Seattle Considers Boom-Proofing Some Legacy Businesses
By Erica Barnett in Next City on December 20, 2016
The Wedgwood Broiler, in a neighborhood of single-family bungalows in far North Seattle, is a blue-collar bar and restaurant that has been around for more than 50 years, and has the look of a place last renovated sometime in the 1980s. There’s the green wall-to-wall carpet, the mauve-and-mint patterned wallpaper in the ladies’ room, and the lighting set to “permanent twilight.” Smoking has been banned in Seattle bars for years now, but the place still looks like it reeks of smoke. The menu — grilled steaks, hamburgers and salads with Cheez-Its for croutons — is purely vintage, except for the 2016 prices
The Broiler is the kind of old-school place that people mention when they talk fondly about “old Seattle” — basic, rough-hewn, unpretentious. It’s also a member of an increasingly endangered species: Businesses that thrived in a pre-tech-boom Seattle are being replaced by sleek doggie-friendly brewpubs and high-end doughnut shops. Old institutions, many of them in low-slung buildings along once-sleepy commercial strips, are disappearing amid new development.
Seattle City Council Member Lisa Herbold wants to make sure businesses like the Broiler — and Husky Deli in West Seattle, Scarecrow Video near the University of Washington and the Ballard Smoke Shop dive bar in northwest Seattle — don’t go the way of the Sunset Bowl, Piecora’s Pizza and other beloved local institutions that have closed in the last decade. To that end, she’s proposed a “legacy business” program that would identify such neighborhood institutions and provide them with financial or regulatory support to help them survive as Seattle continues to boom.
“It’s important that we preserve a cultural bridge to our past,” Herbold says.
Her idea, which is still in its infancy — the city council just allocated $100,000 to study what a legacy business program might look like — is loosely based on a similar program in San Francisco, which has also lost older businesses to new development. Voters passed a proposition for it by a margin of 57 to 43 percent in 2015. Businesses that are 30 years or older, “have contributed to their neighborhood’s history,” and agree to maintain their identity can apply for placement on the city’s Legacy Business Registry.
Once the mayor or a member of the Board of Supervisors nominates a business, and the Small Business Commission approves the nomination, the business becomes eligible for grants of up to $50,000 to help with rent, renovations or other costs. (Building owners could also get grants to help subsidize below-market rents.) So far, about 300 businesses have qualified, and the program — which got off to a slow start, apparently in part because the initial legislation didn’t fund a staffer to administer the grants — is on track to fund grants of about $3 million a year.
At this point, Herbold’s Seattle legacy business program doesn’t include a dedicated funding source. Instead, it would be administered through the city’s Office of Economic Development, which would provide help with marketing, regulatory compliance and relocation costs for businesses forced to move to a new location by development.
“I want to be more creative around the types of support that eventually might be available, rather than to presuppose taxpayer funds,” Herbold says. In her view, there are “forces that are creating impacts, and communities that are feeling the impacts, and I just want to create a space for a small handful of eligible businesses to have the city as a partner in facilitating conversations between them.”
Skeptics of Herbold’s proposal suggest that development is inevitable, and that protecting old businesses may come at the cost of encouraging new ones. And they point out that, in Seattle at least, “preservation” efforts are often smokescreens for anti-development activism. For example, one business that made the “threatened” list in Herbold’s survey was the West Seattle PCC Market — an outpost of a local grocery chain that opened in the late 1980s, and which happens to be the site of a hotly disputed new mixed-use development.
“This is all about redevelopment,” says Roger Valdez, a local lobbyist for small developers and the founder of Smart Growth Seattle. “If you’re talking about a business closing because the owner doesn’t know how to run a business, is the city really going to intervene in that situation? I think it’s not fair to be picking winners and losers in the realm of small businesses.” Herbold says just as firmly: “This is not about development. But I want development to consider the things that are important to our communities.”
One of the challenges Herbold and other advocates of legacy business protections face is defining what counts as a “legacy” business. David Campos, the San Francisco supervisor who spearheaded the legacy business project in that city, says the criteria they use are “intangible and very neighborhood-specific,” and Herbold says Seattle’s definition may be similarly subjective.
“It is really important that we don’t have a legacy business template, but rather, that each community has the ability to identify what’s important for them,” she says. “Development happens, growth happens, but the people who made this city what it is are still here.”
Erica C. Barnett is a Seattle-based writer who covers city politics and policy in Seattle and beyond for various online and print publications and her blog, The C Is for Crank. She cofounded PubliCola, a state and local politics blog. Previously, she was a staff writer and news editor at The Stranger, a reporter for Seattle Weekly, and news editor at the Austin Chronicle.
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