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Originally published April 1, 2010 at 10:02 PM | Page modified April 2, 2010 at 9:57 AM

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Retail Report

Historic Pioneer Square proves a tough place to run a store; better for restaurants

Elliott Bay Book Co.'s move out of Pioneer Square represents a fresh start for Seattle's best-known bookstore, but it raises questions about the difficulties of doing business in the historic district.

Seattle Times business reporters

Elliott Bay Book Co.'s move out of Pioneer Square represents a fresh start for Seattle's best-known bookstore, but it raises questions about the difficulties of doing business in the historic district.

After selling their last book there Wednesday — a Seattle history book to Stephen Willis, the chair of the Seattle Architecture Foundation's tours committee — Elliott Bay employees turned to unshelving tens of thousands of books that will be trucked to Capitol Hill.

When Elliott Bay reopens in mid-April, owner Peter Aaron hopes the old truck-repair shop it's occupying at 1521 10th Ave. will have "all the elegance that this gracious old place has possessed, and not nearly as much funk."

He also hopes for better sales than in Pioneer Square.

The neighborhood is known for being hard on retailers, despite lower than average rents and strong tourist traffic in the summer.

Many of the neighborhood's problems center on having too few residents with money to spend. Sixty percent of Pioneer Square's 1,283 apartments and condos are subsidized, according to the city's Department of Planning and Development.

Pioneer Square restaurants fare better than its other retailers. They benefit from a large population of office workers that visits for lunch, and sports fans who stop for dinner and drinks before heading to one of the nearby stadiums.

Still, the restaurants took a 16 percent hit to sales in the third quarter, far worse than the 6 percent drop countywide, according to the latest available data from the state Department of Revenue. Other retailers in the district saw worse, with sales during the first three quarters of 2009 not reaching even half the $24 million they posted in 2008.

Some say the area stagnated after it became a hub for services that help poor people.

"For years and years, the city used it as a dumping ground for social-services programs," said Willis, who has led architecture tours in Pioneer Square.

When he moved here in the late '70s, the district was known for great art galleries and bookstores.

Many buildings were converted to office space in the '70s and '80s, said Kevin Daniels, president of the development firm Nitze-Stagen, and that space has been relatively easy to fill.


Pioneer Square's vacancy rate is 24 percent, higher than the 19 percent rate for all of downtown, according to But a couple buildings skew the Pioneer Square figure higher, including nearly 160,000 square feet of empty space at Smith Tower.

Nitze-Stagen's plans for a sprawling new development in the parking lot north of Qwest Field include 670 apartments and condos. The project has been in the works for years, and no date is set for breaking ground.

"There's a huge burden on Pioneer Square when it comes to affordable housing, and that has led to the social issues we face down there," Daniels said.

Jen Kelly rents one of the neighborhood's 268 market-rate apartments and has blogged about not wanting the nonprofit newspaper Real Change to move its headquarters from Belltown to Pioneer Square this spring.

"Right now Pioneer Square is at a fragile moment," she said. "We need more businesses and moderate-income residents. Not to be disparaging toward people, but it's more about having a balance in the neighborhood."

The Pioneer Square Community Association sent a letter to Mayor Mike McGinn this week saying the neighborhood has more than its share of social services and offering to help find another location for Real Change, which has homeless vendors.

"Pioneer Square's economic vitality is affected by the public's perception of safety issues which are exacerbated by line queuing for social-service organizations," wrote interim Executive Director Leslie Smith.

There will not be lines of homeless people outside Real Change's office, said founder and executive director Timothy Harris.

"We're not a social-services agency," he said. "We're a socially entrepreneurial nonprofit organization. We're a newspaper, and these concerns they have are very overblown."

Real Change has about 400 vendors, but they do not pick up newspapers all at once. They sometimes line up for papers outside the Belltown office, he said, but the new office is big enough that that won't happen.

"I expected the move to be uncontroversial," said Harris, who plans to move Real Change in May to an office about a half-block from the store Elliott Bay Book Co. is leaving.

The bookstore space will soon join dozens of empty storefronts in Pioneer Square that Scott Surdyke of Conover Bond Development wants to fill with artwork, fashion displays and possibly even working artists.

In one of several recent projects in the neighborhood, which range from revitalization meetings to plans for a Saturday market, Surdyke is working on the empty-storefront idea with the city and Don Blakeney, a Seattleite who recently returned from New York City, where he worked for the Times Square business-improvement district.

"A real downfall of this economy is all this vacant retail space just sits dark," Surdyke said. "Any way we can activate it brings people to the community."

While Elliott Bay workers packed books Thursday, a new pizzeria and coffeehouse held its grand opening a few blocks east.

Robbie Miller stood in a long line for free pizza at Caffe Vita and Pizzeria Napoletana, and talked about buying a book at Elliott Bay shortly before it closed Wednesday evening.

"It makes sense," he said about the bookstore's move. "Elliott Bay needs more night traffic, and nobody hangs out at Pioneer Square at night unless they're clubbing or begging for money."

Seattle Times reporter Eric Pryne contributed to this report.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or

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