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.
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 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.
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.