Retail Rethought

There’s nothing worst than empty retail. There’s no street activity, no bustling storefront with restaurant patrons dining inside, and no people. From the outside looking in, an empty retail space is a cold, sheet-rocked shell with the quiet anticipation of a promising future. A For Lease sign is typically posted on the front window with the leasing agent’s name and phone number listed to call for more information.

In many parts of the City of Seattle, retail is required by zoning code to activate the street. An active street frontage creates amenities for the neighborhood as well as a safer and friendlier walking environment. Unfortunately, with the apartment building boom in Seattle, there are many retail spaces that sit empty for years after a building is completed. Thus the required retail does not achieve any of the original goals of activating the streetscape. If retail is a requirement, how can architects and developers create better retail spaces?


Vulcan’s Block 3 Plan for Broadway at Yesler


Treat the retail as an amenity. The retail can be an amenity similar to a rooftop deck, community space, or fitness room in an apartment building. In some cases, the retail can connect directly to the lobby to create a more active lobby entrance for both the benefit of the community and the apartment residents. Financially, if the retail space is treated as a building amenity, then it may not need to produce much income in the proforma model, which will give the developer more flexibility to lease the space to a tenant that would compliment the building and neighborhood.

Design for retailers in mind. The retail space should be high, at least 13’ from the floor to the top of the ceiling to make room for overhead mechanical systems. The retail space should also be deep, with at least 30’ depth. During the design phase, the retail bathroom location should be designed and, if possible, provide shared bathrooms to lower the cost for a new retailer to build out the space. Create outdoor café seating spaces to help active the street. Rather than the typical storefront windows found in new building developments, exterior retail space should be customizable to allow retailers to create their own unique storefront façade.

If developers treat retail as a building amenity and designers designed retail spaces that functioned to meet retailer’s needs, then we would be seeing less empty storefronts in Seattle and more activated streetscapes.


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