Seattle: new playground for the cyber-rich
The erstwhile home of grunge is becoming America's new gold coast
MERCER ISLAND, WASH.
When Stephen Fletcher and his family began looking for a home in the Seattle area, they allowed themselves a modest budget of $1 million.Skip to next paragraph
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Coming from the San Francisco Bay Area, Mr. Fletcher was used to steep home prices. But after a recent househunting trip on Mercer Island, a quiet community linked to Seattle by a floating bridge, he couldn't find a waterfront property in his price range.
"It was a shock," says the high-tech executive. "We were hoping our money would go a lot further in Washington."
The Seattle area is emerging as America's new gold coast. Like Florida's Palm Beach a generation ago and California's Newport Beach in the 1980s, it's becoming the latest home for the nouveau riche - in this case the cyber-rich.
But amid the Hansel-and-Gretel landscape of the Evergreen State, tensions - and lawsuits - are mounting as nature-lovers are being encroached upon by the Range Rover crowd.
The influx of cyberwealth has already changed quiet waterfront communities like Mercer Island, Clyde Hill, Woodway, Yarrow Point, and Medina, home of Bill Gates. All these appear on a national ranking of the 250 most expensive places to live, according to Worth, a magazine aimed at the wealthy.
"People who have lived here for a long time cherished the fact that no one knew where Medina was," says City Manager Doug Schulze. "When you have well-known people living in the community, you lose a little of that, which is kind of ironic because that's ... what attracted them in the first place."
Many of these homebuyers have grown wealthy on stock options at booming local companies like Microsoft, Amazon.com, and Real Networks. They often pay cash for good locations, then raze existing homes to build their dream houses - a phenomenon known as "tear-downs."
In the tiny, mostly residential community of Medina, for instance, towering commercial cranes have become common features. Some newcomers buy three or more lots and erect megamansions. Once finished, they surround them with 30-foot fences, which have turned some streets into virtual canyons.
None of the town's 20 full-time employees can afford to live in Medina, the 48th most expensive town in the US, according to Worth. The median sale price for a house here is more than $600,000.
Once a getaway island of funky beach cottages, Mercer Island has also seen prices soar into the millions.
It doesn't look like one of the nation's wealthiest cities with bushes and scruffy trees lining the roads instead of pristine landscaping. But househunter Fletcher figures a home on Mercer Island will be a great investment. (He's keeping his San Francisco house for the same reason.)
A ride along 60th Street on the island's west side shows how it is changing: Only a few original cottages remain on large lots. The rest have been scrapped and replaced with gleaming tan or white megahomes that seem meant more for the Mediterranean Coast than a rainy Northwest island.