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.

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