In Othello, a neighborhood in the southern part of Seattle’s Rainier Valley, locals get an unwelcome history lesson whenever they shop at the local Safeway.
While much of Othello has seen a building boom since light rail arrived in 2009, shoppers at the Safeway, near the busy corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and South Othello Street, still make do with a store that was built during the Korean War and is infamous for its cramped aisles and spotty inventory and a parking lot with a demolition derby vibe.
“You’d be hard pressed to find a more neglected Safeway in the city,” says Jesiah Wurtz, co-owner of nearby Cafe Red.
In recent years, Safeway and its corporate parent, Albertsons, have announced upgrades at many Seattle locations, including in Queen Anne, Magnolia, Capitol Hill and University District, which are all getting big, new stores inside residential developments. But beyond things like new paint, lighting and deli cases, the nearly 70-year-old Othello store has seen so little recent investment that many locals shop elsewhere. “Nine times out of 10, when I need groceries, I’ll drive right past it,” says Ashley Shavers, who works nearby.
That may all be changing, according to Safeway. Othello could be up for a “large state-of-the-art store” once the grocery retailer signs a developer and devises a project plan that doesn’t leave the neighborhood without a Safeway during construction, company officials said in emailed statements last month.
But the news, which Safeway has yet to formally announce, is getting mixed reviews in Othello. While some residents are delighted by the possibility of a new store, others are skeptical. They recall when Safeway wanted to sell the Othello property, around 2008. They also remember in 2019, when Safeway denied it had ever “considered closing” its Rainier Valley stores and instead promised a slew of new investment in Seattle stores — but then left all three Rainier Valley locations off a list of scheduled store upgrades.
For some Othello locals, Safeway is the perennially faithless suitor who suddenly promises “I’m gonna put a ring on your finger,” says Kaylah Grady, who lives in nearby Skyway and was at the store last week. “If they wanted to fix it, it would have been fixed.”
“Different levels of service”
The Othello Safeway has long been a symbol of a problem that goes beyond a single community or retailer.
Many of Seattle’s upper-end neighborhoods boast an embarrassment of grocery store options. Google “grocery stores near me,” and you’ll get at least five full-service competitors within a mile of the Safeways being redeveloped in Queen Anne, Capitol Hill and University District, and three within just over a mile of the Magnolia Albertsons, which is also scheduled for redevelopment.
It’s a different story in South Seattle, one of the city’s poorest and most racially diverse areas (two-thirds of Rainier Valley residents self-identify as nonwhite, versus a third citywide, according to census data). Here, full-service grocery stores often languish from underinvestment, shut down or never appear in the first place.
Rival QFC, for example, has no plans to expand its smallish Mount Baker location in Rainier Valley, QFC officials say. PCC Community Markets has a big new store in nearby Columbia City, but other higher-end grocery brands like Whole Foods, or specialty stores such as Trader Joe’s, aren’t in Rainier Valley at all, despite community efforts to woo the latter.
That has left residents in places like Othello with comparatively few options: While the community has several smaller independent and specialty grocers, the nearest full-service, mid-price options — a Safeway in Rainier Beach and a QFC in Mount Baker — are between two and three miles away.
When it comes to Seattle’s grocery geography, “it’s just really clear that different parts of the city get different levels of service,” says Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales, whose district includes the Rainier Valley.
Safeway, to its credit, is the exception. With more than 20 locations in the immediate Seattle area, it is the only full-service grocery retailer in many otherwise underserved communities. That includes three Rainier Valley neighborhoods — Othello, Rainier Beach and Mount Baker. But Safeway’s outlier status only underscores the city’s uneven grocery map, while, paradoxically, leaving the retailer open to criticism about where it does, and doesn’t, invest.
Around Othello, many residents think Safeway and its rivals neglect or avoid the community because of its challenging demographics.
Theft is a serious problem at the Othello Safeway. Shoplifters “just walk out the door,” laments Beth Hernandez, a longtime Othello shopper who was standing in the Safeway parking lot on a recent Monday.
Othello is also among Seattle’s poorer communities. Poverty rates run as high as 39%, versus 10.2% citywide, according to census data. In areas around the Othello store, median household income ranges from $66,000 to $37,000, versus $97,000 for Seattle — and $115,000 to $143,000 in areas around University District, Capitol Hill, Queen Anne and Magnolia.
Among Othello residents, the conventional wisdom is that Safeway doesn’t invest more locally because there wouldn’t be “enough dollars spent at their store to make it worth their while,” says Sarah Valenta, a Rainier Valley resident who oversees community and business development at HomeSight, a local nonprofit focused on housing and small businesses.
But Safeways in places like Queen Anne and Magnolia, meanwhile, “get fixed because they’re an upper-income neighborhood,” adds Grady.
Those fears aren’t entirely unreasonable, given industry trends. Although population density is the top determinant for a neighborhood’s grocery sales potential, retail experts say, household factors like income are a close second. That’s certainly true for mid-market retailers like Safeway and QFC, which aim both for bargain-hunters (through promotional discounts) and wealthier customers looking for “higher-priced quality and value” products, says David Rogers, a consultant on retail siting and sales forecasting.
Many of those pricier items, such as deli meats and cheeses, prepared to-go meals, and flowers, generate higher profit, Rogers says. Overall, a given location’s profitability can be higher if it’s selling more of “those fresh products than if you are just selling canned beans,” Rogers says. Conversely, a higher-end product mix “has limited appeal to shoppers from lower-income households,” he adds.
“Keeping our doors open”
Safeway rejects much of the local speculation about the Othello situation.
Safeway officials point out that shoplifting has been a major problem for most retailers in Seattle (including at least two of the Safeway locations being redeveloped, according to the stores’ staff) and company officials say it wasn’t a factor in redevelopment decisions at Othello.
And although household incomes matter, Safeway officials say, the key determinant at Othello always has been population density and, in particular, recent population growth. Roughly 15 years ago, when Safeway was planning redevelopments in Magnolia, Queen Anne, Capitol Hill and University District, Othello was a perennial money-losing location and may have been considered for closure by the then-management team, company officials now acknowledge.
But in recent years, as Othello has grown, the store has turned profitable, the company says. Earlier this year, after delays exacerbated by the pandemic, Safeway did a location analysis and site visit and deemed Othello “viable” for a larger store as part of residential project, company officials say.
Still, Safeway has been fairly low key about next steps. The retailer has made no public announcements about Othello and shared the “viable” status only after repeated inquiries. Company officials are also careful to describe a new Othello store not as a done deal but as a “redevelopment opportunity” — and one that has yet to clear at least two big hurdles.
First, Safeway says it hasn’t found a developer with a feasible proposal for a larger store in a residential development.
Second, Safeway hasn’t nailed down a plan to replace the existing store without leaving Othello bereft of “convenient grocery options for two to three years,” said Brad Street, president of Safeway’s local operations, in an emailed statement last month.
Street stresses that Safeway is “open to innovative partnerships and concepts that would allow us to redevelop while keeping our doors open.” In fact, the company has already floated a few of its own.
One fairly radical idea under consideration: free grocery delivery for local customers during construction (possibly via a special grocery delivery facility Safeway is building at its Mount Baker store), company officials say. Another would be to build the big new store at a nearby site, assuming one could be found, and leave the current location open during construction.
But so far, Safeway says, since Othello was dubbed viable, no developer has approached the retailer with feasible proposals for either option. And even if one does, a new store still could be years away. The Queen Anne redevelopment deal, which the developer puts at $100 million, took years to put together and followed at least two abandoned efforts.
“More commitment and less hedging”
Safeway’s caveated explanations are getting mixed reviews among community activists and policymakers.
Longtime Safeway watchers like Valenta are pleased the retailer is now at least talking about redevelopment. They’re also relieved Safeway wants to avoid the effects of a closure — not least because Safeway has become a de facto social services provider. The Othello store gets a disproportionate share of purchases made at local Safeways under federal and city nutrition assistance programs, company officials say.
But after so many years of mixed messages, major doubts remain. Some are skeptical that Safeway can’t find a developer, given how developers have piled into other available commercial properties around the Safeway. Three of the corners at South Othello and Martin Luther King Jr. Way South either now have or soon will have the kind of complex mixed-use buildings, such as apartments above ground-level retail, that Safeway says it would need for a Othello redevelopment.
In fact, those neighboring developments should make the remaining corner, where Safeway sits behind a huge parking lot and several other small businesses, even more attractive to builders, not least because “market-rate developers have successfully filled their rental units,” Valenta says.
“There are clearly developers … in Othello who have found it to pencil [out],” adds Daphne Schneider, a local resident, business owner and community activist who opposed earlier plans to close the store. “Let’s bring in some of the people who have been developing in Othello and see what they say.”
More broadly, Schneider, Valenta and others want Safeway to be more transparent about the location’s prospects and to bring the community into the process before details are finalized. Residents and neighborhood businesses have a huge stake in the future of such a key community feature and want a say in any changes, say Valenta and Schneider.
Safeway is no stranger to community engagement, locals say. A few years ago, the retailer partnered with local community organization, HOSTED, to create a mural and plaza at the Othello location. And last year Safeway worked with community groups and others to “de-escalate” shootings and other violent crimes near the Rainier Beach Safeway.
(Safeway officials say that if the project moves ahead, the company will work with HOSTED to make the community part of the planning process. HOSTED project manager Cynda Rochester said Safeway hasn’t contacted her about the Othello redevelopment, but the organization would be glad to be involved.)
Locals say a similar process focused on the Othello store would let the community offer input while also keeping pressure on Safeway to move forward — and not allow caveats about missing developers or closure impacts to become new justifications for delays.
That community pressure could be all the more important, some policymakers say, given Othello‘s lack of other full-service options. “If you have monopolistic ownership of a particular neighborhood, maybe you don’t feel the pressure to improve,” says King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, whose district includes Rainier Valley and who grew up in nearby New Holly.
Like many here, he’s pleased by the talk of a new store, but says he “would like to hear a little bit more commitment and less hedging.”
If nothing else, adds Morales, a community process would allow residents to make clear to Safeway just how much they want a new store. “There’s 100,000 people down here in the south end who want to shop at a nice store.”
CORRECTION: an earlier version of this article gave an incorrect age for the Rainier Valley QFC.