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.
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.
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.