Final Analysis: The Wide Open Spaces

What's with all the ground-floor vacancies in these new buildings?
 
 
What do you do with an empty ground floor?  Feel free to pose this question musically, to the tune of What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor? If nothing else, it lends a little cheeriness to the proceedings. Seattle’s leasing agents could use a little cheering up right about now. With so many apartment buildings and office towers going up, there’s enough vacant commercial space in Seattle to host an indoor Olympics.
 
I can see it now, from Capitol Hill to Ballard to Fremont, athletes running, swimming, throwing the javelin and putting the shot. Underhand, of course, so as not to break a window. Failing that, Hope Solo could rent out the space to spew impolitic invective without offending anyone.
 
The theory about requiring ground-floor retail space is that it makes a neighborhood “pedestrian friendly” — in city-planner speak. Otherwise, a developer might put up an apartment building with no concern for the building’s impact on the quality of life at sidewalk level. 
 
Including consumer-friendly retail is a fine idea. But when real estate development outpaces a community’s ability to fill all the ground-floor retail space, a neighborhood becomes less pedestrian friendly and more pedestrian averse.
 
On a recent tour of Ballard, where I live, I counted 12 vacant storefronts in new and newish buildings. By “newish,” I mean buildings that have been open a year or more. The buildings are spiffy, if architecturally wanting. The sidewalks around them sport new concrete not yet uprooted. And, curiously, homeless people tend not to sleep in front of them. (Maybe the cure for homelessness is eliminating all ground-floor retail?)
 
I suspect there are even more vacancies in Ballard, but some buildings have artfully covered their ground-floor windows with opaque graphics that suggest something pedestrian friendly is going on inside. Then again, maybe not.
Similar vacancies exist in other neighborhoods, and in a boom economy no less. What happens when the boom isn’t so loud?
 
Downtown Seattle seems to be immune right now — retail vacancies there are at a historic low — but downtown, where destination retail appears to be holding its own, is a different animal. In other neighborhoods, the concept of ground-floor retail tends to mean “restaurant” or some other form of food-service enterprise because the old-fashioned clothing store or sundries shop or gift store is tougher to keep afloat these days. Anne Marie Koehler, a VP in the Seattle office of the real estate services firm Jones Lang LaSalle, told Seattle Business last year that it’s a sign of the times. “People are not shopping as much,” Koehler says, “but they are still eating and drinking.”
 
The question, of course, is how many restaurants are too many? Or will the continuing influx of millennials who are averse to dining at home render this question obsolete and guarantee the survival of every new dining establishment ad infinitum?
 
I’ve often wondered if the city might offer an occasional waiver on the ground-floor-retail requirement in exchange for, say, a developer’s promise to include affordable housing in a residential building or to contribute to a special fund to address the homelessness problem.
 
Maybe I’m the only one noticing these empty spaces, and maybe the city doesn’t consider it a problem. Still, one has to figure that developers don’t factor protracted periods of empty space into their long-term budgets. Regardless of how wonderful our ongoing building boom is, there have to be a few developers out there who are desperate for someone — anyone! — to come along and fill their vacancies. 
 
John Levesque is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine. Reach him at john.levesque@tigeroak.com.

Final Analysis: The Sporting Life in 2017

Final Analysis: The Sporting Life in 2017

Three predictions for the coming year on a new arena, an old arena and the Mariners.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
 
As every first-year business student knows, a city’s economy is not considered “world class” until said city has erected at least four shrines to professional sports and these shrines remain empty and unused most days of the year. Seattle is knocking on the door of world classiness because it already has KeyArena, Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field up and running. Occasionally. Just one more monument to appease the great mass of athletic supporters and we’re there. Hallelujah!
 
It’s only a matter of time because Chris Hansen, the San Francisco rich guy who wants to build a new arena on First Avenue South and bring pro basketball and pro hockey to Seattle, is this close to getting his way. In October, Hansen revealed that he and his investors are now willing to pay the whole honkin’ bill for plopping a new arena into the SoDo neighborhood a block from Safeco Field. He still wants a piece of Occidental Way vacated and also expects some tax breaks from the city, but that’s how rich guys are. (See: Trump, Donald.) Besides, the people who believe we’re not world class until the NBA returns to Seattle are salivating over this deal because it’s the best deal we’re ever going to get
 
Of course, these same people said Hansen’s previous offer, which would have required that $200 million in public money be plowed into a new arena, was also the best deal we were ever going to get. 
 
Hansen’s decision to pay more for his arena places the sports economy clearly in the local spotlight this year. Heaven knows we could use more opportunities to pay $9 for a beer and see millionaire athletes selling Jaguars and BMWs on TV. It’s the kind of economic shot in the arm that only comes around whenever a sports league is in a coercive mood. 
 
And so, in the spirit of this January issue’s “looking ahead” theme, we offer three predictions relating to the regional economy as the Hansen arena intrigue continues to unfold.
 
Prediction 1: Hansen, who has already spent more than $120 million buying up property in the area of his proposed arena, will persuade the Port of Seattle, his arch nemesis in this melodrama, to fold up its tent and send all cargo-handling operations to Tacoma. That decision will pave the way for so many trendy bars and restaurants with names like Kale & Kumquat or Cobblestone & Wingtip that Hansen will be persuaded to create a private streetcar system to connect Pioneer Square with the burgeoning Stadium District. 
 
Prediction 2: The city-owned KeyArena, whose very future is clouded by the Hansen proposal, will announce plans to house up to 10,000 homeless persons every day. Even on days when the Seattle Storm and Seattle University basketball teams need the building, the city believes the Storm and the Redhawks could use the attendance boost, so it becomes a classic win-win.
 
Prediction 3: The Seattle Mariners, who still don’t like the arena proposal, will channel their hostility onto the field of play — and still not win the World Series. (This is called pattern-recognition analysis.) However, always mindful of improving the fan experience — because it’s not whether your team wins or loses, but whether you’re inclined not to press charges for being gouged by a vendor — the Mariners will introduce several new fan-friendly food items, plus mani/pedi stations in the pricey seats and roving loan officers to assist anyone trying to finance the purchase of hot dogs and sodas for a family of four. 
 
JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine. Reach him at john.levesque@tigeroak.com.