Seattle Restored is a creative new initiative that will fill vacant downtown storefronts in vital neighborhoods while giving artists and fledgling small businesses a boost.
But these seeds of entrepreneurial energy and neighborhood vitality will only take root if Mayor Bruce Harrell and city leaders make good on promises to restore safety and civility in the heart of the city. Their welcome support for new small business will lose much of its impact unless they effectively address the grim grind of theft and anti-social behavior that led many previous owners to move or permanently shut their doors.
So far, Seattle Restored has supported the opening of more than a dozen window art displays and pop-up shops from businesses like Soulvenir, which opened a shop and coworking space focusing on Vietnamese clothing, art and design at 1200 S. Jackson St., and Inside, a Black-, LGBTQ- and women-owned shop offering self-care products and services downtown. Other shops and window displays are scattered throughout South Lake Union, downtown, Pioneer Square and Little Saigon, according to the program’s website. In addition to rent-free space, the business owners and artists received $2,500 to help with setup, as well as marketing, technical and other assistance to help ensure a successful launch.
The partners’ intent is to support up to 30 local businesses and artists — particularly Black, Indigenous and other entrepreneurs and artists of color — and draw more visitors and activity to the targeted areas. Officials say they received hundreds of applications from people interested in participating in the program, which was developed by Seattle’s Office of Economic Development in partnership with the nonprofit arts organization Shunpike and Seattle Good Business Network, and funded by the Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund.
Some entrepreneurs, like Soulvenir founder Tan Nguyen, are making sure the program’s branches spread even further by inviting other makers and small businesses into their spaces. Nguyen said he’s been doing pop-ups for a while, but since this is his first semi-permanent storefront, he wanted to invite other Vietnamese and other Asian brands and businesses to share the opportunity. He named his pop-up “Không-Gian,” which means space in Vietnamese.
“For us to have a physical store for people to come in and have conversations on a daily basis, that’s amazing,” Nguyen said.
Seattle Restored is a worthy attempt to solve two problems with a single solution. Tapping into the city’s artistic energy was shrewd. But hundreds of stores and businesses in the city center have closed since March 2020. Vacancies pockmark parts of the city like a boxer’s missing teeth. Re-energizing these empty spaces will require continued thoughtful investment on a larger scale, and real progress on overcoming the city’s failures to protect and support neighborhood retail stores and their customers.
Just as it would be too simplistic to lay blame for all retail closures on the drug sales, theft, vandalism and other disturbances that have been plaguing the city, it would be naive to pretend Seattle can truly build back better without turning a corner on that troubling trend.