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Real Estate Editor
July 28, 2022
It's been five years since Seattle City Council approved an upzone for most of the University District. Various high-rise schemes were then planned, with some now built and under construction, in anticipation of the future new light rail station. U District Station did indeed open last fall. But back in 2017, no one anticipated the pandemic, which pushed most UW students to remote learning for much of the past few years — and killed even more of the neighborhood retail.
As new towers sprout and old churches are demolished near the station, University Way Northeast — aka The Ave — remains stubbornly unchanged. That's because the council punted on upzoning that roughly six-block stretch from Northeast Campus Parkway to Northeast 50th Street.
It's now capped at 65 feet, and no landowner is willing to make significant investments or plans without some clarity as to the future zoning. A few low-rise properties do sometimes sell, but nothing new is being built. East and west of the parallel alleys flanking The Ave, it's a different story: That upzoned land is where all the new development is taking place.
The city says an upzone for The Ave is still on hold, with an environmental impact statement still pending.
Walking those blocks on a recent sunny Thursday evening, it was striking how blighted The Ave has become. Once a shopping high street, back before University Village began siphoning off those dollars in the 1990s, it's now a bleak parade of noodle joints, vape shops, interim leasing offices for new student-oriented apartment towers, shuttered storefronts and a few national chains.
Starbucks, Bartell, 7-Eleven and the relatively new Target are still there. The Pagliacci and McDonald's closed years ago. If you can't profitably sell pizza and burgers to hungry students, then what's the point to life? The Ave is now terminal, on life support.
I was surprised to see that the CVS opposite University Book Store had also expired during the pandemic. (That occupied the former Big 5 Sports building, itself once anchored by Nordstrom Place Two.) First Western Properties is now offering part of that vacant building as sublease space. And the same broker is also offering the Varsity and vacant former American Apparel corner for sublease. Again, if you can't sell movie tickets and cheap T-shirts to students...
Meanwhile, with its big parking lots ground leased to Touchstone and Portman Holdings, University District Parking Associates has quietly been adding to its holdings on The Ave — then essentially land banking them for the supposed upzone to come.
The DJC was unable to reach the UDPA for comment.
Among the boarded-up casualties of both COVID-19 and online shopping is the vacant former Buffalo Exchange, at 4530 University. That sold over a year ago to an experienced local real estate professional. Since then, the only plan to emerge there is for a possible cafe, bar and live music venue. But aimed at what demographic? Not the under-21 crowd. Not those still worried about gathering during COVID. And surely not the sort of well-heeled suburban boomers and Gen Xers likely to splurge on an evening at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley. There's no place to park, and the area is icky.
The Ave is no longer a destination. It's a place where students live and shop out of necessity, but that adults mostly avoid. Understandably, the music club plan has been quiet for months — and may not proceed.
So what's the highest and best use for The Ave? The wimpy decision for the city would be to raise the zoning to 75 or 85 feet, which would clear the path for more new midrise apartments with no parking, aimed at students, and much less ground-floor retail/commercial space than today's glut. Large package rooms, not capacious stores, are what collegiate consumers want today.
But such a timid upzone would only make The Ave even more of a student ghetto — albeit one with nicer, newer apartments and fast WiFi.
A bolder upzone would be 100 or 120 feet, tall enough for office and life science buildings. It's a given that many old properties will be recycled as new apartments, but taller zoning would encourage diversity of use. Though the UW will consolidate many off-campus offices at the planned U District Station Building (atop the station), future growth is still likely. And life science is the most in-demand category of commercial space right now. There are growing clusters in Bothell, Eastlake, South Lake Union and the area west of there extending to Seattle Center, so why not the U District proper?
That, too, could become a local biotech and life-science hub. UW Medical Center is a short walk away; there are UWMC clinics running west of campus to Roosevelt Way Northeast; and the area is teeming with young future doctors and research scientists. That latter population is growing and endlessly replenishing with each new crop of freshmen. Sure, give them nice small apartments with noddle shops below; and some might even choose to live in the U District after graduation, marriage and kids — if the neighborhood cleans up sufficiently.
A prime target for redevelopment is University Book Store, with its old store on The Ave and large parking lot on 15th Avenue Northeast. The store is now wildly outsized for present retail purposes. Amazon carries all the same books; textbooks are increasingly digital; and the market for fountain-pen ink just isn't what it used to be. The UW could take the initiative there, and be a catalyst for saving The Ave.
The old Ave of Nordstrom, Miller-Pollard and The Yankee Peddler is never coming back. Tower Records isn't coming back. The new Ave can't cling to that low-rise past. Its hippie thrift-shop charm is gone, apart from Bulldog News and Cafe Allegro.
Delay means certain death. The Ave is now waiting for its own demise. The city had better now prepare a eulogy — or an upzone.
Got a tip? Contact DJC real estate editor Brian Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (206) 219-6517.