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October 16, 2014

How to make retail successful in Seattle

  • Seattle requires ground-floor retail in mixed-use projects but that's a big challenge for developers as more people shop online and many cut back on spending.
    Special to the Journal

    Recent changes in consumer habits — including online shopping and decreased spending in general — have led to a downshift in popularity for new brick-and-mortar retail projects.

    At the same time many cities, including Seattle, are requiring ground-floor retail in mixed-use developments.

    For developers, this tug-of-war between retail trends and zoning regulations creates a challenge: How can you comply with regulations yet still get the best return on a retail investment?

    Not surprisingly, retail becomes more viable in high-density neighborhoods. Even in the densest areas, however, retail is too often viewed as an inconvenience and is left out of a project's pro forma.

    But there are many ways to make retail space successful, regardless of zoning. Solutions may vary, but the planning process should address the same key aspects.

    Plan for retail

    Retail is frequently treated as an afterthought during planning, an item to check off the list to comply with local requirements. Instead of just touching on it superficially, look at retail space as an opportunity to improve your project's success.

    Market research is the first step. What types of tenants are in demand for the area? Where are the gaps in services in the neighborhood? What unique and interesting tenants can you identify? Each type of tenant — such as a restaurant, shop, arts studio, or grocery store — will have different implications on the site design. Anticipating the tenant types will guide you in planning.

    Next, figure out the best location on the site for retail. You will want to have the highest visibility and pedestrian traffic, but you should also consider pedestrian circulation, tenant flow, parking and services — or “back of the house” — for the space.

    Plan for pedestrians

    Convenience of retail is a major factor for both visitors and residents. Use pedestrian circulation to your advantage, drawing traffic to retail and maximizing its visibility.

    The traditional approach is to place storefronts along the street, so residents and customers can access the stores from the outside. One alternative is to create a central space or focal point to attract people. For example, add an elevator that both residents and retail customers can use, or build retail around an outdoor plaza for everyone to enjoy.

    The latter approach worked well when we designed Queen Anne Towne. Here an attractive plaza acts a gathering place for the community, as well as an access point for retail. Both aspects help increase pedestrian traffic to the stores.


    Parking is usually highly regulated by a city. While this can limit your options, certain design techniques will add convenience for both residents and shoppers.

    For instance, watch for parking requirements that create inherent conflicts, such as the location of loading docks in relationship to parking. Careful planning can help you avoid unwanted situations, such as cars getting blocked into a lot by delivery truck offloading.

    Segregate retail parking from residential parking, and provide clear signage for each. Shoppers are less familiar with an area than residents and need guidance to make retail access friendly and easy. A common mistake is to make wayfinding signage a low priority, when it is best included early in the planning process.

    Services, utilities

    Services such as trash disposal and utilities may seem secondary to an overall design, but they have major implications on the functionality and layout of retail space. Some considerations include:

    • Trash: Allow for adequate space for retail trash storage and collection, and consider whether composting and compacting facilities are needed or required.

    • HVAC: Standalone mechanical equipment and exhaust hoods for shops and restaurants need adequate clearances, which can affect the adjacent residential space.

    • Plumbing: Ensure that sewer connections for retail's supply and return can achieve adequate slope to maintain applicable codes.

    • Electrical: Plan for the correct loads to support variable retail uses (e.g., for unusual tenants like a ceramics studio).

    • Structural: ADA requirements may impact your decision to use a stepped or level floor slab to be able to meet grade. The type of slab used will affect the future adaptability of the space.

    The site itself may add complications — on a sloped site, which is almost every site in Seattle, a second level and an elevator may be required for access to and from retail spaces. Even without a sloped site, a second-level loading dock could help create an additional contiguous space on the ground floor.

    All of these aspects must be thought through early to avoid problems down the road. However, the type of retail will determine the size and location of the loading dock, trash facilities, utilities, and so on.


    Restaurants have special requirements to consider, such as food and waste circulation, sizing and location of a grease hood, the need to access grease traps, etc. If your preliminary planning indicates that a restaurant tenant is feasible, you can plan ahead for these additional accommodations.

    Similarly, take patron seating and access into account. Outdoor seating is a desirable feature for many restaurants. By planning an al fresco space to work in concert with surrounding retail space, the area can be much more attractive to a potential restaurant tenant.

    Stay flexible

    In this age of changing market conditions, no amount of planning can substitute for flexibility. By the time your project breaks ground, your space may need to adapt to yet another trend. By designing a highly flexible space, you can anticipate potential changes and keep your project ahead of the curve. Even live/work street-front units should be capable of being modified to retail in the future.

    The opportunity for developers to add retail in urban areas will keep growing as the pressure continues to increase urban density. The better you plan ahead for those spaces, the more successful and higher the return will be.

    Chris Dowell is a project architect at Tiscareno Associates, a firm specializing in retail, mixed-use, planning and public projects. Jim Cade, Principal, also contributed to this article.

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