Filling Vacant Downtown Storefronts - What & Why

What's Happening Now?

On August 16, 2021 the City Council adopted land use legislation to add more flexibility for the types of uses allowed to occupy storefronts in downtown, including the Pioneer Square Preservation District, and in South Lake Union. This flexibility will apply on certain streets where the allowed uses are limited. This legislation is part of the City's overall downtown revitalization efforts. The legislation will complement the revitalization efforts by changing the code to make it easier to fill vacant storefronts. The legislation will become effective 30 days after the Mayor signs it, which is anticipated in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for the specific date.

Due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, Seattle's downtown area has lost many businesses that relied on office workers, tourists, and convention participants. As a result, downtown has many vacant storefronts, activity on downtown sidewalks is substantially reduced, and there is a general loss in vitality. Separately, OPCD and SDCI are working with other City departments on ways to help Black, Indigenous, and People of Color business owners and other business owners to navigate the permit process for street-level businesses. Highlights of the legislation include:

  1. New types of uses at the street level. Currently, only the most "active" types of uses (e.g., retail and bars or restaurants) and a few types of cultural and community facilities (e.g., libraries and childcare) are allowed at street level in downtown. The legislation would allow more types of uses, including art installations, co-working spaces, community centers, and medical offices, among others. The list of proposed uses is drawn largely from what is allowed in pedestrian-oriented neighborhood business districts elsewhere in the city. While the new uses may be slightly less active, they would provide more options to fill empty spaces. To help these new uses be visually interesting, we would also require the tenant's most visual activities in the storefront.
  2. Temporary flexibility to support recovery. The ordinance would be in place for 12 months from the effective date, the maximum amount of time allowed under state law for temporary/interim land use regulations. We will conduct environment (State Environmental Policy Act) review after our legislation is adopted. The ordinance also includes a schedule for preparing any permanent land use regulations as required by state law.
  3. Duration of permit. Permits issued under this legislation, like any other would allow the use to remain in the storefronts after the temporary rules expire. The permitted uses would become nonconforming, meaning they could stay in perpetuity but not expand at street-level. This would allow a tenant to recuperate over time the costs of obtaining permits and making improvements.  
  4. Where the temporary flexibility would apply. The legislation would apply to areas downtown and in South Lake Union with street-level use restrictions, including the retail core (between Virginia and University) and in Belltown (along 1st/2nd/3rd Ave). There would be a custom approach for the Special Review District in Pioneer Square to balance preservation, opportunities for recovery in the short term, and lasting economic health:
    • Pioneer Square. The legislation would expand the types of uses allowed as a special review, once approved by the Director of the Department of Neighborhoods or the Pioneer Square Preservation Board on a case-by-case basis. It would also clarify which types of spaces located slightly above or below street-grade may be considered "street-level." 
    • Chinatown/International District (CID). The legislation does not apply in CID. The International Special Review District Board already has broad discretion to review proposed uses on a case-by-case basis. 

Project Benefits

The legislation will help make it easier for tenants to fill downtown storefronts with a wide variety of interesting businesses and other uses that will help make downtown and South Lake Union streets vibrant.   

The End Result

SDCI and OPCD will make final recommendations for legislation to the Mayor. We anticipate that the City Council will consider our legislation this summer.