Seattle: new playground for the cyber-rich

The erstwhile home of grunge is becoming America's new gold coast

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When Stephen Fletcher and his family began looking for a home in the Seattle area, they allowed themselves a modest budget of $1 million.

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."

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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.

Construction used to be rare here, but a few short blocks off 60th Street, there are multiple work sites. Nearby is a home that fetched perhaps the biggest price in Mercer Island's single-home real estate history. It's a $5.8 million house perched atop a bluff lined with terraces of trees, bushes, and rock walls.

The four-bedroom, 5,770-square-foot house has multiple porches and big windows to take advantage of its panoramic view of Seattle and the surrounding mountains. But the real attraction is the property itself: an all-too-rare full acre on the waterfront. The place sold in May after just one day on the market.

But the new owners don't plan to keep the house, says Shirley Lake, the agent who sold it. They want to tear it down and build something more modern.

Ms. Lake has sold several million-dollar homes this summer - many to young buyers looking for million-dollar "starter" homes. "It used to be that young people didn't have money. Mom and Dad had it, and [the kids] got it when they were older. That's changed."

Not all find the super-rich to be desirable neighbors. New construction of megahomes and the possibility of extensive renovations have already caused controversy in several wealthy King County neighborhoods.

In the Highlands, a gated neighborhood that overlooks Puget Sound, a lawyer and his wife recently sued their millionaire neighbor - Chris Larson, co-owner of the Seattle Mariners - over a long-term renovation.

For three years, construction crews have been working at Mr. Larson's huge compound that includes a historic mansion and several outbuildings. The project is expected to last until at least 2001.

"They're building a village over there," says Becky Allen, who lives next door and is suing. The family has not been able to use their pool for years, but that's the least of Ms. Allen's complaints. She says the project has changed the character of the neighborhood, one that dates back to the turn of the century. Worse, she worries it may set the tone for future buyers.

"This is an old, lovely neighborhood that prided itself on being very private and neighbors being really considerate," Allen says. "This on the other hand is this enormous, enormous intrusion. And ... you don't know how far it will go or who will be the next one to build."

In Finn Hill, another King County neighborhood, neighbors went to court to try to stop construction of a 25,000-square-foot mansion, plans for which included more than 20 toilets and sinks, and a 3,600-square-foot ballroom.

The owner's daughter, Julia Chu, testified in court that her father, an international businessman and head of a large family, needed the room for parties that may include more than 200 guests.

The judge sided with the Chus.

Their attorney, Elaine Spencer, argued such a dream home is nobody else's business, provided it meets applicable guidelines. "When we dream, we all dream differently," she says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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