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Life after Lowe’s: How to fix Southeast Seattle’s “hardware desert”

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

Even here, however, I see a chance — albeit, a slim one — for a silver lining.

“Food deserts,” nutritional wastelands lacking convenient, affordable access to wholesome foods, are much in the buzz these days. In Southeast Seattle, Rainier Beach and Beacon Hill meet the USDA criteria of low income and low food access; that is, no supermarket within a half-mile for at least 500 residents.

Overall, Southeast is hardly a food desert, however much residents grumble about the retail range (no Trader Joe’s, no Whole Foods, etc.). In fact, the area boasts a number of distinctive offerings: the excellent Mutual Fish, the Viet Wah supermarket and various smaller Vietnamese and African food stores, a wide Mexican selection and other bargains at Sarr’s in Rainier Beach and several international produce stands, including the fine MacPherson’s. Not to mention three Safeways, a QFC, various P-patches and a gritty live poultry market at the Othello junction on Saturday mornings.

But Southeast Seattle is very much a desert in another neglected but important sense. You don’t miss your hardware till the nail bin runs dry, and no one who hasn’t tried to buy nails, etc. down here notices what a hardware desert this quadrant of the city is: the Death Valley of Home Repair.

Forget Google Maps: The “hardware stores” it shows in the 98118 zip are actually a plumber, a flooring service and a steel framing shop (get your cold-pressed studs here). Between Lowe’s and McLendon Hardware in Renton — nearly 11 miles by freeway, nine by MLK Way or congested Rainier Ave — there’s nothing. Not even Chubby and Tubby, the urban country mercantile that used to offer basic hardware along with a great selection of sneakers.

A couple miles to the west, past the barriers of Beacon Hill and I-5, Georgetown offers a few specialized partial alternatives. You’ll find a terrific fasteners selection at Tacoma Screw and cheap Chinese-made tools, a few cheaply made screws and the burning, asphyxiating stench of off-gassing tires at Harbor Freight Tools. But they’re too far away and too limited for the sort of quick one-stop hardware runs that keep weekend projects on track.

How many miles make a hardware desert? One, two, three, four, on crowded city streets? And when you finally get to the inevitable Lowe’s you may or may not find a clerk who may or may not know anything about the stuff he or she is selling. You’ll spend half an hour searching for a simple item that a neighborhood Ace or True Value would produce in two minutes.

You may have to do what I did to secure a couple basic copper plumbing fittings: sort out half the boxes on the rack, which, whatever their labels said, had been filled according to the 52-card-pickup theory of retail display. Lowe’s is the shopping equivalent of Bruce Springsteen’s “57 channels and nothin’ on.”

Compare that to what cozy neighborhoods to the north enjoy: Ballard Hardware, Greenwood Hardware, 5 Corners Hardware and Home Builders’ Supply on Queen Anne, the sui generis Hardwick’s in the U-District, Tweedy and Popp and Stoneway Hardware within a few blocks of each other in Wallingford, plus a raft of other building-supply and paint stores along Stone Way.

These places are neighborhood institutions, educational as well as practical, often even social — neighborhood meeting grounds, quasi-third places. Do-it-yourselfers go not just to buy but to find out what they need and how to use it, sure of finding expertise and a ready ear. They’re locally owned and finely tuned to neighborhood needs.

They’re institutions, surviving on decades of goodwill; Stoneway Hardware recently opened a new store in Ballard. It’s facing off against Ballard Hardware, but not against a nearby big-box category killer.

A good share of 70,000-plus Southeasterners want to fix up their houses or other people’s. But no vendors are rushing down to serve them. I’m sure that dearth has several causes: lower population density, familiarity bias, retailers’ reluctance to go where there are lots of poor people (no matter how many more affluent people also live there). But I’m also sure Lowe’s dominance by default — everyone hates it but everyone shops there — also plays a role. Who wants to challenge a 21-year semi-monopoly?

Perhaps someday someone will open the Rainier or Hillman Hardware of Southeast seattle and do great, just as PCC has by going to places Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods disdain. (PCC now plans a much bigger Columbia City store.) Losing Lowe’s would surely speed that day, and maybe usher in Genesee Ace and Beacon True Value stores as well.

So there’s that silver lining. Of course it may be wishful; if Lowe’s retreated to the ‘burbs, Southeast patrons might follow, just like the ones who already drive to shop at the spiffier Safeways in Renton and Mercer Island.

Whether or not Lowe’s stays, the city and its partners could do what I would do were I a philanthropic capitalist: Open a nonprofit neighborhood hardware store in the middle of the Valley. “Hillman Hardware” has a nice ring to it. Add a surplus building material exchange and tool and how-to book lending libraries, as in the Phinney Neighborhood Association’s Well Home Program. Offer classes in home repair and gardening, plus introductions to the building trades to help kids from the neighborhood get a start at something better than day labor. It could be a model for other urban hardware deserts around the country. Can you hear the sound of grants jingling?

When I’ve broached this idea to housing and community development officials and nonprofit developers, they all seem to light up and say, “Hmmm, I never thought of that. Interesting….” Not that they'll ever do it. But dollar for dollar, it just might be a better investment in community renewal than the millions and billions spent on urban rail and transit-oriented development.

Photo of Lowe's by Justin Baeder/Flickr

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