A stretch of 23rd Avenue in Seattle’s Central District with a relative dearth of grocery stores in recent years is finally getting one, with space for another nearing completion.
Seattle-based PCC Community Markets said Tuesday it will open an 18,000-square-foot store anchoring a 144-unit apartment development at the fast-changing intersection of 23rd Avenue and East Union Street within the next six months.
In December, the tenant planned for the East Union apartment building, New Seasons Market, pulled out of Seattle after a tumultuous three-year run. The abrupt departure left neighbors who have watched new stores spring up elsewhere in the city wondering when they would see more grocery options in the Central District. The historically Black neighborhood has been transformed by Seattle’s economic and housing boom, which has pushed out many longtime residents and businesses.
Portland-based New Seasons had planned to open at East Union more than a year ago, but faced resistance to its Seattle expansion from grocery unions and some community groups who worried that a high-cost store would accelerate gentrification, among other concerns.
The intersection a mile south at 23rd and South Jackson Street has been another blank spot on the neighborhood’s grocery map since the much loved Red Apple Market was torn down two years ago. But maybe not for long. Vulcan Real Estate is nearing completion of a new apartment development with a 44,000-square-foot grocery space on the ground floor. A Vulcan spokesperson had no update Tuesday on a potential tenant.
Cassandra El-Soudani, a Mount Baker resident who used to live in the Central District and still passes through regularly on her bus commute to a job downtown, said she had mixed feelings about PCC’s plans. She welcomed a grocery store for the area, but was concerned about PCC’s high prices and development continuing to displace longtime residents.
“When you go to Ballard or West Seattle, there are several grocery stores within a few blocks of each other,” El-Soudani said. “That’s something that the south part of Seattle doesn’t have.”
PCC had been approached before about the East Union project by developer Lake Union Partners, but the timing wasn’t right.
CEO Cate Hardy said that when New Seasons abandoned its plans for the Central District, PCC saw an opportunity.
“We stepped in,” she said. “We felt really strongly that the neighborhood deserves to have a grocery store, as was promised.”
Rabbi David Basior of nearby synagogue Kadima said he was thrilled at PCC’s move, citing its history of working “to ensure local community members are hired in their stores and partnerships are made with neighborhood organizations.” He previously voiced objections to New Seasons.
Hardy said she met Tuesday with community members who had expressed concerns about New Seasons, and she is planning more listening sessions in the weeks ahead.
She noted that PCC has employed union workers for 40 years and aims to recruit at least half of employees for its new stores from surrounding neighborhoods. About 100 people will be hired for the Central District location.
“That alone alleviated one of the substantial concerns” about New Seasons, she said.
People at the meeting were also concerned about food prices, Hardy said. She acknowledged that the organic, locally focused co-op grocery chain has higher prices than a conventional grocer.
“The truth is that natural and organic foods cost more,” she said. “They just do.”
PCC carries a private label line of staples such as peanut butter, pasta, beans and other canned goods priced competitively, and also tries to keep commodity items such as bananas, milk and chicken breasts in line with competitors, she said. The co-op accepts electronic benefits transfer payments from people receiving state food assistance.
Also, Hardy said, PCC’s local, member-owned model means the chain is not focused on maximizing profits, in contrast to the private equity owners of many other small grocery chains — including New Seasons until its recent sale.
That deal saw multiple grocery brands serving affluent West Coast markets rolled up under a subsidiary of a South Korean retail conglomerate. New Seasons’ Mercer Island store will become a Metropolitan Market, while its new Ballard location closed after less than two years.
Hardy said PCC, started in 1953 and now in the midst of a major growth spurt, has some 70,000 members who shopped at its stores last year. PCC just changed its membership model for the first time in 15 years. Now, people who pay for a $60 co-op membership will receive a 2% dividend to be paid in the first quarter of 2021 for purchases made this year, rather than a complicated system of monthly discounts. The stores are also open to nonmembers.
The Central District location would be PCC’s 14th, joining a recently remodeled West Seattle location and a new store in Ballard. Another new store in Bellevue is slated to open this year in time for the holidays, and one in downtown Seattle’s under-construction Rainier Square Tower is on track to open in early 2021, Hardy said.
Hardy said PCC continues to plan for a store in Madison Valley, but the timeline for the redevelopment project that would house it is uncertain. Some neighbors have sought to stop the project. Even though it would be situated only a mile north of the Central District store, Hardy said PCC’s commitment to the Madison Valley location is “as strong as it has ever been.”
PCC’s recent expansion has been funded with operating proceeds, but Hardy said the co-op plans to take out “a small amount of debt” over the next one to two years to support coming growth.
She declined to specify how much the co-op is spending on new-store development. “It’s a lot,” she said.