; Chris Simonds, who had worked for Selig on several earlier projects, served as Lindsey's lead designer on the project. Howard S. Wright Construction Company supervised the building of the tower. Construction began in 1983 with the building topping out on 09/30/1984.

Developer Martin Selig (born 1937) spent ten years (1975-1985) planning and constructing the Columbia Center, a building whose name has changed four times. From 1982 until 1984, during its planning and construction, the skyscraper was known as the "Columbia Center." By 05/01/1984, while still being built, its name had been modified to the "Columbia Seafirst Tower," in honor of its primary lessee, the Seafirst Bank Corporation, a subsidiary since 1983 of the Bank of America. The Columbia Seafirst Center opened on 03/02/1985. During the time (1983-1998) that the San Francisco-based bank of America controlled Seafirst, the subsidiary and its leadership was given significant autonomy, and the Seafirst brand name was continued.

After the colossal merger of the San Francisco-based BankAmerica Corporation and Charlotte-based NationsBank Corporation on 04/13/1998, the new Charlotte-based Bank of America renamed the Columbia Seafirst Center the "Bank of America Tower." The formal rechristening occurred on 09/27/1999. Most recently, the building had its name changed back to its original name of the "Columbia Center" on 11/21/2005 following the Bank of America's departure from the tower.

The tower's ownership has also been somewhat complicated. Developer Selig ran into financial problems in the late 1980s, forcing him, in 1989, to sell the Columbia Center to the building's prime tenant, Seafirst Corporation (and its owner Bank of America), in 1989 for $354 million. In 1998, the Chicago billionaire Sam Zell's Equity Office Properties (EOP) paid $404 million for the tower, the most expensive piece of real estate in the Pacific Northwest at the time. This computed to $269 per square foot. On 02/07/2007, the Blackstone Group of New York, NY, bought the EOP Trust for $39 billion, and, on 04/10/2007, Blackstone sold the Columbia Center to Beacon Capital Partners of Boston, MA, for $621 million. (Blackstone broke up Zell's real estate holdings rapidly to service its massive debt, and sold 29 properties in Seattle to raise money for the EOP acquisition.) Beacon paid approximately $410 per square foot, adding to its Seattle real estate portfolio that included the Wells Fargo Center. (At the time of this acquisition, Beacon also bought 13 other income properties in the Seattle metropolitan area.)

During 2010, in the midst of a deep recession, approximately 600,000 square feet of Columbia Center space was vacant, 40% of the building. Elsewhere in Downtown Seattle, office vacancies stood at 20% in 03/2010. Large tenants including the online retailer, Amazon.com, and the law firm, Heller Ehrman, vacated between 2008-2011. With less rental income, Beacon Capital Partners missed a $1.65 million payment (in 03/2010) on its $380 mortgage, causing concern about the company's solvency. While Beacon bought the building for $621 million in 2007, it had an assessed value of $380 million in 2010.

The Columbia Center would change hands again on 06/02/2015, when Gaw Capital Partners of Hong Kong announced the "pending acquisition" of it from Beacon for $725 million. Gaw Capital Partners, formed by Goodwin Gaw and Kenneth Gaw, owned 64 properties worldwide at the time of the Columbia Center purchase, 19 of which were located in the US. On the West Coast, Gaw owned properties in Portland, OR, San Francisco, CA, and Silicon Valley. The Columbia Center's occupancy rate rebounded by 2015 from its 60% rate in 2010. The Seattle Times reported that it stood at 90% by 03/2015. (See Sanjay Bhatt, "Hong Kong investors set to buy Columbia Center," Seattle Times, 06/02/2015, accessed 06/09/2015.)

Building Notes

The building had an unusual form, composed of three large arcs placed back to back, each oriented to the west, south, and east, facing Elliott Bay, Mount Rainier and the Cascades respectively. Compare with a rectilinear block, the arc form provided increased window surface area to be exposed toward the remarkable views. With better views, the developer, Martin Selig, could charge more for office leases. His architect, Chester L. Lindsey (1927-2003), who had worked with Selig several times previously, may have developed the arc form for a more practical reason. Selig succeeded in buying the entire block bounded by 4th Avenue, Columbia Street, 5th Avenue and Cherry Street, except one. This was the Columbia House, located on the southeast corner of 4th and Columbia. Architect Fred Bassetti (1917-2013) owned Columbia House and initially refused to sell it to Selig, creating a design challenge for the developer and his architect. Lindsey may have created the arc to wrap the Columbia Center around Columbia House; what may have begun as a form generated by expediency later became the defining formal motif of Seattle's tallest skyscraper.

The Columbia Center, was, in 2014, the 22nd-tallest building in the US, and the 113th-tallest in the world, and contained 1,952,220 gross square feet, 1,526,621 net. King County maintained some offices in this building c. 2007.The Columbia Center was connected by tunnels to the Bank of America 5th Avenue Plaza and the Seattle Muncipal Tower.

Contractors excavated approximately 180,000 cubic yards of soil to lay the foundations for the Columbia Center. According to a Seattle Times article of 03/15/1981, "The excavation would go 60 feet below the level of Fourth Avenue and 120 feet beneath the Fifth Avenue level on the site, between Cherry and Columbia Streets." (See "Excavation job in prospect," Seattle Times, 03/15/1981, p. G13.)

When it was erected, the Columbia Seafirst Center's great height elicited the contempt of some Seattle residents, who blamed developer Selig for being greedy and marring the city's skyline. At architect Chester Lindsey's death in 2003, the Seattle Times summarized the extent of opposition that the building elicited: "But the landmark, which currently has a 25 percent vacancy rate, was by no means universally popular. The late Victor Steinbrueck, former dean of the University of Washington School of Architecture, said according to Historylink.org: 'It's terrible. A flat-out symbol of greed and egoism. It's probably the most obscene erection of ego edifice on the Pacific Coast.' The building set off a bout of civic soul searching culminating in a building code said to reflect a desire for a city of a smaller scale. A group of Seattle denizens, including current City Councilwoman Margaret Pageler, formed Vision Seattle in 1987, in part in response to the $200 million skyscraper. In 1989, voters approved the so-called CAP Initiative, which limited the height of downtown buildings to 36 stories and forced developers to go through a stringent design-review process. Current Seattle City Council President and architect Peter Steinbrueck said he can't imagine those restrictions being lifted, unless the entire building code is abandoned." (See J. Patrick Coolican, Seattle Times.com, "Chester Lindsey, 1927 - 2003: Noted architect reshaped city's skyline," 08/19/2003, accessed 01/02/2018.) It wasn't until 2006 that developers prevailed on Seattle city government to change its rules governing skyscraper height and density.

Alterations

An electrical fire occured on two floors and an atrium of the building requiring the evacuation of hundreds of office workers at midday, 07/25/1988.

Changes made to "Sky View," the 73rd floor observation deck occurred on 07/01/2013, enlarges its field of vision from 270 degrees to a full 360-degree view.