New investments, including a bakery set to open in February, are creating momentum on one of Seattle's most long-troubled corners, 23rd Avenue and East Union Street in the Central District.
Gail Thompson knew she needed to make a decision. But which one could she live with?
Her choices were to keep running Thompson’s Point of View, the Central District restaurant her husband, Carl, opened in 1986. Or close it.
No one would have blamed Thompson for leaving. She’d just taken over the business in June after Carl died. Profits had run dry. Then there was the matter of location.
To Thompson’s right at 23rd Avenue and East Union Street sat an empty sandwich shop. Across from her: a liquor store. Kitty corner: a vacant lot.
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Kids often hung out by her restaurant, dealing drugs, causing trouble and scaring customers away.
There was little reason to think things would improve. But quietly, new life has been pumping into this decaying corner.
The intersection of 23rd and Union carries with it a long-suffering past. Shootings, drug deals and loitering have plagued it for decades. Two owners of the Philadelphia Cheese Steak shop next to Thompson’s were gunned down in the span of five years.
It’s also where, in 2001, a Seattle police officer fatally shot a man and a community activist smashed then-Mayor Paul Schell in the face with a bullhorn during a neighborhood festival.
Last month, the corner seemed officially dead after the 76 gas station shut down and caution tape ringed the pumps. But that’s only how it appeared.
Because inside Thompson’s dining room, and during closed-door neighborhood-business meetings, and at the headquarters of a Madison Valley developer, something unexpected has been building: a momentum of change. Next year, a bakery will move into the cheese-steak spot. The 76 gas station is being renovated and will reopen. And Thompson’s is staying.
“The corner has reached a tipping point,” said Jean Tinnea, a 33-year resident and business owner in the Central District. “We’re trying to get it back to what it was in the ’40s and ’50s when it was the social center of the neighborhood.”
Back then, 23rd and Union was the place you went to buy a sandwich, fill a prescription and run into friends from the working-class neighborhood. The brick building on the southwest corner — now an empty lot — once housed Helen’s Soul Food Restaurant and before that, a meat market where produce spilled out of open-air windows.
The largely African-American and minority community became a center for the civil-rights movement during the 1960s. Later, as poverty worsened and the crack-cocaine epidemic took hold, many business owners bailed. Attention shifted to 23rd Avenue South and South Jackson Street, which got city-backed loans to redevelop, said George Staggers, CEO of the Central Area Development Association (CADA).
In the years since, the corner languished. It’s a ghost of what it once was — which is exactly what’s motivating business and property owners. They’re sick of seeing the corner that way, they said. And they’re eager to tap its market potential. The heavily traveled corridor serves as a thoroughfare for thousands of residents heading into downtown Seattle everyday.
“We’d like to re-brand the area,” said Derryl Durden, managing partner of East Union Investors, which owns the building where Thompson’s is. “We want to make it a destination instead of a drive-through.”
Several pieces are falling together. Increased police patrols have helped reduce crime. In the past year, 911 calls have dropped by more than half, said Capt. Jim Dermody of the east precinct.
And for the first time in a long time, business owners said, they’re of a like mind. They’ve linked up with CADA to submit a proposal this month for a piece of a $1 million city neighborhood business-district grant.
In a rare show of unity and optimism this season, all four corner owners strung Christmas lights around their properties.
Jim Mueller is banking on the vacant lot. But he’s had to be patient. The Seattle developer bought the property in 2006 and expected to have finished a six-story building with 90-plus apartments and retail by now.
Instead, the economy tanked. It’s only recently, he said, that the market is “back to where it’s feasible to do our project.” He said he’s lining up funding again and dirt could start moving in the next year or so.
The cheese-steak shop on the northeast corner never looked like much. It’s been empty and tagged frequently with graffiti since 2008, when the owner was shot point-blank at the counter during a random attack. In 2003, the previous owner was also killed.
Yet Ian Eisenberg saw promise. Earlier this year, he bought the property after it went into foreclosure — as well as the carwash two doors down.
The investor comes with an eclectic business background. Eisenberg founded a soft-drink company, Zevia, ran a phone-sex business, and headed the now-defunct Blue Frog Mobile, which sold ringtones and wallpaper. Blue Frog filed for bankruptcy in 2008, but the case was dismissed.
Why the Central District now? It’s personal, he said. His great-grandparents lived here, he said. He grew up in Madrona, and he and his family live in nearby Leschi.
“People like to be pessimistic about the CD,” Eisenberg said. “But I’ve always dug the diversity. It’s such a fun neighborhood. I’m more than hopeful about its future.”
Fast-food chains approached him, wanting 10- to 20-year leases, but Eisenberg said he didn’t see that as the best fit. Now he and his partner, Ken Hovde, plan to open Beehive Bakery in February — a place to grab a croissant, maybe a latte and talk with neighbors.
“We’re respectful of the tragedies here,” Hovde said. “Hopefully, we can breathe some new spirit into the place.”
Once Thompson, 56, decided not to leave, she committed full force, she said. She knew that staying here meant more than simply saving her own restaurant. She’d have to be a key player in fighting the crime and changing the perception of the entire corner.
She talked to police and invited them in for meals. She hired security guards to blend in with the crowd. The disrespectful, disruptive customers? They got the boot. She approached people on their way to the bus stop as she swept the sidewalk.
Have you been in to Thompson’s? she’d ask them. No? Well, come inside, take a coupon.
“If I say, ‘Hi, I’m Gail Thompson,’ then they feel a connection to someone in the restaurant. They don’t think of this place as intimidating.”
She measures success by recounting all the friendships sprouted between strangers over the Southern Creole food and the regulars who have remained loyal. But mostly what pushes her, Thompson said, are her memories of Carl.
“This was my husband’s dream,” she said, on a recent afternoon at the restaurant. “I guess it’s my way of holding on to him.”
Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or firstname.lastname@example.org