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Brian Miller
Real Estate Editor

July 13, 2023

On the Block: Big plans for the tiny Triangle Hotel building

Pioneer Square's tiny little flatiron-shaped Triangle Hotel building, at 553 First Ave. S., last sold in 2017, two years before the viaduct was demolished on its near west side. The Triangle Pub was then on a month-to-month lease, but shuttered during the pandemic. Several of the ground-floor windows were recently broken, with bricks hurled through them, and the facade is now sadly boarded over.

On its second and third floors, those two apartments do have renters. But the landmarked building has seemed increasingly forlorn during recent pandemic years.

That's all about to change. Architect BuildingWork filed plans this week to completely renovate the three-story building, which is usually dated to 1910 (but, per city records, 1899 seems possible). The early proposal, to require approval from the Pioneer Square Preservation District Board, also includes a small roof deck and structural upgrades. Matt Aalfs of BuildingWork says he hopes to brief the board late this summer or early this fall.

The building is on the city's dreaded URM list — its roster of unreinforced masonry structures. It's described as “medium risk.” Structural engineer Coughlin Porter Lundeen will oversee the seismic retrofit.

“It's not as bad as a lot of historical buildings that we've done,” says Aalfs. “I think it's very straightforward. There's some steel already in it,” meaning a partial retrofit done under prior ownership. “The building's been kept warm and dry. The facades are in good shape.” New double-pane windows are planned, along with new building systems.

Historical photo via UW Special Collections [enlarge]
The hotel in 1910 (note the Triangle Bar sign at left) ...

Current photo by Brian Miller [enlarge]
...and on the evening of the MLB All-Star Game, this past Tuesday.

What else lies in store for the building? A return to its original use: a hotel over a restaurant says co-owner Ray Spencer, an experienced broker, investor and boutique developer. “It was the smallest hotel west of the Mississippi,” he says, and that it will become again. “We think there would be demand for two high-end hotel suites,” both furnished, one per floor, above the new bar and restaurant. “The intent is to do a complete gut rehab.”

For future guests, in town for concerts or games in the stadium district, a few steps east of First, he'd like to see the mini-fridges stocked with local microbrews and regional delicacies from vendors like Salumi.

At grade, a relaunched Triangle Bar (and restaurant) could have outdoor seating to the west. For that new unnamed plaza/park, now completely remade by the city, Spencer says, “The city wants us to provide food and beverage service.”

That expanse now has custom brick work, new trees and lighting. That former spur of Railroad Way South then leads, east across First, to a similar plaza in front (west) of the Gridiron condos, which is becoming a new Silk Road for tourists, concertgoers and sports fans marching from the waterfront and Colman Dock to SoDo.

“Timing is everything,” says Spencer. After the tunnel-boring saga of Bertha, then COVID-19, the west/waterfront side of Pioneer Square is finally seeing some signs of resurgence. During the neighborhood's recent nadir, he recalls, “My wife is like, ‘Why don't you sell it?'” But now, “The timing seems to be getting better. The viaduct was like 15 feet away. Now there's a new city park next to it.” Indeed, new restaurants and bars are starting to sprout among First Avenue storefronts that have been vacant for two-odd years.

Spencer owns the Triangle Hotel with local partner John Hartmann, and he himself has past experience with converting old red-brick buildings to new uses. Once with Marcus & Millichap, he has an enduring love for “classic cool architecture” exemplars, even if “they all needed seismic retrofitting. Inside, they'd all been bastardized. It's kind of a niche market, but I loved it.

“We want to do it right,” he says of the Triangle Hotel renovation. “We're not doing this to sell it. It's super complicated. It's way slower than I would've liked. It's getting hit by vandals.” Those recent bricks came when the west park/plaza was fenced off for construction.

By contrast, that newly opened plaza has been flooded this week with baseball fans and new eyes on the street. Spencer chuckles, “I would've loved to be open for the MLB All-Star Game. We have 100,000 people walking around there today.” Thirsty fans likely would've shared the same sentiment.

In a perfect world, says Spencer, the new Triangle Hotel would open in time for the Mariners' next season, next summer. Architect Aalfs thinks that's possible, since there's no new legal change of use or addition to the building. (McCullough Hill Leary is the legal advisor.) No contractor is attached at this time.

How long might the construction take? For such a small building, with only about 2,000 square feet above grade, Spencer guesses seven to nine months. (So, in time for the Seahawks' fall 2024 season?) Aalfs says the restored and water-sealed basement will become a full kitchen. The weird open staircase to the basement, beneath the old hot dog cart, would be preserved for deliveries.

For Pioneer Square, says Spencer, “There's a better day ahead.” Nearby, both he and Aalfs refer to the new Jack office building, from Urban Visions, and the Washington Park building renovation project (offices over retail and restaurants, from Unico Properties and Lake Union Partners).

“The more places that are open, the more people walking around,” says Spencer, “that will only help.”

Designed by architect C. Alfred Breitung, the Triangle Hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places. The hotel opened with eight rooms above the Triangle Bar; the latter use continued until 1929, per city records.

The building was also a brothel in its early years, then later served as offices for Western Union Telegraph Co. during 1929-1954. It then communicated with the main office at Second and Cherry via pneumatic tubing.

The shuttered pub was often called the Triangle Tavern, also the past name in Fremont for what's now simply dubbed Triangle Spirits. It's unclear who owns the Triangle Bar or Triangle Hotel names today. The pub on First operated as the Flatiron Tavern from at least 1977; before that, it was the Mill Tavern during the 1960s.

Alarmingly, following the 1964 Alaska earthquake that damaged so many buildings in Pioneer Square, there was a subsequent city permit application to demolish the upper two floors.

They remained vacant until the building was purchased in the early 1970s, then renovated into offices by owner-architects Les Tonkin and Walt Greissinger, who then occupied the building. (The preservation district was established in 1970.) Those two families sold six years ago to the current ownership for nearly $1.9 million.

That's just from public records. The Triangle Hotel has a lot of history for such a diminutive building, and Spencer says he has boxes and boxes of records, photos, artwork and ephemera from past owners. Some of that may go on display when the hotel finally reopens.

Got a tip? Contact DJC real estate editor Brian Miller at brian.miller@djc.com or call him at (206) 219-6517.

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