Owners of shops and restaurants are responding in different ways to what seems like a citywide displacement of beloved small businesses jostled out of their abodes by redevelopment.
Champion Party Supply became a Denny Way landmark over two decades by selling zany costumes to partygoers and tourists alike.
But when the economy began heating up a couple of years ago, longtime owner Beau Champion, who also owned the highly visible building in Lower Queen Anne, sold the property.
Notified in February it would have to go, the store stuck around in the months since but is now going to be replaced by an apartment building. So Champion Party Supply is joining what seems like a citywide displacement of beloved small retail businesses jostled out of their abodes by redevelopment.
It’s another manifestation of an economic boom that has also pushed out longtime residents and changed the character of well-established neighborhoods.
On the one hand, change can mean an infusion of new residents and new business opportunities in a neighborhood, and money in the pockets of an aging building’s owners. On the other hand, says Branden Born, a professor of urban planning at the University of Washington, “You lose a bunch of the quirkiness of these original places, and you get into something where they all look the same. … Everything is clean and it’s all new.”
Long-comfortable small businesses are responding to such upheaval in different ways. Some simply move and hope their customers will follow. Others, like Fox’s Gem Shop, are spurred to reinvent themselves and find a more compact, affordable location.
A few, like the Capitol Hill sports bar Bill’s Off Broadway, pull off the feat of returning to their original location after construction of a massive new building on the site — but that’s a risky proposition, too.
City on the move
The redevelopment boom hit home for many when last year it claimed Piecora’s, a celebrated pizza joint on Capitol Hill. Others, among them round-the-clock eatery 13 Coins in South Lake Union and Tula’s Jazz Club in Belltown, might have to move soon. Woven Art, a rug store in Pioneer Square, last week said it would close its doors this fall due to rising rents and constant construction in the area.
When the whole city is seemingly on the move, it isn’t easy to find an affordable refuge. Victoria Champion, Champion Party Supply’s third-generation owner, thought her six-month notice would give her plenty of time to find a new place.
But it was far harder than she thought: Two separate deals fell through. She finally signed a lease for a warehouse on Elliott Avenue in Interbay, barely a couple of weeks before her Sept. 15 move-out date.
“Everybody is looking to redevelop. Not everybody is looking to take on tenants,” she says.
Champion says she took out “crazy loans” to do a lot of work needed in the warehouse where she’s moving. But she has to be ready for the ramp-up to Halloween: 80 percent of her annual revenue is generated during October.
“We’ll see how this year goes” in the new location, she says.
Sometimes developers strive to retain small, independent businesses that will maintain a cool neighborhood’s fabric, which is what draws tenants and condo buyers in the first place.
But for business owners, staying put through a redevelopment can be difficult, too. It means finding something else to do, or someplace else to do it — sometimes for years — until construction finishes.
Take Bill’s Off Broadway. The homey sports bar and pizza joint sat on Pine Street for more than three decades before owner Don Stevens, in mid-2012, got a one-year notice to vacate. The commercial building in which it was housed had been sold to be turned into fancy apartments.
He says the new owners approached him, wanting him to stay on after the new building was completed, and offered a rent per square foot similar to his previous lease.
But Stevens and his wife needed to come up with an exile plan for the two years until the new location would be ready.
“I was walking the hill every day, looking around. If something showed up, by the time you got ahold of the owner it’d be gone,” Stevens says.
Finally they opened a place in Greenwood, dubbed Bill’s On Greenwood. It turned out to be a successful experiment, and it remains open, Stevens says.
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Meanwhile, Bill’s Off Broadway reopened in August in the new building on its old block, and now it occupies nearly twice as much space.
The new Bill’s is clean and spiffy-looking, with a bigger kitchen and modern equipment. It clearly has a different flavor, even if it retains some of its old character, with the same exterior facade and a communal table built out of the old bar and a barber pole.
Now, though, there are hundreds of new apartments all around, full of potential new customers with money burning in their pockets.
Stevens says the bigger kitchen has allowed him to expand his menu, and now he can seat 131 people instead of 87.
“Obviously it’s been a happy ending, so far,” Stevens says.
Sharing the building with residents has had its challenges, however. Special plumbing, waste and electrical requirements meant that construction he estimated would take him three months instead took six.
Denny Onslow, the longtime Seattle developer of Bill’s new building, says keeping the bar there was a win for the neighborhood and for the developers, too.
“It had been such an institution for the neighborhood for so many years. Why wouldn’t we want him back?”
It also made dollars-and-cents sense: “You have an activated ground floor instead of a for-lease sign — and somebody who can serve cold beer and pizza the day of the move-in,” Onslow says.
He says he tried to keep the two other businesses that also leased on the property: 15th Ave. Garage, a repair shop, and Red Label Moto, a motorcycle shop. But “the transition of moving out and moving back was more than they could handle,” Onslow says. The extra available space enabled Bill’s Off Broadway to grow.
Time for reinvention
Other businesses have found opportunities to reinvent themselves. Fox’s Gem Shop, a jewelry store dating back to 1912, had been in Rainier Square since 1979.
Knowing that Rainier Square was going to be rebuilt, Fox’s began actively seeking a new home a few years ago. “We didn’t want to wait for them to kick us out — to have six months to find another place,” says Zoey Mann, the family-owned company’s president.
While Mann and her father were walking to a lease-negotiation meeting, they passed the Fairmont Olympic Hotel and saw a little retail space that had a “for lease” sign. “My father and I looked at each other and said, ‘This is really interesting,’ ” she recalls.
The spot they moved into this year was far smaller — 1,800 square feet, down from about 5,000 square feet. But it was a good opportunity to rethink the store and the brand at a time when people are buying more goods online. They also set up a website to sell jewelry, and sought to highlight their focus on high-end, fine jewelry that’s handmade by designers.
The store also was renamed — Fox’s Seattle — because, Mann says, “We’re not really a gem shop.”
The old shop “just didn’t feel like us anymore,” she says. “The whole idea of moving is that you can kind of rebrand yourself when you move.”
Information in this article, originally published Oct. 12, 2015, was corrected the next day. A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Champion Party Supply being on Denny Avenue. The name of the street is actually Denny Way.