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Originally published October 21, 2009 at 12:10 AM | Page modified October 21, 2009 at 6:17 PM

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Possible loss of Elliott Bay Book Co. from Pioneer Square has neighborhood worried

The Seattle mayor's office is launching an effort to find ways to improve Pioneer Square.

Seattle Times business reporters

Pioneer Square retailers are saddened and worried about what the possible departure of Elliott Bay Book Co. could mean to a business district already suffering from a decline in tourists and office workers.

"Elliott Bay leaving could be just the tipping point for a lot of businesses," said John Siscoe, who owns the Globe Bookstore one block from Elliott Bay.

His bookstore and two others in the building north of Elliott Bay are among neighboring retailers who depend on the landmark bookseller to generate foot traffic, Siscoe said. "It would hurt all of us."

Elliott Bay owner Peter Aaron said Sunday he might move the store in January, when its lease expires and its maxed-out line of credit comes due.

For most of the past decade, Aaron said, the store "eked along at just about break-even." When the economy tanked last fall, "we lost a lot of money."

Frank Buchanan, a leasing agent for Elliott Bay's landlord, said he hopes to keep the bookstore at its longtime home in the Globe Building. "They're an anchor for the entire business district."

Retail vacancies in Pioneer Square are 9.4 percent, higher than the 8.9 percent for the Seattle area overall, according to the Commercial Brokers Association.

The office-vacancy rate in Pioneer Square is up threefold from 2007, to 13.5 percent, while it's at 21.1 percent in the Financial District and 23.2 percent in the Denny Regrade.

People have long complained Pioneer Square has too little parking and too many panhandlers, and retailers with shops elsewhere in Seattle say they notice its lack of a strong residential population.

"I'm not sure the city has put much emphasis on it in economic-development terms," said Michele Manasse, whose Fireworks gift boutique is in the same store on First Avenue South where she started 25 years ago.

"Even if they did, there's a local perception that it's not a safe neighborhood," she said.

Manasse now owns five Fireworks shops all over the city whose collective sales are down 7 percent this year. The Pioneer Square store is down 16 percent, which she blames on the loss of office workers and tourists, particularly cruise-ship passengers.

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The Port of Seattle counted about 10,600 fewer passengers this past tourist season — a year-over-year decline of 1 percent.

Previously, many cruise passengers were bused to Pioneer Square to shop, Manasse said. Now they are not, and many of the ships are docking farther north, near the Magnolia Bridge.

A push for revitalization

The mayor's office said it is sending letters this week to Pioneer Square leaders, asking them to become involved in a new revitalization effort.

They will work with the city's Office of Economic Development, Police Department and Department of Neighborhoods to figure out what community leaders see as barriers to growth and help them solve some of those problems.

Solutions could include offering technical and marketing assistance, helping businesses find capital, and dealing with public-safety issues, said Nancy Yamamoto, senior policy adviser for the Office of Economic Development.

Art Wahl, a retail real-estate broker at CB Richard Ellis in Seattle, said what really hurts Pioneer Square is that few people live there. He thinks a possible move by Elliott Bay to Capitol Hill is a good idea.

"Let's just say Pioneer Square was cleaned up and everything about it was pristine — you'd still have to get people to go down there and do their shopping there," said Wahl, who is not involved in Elliott Bay's real-estate dealings.

Pioneer Square business owners said they've learned to take the good with the bad.

"You've got to put up with the homeless and the drug-addicted, but you also get the tourists and the sports fans," said Jay Boone, of Emerald City Guitars on South Washington Street.

"When I first looked at this spot 14 years ago, I literally stepped over a guy who had passed out in his own puke," he recalled. "Our deal is, we try to help these people. And you kind of know the bad guys from the people who are just having a hard time."

Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, called the idea that panhandling has increased "absurd," saying it's "partly perception versus reality, and partly the anxiety of a city coping with a recession."

Anna Williams, co-owner of Ragazzi's Flying Shuttle, a jewelry and apparel store on First Avenue, said she has no complaints about Pioneer Square.

Sure, butcher paper and "For Lease" signs hang in more storefronts than before the recession, she said, but it's no different elsewhere in downtown Seattle, and things were worse after the Mardi Gras riots and Nisqually earthquake in 2001.

"We had a lot of different things happen that year, but it had nothing to do with Pioneer Square as a neighborhood, and certainly not with the daytime businesses," said Williams, who took over the store 17 years ago with her sister, JoAnn.

"We're East Coast girls, and when we got to Seattle we fell in love with this neighborhood," she said. "It's a delightful place to be."

Craig Maxwell, co-owner of Glass House Studio on Occidental Avenue South, said that after a decade of rising rental rates, he plans to ask his landlord for a reduction. Sales dropped last fall, he said, and the December snowstorms made things worse.

He also noticed fewer tourists over the summer, and an advertising firm above him is moving elsewhere downtown, where rental rates have declined.

Still, Maxwell said he's committed to the neighborhood. "If people are looking for art, they're going to come down here to Pioneer Square," he said.

Opportunity knocks

Some see more empty storefronts as an opportunity. Hassan Mohageri, owner of the Woven Art oriental-carpet store on First Avenue South, recently opened a nearby home décor and gift shop called Trend Station.

"I like taking calculated risks," he said. "And Pioneer Square has the potential to be such a beautiful place."

Mohageri said he is optimistic about the economy. "This fall started kind of weak, but I can see there are now more people around, and their moods are starting to change," he said.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com

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