Loren Cohen looks at the progress of the construction from a top floor apartment balcony with a panoramic view of Mount Rainier and the Puget Sound in the background at Point Ruston on Wednesday, May 1, 2013. (LUI KIT WONG/The News Tribune)
Loren Cohen displayed all the pride and eagerness of a new parent last week as he conducted a pre-opening tour of the Copperline Apartments, the first major structure in what someday may be a billion-dollar mixed-use waterfront development near Tacoma’s Point Defiance.
The first residents of the 173-unit Copperline are to move in this week.
The symbolic and financial significance of the Copperline’s opening can hardly be overstated. The $25 million building is the first major revenue-producing result of a gamble that Cohen’s father, Mike, made seven years ago when he bought the 93-acre site of the former Asarco copper smelter.
That site, part of which is in Tacoma and part of which is in Ruston, had great potential. It sat beside Commencement Bay with panoramic views of Mount Rainier, Vashon Island and Northeast Tacoma. The smelter site’s waterfront was the missing link between two of Tacoma’s most popular public attractions, Point Defiance Park and the Ruston Way waterfront.
But the brownfield site presented huge issues. The smelter, which closed in the mid-1980s, had refined high-arsenic ore, polluting the smelter property and neighborhoods nearby with metals and arsenic.
Much of the cleanup had been accomplished by the time Cohen and his backers bought the property, but the environmental legacy of the site, the fact that two cities shared planning jurisdiction, and that an alphabet soup of regulatory agencies, both state and federal, had a say in the redevelopment activity made proceeding slow and expensive.
Before major development could begin, Point Ruston not only had to mitigate any remaining environmental issues, it had to create a new road network to handle traffic between Ruston and Tacoma, update utilities, build a public access pedestrian walkway along the waterfront and rehabilitate the old smelter slag dump into a waterfront addition to Point Defiance.
Mike Cohen and his backers say they’ve spent nearly $100 million on such basic infrastructure and public improvements. The art-graced pedestrian path, the Waterwalk, is nearly complete. Earthmovers are working to create the new park addition, and the walking path up the hillside to Point Defiance should open in a few months.
The Copperline itself has seen a fitful existence. First conceived as a 99-unit condominium, construction on the building began in 2008. But work halted after the concrete was poured for the three garage levels that formed the building’s base.
Loren Cohen said the housing market implosion caused the banks backing the building to have second thoughts about creating more condos in a market where the existing inventory wasn’t selling.
That concrete shell stood empty for three years awaiting a change in the market. When construction resumed, the building had undergone a redesign. Instead of 99 condos, the Copperline would house 173 apartments for lease.
That redesign meant drilling through the concrete garage shell to install more water, electrical and drainage lines. One remnant of the building’s old footprint was a number of corner one-bedroom apartments with wraparound decks nearly as large as the apartments themselves. Those decks originally would have been part of large condominiums, but in the redesign, where the apartments emerged as smaller units than the condos, the decks became part of a relatively much smaller apartment.
Last week, workers were putting finishing touches on the building, whose public spaces and first apartments were essentially done. The building had only to pass its final sprinkler test to earn an initial occupancy permit.
Loren Cohen said the building will be opening in phases with the first apartments becoming available for move-in this week and others joining them as interior work is done.
About 60 days of work remain on the build-out of ground floor retail and office spaces. Among the tenants will be a new-concept Forza Cafe in northwest corner of the building. That cafe will broaden Forza’s usual mission from gourmet coffee shop to that of a casual cafe that features occasional night-time entertainment and food deliveries throughout the Point Ruston neighborhood.
Adjacent to Forza, a fitness club and physical therapy clinic is beginning construction. The fitness club will serve as the residents’ fitness facility with a private entrance from within the apartment structure. That club will also be open for public memberships.
A third health and wellness facility, a plastic surgery clinic, is finalizing lease arrangements, said the younger Cohen.
A day spa will complement the other three retailers on the building’s ground floor.
Two other tenants initially scheduled to occupy Copperline retail spaces, an olive oil specialty shop and a candy shop, are no longer scheduled to open in that building, said Loren Cohen.
“We thought they would be better fits in the main retail area of Point Ruston,” said Loren Cohen. An office client may occupy the spaces previously reserved for those two shops.
In the apartment part of the building, the upper five floors, 35 units were leased before the building opened. Rents range from $1,155 to $3,075 monthly depending on the size and view from the apartment. Units range from 645 to 1,491 square feet. Parking in the three-story garage is $50 a month per space.
The apartments most in demand have been the larger, more expensive units, said the younger Cohen.
Stephanie Albanese, an interior designer, is one of the first tenants scheduled to move in.
The building’s stout construction, noise insulation and water views were several of the factors that caused her to sign a lease.
She plans to move into a one-bedroom apartment initially and then move again to a larger, two bedroom unit higher in the building as that phase of construction becomes available.
“I can go work out in the fitness center, walk on the path to Point Defiance and get my nails done right there,” she said. “I like the safety and security of a large building for the times that I’m out of town,” she said. Albanese has another residence in Mexico.
The building is equipped with two major club rooms, one set up for meetings and banquets, the other equipped with cushy leather chairs, a huge flat panel television and a bar.
A business center with the usual complement of computers, printers and electronics also is available to residents.
The building offers a variety of floor plans. The building’s facade is punctuated with balconies, bay windows and pop-out windowed alcoves. An internal, multi-story open-air atrium provides light and air to the inside of the apartments.
All of the apartments are equipped with modular heating and air conditioning units. The kitchens come with stainless steel appliances.
Even as the Copperline opens its doors, other signs of life are emerging on the site. Three custom homes are under construction on Stack Hill, the former site of the smelter’s 500-foot-tall smokestack. After an initial burst of activity in that single-family home section of the development, activity halted during the recession.
Since the first of the year, 14 Stack Hill view lots have sold, said Loren Cohen.
And on the water side of the Copperline Apartments, activity is heating up for the condominiums the developers want to build there.
The foundations of those two buildings have been poured, and the developers are securing financing to continue construction.
“As you might expect, condominiums aren’t the first things that banks are eager to finance,” said Mike Cohen. His son said Point Ruston is exploring private sources for the condo financing.
Plans call for two buildings with a total of 43 condos. The prices range from $500,000 to $2 million for those condo homes, which range in size from 1,600 to 3,500 square feet. The four-story condo structures will occupy land between the Copperline Apartments and Waterwalk pedestrian path. Because the Copperline Apartments are perched on higher ground atop the three-story garage and retail base of that building, only a few views will be partially obstructed by those buildings.
The developers are in the planning stage for their next major building, a structure north of the Copperline that will house a 9-screen multiplex theater topped with apartments. A Silver Cloud Hotel is still scheduled to be built near the retail core of the development.
The Cohens and their team are negotiating with grocers to fill a retail space atop a garage to be built into the hillside near Ruston Way.
This article originally found in The News Tribune.