This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.
Mark Hinshaw has an interesting piece in Crosscut with the counterintuitive title, “Seattle is killing retail by requiring too much of it.” I encourage you to read the whole thing. I find myself nodding in agreement with his diagnosis of the problem: Seattle over-incentivizes street-level retail, and the result is too many storefronts and not enough residents to support them. I also buy his solution: focus retail on a few commercial thoroughfares, and allow the side streets to remain residential. He cites New York as an example:
For decades Manhattan has had a system in which the north-south Avenues serve as the streets of commerce. Larger, taller buildings tend to flank those thoroughfares. By contrast the east-west side streets are more residential with considerably less commercial activity. There may be businesses on the ground floor (or a half-basement). Exceptions to this rule are major crosstown streets such as 8th and 14th in the Village or 42nd and 57th further uptown.
You can actually feel the difference between the major streets and the side streets in a visceral sense. The side streets are quieter. Walk off the big avenue 50 feet and the noise level drops significantly. But even other difference are evident. People walk more slowly. People linger in knots. Kids play on stoops. Street trees abound. Apparently even in New York with its off-the-charts density, people appreciate the virtues of small town living and respite spaces.
One problem with using Manhattan is that the grid is exactly the opposite of, say Belltown’s: New York’s wide, major avenues form the short sides of the grid’s rectangles, whereas in Seattle they form the long sides. What this means in practice is that there isn’t really much room for a residential row on, say, Lenora St., because it’s so short between Avenues. Go 50 feet off of 3rd avenue, and you’re… halfway to 4th Avenue.
Secondly, as some in the comments section have noted, Seattle does have several “high streets,” such as NE 45th, California Ave SW, 15th Ave E, Greenwood and Phinney Aves, etc. The problem with many of these high streets is that they are often (a) limited to single- or double-story buildings and (b) located in neighborhoods that turn immediately into single-family detached housing as soon as you step off the high street. This limits the potential pedestrian-commercial impact. Exceptions include Broadway in Capitol Hill, University Ave, NW Market St. in Ballard, among others.
I’m not really sure why Hinshaw makes reforms to Pioneer Square the centerpiece of his argument, though. Clearly he has a soft spot for the neighborhood, but it seems to me that Pioneer Square isn’t really a candidate for the “high street” treatment. Instead, I’d argue for more density and up-zonings, with the goal of creating a critical mass of residents who can have a seat at the table alongside the sports teams, the night clubs, and the preservationists.