Traffic, Counts

For the past couple months, I have been working with a team of graduate students to prepare a development proposal for this year’s NAIOP Real Estate Challenge. The site (1900 N Northlake Way) is situated at the south edge of Wallingford on the Burke-Gilman Trail across the street from Gas Works Park. It is currently home to a collection of maritime-oriented retail, office and warehouse tenants.

Our team has analyzed a variety of uses for the site (office, retail, multifamily, hotel, etc.) to determine what is most suitable, and one of the resounding comments we have heard is that this site does not have enough vehicular traffic to support “true retail”. In other words, any retail on the site would command below market rents, struggle to survive and merely serve as an amenity to apartment tenants because the site doesn’t have great vehicular access or traffic counts.

Though I don’t doubt that vehicular access and traffic is important for retailers  – especially in more auto-dependent neighborhoods and cities, I found it hard to believe that the vehicular traffic counts were what was holding this site back from “true retail”. So…I did my own research:

Below is a map of the 2012 traffic counts in Seattle with our site in red and other neighborhood commercial districts in yellow:


In case the graphic is hard to read, here is a list of traffic counts at other successful neighborhood commercial districts in Seattle:

Wallingford (34th): 15,900
Wallingford (45th): 22,300
“Frallingford” (Stone): 15,200
Roosevelt: 10,500
Green Lake: 15,300
Queen Anne: 11,300
Pike-Pine (12th): 13,000

Also, notice that streets with higher traffic counts don’t always amount to successful commercial districts (i.e. Aurora, 23rd Ave E). In fact, I would make an argument that they discourage the synergies that are needed for these districts, but I’ll save that for another blog post.

Another consideration for 1900 N Northlake Way that has been of lower interest in the retail discussion is the impact of the Burke-Gilman Trail (BRT), the “freeway” of bicycle traffic in Seattle. It is hard to find data for the section of trail directly in front of the site, but the Fremont Bridge Bike Counter collected the following numbers for the past year:

Total:              2,578
Weekday:       2,983
Weekend:       1,561

If only half of these cyclists continued on the BRT (or in bike lanes on 34th) by the site, this would be a 10% increase in overall traffic. Add to that the countless walkers and joggers along the trail and it could be far more than 10%. This may seem like a small increase, but these are also “easy stop, easy going” customers – people that move slowly by the site, can conveniently enter the site from the trail, and don’t have to worry about finding a place to park the 18’ x 10’ vehicle that got them there.

I don’t know how to quantify this into rent that a retail tenant would pay for space at this site, but it has taught me that retailers need to understand traffic in a more holistic way. Is this good traffic or is it bad? Do the counts include all modes of transportation? These are all questions we will explore as we continue to develop our proposal for the 2014 NAIOP Real Estate Challenge.


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