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Nat Levy
Real Estate Reporter

August 21, 2014

Real Estate Buzz: Talking retail with Linda Derschang

Real Estate Reporter

Over the last 20 years, Linda Derschang has become a fixture in the bustling Seattle restaurant scene. Derschang's first restaurant was Linda's Tavern, which opened in 1994. Derschang has opened 10 restaurants and bars, six of which she still owns. Each one has its own identity, from menu to design.

Derschang sat down with the DJC to talk about her design aesthetic, and what she thinks Capitol Hill will look like in a few years.

Q. Where do you get ideas for a new restaurant?

A. The neighborhood always defines the concept. Once I decide the sort of place I think the neighborhood might want and need, then the ideas come from many places: traveling, browsing magazines ... sometimes inspiration can even strike in the middle of a yoga class. I'm always gathering new ideas.

Q. I know design is a big thing for you. Where do you look for good design?

A. I mainly find design inspiration from traveling and reading and daydreaming. I love all sorts of design: interiors, clothing, gardens. I also love product design and branding, from matches to book covers to menu design.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Swanson
Linda Derschang’s first restaurant was Linda’s Tavern, which opened in 1994.

Q. What advice would you give developers about ground-floor retail?

A. Invest in the storefront. Wood is fantastic. Do not use aluminum-framed windows and doors unless they are black. Avoid the silver ones at all cost. They scream “strip mall” and “franchise.”

Q. When retail sits empty, what do you tell owners to do?

A. Lower the rent a little and try to find unique, small businesses. Help make it easier for young creatives to start their businesses. The interesting, creative businesses draw more established companies rather than the other way around.

Q. 19th & Mercer is a good example of a building where the ground floor is a draw for the apartments and the neighborhood. Tell me how it came together.

A. Pat Foley of Lake Union Partners approached me to discuss the project about 18 months before Tallulah's opened. I was very interested because I live in that neighborhood and I feel a strong connection to it. They were committed to leasing to independent businesses and trying to find businesses that would all fit together to create a block that worked for that neighborhood but also with the existing businesses in that area.

I liked their belief in and understanding of community, and their willingness to listen to my design suggestions for the storefronts. And they gave me the beautiful wooden doors that open both in the front and to the patio. A relationship with a landlord is a partnership, and they get that.

Q. How important is the ground floor in shaping neighborhoods?

A. The ground floor is incredibly important. I think we'd all like to live in a neighborhood with charming cafes, small grocery stores, bakeries, independent bookstores and fun, locally owned businesses on the ground floors of new buildings. It is disheartening to me when I see neighborhoods overrun with banks, franchises and chain restaurants. I think we all want our neighborhoods to feel unique and special. Also, smaller spaces are better for independent retail, which is important to consider.

Five hundred to 1,000 square feet is the perfect size for many stores. It can be incredibly expensive to stock and staff a 2,000-square-foot store for anyone but a chain or well-established company, which I realize could be a safer bet for a developer but not better for shaping an interesting neighborhood. However, a few small spaces could mitigate risk rather than betting on one larger one. That was the premise for Melrose Market and it has been a huge success.

Q. What kind of changes do you see coming to Capitol Hill?

A. There are going to be tons of new people moving to the neighborhood over the next few years. That could be a wonderful opportunity to keep Capitol Hill a really great place to live — unless the neighborhood becomes too focused on nightlife. I'd love to see a lot more interesting retail happening to keep the balance of night and day. We already have great places like Elliott Bay Bookstore, Glasswing, Retrofit and Totokaelo. What if there were a few cool stores on every block?

If Capitol Hill becomes more and more of a shopping district it would be great for the city also. The main shopping areas in Seattle are the downtown core, which has larger chains and department stores, and University Village, which is a great outdoor mall. A lot of small, independently-owned stores are spread out here and there through other neighborhoods like Fremont, Pioneer Square and Ballard. It would be wonderful to have Pike/Pine as the neighborhood not only known for nightlife but as a place to spend the day with lots of unique stores, galleries and cafes.

It's a perfect for a shopping district because it's centrally located, has so many residents and also great accessibility for travelers staying in downtown hotels.

Q. What can developers do to keep Capitol Hill fun and unique?

A. Keep leasing to as many independent businesses and smaller chains as possible. Think outside the box and take chances with small companies and young creatives.

Got some news for the Buzz? You can reach Nat at nat.levy@djc.com.

Got a tip? Contact DJC real estate editor Brian Miller at brian.miller@djc.com or call him at (206) 219-6517.

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