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Life after Lowe's: How to fix Southeast Seattle's "hardware desert"

Transit-driven development by Mount Baker Station has many pitfalls - and two potential silver linings.
125-foot-tall buildings may rise on this Lowe's site on Rainier Avenue South.

125-foot-tall buildings may rise on this Lowe's site on Rainier Avenue South. Photo: Bill Lucia

There are plenty of reasons to question the city’s plan to upzone the area around the Mount Baker Link rail station into a sort of way-south South Lake Union, at least on paper. (See Bill Lucia's report from last week.) But I can see two reasons to cheer it, though neither has occurred to the proponents. One is arguably trivial, the other admittedly speculative. But together they say a lot about what redevelopment has already wreaked in the Rainier Valley, and why we should look warily at more grand schemes there.

First, the questions: Do we really want 125-foot-high buildings across the street from single-family homes on one side and a block away on the other? That’s the height sought by the Department of Planning and Development and some city councilmembers for the 13 acres occupied currently by Lowe’s Hardware and formerly by Sick’s Stadium (till the Kingdome supplanted it and the city encouraged Eagle Hardware, Lowe’s predecessor, to open there in 1992).

And, do we want to drive yet more light industry out of the city, especially from distressed neighborhoods? The Pepsi bottling plant just north of Lowe’s, is currently zoned for six stories. The plant isn’t included in the upzone proposal, but it is part of the swath targeted for redevelopment. If 12-story apartments go up next door, it will put heavy pressure on Pepsi to yield to a similar project. How many living-wage jobs would then be sent to the boonies or terminated altogether?

Pepsi representatives wouldn’t say how many workers the plant employs. One business data site reports that the Seattle-based Pepsi operation has more than 250 workers and revenues of $100 to $500 million. That job tally sounds improbable; I’ve heard it’s more like 50. But even 50 jobs is a lot in a distressed area of the city. Add 100-plus (not so living-wage) jobs at Lowe’s and other auto-oriented chain retailers that would be displaced by dense transit-oriented development.

At least mega-buildings here come with a silver lining: A few looming mega-blocks of apartments here would at least cut the absurdly overbuilt Mount Baker rail station down to size. This 30,000-square-foot monument — just a single stop on a “light” rail line — looms like a grandiose airport glorifying some bygone dictator in a tin-pot tropical backwater. The barren covered plaza beneath it is big enough to play soccer, but grim and empty.

The Mt. Baker Lofts — affordable artists’ units being built by the national nonprofit Artspace in front of the station — will provide some welcome visual cover, as well as core of residents for an “urban village” that is still planner’s dream rather than reality. Well, 57 residents anyway.

More redevelopment will provide more of both. Of course, it won’t fix the fundamental dysfunctionality and disconnectedness of the station’s design. The bus stops lie blocks away or across fiercely busy Rainier Ave and MLK Way. The skybridge that bypasses the station platform is such an inefficient route across those arterials that many pedestrians still risk their lives (and occasionally provoke the police) by jaywalking.

But what seems to worry many neighbors most is the prospect of losing Lowe’s. Without that chain big box, Southeast Seattle would be bereft of any hardware/lumber/home improvement retail, save for smaller Stewart Lumber up north by I-90, which the pros favor.

Artist's concept of proposed zoning changes around Mount Baker light-rail station. City of Seattle

Lowe’s naturally isn’t talking about moving; all a corporate spokesperson would tell me is that “at this time, Lowe's plans to continue to operate at the Rainier location.” But there’s nothing TOD about big-box stores with big parking lots. They don’t fit in dense mid/high-rise development.  

If you’re feeling really suspicious (easy to do if you spend much time down here), that displacement might seem deliberate, another City Hall gambit to smooth the path of eminent domain and replace “blighted” properties with denser nonprofit housing. If people can’t get nails and paint to fix up their homes, all the easier to declare them blighted.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Dec 16, 7:38 a.m. Inappropriate

Any chance you might tell is "TOD" means?

Love those vague Acronyms, they're just so "SMOTT"

ruffner

Posted Mon, Dec 16, 8:24 a.m. Inappropriate

I suspect it's the last 3 words used in the article (on pg. 3).

But that's just my guess...

Posted Mon, Dec 16, 8:27 a.m. Inappropriate

This is an awfully long article over something that isn't even happening yet. Some city planner/social engineer wants to raise height limits around the station, but Lowes isn't planning on moving out of the area any time soon. They know what they have and they know that there aren't any other hardware stores in the area.

Frankly, I'd much rather see an Ace or True Value or two in the area rather than Lowes.

talisker

Posted Tue, Dec 17, 9:43 a.m. Inappropriate

Lowes doesn't have a say in whether they move or not. They don't own the land. The ball is rolling on this redevelopment, so it's no longer a matter of hypotheticals. The only thing they're haggling over is height limit.

Posted Thu, Dec 19, 4:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Stewart Lumber IS an ACE Hardware and a damn good one!

rcpmac

Posted Mon, Dec 16, 9:05 a.m. Inappropriate

One thing missing in this discussion is the level of potential demand for high-rise housing on the Lowe's site. Buildings over 6 stories have to be concrete/steel construction, the most expensive kind. In order to recover development costs, rents would have to be sky-high. Has the City done any kind of study to determine if anybody has even a remote interest in such an investment in this neighborhood? You can't just wish such development into existence.

Posted Mon, Dec 16, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

TOD is transit oriented development.

talisker - the reason the discussion must happen now, is that once that zoning is there, it won't be undone. Also, the property taxes there will probably triple with a rezone as taxes are based on highest and best used, not current use. A residential tower there threatens all the industry in that area because of noise ordinances. Those industrial jobs (not Lowes, but the bottling plant, the UW laundry, etc), if other neighborhoods are indicators, will pay better than the retail jobs that will come in. In my mind this is the time, and this is exactly the discussion that needs to happen - it's too bad it's been discussed so narrowly.

Catherine

Posted Mon, Dec 16, 10:49 a.m. Inappropriate

These are issues that should be raised by the city council representative for District 2. Until there is such a person, who is going to push the council to ask/answer those questions?

louploup

Posted Mon, Dec 16, 11:19 a.m. Inappropriate

First off, don't assume everyone feels the way you do about the Mount Baker light rail station. I like it. Think its architecturally pleasing and was dismayed the Lofts were covering up so much of it.

Secondly, is that a real worry, that people would move to the suburbs to follow their hardware store? While I don't EVER want to lose my Lowes, I'm NEVER moving to the suburbs, even if I COULD afford it (you fail to understand that's not really an option for a lot of us).

Third, I hate conspiracy theories, and the one where you suggest people won't fix up their homes without a hardware store BY DESIGN is absurd, destructive (teaches distrust in government), and offensive. Besides, there alredy IS a Lowes and people ALREADY cannot, will not or don't fix their homes.

Fourth, you never state whether Lowes will have to leave the area if the DLP decides to develop. Does Lowes own the land? Are they renting?

Fifth, what about the City Council? When I contacted Conlin recently, he said he was surprised by all the hubbub...the plan has been in discussion for over two years. However, since people are starting to raise a stink, he said the council was post-poning the December meeting, which was inconvenient to constituents, and will be happy to listen to area residents. Didn't sound like Big Brother to me.

Finally, I loved the artist's concept cutaway but too bad it was too small to read or really look at, nor offer a larger pop up version.

Posted Mon, Dec 16, 5:18 p.m. Inappropriate

Lowe's does not own the building, which is unusual for the Lowe's chain. They are about 20 years through a 30-year lease, so most likely they will finish out the lease before they move out or on.

Posted Mon, Dec 16, 12:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Generally accurate info except that the Home Depot in Sodo is a lot closer to most than McClendon’s in Renton (however McClendon’s is still one of the best general hardware stores in the world). Situation with the supermarkets has always been difficult. For a brief nine months so back in the mid 1990’s there was a good supermarket on Rainier (Food Pavilion?) however Safeway bought it and moved from their decrepit location on Rainier & Genesee. Nothing really ever replaced it and many people in the valley drive to Fred Meyers in Renton. Don’t see anything changing but good on PCC for moving to a bigger location to Columbia City. Despite the unfortunate name Saar’s is actually worth a visit, some really interesting items there.

rational2

Posted Mon, Dec 16, 1:43 p.m. Inappropriate

I live just west of the greenbelt in next to Mt. Baker station in Beacon Hill. The station is appropriately sized for the development proposed. I use it all the time and I like it. The single family housing across the street from Lowe's and associated 125' proposed rezone is above a steep hill with a p-patch on it. I think the 10 story development there would fit in just fine next to the houses on the side of the hill.

You give Stewart Lumber the short shrift here. It's a perfectly good, locally owned hardware store about 4 blocks north of Lowe's. Lowe's is horrible, they always seem to be out of the part I need, and I have to walk half a mile in the store to find that out.

I'm all for the rezone proposals. I'd love more walkable amenities in my neighborhood.

Posted Mon, Dec 16, 5:27 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm working on a plan to build a goat farm and community owned and operated goat milk cafe on the roof of Lowe's. It is a 5 acre roof that currently contributes to run off and global climate change. It could cause the needed adhesive to address issues of economic inclusion in a neighborhood that is fast becoming gentrific (I used to work at the Chubby and Tubby, which was a union job, and yes, the new station is a giant waste of monumental money).

I've been working in a parallel universe (talking with the building manager, etc.) without realizing the city had gotten so far as to almost finalize a plan.

Does anyone know when the City Council meeting to approve the plan is?

And Lowe's does not own the building (as I replied to Scott in Hillman City) and Lowe's has a little more than a decade left on its lease.

If the existing building can be used as a model for smart urban sustenance and equitability, perhaps a community hardware and tool lending library can go in when the Lowe's lease is up (and a rollerskating rink! That place is five acres!)

Posted Mon, Dec 16, 7:17 p.m. Inappropriate

A sustainable farm in Rainier Valley sounds great. The city really needs to get the word out so we can brainstorm about cool options. Really liked the rink but it needs to be an ice rink. We are so tired of trekking outside of rainier valley to crappy ice rinks and it would be so cool if there was an ice rink on one of the new floors of the development to take advantage of the views. My Canuck friends would be so happy about this!

iceskater

Posted Fri, Dec 20, 2:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Do you write for The Onion?

NotFan

Posted Mon, Dec 16, 6:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Better to do a Master Use Permit and Planning for those HUGE properties. Everything is open for discussion -- target business and residential tenants, relo planning, exact layout and size, shape and scale of buildings.

An upzone does not give us much that will make sense. It also does not guarantee development of any sort. I figure the landowners want a nice chuck of change, which will mean the increased cost of the land will be used as a reason not to do much for the community in the name of 'really will not pencil out'.

Let's get out of these hypothetical arguments and deal with some real tenants and real designs. That means a MUP process. If its enough of an area to have a large impact, then it deserves us knowing what we are going to get.

Posted Mon, Dec 16, 9:18 p.m. Inappropriate

1. My response to your criticism of Mt. Baker station's design is "compared to what?" You don't like the open space under the track? OK - compared to what? A surface level station that would require the train to dive out of the Beacon Hill Tunnel like a roller coaster? Cordoned off space beneath the elevated tracks that is closed off to pedestrians to make it feel more... cozy? The track is elevated for a reason. There is space under elevated tracks. So if you don't like that space, what would you replace it with?

2. "The skybridge that bypasses the station platform is such an inefficient route across those arterials that many pedestrians still risk their lives by jaywalking." This is not the fault of the light rail station, nor the development plans as the terrible bridge preceded both. And the best way to fix the MLK-Rainier interchange is to pick on of these roads to be the major, 4-lane, pedestrian hostile, proto-state highway SDOT keeps telling us we need. Track the traffic onto ONE of them, PICK ONE, and creating a pedestrian-friendly infrastructure becomes easier.

3. When Lowe's moved in, we bemoaned the pressure on smaller hardware stores. Now we're bemoaning the loss of Lowe's. Call me crazy, but if Big Box chains push smaller operators out of a market, if the market continues to demand it, we could replace Lowe's with a local operator. Or multiple local operators. A garden store or nursery which, in this age of increasing urban farming and gardening might be quite successful planted (pun intended) at the right location. Local hardware stores...

nullbull

Posted Tue, Dec 17, 10:23 a.m. Inappropriate

I haven't seen anyone mention the proposals for changing that area to 1-way N/S traffic -- which (from what I remember) routes the northbound flow to the east side of the Lowes site, forcing a hard left, 90 degree angle turn to route back onto Rainier NB after the redevelopment zone. If the city is so gung-ho about improving flow, they should really consider buying a portion of the Lowes site and making a new road with a soft transition through the edge of the site.

Posted Tue, Dec 17, 3:45 p.m. Inappropriate

For small hardware items, it's often easier for me to just cross the Spokane St. viaduct and visit the Junction True Value store, just west of California at SW Edmunds St. They have staff who know their stuff really well, and they can usually sell you just what you need, instead of a blister-pac filled with excess product.

Yes, it's a few minutes of driving, but fewer than the minutes you spend wandering through a big box store.

Posted Mon, Dec 23, 11:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Go to Stewart Lumber.

andy

Posted Wed, Dec 18, 12:04 p.m. Inappropriate

It's not a question of IF but WHEN with Pepsi. The Tumwater Pepsi plant is eating their lunch. New equipment goes to Tumwater, not Seattle. Each year, the production numbers alloted to Seattle trends down.

And it is around 50 jobs, many of them local. Jobs that will be eliminated in Seattle and created in Tumwater.

It's over for Pepsi. Seattle doesn't have a clue about how to sustain the middle class - apparently the City Council and Mayor have attention for both the destitute and the lobbyists from the wealthy. But the middle class? Not so much. Pepsi is leaving and no one is lifting a finger.

Too sad.

Posted Thu, Dec 19, 4:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Pepsi, please take DairyGold with you.

rcpmac

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