Occupy Storefronts!

A lovely piece about the Storefronts program ran in this morning’s Daily Journal of Commerce. It’s hiding behind a paywall, but here’s a peek at the coverage.

Make sure to join us tomorrow, Thursday night, for a First Thursday opening in Pioneer Square at LeDouxville!

November 30, 2011

Design Perspectives: Occupy storefronts: Short-term fix can lead to a lease

Special to the Journal

With the shopping season in full swing, empty storefronts remind us it’s been another tough year.

But some of those windows are more interesting than they were before the doors closed. Just in time, the year-old Storefronts Seattle program is opening new projects in vacant storefronts in Pioneer Square and the International District.

You can go inside some of the stores, but most are for the eyes only. There are old suitcases transformed into colorful light boxes, sculptures of post-consumer waste, and more conventional gallery-like environments. Window installations, performances, “pop-up” galleries, lectures and craft nights can all be part of the arts-based program.

Where retail demand can’t keep up, Storefronts Seattle sponsors arts installations like this at 505 Fifth Ave. S. by George Rodriguez.

Sixteen storefronts are “live” at the moment, according to Matthew Richter, program manager for Shunpike, the nonprofit producer of Storefronts Seattle. A dozen more will be up soon, all the way from Capitol Hill to Auburn.

Sponsors include Seattle Department of Planning and Development, Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, 4Culture, and a number of neighborhood and civic groups.

These windows make it worthwhile to walk another block, even if there’s no retail destination. That’s the point. They bring life to the street, even when another store closes.

Nothing sends a chill through the heart of a local business district like shuttered shops. If neighborhood stores are the life of the pedestrian environment, empty storefronts are like a disease. For decades, we’ve seen what this disease can do. First it was malls that sucked the commercial lifeblood out of city centers large and small. Then, just about the time the middle class and their money started coming back into the city, Internet commerce took a bite out of the local retail market.

At 604 Second Ave. the space is part of an art work called “LeDouxville.” Sponsored by Storefronts Seattle, the artist is Jesse LeDoux, a Seattle graphic artist and designer, probably best known as the former art director of Sub Pop Records.

Empty store fronts

Planners know storefronts — with lively displays and people coming and going — are essential for great streets. That’s why Seattle’s zoning code calls for retail in much of the new construction downtown and in outlying business districts.

But demand for retail space can’t seem to keep up with supply.

Even before the current recession, there was an emerging consensus among developers and planners that retail was overbuilt. The sight of a new storefront standing empty for more than a year has become commonplace. Now that the recession has hit, small stores on some of the oldest and best pedestrian neighborhoods in Seattle — like Pioneer Square and the International District — are closing and staying closed.

Storefront owners have an economic interest in making their spaces look less vacant, even if there is no long-term lease, but they need help.

“Property owners don’t want to go direct to artists because there isn’t that liability shield, and they don’t have the confidence,” said Richter.

At the same time, there is a natural interest among municipalities in art-based storefront programs, and they have flourished in a number of cities, from Berlin to New York to San Francisco.

Shunpike has learned from some cities, and taught others, according to director Andy Fife. His organization coordinates with artists to provide a “neutral, third-party environment where liability coverage and contracting for the art can happen outside of government.”

The five-person group is a nonprofit devoted to the missions of other nonprofits. It provides key support and management services to arts organizations in exchange for a small cut of the budget. Depending on the need, Shunpike can be the back office — an umbrella for income, managing director and finance department.

Pop-up or permanent

The group’s involvement with storefronts started in Tacoma with a program called Spaceworks, sponsored by the city of Tacoma, the chamber of commerce and various property owners.

“From the outset, we realized that there were three different ways that artists might come in and take advantage of (storefronts) in a temporary way,” said Fife. Those include installations, artist residencies and creative enterprises.

All these ideas may be needed to keep up with the growing supply of retail space, especially if the economy does not come roaring back.

“I think in the future we are going to find more and more uses (for storefronts),” said Richter. One of the things that can drive new uses is an approach that says, “I’m not launching a store that will last forever.”

In this way of thinking, seasonal or temporary “pop-up” retail works — from an evening fashion event to a daytime market or crafts fair. They support retail property uses while adding vitality to the street and the neighborhood.

Seattle Storefronts is showing us a temporary user can turn into a new business or nonprofit, and even a long-term lease.

The Pinball Museum at 508 Maynard Ave. S. in the International District is a case in point. It started last year as an experiment through Seattle Storefronts, but now it is independent and on its way to becoming a local institution.

It may be the only museum in town where you can touch the artwork. Pinball machines — dating from 1933 to the present — are continually in motion. For $7, you can play any or all of the 50 machines all day. There have been special deals for some groups, from veterans to cancer patients, bringing in even more support.

“We are now an incubator,” said Richter. “One reason we supply the training wheels is that then we can take them off.”

Clair Enlow can be reached at (206) 725-7110 or by e-mail at clair@clairenlow.com.

Copyright ©2011 Seattle Daily Journal and djc.com.
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About storefrontsseattle

Activating neighborhoods and overlooked spaces by filling vacant urban spaces with art installations, pop-up boutiques, galleries, and community groups since 2010.
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