One idea of how corner stores could fit into a residential zone. 

An integral part of Seattle neighborhood history and appeal is quickly being lost. Corner stores were once a staple of neighborhood life in Seattle, and remain so in many of the most vibrant cities around the world. They speak of a time when community was tightly knit, people knew the names of their neighbors and local businessmen, and children were free to explore their streets. While there are fewer and fewer remaining examples, those that survive provide insight into the characteristics that make these buildings successful and how potential new uses could enliven community life.


The Wallingford neighborhood inventory from the late 1970’s states that “There are many street corner grocery stores scattered throughout the community, serving as neighborhood meeting places.”  The historic Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps confirm this distribution, as these buildings are easily identifiable due to their lack of setback. In describing neighborhood stores, the Wallingford inventory says, “unpretentious owner operated corner groceries of various architectural styles add color and serve as foci for neighborhood identity.” Since that time, pressure from larger chain stores has overwhelmed small businesses and zoning restrictions have prevented the replacement of these buildings, within single-family zones.

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One of two non-conforming corner store buildings in Wallingford’s Single Family Zone, 53rd and Woodlawn Ave.

Imagine if you could walk to work, or to the store to pick up groceries? Ride your bike with your children to their daycare, or pick up locally made holiday gifts from the boutique right around the corner? What if just doing the errands meant you’d run into a neighbor or friend who was happy to see you?

Walkability and Safety

While we value easy access to public transportation and a variety of business and retail shops common to arterial streets, housing near these arterials may be less desirable due to traffic and noise issues. Furthermore, for residents on the fringes of neighborhoods, it is not especially practical to utilize the amenities that have been concentrated along the arterial streets in the core of a neighborhood. By allowing small corner stores to repopulate communities, a dispersed network of services could be available and within walking distance for everyone, with a lower intensity of use, that is more conducive to neighborhood life.

Wallingford GIS MAPclose

Wallingford Urban Village shaded in grey. Theoretical distribution of corner store lots in red. Blue circles indicate a 10 minute walk distance. 

In addition, these stores could provide a broader range of services than they did in the past. Daycare services and co-working spaces, in addition to the more traditional grocery stores, boutiques and cafés, would allow people to actively engage with their neighbors and communities on a daily basis while simplifying their busy schedules. If small community businesses and community workspace could serve their day-to-day needs, neighborhood residents could save time and energy while reducing ever-worsening commuter congestion citywide.

With more residents spending their days within the neighborhood, issues of safety could be proactively addressed. While some Seattle communities are hiring private security companies to patrol neighborhoods left vacant during the workday, more consistent activity on the street would discourage crime and truancy without added expense.

Design Guidelines

While the benefits are myriad, the potential impacts of buildings that contain commercial businesses deserve thoughtful attention. Certain limits to development will encourage the benefits of friendly and walkable communities without compromising neighborhood character.

Any commercial or retail uses slated for integration into a community should exist within individual buildings scattered throughout the neighborhood to serve the immediate community first and foremost without becoming concentrated destinations for people from across the city. The city’s 2012 proposal for small commercial buildings in Captiol Hill missed the mark by focusing development along arterials. This continues the growth of the urban village outward, rather than acknowledging the specific needs of single-family zones.

These buildings should only be constructed on corner lots. Restrictions on height and minimum lot dimensions would further reduce the risk that activity from corner stores would disrupt neighborhood residents and encourage dispersed activity.

Setbacks should be reduced to around 3’ from the right of way. This will keep activity along the street and promote the use of these new amenities.

In developing a property on the corner, the city should require improvements to the right of way that would directly benefit the neighborhood. Replacing parking at the corner with either planted swales or functional outdoor spaces and restricting lane width could encourage slower traffic while adding beauty, outdoor café style seating or bike parking, contributing to a friendlier pedestrian environment.

As we watch more and more of this critical part of Seattle’s character disappear, we need to think proactively about how we can bring these small commercial spaces back into neighborhoods. By looking to the traditions of our neighborhoods, we can again create a smaller scale, walkable lifestyle that is teeming with diverse opportunities for parents, neighbors and entrepreneurs.

93 Replies to “We’re Losing Character in Single Family Zones”

  1. I am all for more corner stores and missing middle up zones in urban neighborhoods (plus suburban transit oriented development), but I think the economics of stand alone stores no longer exists in the era of Starbucks and Amazon. The size just does not scale.

    Maybe something more like work/live spaces? Studios and small law or accounting, app dev offices?

    1. I think it could work with a very limited selection of goods – milk, eggs, sugar, and the like. The sort of stuff you’r ask your neighbor for.

      1. Nope. That is the specific inventory that is no longer viable, and has not for fifty years. The margin on simple groceries is a few pennies on the dollar, and even if it was ten times that the store owner would have to work 100-hour weeks to even come close to making rent. The only stand-alone small groceries that can survive deal primarily in expensive items like wine, or high-volume stuff like beer and cigarettes, and even then they fail (Phinney Market couldn’t survive as a store in a well-off neighborhood).

        There’s a reason these stores disappeared.

        It sucks; I wish it was true. But it simply is not. Which means that much of what is said about “walkable neighborhoods” is a lie. The urban rent crisis and the social and political demand for big-box stores make these neighborhoods impossible. Look at all the new apartments in lower Stone Way in Wallingford; they have a choice between 7-11 on the one hand and large groceries too far to walk to.

      2. But the whole point of this article is that the choices are limited because of zoning. A store that sells a little milk, eggs, sugar, along with dozens of other items is just fine, and exists in most of the world because it is allowed. If, as you suggest, these businesses will fail — or never even bother in the first place — then what the hell is wrong with allowing them to try?

        Maybe it won’t work in Wallingford, or Phinney — but if a nice little shop opened up in the middle of say, a residential part of Lake City — why not? Why not give that little shop keeper (who just came off the boat, as they say) a chance to recreate what exists in most of the mother fucking world? A little milk, a little sugar, a little cinnamon … Really, what’s the harm?

      3. These stores exist in the USA too. We call them conveniece stores. There are two localy owned one within walking distance of where I live, and a third that is a national chain.

        Another two are located within a five minute walk of where I work. One is a national chain. The other describes itself as a produce stand but it also has a cabinet filled with milk and other vitals.

        On my way to work, the bus goes right past a building with commercial on the bottom and apartments above. It’s right in the middle of a single family zone. Today it would be unthinkable, but in the 1920s it was standard practice.

      4. The corner stores of yesteryear sold milk, eggs, sugar, produce, meat, and candy as RossB said. At first different shops sold dairy or produce or meat, then “supermarkets” combined them all (but were still the size of a convenience store). Rural general stores also sold everything together. In Russia this pattern still holds, with small groceries at the bottom of large apartment buildings. More expensive vendors (convenience stores specializing in one item type) are clustered around metro stations so people can shop on their way home. These all have items behind the counter; a few small “supermarkets” have everything together and are self-serve.

        The biggest difference is that a large percent of the population doesn’t drive, like in New York or London or Vancouver’s West End, so they want shops within walking distance. But in the US most people shop by driving, so they go to large consolidated stores. On southwest Capitol Hill where I live, there are a ridiculous number of convenience stores within a 5-block radius, at least ten, but most of them sell only prepackaged junk food and beer and cigarettes so they have nothing for me.

      5. “Why not give that little shop keeper (who just came off the boat, as they say) a chance to recreate what exists in most of the mother fucking world?”

        Actually, they do exist along MLK and north Rainier and in Chinatown, and 55th & University Way had an Indian grocery for a long time, and there was some kind of vegan shop across the street for a while. They’re all on arterials because that’s what the zoning allows, as RossB says. It may be difficult for people from out of the neighborhood to get to a little shop in Summit, or even know it’s there, but if the same shops that exist on MLK and Rainier were just three blocks east in a single-family area, what difference would it make? The streets are large enough that that it’s easier to get there than in Summit, and I can’t see how they’d destroy the single-family neighborhood or lower property values, since again the same kind of stores are a few blocks away.

      6. @Fnarf That’s why we need more and better transit, so people can have walkable neighborhoods and get where they need to go. Also, Europe has lots of small stores.

      7. These spaces where they work tend to work as things like bars, restaurants, coffee shops, dentists, massage therapists, chiropractors, day cares, yoga studios, maid services, etc.

    2. I really like the urban form of these corner stores, and I actually find them the most charming part of Wallingford. However, the economics of small scale retail are difficult. Typically in a mixed use development, residential buoys up the retail side. In order to make the construction of new corner stores successful, I think you would need to be allowed to also build at least 4 residential units or 3 stories to incentize small-scale developers to take interest in this building type. I think it could be done without significantly impacting the character of the neigborhood, and from an urban design standpoint, it would create some unique and interesting neighborhood corners.

      1. Wishing for the return of the corner store is probably the equivalent of wishing for the return of the urban streetcar network. It’s not economically viable on mass scale, but it might be appropriate in certain situations. Because these (mostly) single family neighborhoods are by definition fairly low in density, it isn’t possible to provide a great deal of very frequent transit service to those neighborhoods.

        Parking would also have to be addressed. The traditional corner store existed with limited or no parking provided. What kind of businesses can succeed today without access to parking? Food service seems like a good idea, but it would present many problems. Parking, noise and ventilation impacts on the neighborhood would have to be addressed. What neighborhood would welcome the latest and trendiest wood-fired pizza joint–packed with visitors from all over the city–operating on the corner everyday until 11pm?

        But there are plenty of businesses that could successfully operate in a corner space in a low density neighborhood setting. If the downtown art galleries get priced out of Pioneer Square, maybe they could relocate to corner stores in Wallingford. There’s a violin repair shop in a former corner store at NW 65th & 3rd NW — perfect fit! The corner groceries of 100 years ago didn’t have to compete against Safeway and General Motors, but our single family neighborhoods would be more interesting with an occasional business operation thrown into the mix.

      2. A lot of places (especially the places mentioned) have decent density because they used to allow apartments. I think that is one of the issues. There are a lot of places where corner stores would have been allowed back then, but they aren’t allowed now.

    3. Good rendering of street scene I’d like to see out my window. But especially glad to not see a couple of private guards in a car. Getting tired of these historic references myself, but clearly remember my Civics teacher telling us to write down: “Monopoly of Force.”

      Private buildings after hours? Fine. But where job description also involves shooting people and arresting them by force out in public, including transit stations? Everybody the police kill or arrest in our name, we the people get the blame or the credit. Guaranteed by all of us paying them a very good wage.

      Any problems? We vote out the officials we hire to supervise. But the money some of us are paying for private competition, that has to go to people who’ve sworn to get hurt or killed protecting us. Otherwise- what happens when Magnolia’s armed private guards have a disagreement with Ballard’s?

      Around transit, have also had questions to guards answered with “That’s a different contract.” Bad enough with city versus county police- but at least with public remedy. I’d rather have both forces sign a permanent contract with a hundred thousand other people and me.

      Big food co-op in Columbia City has corner grocery with residence on top of it. Rendering shows same scaled down. But would be good to add a city police officer walking their “beat.” In uniform blue. Racist, crooked city government. Including a lot of its policemen.

      But not likely that any recently-returned WWII vet in my PCC (the streetcar, not the grocery store) oriented Chicago neighborhood would’ve put on a black uniform.

      Mark Dublin

    4. Luckily, with coffee shops especially, rather than kill small shops, Starbucks attracts them. Some years ago, Starbucks announced a new cafe in the middle of the old Italian section of Vancouver. Route 4 trolleybus line, I think.

      Existing cafe owners, many from several generations of roasters, put out signs offering a free espresso to anyone coming out of Starbucks. Since Starbucks really specializes in desserts, with and without coffee in them, both sides gained rather than lost customers.

      It’s often possible to have several cafes in the same block. Each one serving both different coffee and a different “feel”. Sometimes a different “crowd” as well.

      In addition, with more than one cafe, each one can take a day or two off, with customers staying on the same block and never having to miss their coffee.

      By the same token, places like South Lake Union might benefit by encouraging places with equally good food and coffee of equal quality but lower prices. Both for attracting more people to the district, many of whom will buys something. But also: same people like different food on different days.


  2. I lived in Cambridge for many years and the neighborhoods there are peppered with neighborhood businesses. Each cluster usually has a store, a restaurant, a laundromat, and a hair salon or barber shop with other more specialty stores mixed in. The businesses provide crucial services for a community that is largely dependent on transit because they ensure that you can get necessities conveniently. It meant that you could always walk two or three blocks for milk or a pizza.

    They also provide a focus for the neighborhood. People often give directions in relation to the various restaurants. There’s a clear place to put notices of community events and the like. But, I think it is an important distinction that these businesses were primarily for the surrounding blocks. You had your deli. You could walk a few blocks further for a different one. Sometimes a restaurant would get popular and draw from further out, but in general people wouldn’t travel further than the nearest cluster.

    I do see this still in many Seattle neighborhoods. It is a pattern certainly worth promoting as those neighborhoods are redeveloped.

    1. Even small towns like the one I live in still have corner stores, where zoning hasn’t chased them away.

      Most of them become cafes or delis or restauarants — and they are, as fletc3her says, community meeting places for the adjacent neighboring blocks. Others become dance studios or spas or similar service businesses which also act as meeting places. Others have become boutique or specialist stores over the years, and serve a larger area but still with relatively few customers driving in.

      It’s a good development pattern; it works for small towns and it works for neighborhoods in big cities. The stores provide an amenity for the nearby housing and raise property values, in fact.

  3. I see buildings like these all around the Wallingford/SE Green Lake/Roosevelt/Ravenna areas with the large street-level plate glass windows and diagonally-facing doors. 99% of them have been converted to some kind of housing. The economics of it make a kind of harsh sense but I do miss that aspect of city living that mostly seems to have disappeared here.

  4. I wish Seattle had more east coast style delis and diners. Seattle has a ton of cafés but sometime I just want a bacon egg and cheese instead of a gluten-free arugula heirloom chèvre.

    1. Eating wheat bread leaves me with lingering aftertaste of a dirty flannel shirt. Rice bread and corn muffins are just fine. Cheese from a cow same as wheat bread. Good thing the sheep and goat kind are delicious too. I’d rather the eggs not be runny or flavorless. Bacon has to taste like the smoke didn’t come out of a 50 gallon barrel.

      Coffee has to be really hard-to-pull espresso. Roasted by the bean, not the boxcar-load. By people who own the cafe. Who deserve whatever they change. I don’t have any trouble finding places where I can stand to eat. Which are invariably owned by people I know and like. Which is really best recommendation for me.

      But with you on one thing: we definitely need more eating places that used to be actual rail cars. AMTRAK bistro cars don’t count. Also…somebody get a used bus-way vehicle too, just to check.


    2. A few years ago I found myself thinking about American food, and I realized I couldn’t even remember what American food was since I hadn’t had it for so many years; we always ate pho or sushi or pad thai or gyros or something. Then I remembered, “Hamburgers and pizza!”

      The fancy sandwiches are of course because they can charge a higher price. But if you want a traditional deli, there’s The Other Coast Cafe on Pike Street and on Ballard Avenue.

      1. Popcorn is quintessentially American food — having been developed by the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). :-)

  5. So, there were design regulations run by a central government 100 years ago dictating design?

    Just wondering. Comrade.

    1. More like designs sold from mass produced guidebooks. Many of the craftsman homes in Seattle were built from kits ordered in catalogues. Capitalism.

    2. Mark smith, I know what you’re getting at. Brick walls danger signal. Sand-blasted, no-go for me. Also one-word name, except if Charlie owns it and it has an ‘s’ at the of it. “Chez” is almost as bad, but not quite. Though being phased out. And if menu doesn’t have decimal points, avoid.

      Won’t eat anything I can’t see. Bet candles add more to cost than electricity. Not a dime for decor, and atmosphere has to mean good food. But again, what I keep coming back to is that I really choose by the people who run the place. Because this is my best guarantee of what I want, at a place I can afford.

      Whom I know earn their money. In Detroit, my favorite restaurant was run by a man from Crete, who inherited it from his father. My friend would get up at 3AM to buy the day’s food from the Eastern Market- like Pike Place with no cliff. He would absolutely never let anyone else select the food.

      Which was invariably delicious, at factory-workers’ wages.

      Mark Dublin

  6. +1!!!

    I never thought of it this way. but corner stores, no setbacks, and small apartment buildings are precisely the character I like from old neighborhoods and has been zoned out of existence in new developments. Growing up in Bellevue, I first encountered the neighborhood ambience when visiting a friend at the top of Queen Anne in 9th grade. His mom would send him to the store, and we would walk a few blocks to a small grocery. Another direction were other friends’ houses, and at the bottom of the hill we spent the weekend evenings in Seattle Center. And the 2 came every 20 minutes rather than once an hour!

    If the economics of ground-floor retail are difficult in residential areas we’ll have to work with that. And many of the conrner stores have turned into places selling only prepackaged junk food, beer, and cigarettes so nothing I would want. But we could do something about these things if we try.

    One thing we could use more of is produce shops, like the one at 65th NE & 15th NE, or coincidentally 16th NW & 15th NW. Those would get good business and liven up the neighborhood.

      1. I think both of the produce vendors you cite are former gas stations that have been re-purposed into newer uses. I expect that both locations will soon be gone and replaced with modern iterations of urban density once the property owners can find a buyer to meet their price. What are the chances that any of the ground floor retail businesses in the new buildings will sell fresh produce?

      2. I’ve been to both produce stands. It never occurred to me that if you told someone “Meet me at the produce stand at 65th and 15th” that you would have to specify NW or NE.

      3. If they are indeed former gas stations, there’s a good chance that required environmental remediation makes their redevelopment significantly more expensive.

      4. Good point, William. I know of similar places, and no permanent structure exists, even though it is obviously prime real estate.

      5. Not only do you have to specify, so does the mail. Apparently both places get each others’ bills and mail.

        My great grandfather and a couple of great uncles each owned corner grocery stores in Oshkosh WI, whose built environment is single family neighborhoods, slightly more dense because the houses are smaller. Its a brutal margin business, so they left and retired in the 70s.

        Currently, the only model for a corner store that is making it that I’d look to for inspiration is Chuck’s Hop Shop on 8th NW/ 85th. About 8-9 years ago it was pretty skeesy corner grocery.

  7. Maybe someone can enlighten me, but it feels somewhat hypocritical to say “zoning for small single-family homes instead of large residential complexes is messing up Seattle’s ability to grow” while also saying “we need to keep small businesses instead of big chains”. Shouldn’t we be in favor of upzoning both residential and commercial?

    1. You can have one Target in a Target store lot, or a hundred apartments, fifty small businesses, and six townhouses. There is a tension between wanting density and recognizing that one-story storefrunts like University Way work really well. The answer is that there’s two kinds of density. One is midrise/highrise. the other is small lots with a mix of houses, duplexes, small apartments, corner stores, and small markets with several businesses together. You can pack a lot of people and commerce in such lowrise areas, but the trick is to shrink the spaces between buildings, eliminate setbacks, and don’t have large surface parking lots in front. The older single-family lots like in Mt Baker and Rainier and N 80th Street and White Center are ideal as far as single-family lots, but Seattle has a severe housing shortage and multifamily is allowed on only 25% of the land, so we need to expand it to some of the single-family areas to keep rents from increasing. It’s not so much that something is intrinsically wrong with the small-lot houses, but simply that Seattle’s population size can no longer accommodate that luxury in such numbers. There’s not anything wrong with those houses, but there is something wrong with zoning that enforces residential-only areas: it prevents people from being able to walk to businesses for their daily needs, it cuts down on pedestrian traffic, it makes the neighborhood more lonely and causes alienation, and it keeps ridership low on adjacent transit thus making it harder to increase its frequency.

    2. There’s actually three kinds of density. You’ve described one of them very well. But there’s a big difference between an old-fashioned midrise neighborhood — which is actually a lot like the old-fashioned low-rise neighborhood, but with somewhat taller buildings, so more apartments — and the “skyscraper” method of density which can be problematic.

      Here in Ithaca, NY, we have a classic 19th century two-story brick commercial building in our downtown (no setbacks) which was *designed for expansion*. The owners figured out that it had been designed with an extra-heavy foundation and structure in order to have some extra floors added to it later, when demand called for it. Those extra floors have just now been added, making it five stories, adding three floors of apartments on top. Awesome.

      In Seattle, this sort of thing is totally illegal, as far as I can tell. Your zoning code is obsessed with setbacks and height limits and reducing FAR. The idea of keeping a commercial one-story building intact and setting a couple of stories of residential on top of it is totally alien to your zoning code.

      Your zoning code also can’t conceive of converting a rambling Victorian house to (a) apartments or (b) offices — we have 19th century houses downtown which are now a *mix* of apartments (upper floor) and offices (first floor). One has been converted from single-family home to office to hotel all without moving. Your zoning code, by prohibiting free-floating commerical/residential use changes, basically bans adaptive reuse.

      Which is why you have to completely replace the zoning code.

      1. I decided to live here precisely because it doesn’t look like anyplace else. I’ll keep my lowrise neighborhood, thank you. If it changes, I will sell, sell, sell, take the money and move to another low rise neighborhood elsewhere.

  8. Well, obvously:
    1. These non-confirming buildings were once corner stores, and
    2. They generally are not so today.

    The first question to ask is: “Why?” Unless the answer to that question is that they were forced to close by government action due to being non-conforming (highly unlikely; zoning codes typically have grandfather clauses that allow non-confirming uses and structures to continue), it means market forces compelled them to close and be replaced by housing.

    Which in turn means that simply allowing new construction of such form wouldn’t change a thing, and any government subsidies to encourage such a thing would be wasted (the new construction would just end up being turned into housing like the old was). So color me skeptical about this proposal.

    1. And right after posting that it occurred to me that the de-densification of Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods is probably part of the answer why the corner stores failed and were replaced with housing. Seattle has one of the smallest average household sizes in the country; homes that once held families of four to six now tend to house couples or perhaps families of three.

      Unless the lost density is replaced, the stores are unlikely to come back.

      1. Yeah, I agree that changing the zoning to allow corner stores again is unlikely to have much impact. There are plenty of perfectly valid economic reasons why the existing ones were converted to residential use, and a zoning change won’t make a difference there.

    2. Do you know how the grandfathered clauses work? For a small business, I could see them continuing only for that business. Once the business owner decided to quit, then it has to be converted to a house. In most cases, this is trivial (just as it the other way around). Even if it doesn’t work that way, I would imagine that once a place has been converted from a business to a home, you can’t covert it back.

      If if none of that is true, and these corner stores are dying out in some neighborhoods, that doesn’t mean they are likely to die out everywhere. There may be plenty of areas that could easily support a corner store that would struggle in a different neighborhood.

      1. I think the grandfather clauses allow the same type of use (residential, commercial, etc.) to continue even if it isn’t the same exact business.

        There’s an old one-story commercial building with three separate commercial spaces near me. The land is zoned single-family. Several different businesses have occupied that space since I’ve lived nearby. The end unit was a coffee shop for a while but has since been replaced by an architecture studio.

        However once it’s converted to residential use I doubt it could be switched back.

      2. Yes, non-conforming uses can remain indefinitely when zoning changes, even as individual tenants come and go. There’s even provisions in most zoning codes to expand them. They can also be replaced with a similarly-sized building if destroyed by fire or other accident, usually with a time limit on when you need to turn in the building permit, and if you don’t turn it in in time, the non-conforming use it over.

      3. There have been issues with the land use code for businesses trying to operate in these spaces as non-conforming uses. There was a fight over a coffee shop in Mt. Baker. I know of at least 2 businesses who had to go through long permit processes in order to open or remodel.

        I think the long permit processes are what keep a lot of these spaces from being used. Most small businesses can’t wait 2+ years while paying a lease to do their build-out. So unless you can limp by with the space as-is you can’t use it for your business.

      4. Legal nonconforming uses can often continue from one owner to the next, but there are many hurdles that can interrupt that continuity.

        – Significant change in use — if your store used to be just a convenience store but you want to add espresso, does that fit within the existing nonconforming use, or are you adding a new nonconforming use? Anything that increases the level of noncompliance to current code is generally prohibited, or requires an expensive review process.

        – Required building upgrades — if you want to modernize your refrigeration, upgrade old plumbing, or change lighting technology, you may end up making a large enough change that you’re required to bring the entire electrical system, or even the whole building, up to current codes. Can you afford to do that, or is it less expensive to convert to a less-demanding use?

        – Damage, reconstruction time — if you have a fire that significantly damages the building, for example, you may be out of operation long enough to lose your legal nonconforming status. That’s especially true if you have an older building that needs a lot of upgrades as part of the reconstruction.

    3. They were forced to close by government action.

      Josh correctly describes the problem. Here’s what happens msot often.

      The grocery store is no longer viable. What would be viable is a coffee shop. However, the “grandfather clause” only allows the grocery store — coffee shops are PROHIBITED! So it is shut.

  9. Good and rational post. And I know that corner building in Wallingford you call out. It’s nice, still has upside use potential, and fits into the neighborhood perfectly. And one of the houses very near there used to be a speakeasy back in the dark days of prohibition. They definitely did a better job of making use of available assets back in the day.

    As far as your first picture goes, that is some mighty horrible architecture. Makes one pine for architectural review boards.

    1. Lazarus, drop us a link to some pics of the architecture you like. But for everybody, it’s interesting reading to find contemporary critiques of some of the buildings now treasured on historic registers.

      When they were first built, critics of the really ornate ones noted that the Greeks never once put one of their temples halfway up a fifty story building.

      Same as with music. In 1919, Mozart was a stale piece of Viennese pastry. Concert crowds from America to Turkey loved composers like Charles Ives, who deliberately wrote music specifically designed to be discordant. And by some accounts invented instruments almost certainly designed to make his neighbors call the police.

      Not for romantic evenings- though throughout history, The Stranger’s most desperate efforts would be a Sunday school picnic.


      1. No one really liked Ives in his day. His music was, in fact, pretty much entirely unknown until after he had a heart attack and stopped writing in the 1920s. Stravinsky’s discordant music caused a riot in at a premiere in 1912. Meanwhile, the public turned to ragtime and jazz. The idea that discordant music can be good didn’t catch on with the public until the era of rock – and even rock’s discordance is mostly its volume and not its dissonance.

    2. Oh my, we need real design review in this city alright! I love how everyone cites European cities as a model of what they like………have you looked around at Seattle lately? We’re about as far off from this as it gets. This city is not only destroying its character (and the reason that some of us decided to live here in the first place), it’s becoming pretty darned ugly. Bad fake “modern” architecture (builder crap) has prevailed.

  10. The lack of small neighborhood stores is partly a function of local zoning obsessions with residential-only districts. Many suburban places call small corner stores ‘spot zoning’ and forbid them. As a result, the codes force many suburbs to be auto-oriented with large residential areas and long commercial strips.

    One action that is needed is to reform some zoning codes and practices to allow for small stores that meet certain criteria, like size and design, off of arterial streets. Conditional use permits are a good way to start. To get that, there has to be a paradigm shift in the value of corner businesses within communities.

    1. ‘Off of arterial streets’ means well inside residential areas – not just on parcels adjacent to arterials.

    2. Making a use conditional makes that use available only to the current owner of a property, since only that current owner has the standing to apply for a conditional use.

      Many small neighborhood stores survive as family businesses for immigrants who are willing to work long hours for little pay. Unfortunately, that’s a population that’s often not capitalized and connected well enough to be comfortable with the conditional use process.

      If you have just enough money to build and run a corner store, you probably don’t have enough money to buy the lot on speculation and hope that you will win permission to build and run that store. So you’ll look for a location where you can buy an existing storefront, but you probably won’t go build a new store to serve an under-served neighborhood.

    3. Years ago there was a zoning fight where I grew up because a woman was operating an (excellent) daycare out of her house. It was “nonconforming” and prohibited in a residential district! They were going to try to shut her down!

      Luckily, the result was the amendment of the village zoning code to permit anyone to operate a commerical daycare out of their house “as of right”, provided that the house met safety standards.

      But you see how awful zoning codes can be.

    4. “Obsession” with SF zones? How about liveability? There are FAMILIES here! Imagine that! They actually want to live in houses, not apartments……..and in neighborhoods with other HOUSES. Gosh, darn. Seems so difficult to fathom, doesn’t it?

      1. And apparently they want to have to drive long distances when they run out of bread, or need some cold medicine, or whatever? No. Just because YOU like strictly SF zones does not mean that is inherent to all families (or that your family is somehow more important than other families). I grew up in Seattle not *that* long ago, but there were a few more of these neighborhood corner stores than there are now — and I can tell you that NONE of them were making the neighborhoods less livable or threatening the existence of the SF homes around them. They were a benefit. We knew the store workers and owners and they knew us. They made the neighborhood more homey and more neighborly and we didn’t have to drive as much. I knew plenty of families who shared one car and so the stay at home parent would shop on foot.

        I think corner stores should automatically be allowed in SF zones. Period. At most you could maybe limit the number per sq. mile, but other than that, they should be allowed. (And 5000/7200 sf yards should never be a requirement, but that’s another topic.)

        And before you ask — I live in a SF house, but in an old neighborhood with small lots. And it’s lovely and relatively walkable.

      2. Indeed, one of the things that keeps me up at night is the thought of when I grow older and can no longer drive safely. Where will I go for the things that I need? Of course, the traditional way in America is to keep driving, long past the point where you can see or react properly, because you HAVE TO.

        But: requiring driving to meet basic needs imprisons fully one-third of Americans in their homes or small circles around them.

  11. The best example I’ve seen is at Summit & Mercer, where there’s a little cluster of a bar, a pizza place, a doughnut cafe, and a couple small businesses like architecture or I don’t know what. They mostly attract people from the immediate neighborhood because everyone else goes to larger places on Broadway or East Olive Way, but that’s what makes them nice neighborhood asserts. It’s probably better for business to cluster a few of them together rather than just one sole grocery store. I think there’s a grocery store in the cluster, and there’s definitely one alone on the next block. I head about the rezoning to allow more corner shops in the residential blocks, and was disappointed it failed. Apparently the residents said no, they didn’t want non-residential storefronts in the interior blocks. That’s a shame.

    One difficulty businesses on interior residential streets is it be hard for customers from outside the neighborhood to get to them, so that limits their business. Being located on an arterial makes it easier for people from a larger area to get to you. And it also must be problematic for deliveries to get to them.

  12. Kens Market type stores are the likely replacement for corner stores, not quite so convenient, but close to it.

    The ideal location for daycare is next to the child’s school. Looking after transporting kids before and after school is the logistics nightmare. The Boys and Girls club are doing it in some schools, parents love the service.

    1. That assumes the kid is old enough to go to school. Lots of kids < age 5 in day care. Lots of residences already being used for that purpose already.

      1. Exactly. Walk around a bit and you can see plenty of houses that are day cares. That part really doesn’t need fixing. (At least, from a zoning perspective — day care can be hella expensive).

      2. When this kid gets to be 5 it is helpful to not have to find a new day care. The waiting lists are long.

  13. Decades ago, schools of all kinds had commercial districts adjacent to them. That’s true for older Seattle neighborhoods.

    Then, some school planners came up with minimum lot sizes and concepts with green fields and lots of parking — and that pushed districts to create auto-oriented campuses far from commercial districts. Kids can’t walk anywhere! Parents create mini traffic jams! Kids who miss the bus or whose parents are late are quickly left on an empty street!

    I’d be in favor of bringing back small commercial districts near any school. The merchants may complain about occasional unruly kids – but the concept is a great way to relearn what it means to have a community.

    1. And stadiums. Schools had to have minimum-sized playfields, and that and the parking lot made the campus so large that it could only be sited in a greenfield area.

    2. In my experience (there was a drug store across the street from the high school I attended), stores near schools tend to get a decent chunk of business if they stock things the students are interested in purchasing.

  14. Re: the scale issue, I think it’d be great to do this in a food truck-y sort of way. (Just because these things don’t normally carry sundries doesn’t mean they couldn’t.) Several benefits: low overhead for the business owner, the business could serve the neighborhood when peeps are home and go elsewhere when they aren’t, and requires absolutely no construction.

    I’m not an expert on Seattle City Code, so correct me if I’m wrong here, but it may even be possible to do this without even changing city laws if the truck owner and a home owner in the neighborhood could come to an agreement.

  15. My neighborhood is the best one I have ever lived in because it feels like community. I know all the neighbors and walk the blocks all the time. We have a yearly BBQ for the “Night Out” in Seattle. My little 2 yr old plays with all all the other kids on the block and we all watch out for each other. I believe community plays a huge role in development. I think it is vital to keep the neighborhoods more like a community of friends and family.

  16. Obviously the rise of industrial agriculture, the modern supermarket, and the pervasiveness of the private automobile mean that we probably won’t ever have corner grocery stores like we did 100 years ago. And that’s fine! My family ran corner grocery stores in the outskirts of New York City for 70 years, so I get it. It’s a tough business!

    We can debate the economics of the corner grocer until we’re blue in the face, but the thing I like the most about Anders’ piece is that it goes beyond the corner grocery stores and imagines 21st-century business that would be truly useful within the neighborhood context: co-working spaces, day care, dog care, pilates and yoga studios. The kinds of things that we couldn’t imagine spending money on in 1910 when many of Seattle’s single-family zones were first built out.

    Would they pencil out, economically? Hard to say. I’d like to think it’s at least worth legalizing them so we could find out.

    1. Nah. It’s Puget Sound.

      The first and most important business you need to plop down in the middle of a single family home neighborhood is a Kayak Museum.

      1. No, the most important is a coffee shop. It is a tragedy when anyone from the PNW is more than 500 feet from the nearest espresso. Please think of the children.

    2. Oh, and I ran across a yoga studio in a Queen Anne single family area some years back. It looked like it was in a corner store type building dating to around 1910. So, the economics seem to pencil out in some places, but there is no telling how much business is walk-up and how much is drive-up.

  17. North Seattle is an imitation city. It would be a suburb if we were on the other coast. Sorry if this is news.

  18. They buldozed one in Lake City less than 10 years ago. 16 condos went in, and they dodged the retail requirement by splitting into 4 LLCs.

    1. Many places in the code say that the project is treated as a single project if the parcels are in “the same ownership”. Developers routinely create multiple LLCs to skirt around this type of requirement. The state needs to step it to bring a stop to this, by passing a state law that says that LLCs that are controlled by the same person will be treated as being owned by the same party for all land development regulations.

      1. They could simply adopt the federal tax code regulations on “common control” which are quite extensive and have been designed to close over 100 years of loopholes.

  19. While the Durn Good at 40th and Wallingford stocks many items (not including pint containers of whole milk, which is what I’m always looking for there) my general sense is it survives on selling beer and cigarettes. Mind you, that makes it a tax gold mine compared to a grocery store, which otherwise doesn’t sell a lot of taxable items. Which may be a reason the zoning is not favored by the powers that be.

  20. I am a big believer in the idea of mandatory mixed use. A rule requiring, say, a minimum 15% commercial and a minimum 15% residential (with the remaining 70% the developer’s choice). This is the best way to redevelop sprawl strips (like Evergreen), since it essentially eliminates all sprawl-type of development.

    1. The problem is, residential developers HATE retail, and do anything they can to screw with the provision of it.

      They make the retail spaces too shallow to be genuinely useful to real businesses; almost all of the ground floor is filled with building services, electrical rooms, parking ramps, etc.

      They unceasingly favor corporate chains with almost no foot traffic: real estate offices, banks, gyms. Ever notice how many “mixed use” buildings have gyms taking up the whole ground floor, that never seem to have more than two people in them?

      The other problem with new construction is simply that it’s too expensive. Small businesses of the kind that make Seattle’s older retail strips interesting can never afford those spaces. Immigrants? Forget it. That’s one reason for the boom in taco trucks — people can afford to get a start in them, without having to pony up for our insanely expensive real estate.

      You’re never going to get small groceries in their traditional corner spaces because they can be converted into residences and sold for $500k-$1m. And the real estate boom is causing companies like Chase to buy up storefronts they don’t need just as a place to park their money. It appreciates in value just as real estate much faster than any return on, you know, banking. That huge, empty Chase in the most prominent shopfront in downtown Fremont where Costa Opa used to be represents everything that’s screwed about Seattle development.

      1. What you have to do is to allow people to run businesses out of their houses. And yes, allow them to do renovations to create storefronts after they get big enough….

        Traditionally this is how *all* small busineses start. But zoning tries to ban it, because zoning is terrible.

  21. It’s an interesting discussion, but of course, we also need to consider the hostility of existing residents of these areas towards commercial. Does anyone remember the epic battles around Volunteer Park Cafe a few years ago? Maybe another way to look at it: everyone loves this idea, but on someone else’s block!

    FWIW, the north side of Wallingford isn’t so badly served with a smattering of corner stores allowed along 50th and Stone, and north towards Tangletown / Latona. The fact that these stores aren’t corner grocery stores isn’t a failure of zoning, it’s one of economics, the places can do better in other types of business.

  22. The Take Five corner store at 8th Ave NW & 70th St in Ballard is my favorite neighborhood corner store. Low setback, good integration with the neighborhood, and there is a bus stop right in front of the store. They do well by offering milk, eggs, beer, wine, but especially high quality prepared meals.

    I love taking my kid there to get a treat after dinner, or hopping off the bus and stopping in to get some half & half on the way home. Sometimes it feels like I live in a real city!

    +1 good article

  23. Another +1 great article

    This is the perfect accompaniment to this on “Gentrification’s other victims small business” ( )

    Rather than some crazy schemes to try to preserve small affordable commercial space, we should simply un-ban it in “corner store” forms. All the folks – co-working space, accountants, yoga studios, small art galleries, true “corner stores” etc – that are not going to be able to afford rent concrete and steel buildings on arterials would have a shot at small scale commercial with apartments above in the huge swathes of land now zoned single family. (The brick building in the photo in fact has some offices on the ground floor rather than a retail store, as I recall.)

    1. Small businesses like corner stores, or converted businesses in former corner stores, are not being blocked by zoning. They’re being blocked by property values. Any small business in Seattle that still exists is still there because the store owner owns the property, and has for many decades. When those people die, every interesting business that they run will disappear, because it will ALWAYS be more valuable to have a residence there. It is impossible in a city like this to run a small business from a parcel that’s worth $500k or more.

      Small businesses will be extinct in Seattle, and in most “successful” cities around the country, within a decade or two. Our urban fabric will be an endless succession of Walgreens, Chase banks, and empty gyms, interspersed with big box stores.

      This is happening in San Francisco, where every day a neighborhood laundromat or dry cleaner is replaced by a vanity boutique, and in New York, where the project to put three Rite Aids on every block is nearing completion, and Los Angeles, Austin, Portland (those famous, soon-to-be-gone food trucks).

      The small immigrant shops that made this country are now exclusively in remote, run-down suburbs, operating out of any semi-legal converted space possible. The one thing all these spaces have in common is that they are old and cruddy, which means affordable. When the developers come along with their superblocks, those shops too will be gone.

      1. Yes and no.

        Property values can be overcome if that property is being used for multiple other uses for which there is a demand.

        The property becomes overpriced when the demand for all the different uses can’t be done due to zoning.

      2. Zoning didn’t make the house worth $500k.

        Your statement about multiple uses overcoming property values is belied by the fact that mixed-use retail spaces in this city are far more expensive than the crummy old spaces they replaced. There are other barriers, too: residential developers hate retail, the spaces are unusable, etc.

    2. My favorite is off topic unfortunately due to its location but it is in a decent location. Lots of single family housing around it, but there are apartments within several blocks. Up until the early 1970s it was an Italian grocery store, then it became a natural foods cooperative. Three different bus routes not too far away.

    3. Above you referred to it as a “parcel” worth $500k. Once land gets past a certain value then the natural tendency is to increase density.

      Compare, for example, Magnolia with high density zoning and the situation two blocks away where density is not allowed.

      If more uses are allowed on that $500k parcel, then the cost for each use or user goes down a bit.

      There is a certain lot in southeast Portland which, as you can see from the street view, didn’t really have much on it. With a zoning change, that same lot is now having a building built on it that has some 130 apartments plus a ground floor grocery store. The previous zoning was incompatible with the market value of the land and its location, and thus it wasn’t being used for much of anything.

  24. I’m all for corner stores in neighborhoods, new or old. However, the rendering at the top of the article is exactly what I would NOT want in my nieghborhood. The caption states that the design pictured is one way corner stores could “fit into a residential zone.” Insted it is one way a corner store could stick out like a sore thumb, and not relate to its surroundings at all. It’s the design issue, right there! Make it so it truly fits in, and then I’m all for it.

  25. I live on a corner lot in a SF house, but the land happens to be zoned NC2-40′. Don’t think I haven’t thought about turning the house into a corner soda fountain. I still do, actually. Anyway, the traditional “shop on the main floor/shopowners live upstairs” thing seems like it wouldn’t be impossible in many places.

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