Seattle is killing retail by requiring too much of it

A better model, from Britain and Vancouver, is to concentrate stores on "high streets," turning others into mostly quiet residential streets. And there are other ways to animate streets than putting in struggling shops.

Crosscut archive image.

Looking east on Yesler in Pioneer Square

A better model, from Britain and Vancouver, is to concentrate stores on "high streets," turning others into mostly quiet residential streets. And there are other ways to animate streets than putting in struggling shops.

Urban philosopher Jane Jacobs has influenced generations of city planners since her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published 50 years ago. An eloquent diatribe against insensitive urban renewal and unilateral power brokers like Robert Moses, the book gave rise to hundreds of programs and laws intended to correct misguided urban policies.

However, one of the most frequently misunderstood tenets of Jacobs has to do with the role of street level shops and services, cafes, and coffeehouses. Her beloved Greenwich Village was and is still today chockablock with small, home-grown, family-run businesses. It’s a virtual paragon of American capitalism, with an astonishing array of enterprises from miniscule shops selling hand-made children’s shoes to high end, white tablecloth restaurants — all cheek by jowl with apartment buildings, row houses, and places of employment.  A marvelously chaotic mash-up of density, diversity, and commerce.

Or so it seems.

Look a little closer and you can see a definite structure. For decades Manhattan has had a system in which the north-south Avenues serve as the streets of commerce. Larger, taller buildings tend to flank those thoroughfares. By contrast the east-west side streets are more residential with considerably less commercial activity. There may be businesses on the ground floor (or a half-basement). Exceptions to this rule are major crosstown streets such as 8th and 14th in the Village or 42nd and 57th further uptown.

You can actually feel the difference between the major streets and the side streets in a visceral sense. The side streets are quieter. Walk off the big avenue 50 feet and the noise level drops significantly. But even other difference are evident. People walk more slowly. People linger in knots. Kids play on stoops. Street trees abound. Apparently even in New York with its off-the-charts density, people appreciate the virtues of small town living and respite spaces.

Unfortunately, we in Seattle have inherited a now-long-standing obsession with street level shops.

For years land use codes required them (or provided incentives for them) in places where retail businesses could not possible survive. It basically requires lots of density to support sidewalks lined with shops. And in particular, shops need to be in places where people live. A rule of thumb is that an office worker will support a few square feet of retail businesses — essentially lunchtime eateries and perhaps a drugstore. In comparison, a resident will support 10-20 square feet. The difference is an order of magnitude. So, outside of a downtown retail core, the presence or absence of people living nearby determines whether a shop dies, barely survives, or thrives.

Moreover, just because an ordinance requires retail does not mean any retailer will be interested in actually locating there. So if a city wants to require shops and services, it should do so judiciously and sparingly.

This where the concept of the “high street” is important. A British term, high streets are singular corridors where the majority of stores and restaurants are concentrated. Intersecting streets are much different, often exclusively residential. You need not buy a ticket to London to see this in action. Vancouver, B.C. is rife with them. For example, Broadway is intensely commercial in nature, with relatively few residential buildings. While two blocks either side of it are purely dwellings of quite significant densities. It’s the best of the both worlds: serene, verdant neighborhoods within walking distance of everything one needs in life.

Seattle's obsession with requiring retail everywhere has led to some unfortunate results. For example in Pioneer Square, there are entire blocks with vacancies and For Lease signs. There is sufficient density, coupled with nightlife and the seasonally varying visitors, to support 4-5 blocks of shops and cafes along First Avenue between Cherry Street and Jackson. Beyond that, demand is spotty and only few categories of retail can make it — art galleries, antique stores, and a few coffee bars and cafes. That is it. There are simply not sufficient people living in the district to warrant more.

And even the development at North Lot will only include enough new residents to support the retail on its own ground floor. Unfortunately, despite the hype, a few hundred new folks won’t make much difference. It would take thousands — a prospect not likely in the near future.

Apparently, the Pioneer Square Review Board continues to insist upon the street level being retail only. This has resulted in some bizarre outcomes. The headquarters of a soda company — essentially an office use — is allowed because one can walk in and purchase some of its soda. There is even a six pack or two in the window to prove it. A bicycle advocacy organization has bikes placed in the display windows by employees riding to work, making it look like a bicycle store. I suppose the bikes could be for sale. Hard to tell. It shouldn’t be necessary to play such games to gain approval.

It is heartening to see a handful of businesses do well outside of First Avenue. On Main Street, west of First, Planet Java hangs in there as an authentic diner. Cafe Umbria continues to be a mainstay on Occidental and Jackson, the quality of its espresso drawing people  from far and wide. The Glasshouse on Occidental has been solid for decades, the quality of its glass pieces exceeding many shops found in Murano, Italy. And the newly opened, homey Calozzi’s Cheesesteaks at the other end of Occidental seems to have been directly transplanted, along with the unusual accents, from Philadephia.  Most encouraging is the deli/market soon to open at Third Ave South and Jackson.

Despite these bright spots, other storefronts have languished. So why not crack open the restrictive city policy and let other enterprises in, even though they may not meet the strict definition of retailing?

Other uses can animate the street. True live/work spaces, so long as blinds aren’t drawn 24/7. Storefront meeting-cum-exhibition spaces — not unlike what Olson Kundig Architects has done with the space on the ground floor of the Washington Shoe building. The Red Red photo studio on Main Street is almost a street theatre with model shoots and classes; its big glass windows invite passersby to be voyeurs and observe shoots in progress. How about inserting a row of ethnic food carts into one of the parking lots along Main Street, a la Portland?

The temporary art works in Occidental Park, including "leg-warmers" on the sycamores, have been a nice addition to the liveliness of the side streets. But it's time to open up the streetfronts to similar creativity, whimsy, and home-grown funkiness.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner. He was an architecture critic for The Seattle Times and is the author of many articles and books, including Citistate Seattle (1999).