Downtown Seattle Resurrected Retail Revival Transforms City

SUNDAY, AUG. 3, 1997

Four years ago, retail designer J’Amy Owens was driving north on Sixth Avenue between Pike and Pine streets when she had a “scary moment.”

The I. Magnin building was vacant. There were kids on the roof and graffiti on the walls. The specter of Seattle plunging into the kind of urban decay associated with other inner cities flashed through her mind.

And she wasn’t alone.

“Sixth Avenue was a ghost town,” said Jeanne Congdon, who used to own a boutique in the I. Magnin block.

“Everybody just closed up and left. It was horrible.”

But that ghost town has been resurrected, and today Seattle is enjoying an unprecedented retail revival.

According to downtown leasing agents, retail rents have gone up about 20 percent in the last two to three years, and available space is scarce, with less than 1 percent of the 3.5 million square feet of downtown retail space open for occupancy. About 270,000 square feet was absorbed last year, exceeding the rates that new space has been gobbled up in any of the previous three years.

Interest in downtown retail is keen as retailers sense a sea change in baby boomer shopping habits.

Baby boomers, who invented malls, then Big Box retailing, are now craving a more urban shopping experience, said retail strategist Pat Johnson of Outcalt & Johnson, a Seattle-based retail consulting firm. “Baby boomers tend to reinvent things as they experience them,” Johnson said.

The next big wave is “rediscovering downtowns,” she said.”Many of them grew up in the suburbs. Now they are discovering the texture of urban experience.”

Retailers, hoping to cash in on that trend, are looking for high-visibility locations downtown.

“Everyone wants that slice of the street,” said Mark Barbieri, director of leasing for Unico Properties. “Most are looking for a piece of frontage.”

It has changed from only a short time ago when Seattle’s retail future looked pretty grim.

“It was a case where downtown was not broken, but it was clearly slipping,” said Matt Griffin, a developer and one of the city thinkers worried Seattle might sink below the economic waterline in the wake of closures and defections of major retail outlets.

That was in 1993. I. Magnin had closed in June. The old Frederick & Nelson Building, vacant since the chain’s bankruptcy in 1992, stood like a mausoleum in the heart of downtown. Nordstrom had outgrown its downtown store and was uncertain where to build a new flagship property. Pine Street was closed to traffic between Fourth and Fifth avenues.

Landmarks, such as the old Coliseum Theater at Fifth Avenue and Pike Street, were vacant and run down, or gone altogether. The Music Hall had been torn down the previous year, and the curtain had yet to go up on a new A Contemporary Theatre at the old Eagles Auditorium.

There was no NikeTown.

It’s hard to imagine now, with the clank and clamor of construction under way at numerous sites in Seattle. Great gaping holes in the ground are slowly giving rise to new retail centers, concert halls and apartment buildings. At Fifth Avenue and Pine Street, the largest interior demolition project in the city’s history is under way. ACT has opened in new quarters. The lushly renovated Paramount and the Fifth Avenue theaters are drawing crowds. The old Coliseum is a busy Banana Republic clothing store.

And the city, which used to roll up the proverbial sidewalks when the office workers went home, now buzzes into the evening. Kids and couples mill like moths drawn to the humming lights of GameWorks, NikeTown and Planet Hollywood. The Meridian-16 cinema is sucking moviegoers from surrounding cinemas.

“The increases we’re seeing out of Seattle are nothing short of spectacular,” said John Eyler, chairman and chief executive of FAO Schwarz in New York. Sales at the specialty toy store’s downtown Seattle outlet are already running 30 percent ahead of last year, he said. “By anybody’s standards, that’s good.”

FAO Schwarz, which opened downtown in 1995, is doing the most sales volume per square foot of the 23 comparable stores in the chain, he said.

“We attribute it to the resurging vitality of downtown Seattle,” said Eyler, a Seattle native. “There’s been a tremendous amount of work done to make it more retail friendly.”

That is sweet music to Griffin and other downtown developers who figured back in 1994 that if they built it, the shoppers would come.

It was early 1994 when developer Jeff Rhodes gathered a group of local investors with deep pockets and deeper roots in Seattle to rally them around the cause of turning Seattle into a world-class downtown.

The $2 billion transformation has been astonishing. Mayor Norm Rice has called it “the biggest revitalization effort in downtown Seattle since we rebuilt from the Great Fire (in 1889).”

Bob Watt, president of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, has spent the last year traveling to other cities on a campaign to take the best ideas from other places and put them to work here. He still marvels at the trajectory Seattle is on.

“It was hard work and good luck,” he said.

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