CHS Re:Take | Why Capitol Hill’s Bauhaus block matters

The possibility of losing the stores in the “Bauhaus block” (technically, 1535 Bellevue Ave E and the Melrose Building) really troubles me. It’s not simple fear of change. And it’s more than my love for old buildings and their stories. Can I quantify what’s bothering me?

I’ll put the conclusion first: we need more, smaller commercial spaces.

Death of Pike/Pine
Back at the end of 2006 I took a tally of the street-facing businesses on East Pine Street from Minor to Broadway.


I was living in Tokyo, and deeply saddened by the impending loss of my favorite places in Seattle: Kincora, Manray, Bimbo’s Bitchin Burrito Kitchen, and Cha Cha. Okay, I was living in Tokyo thinking “what a bunch of chumps!” as I watched Seattle undo itself.

I had just wrapped up a historiopsychogeography of the street rises of Tokyo’s Akasaka neighborhood. Next, I turned my attention to another Tokyo street form: shoutengai, or commercial streets. This time I was in Koenji. Along the way, I created a business-by-business index of a one-third mile stretch of the shopping street Koenji Look, and of Pine Street, a shopping corridor in Seattle with many similarities.

Let’s ignore the whole international comparison for now, and instead contrast Pine Street over 6 years.

bauhaus ne viewbauhaus ne view, originally uploaded by subetsum

Long Live the Remnants of Pike/Pine
There were 44 store fronts on Pine (Minor to Broadway) back then. Despite additional construction, there are only 37 now. While they were all full in 2006, five are vacant today.

Another way to look at it, though, is that 20 of the same businesses are still there almost six years later. That’s 54% of the businesses that weren’t demolished. But on the Bauhaus block, six of seven businesses – 85% – have weathered the Great Recession. Mud Bay Granary, Le Frock, Edie’s, Wall of Sound, Vutique and of course Bauhaus are all still here. Wall of Sound also squeezed in Spine & Crown Books from up the street. Scout replaced Vutique’s partner Vu after they consolidated.

It’s more remarkable when you consider that the dense activity of Melrose Market didn’t exist yet, and the Marion Apartments have sat derelict across the street for the whole time. Something about the Bauhaus block has been extremely attractive to customers.

Today, the Bimbo’s block is finally being rebuilt. It took away seven store fronts and will replace it with about four. Let’s hope that they do better than the large space that can’t keep a healthy business across the street at Press. Press should have 5 businesses the size of Third Man Video. (Aside: I remember a video game arcade on that lot that was demolished but can’t remember the rest… anyone?)

Another Arrow for your Quiver
How can it be good for our city’s commerce to displace these healthy stores (with obviously strong or adaptive business models!), and replace them with bigger, pricier spaces that pose challenges to new tenants? How can it be good for walkability?

Of course, the answer is that it is clearly not good for economics or for walkability.

A recent study of the U-Cal Transportation Center found that – duh! – lots of businesses nearby each other encourage people to walk more. But more than that, it’s apparently the biggest factor that makes people walk:

Our results show that the number of businesses per acre is the single most robust indicator of whether people are likely to walk in their neighborhood.

(h/t to Jon Geeting for the more readable summary.)

And what we’ve known for the last 100 years — 80 if you don’t speak German — is that commercial success increases with concentration. It’s called agglomerative economics or spacial density. Back in 1909 they were looking at industrial adjacency. But the same math applies to retail.

To be clear, that math is 1 + 1 = 2.3. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. (Actually, it’s more like “each part is worth more when summed to a whole”.)

If our goal is density, we need to grow up and start thinking about every trip being taken, not just commutes. Having people live near work doesn’t address what should be our biggest transportation goal: keeping the economy healthy. Business concentration does.

Bonus Time
Okay, now let’s go with the international comparison.

Koenji Look (Photo by Author)

In 2006, Koenji Look had 181 business in the one-third mile stretch between Shin-Koenji Station and Koenji Station. Yes, that’s a store every 20 feet on both sides.

That’s gross density, so I have not subtracted intersections, parks, or other non-private development. It does include some side streets which have businesses for a few yards, but adding the same frontage to Pine Street only adds two or three stores.

To put that in context, the Bauhaus block has a business every 25 feet. The other side of the street is not commercial, so the effective density is a business every 50 feet of street frontage. Include half of the Melrose and Bellevue intersections to get gross density, and it drops even further, to about 1/65′. So we would need to squeeze in a couple more stores and replicate it on the other side as well to match Koenji Look. And then run that all the way to Broadway. Of course I’m ignoring the third dimension here, cutting Seattle some slack over wide streets.

You can imagine how the density of Koenji equates to walkability and to commercial activity. There is constant experimentation with carts (uncounted in my tally!) and growth into retail spaces and out with second stores or larger quarters elsewhere. The vintage shopping is so good that young people take charter buses from far-flung regional cities to spend a Sunday browsing and buying old clothes.

But, the numbers for Koenji bare out that change is everywhere. 53% of the businesses remain from six years ago, but that means 48 have changed and 29 store fronts no longer have unique tenants (empty, expanded-into or vanished). On the other hand, 10 new addresses are filled.

Another Look at Koenji Look

It’s probably too late to hope to ever get business density like this on a street in Seattle. But like the Bauhaus block, maximum agglomeration should be encouraged parcel by parcel anyways.

Here’s a great model that a developer could give a shot at. An astounding watering-hole incubator was built a decade ago in Utsunomiya, north of Tokyo. They took a small parking lot and turned it into two dozen tiny pubs, bars and restaurants. That city overall is becoming more auto-centric, and the old shoutengai suffer as big box stores on the periphery successively skyrocket and flame out. But Yatai Yokocho, the incubator, is busy. It has spun off larger restaurants and is bucking the trend with droves of walkers.

In Conclusion, The Spoiled Ending
I’d love to sit in Bauhaus and look out the window on a horde of pedestrians where the parking lot next to Pho Tai “used to be”. It would certainly beat sitting in a car next to Pho Tai staring at another ugly apartment box with a drug store or liquor store in the bottom, where Bauhaus “used to be”.

There are many other good reasons to want Bauhaus and its neighbors to stay in place: sustainability, preservation, character, gratitude, habit. Density is another great reason to leave it untouched. After all, it’s already helping us meet a goal of a healthy economy. Why aren’t we filling in the empty places and derelict properties instead?

We need more, smaller commercial spaces.

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33 thoughts on “CHS Re:Take | Why Capitol Hill’s Bauhaus block matters

  1. You guys act like a bunch of 80 year old Republicans, in total fear of any change to the system, except the system is a neighborhood that most of you will move out the year you decide to raise a family.

    Dont like Density? Then perhaps you shouldn’t have voted for McGinn.

  2. And I believe that our zoning needs tweaking. We have a couple of things going against the older buildings. Number one is seismic upgrades. They are expensive and frequently don’t pencil out.

    Another item with the Pike/Pine conservation overlay district is that it doesn’t explicitly preserve whole buildings, it can be just facades.

    Retail size: Whereas smaller spaces invigorate a walking street, do they provide the economic driver to provide a comfortable living for their owners/investors? Trust me, I’m not saying the chain stores do that either, but they have economies of scale. I see some of the smaller shops and restaurants on the hill, and I can’t figure out how anybody is making any money.

    I think there is a deep attachment that the community feels for Bauhaus, it is a proverbial ‘third place’. I don’t know the status of the project to replace B&O, but this is a similar feeling for our community. Bauhaus and the other businesses are the foyer to our neighborhood, if you will. The problem is, we never really owned the house, and the landlord wants to remodel.

  3. I never thought of exactly why the replacement of these buildings has bothered me. I always chalked it up to sentimental reasons – I dig the old brick and ‘lived in’ feel of Capitol Hill of years ago. Seemed to me that with each block replaced, it lost some charm and was replaced by cookie-cutter businesses (same as anywhere else, really) with zero personality. I can’t blame new buildings – personality has to grow in time.

    And that’s the reason why I’ve always dug European towns and cities. It’s not the modern part of town – those are anywhere. It’s the old part of town. Certainly city planners can see the advantages of keeping places like Bauhaus around?

    At least, these were my sentiments before reading this article. There is something about the amount of shops on a block that rings true, and I’v never thought about it til now.

  4. Thanks for the article and keeping a spotlight on this block. As someone who lives on Capitol Hill, I have no interest in shopping in, or eating at, the kinds of generic buildings and businesses that this developer seems to specialize in. However, a charming street populated with boutiques and cafes, run by people who have a unique vision and passion for what they are doing? That opens my pocketbook and brings me back again and again. These are businesses that work to build a sense of community, not just to make a profit, and I thank them for it.

    P.s. Viva la Wall of Sound!

  5. Sounds like you haven’t noticed that there are a lot of young children on Capitol Hill now because many of us do like density and do want to stay in this lovable neighborhood. What is being objected to is not change, or even building ‘up’, but the destruction, in this instance, of thriving businesses in a cute building on a street that fosters our sense of community.

  6. Would Pioneer Square be the same if you just preserved the facades, gutted everything else, and built high-rise buildings behind it? Would Melrose Market be the same if that block had been leveled and replaced with a 7-story mixed-use building, even if it had all the same commercial tenants that it has now? No. The interior character and charm is just as important as the exterior.

    I have a sneaky suspicion that the very reason the developer is interested in the Bauhaus block is because it is across the street from the Melrose Market and they want to cash in on the draw that building brings to the area.

  7. You probably are right, but who is in the wrong here? The entity that sold these buildings to a developer? The developer? I sense that there is an under current of telling others what they can do with their properties over and above zoning that is in place.

  8. Thanks for writing this.
    I completely agree. New businesses are starting to fill up the street level of new Broadway condos, and they seem very similar and sterile as you walk from one block to the next – even if they aren’t “chains”.

  9. and like na 80 year old Republican, you obviously didn’t read the article.

    “Today, the Bimbo’s block is finally being rebuilt. It took away seven store fronts and will replace it with about four”

    “There were 44 store fronts on Pine (Minor to Broadway) back then. Despite additional construction, there are only 37”

    Density isn’t just tall buildings dude. These two quotes see how Pike/Pine has become LESS dense on the retail side. Residential density and economic density can co-exist. Most new developments these days are actually taking away space from small businesses and replacing it will less, but larger spaces. Newly constructed spaces always cost more, and large spaces only attract certain tennants. Hence “five are vacant today.” This means, that there were 44 businesses in Pike/Pine where there now are 32.

    Also, new construction can thrive around old. Why not rennovate this buildings and put up a new 65′ building in the empty parking lot on this block (you can put parking under it still) and there will still be room for new apartments AND new business. You’ll actually be adding business in that scenario, not decreasing business. The root of this is the idea that bigger spaces = better. Look at practically every city with preserved older buildings. Lots of residential density exists there and so does lots of economic density. Most of San Francisco doesn’t have buildings over 3-4 stories tall and more than 25 feet wide, but it’s dense as all hell. Spaces of varying sizes foster growth. Sim Citying your way into building big spaces before the demand is there (see retail vacancies) is only going to lead to a decrease in density.

    Lastly, the less business, the less attractive a neighborhood becomes. That means less residential density too. The biggest draw to dense neighborhoods is the idea that there are amenities literally right there. You don’t have to walk more than a few blocks to get everything in such neighborhoods. Again, larger retail spaces detract from that, as we have seen in the numbers provided in this post. P/P isn’t always going to continue to grow. It’s going to stop eventually, and when that happens do we want an economically diverse and attractive neighborhood? You bet your britches we do.

  10. I’ve had a similar experience on the new Broadway blocks. I think much of the problem is exactly what Rob identifies here – the spaces are quite large (the Blue Moon Burgers, for instance, is even larger than their Fremont space). More smaller retail would have given those blocks a much different feel.

  11. I’m certain that’s probably why the developer bought that space. But looking at what they put up, the reverse will happen. The concrete blocks that house Safeway and Subway will destroy the traffic the Melrose Market gets and if it’s 4-5 stories tall, blocking out all their natural light on the east side it will kill it instantly.

  12. Well, Russ, there is good change and bad change. Change that feeds the community and change the kills the community. Supporting change for the sake of change is moronic. THAT is republican. There are too many projects being built at one time. That limits the diversity of construction and design. Capitol Hill was built and rebuilt during the course of a century or more. To rebuild it all now, within a decade is to suffocate its very identity.

    This city doesn’t even know what Capitol Hill is, what is has offered, or even who lives here. They slash and burn for what developers sold them as ‘progress’. Our leadership is not. The state and county run Seattle, along side the developers. The 20 year olds, as much as they’d like to believe, don’t understand the world around them yet and are in no position to ‘design’ the neighborhood in the mayor’s meetings. They will be the ones leaving to raise kids and putting their bikes in the garage along side their SUV and sport coupe.

    Welcome to the new soul-less Capitol Hill.

  13. We could work on a Displacement Free Zone campaign— an effort to defend tenants within the neighborhood from evictions; and a local and state policy campaign with other Seattle organizations to give landlords incentives to keep their tenants in place and to require developers to include affordable housing in market-rate developments…it’s been done in neighborhoods in New York.

    http://urbanhabitat.org/node/919

  14. Completely agree about small retail space. They really make a difference in the sense of place within a neighborhood. It’s why the old part of Ballard, Fremont and other neighborhoods have the character they do (although Fremont and Ballard are changing, too).

    Lipstick Traces was on the 500 block of Pine for some time, too.

  15. I want to know more about the legislation that prevents chain stores from occupying spaces in the Mission in San Francisco. Can anyone shed any light on how they’ve placed controls on their community and what the unintended consequences have been?

  16. Pragmatic: great photo from the archives, thank you!

    dod: If I’ve got my timeline right, Lipstick Traces was not in the 500 block when it was demolished. They closed a few months before, and I believe Winner’s Circle was there. Lipstick Traces was also down next to Le Frock at one point if I recall correctly.

  17. A well written and thoughtful article; I couldn’t agree more. I lived in Osaka, Japan for 1 1/2 years, and loved it. No car for all that time, and it was liberating and wonderful. It is difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t lived there how well the high density/lots of small stores thing works. Yes, there is inefficiency, but that means old people have jobs (storekeeper) and get social activity every day. I left filled with fond memories and admiration.

  18. @dod – San Francisco’s zoning code in certain neighborhoods (North Beach, Hayes Valley, Mission, Bernal Heights) restricts ground floor retail from being occupied by formula retail chains. Formula retail is defined as “a type of retail sales activity or establishment with eleven or more other retail sales establishments located in the United States. Formula retail establishments maintain two or more of the following standardized features: merchandise, storefront, décor and color scheme, uniforms, signs or trademark.” In some cases its a ban; in others a formula retail store requires a conditional use authorization.

    The downtown policy wonks, banksters and developers hate it. Local small business owners and residents love it. In all of these neighborhoods with the formula retail ban, there is lively, unique commercial corridors – and the # of vacant storefronts is very limited.

  19. I agree! This is a well written & researched article. I can see how development has been trading retail density for residential density with the new mixed developments. However, my question is what can be done in the Bauhaus case? A building can be declared a landmark, but otherwise it seems as a community, we are powerless to have any say in how our community is built. How can we actually do anything in this circumstance that could make any difference?

  20. Unfortnately, nothing. The sad truth is that communities are shaped by the owners of the buildings, even if they don’t live in the community. The people who live in the community, work in the community or have small interesting businesses there have no say what so ever. It is called Capitolism, the wealthy see a great community, they think they can cash in on it, so they buy up block of it and reshape it into something that will make them money and in doing so they cause the area to become too expensive for the people of that community to live their anymore. So the people, workers and businesesmove to a cheaper area and make itt a vital, interresting community, that, unfortunately, draws the attention of othe wealthy people who want to cash in! It is Capitalism and marginalization at it’s finest. Along with the fact that Seattle doesn’t care about it’s history as much as it care about money. If a building that is 100 years old doesn’t fit the criteria to be called historic what does? And how does a building get to be older than 100 when they are torn down at 100? I admit that seismic upgrades are expensive, but historic buildings are pricless. The city takes a cut of all profits but the costs or losses they don’t share in, even when they cause the loss. America the greedy, now you know why I am sad, the country I love has no pride or honour and I have no pride in it. :(

  21. I question whether or not policy makers in Seattle have the will to implement that sort of policy approach here. There was a palpable difference in the character of some of the neighborhoods I visited compared to others, and I believe the lack of chain stores was a contributing factor. I found it startlingly refreshing. I wonder if it was considered during the creation of the Conservation District overlay?

  22. Thank you Robert. I would like to note that there are more dimensions to making a vibrant street life than the number and density of storefronts. I’d add previous occupation, amortized building costs and diversity of building ownership. (I am oversimplifying a bit for brevity)

    As someone else mentioned above, the interior “charm” of a space counts. This certainly adds character and plays into individuality and uniqueness, but it also says something for the value of a previously occupied space. New spaces are raw, with much less infrastructure in place and therefore cost more upfront to fit out.

    New buildings are also paying off obligations to banks and investors that are much larger than many older buildings (I defer to Jane Jacobs to flesh this out). Because of the obligations, the owner’s of new building often look to reduce risk (or are compelled to by others involved in the decision making process). Thus we end up with chain this and that, which have economies of scale and deep(er) pockets to their advantage over independent shops.

    Lastly, and I would say most importantly (?), is the diversity of building ownership. Yes, a re-built block may “successfully” match the existing storefront density, but what about the affects of building ownership? A block that formerly had several building owners now has one. In lieu of a handful of preferences and risk management styles, there is now one. I’ll hazard a guess that this is not good for commercial diversity.

    There are other aspects regarding building ownership that we can delve into, but the ownership of full blocks is one that I think is greatly overlooked. Not only for the reasons already mentioned, but because the consolidation is in perpetuity (i.e. the next time the site is redeveloped, it’s not likely to be developed on a smaller increment or by a smaller ownership group…)

  23. Its called a lease, if a business doesnt have a long term lease, why should they be afforded extra protection under the law? By yor reasoning I can just sign a risk free 1 year lease and walk if it doesn’t pan out. But of it does, and I create a “community” I can’t be evicted? What about the rights of the property owner?

  24. as a semi-retired type, i spend part of the year in Buenos Aires. What’s to like about BA? The commercial streets are loaded with tiny- to small business, many family-run. Vegetable stand on every block, hardware store no more that a block away no matter where you are. It works for the neighbors, the visitors and the businesses. We’ve lost that almost everywhere in the US. One thing I used to think about Seattle: a sense of place. We’re losing that. So many cities in the US look exactly like each other (thanks to zoning laws that favor commutine). Too bad.

  25. Great article. I’m unabashedly pro-density, but this really sums up nicely how density can be done right, or it can be done wrong (or at least not as well as it could be). The Bauhaus building is a case of just about the worst kind of density, and I hope the outcry does something to change that.