- About Us
Mayor looking to address 'challenges' in downtown core
For months, the paper in the window of the new arcade and restaurant on Third Avenue has read “coming soon,” but despite an originally planned opening this past summer, the business ran into a few snags as it prepared its new space.
Set to be located in the site of a former antique shop, 8-Bit Arcade Bar’s change-of-use from a retail shop to a restaurant triggered some unexpected changes and additions to the old building to meet current fire codes.
But the business, which Economic Development Director Cliff Long called “fantastic,” is exactly the type of establishment the city hopes will spur new life and new development in the downtown core, so the city worked with the owners to resolve the situation and get the project back on track.
But the plight of the new arcade as it goes into an old building highlights some of the challenges facing the city’s downtown, which like many downtown districts across the country has seen better days.
Moving forward, the mayor is planning to make a push to pull together downtown stakeholders to try and find ways to revitalize the downtown core.
“If there’s a way to get to ‘yes,’ our department heads are completely committed to getting there,” said Mayor Denis Law, who this past month began gathering department heads and contacting stakeholders downtown with plans to pull everyone together in the next few months to discuss what can be done to inject some fresh energy into downtown.
Law said the downtown has been a priority of his for “many, many years” and said like the rest of the community, he too would like to see downtown returned to some of its former glory.
Law said things had begun to break downtown’s way in the middle part of the last decade, with the city’s purchase of the Piazza and the construction of the transit center and the multifamily housing surrounding it, but that all changed when the recession hit in 2008.
“Then it got stalled,” he said.
But with the economy beginning to perk again, Law said he has confidence that downtown is ready to see investment, though he admits it may never be the downtown residents remember from its heyday.
“No, it can’t be like it used to be,” he said, noting that large retailers like JCPenney, once a staple downtown, will not be coming back. “The major retailers are going to the super center sites. That’s just the way it is.”
But, he said, that doesn’t necessarily mean a downtown with empty storefronts. Law said he envisions a pedestrian-friendly downtown with restaurants and small local shops, such as the new arcade.
“I think what we want to create is a downtown with a strong base of service and retail business to serve our local community,” he said.
But there are several challenges ahead, like those at the arcade.
Perhaps the biggest of those challenges are the buildings themselves. Many are old and the owners, according to Law, are not necessarily interested in sinking a lot of money into them to bring them up to modern fire and building codes. Some, he said, are not even suited for the “major investment” it would take to make them compliant.
“We would never allow these today,” Law said of the old buildings.
“This isn’t a new issue,” agreed Chamber of Commerce President Lynn Wallace.
Wallace and Law both noted that the current buildings are profitable for their owners, many of whom no longer live in the city.
“They’re making good money on it, so why put the dollars into it?” Wallace said.
Along with the old buildings, Wallace and Law both said the downtown also faces something of a perception problem. Despite statistics to the contrary, both said there are many people who believe the downtown has a higher crime rate, or is not safe.
“I think the downtown has gone beyond that, but there’s still that perception,” Wallace said, adding that since joining the chamber this year, whose building is located downtown, she has never had any problems with crime, no matter what time she leaves the office.
Law said he was considering a walking beat for police downtown, to make them more visible and present to try and change that, but also said one of the ways to help combat that perception was to try and bring more multifamily housing. More residents, he said, would help create a “critical mass” for new retail, as well as provide a safety-in-numbers feel.
“Having a living, vibrant, working downtown can make all the difference,” agreed Wallace. “And it spurs development.”
Law cited the housing at The Landing as being part of its success, though he said the downtown would be its own vibrant district.
“We’re not trying to compete with The Landing. We’re not trying to duplicate The Landing,” Law said. “It doesn’t have to be either-or.”
Law said the group he was putting together this fall would look at both short-term and long-term ways to address the issues downtown.
In the short term he suggested the possibility of more outdoor seating for the restaurants downtown and more inviting streetscapes, all with the idea of bringing more people to the area, including investors.
Law suggested the possibility of a demonstration project that would change Wells Avenue from a two-lane road to one-lane with angle-in parking. This would allow the city to possibly widen sidewalks and allow restaurants outdoor seating.
Wallace said the idea has been floated before, but there has never been any serious discussion, though she called the possibility a “great thing.”
Law also said the city will continue to support events designed to bring people downtown, but both Wallace and Law said there is only so much the city can do.
“The more activities we can promote in downtown, the more synergy we can develop,” he said.
Both said there needs to be a discussion of a business improvement district downtown, where the businesses and property owners tax themselves and use the money to invest in the downtown.
“We very much can partner, but we can’t do the whole thing ourselves,” Law said.
Wallace said a BID or Business Improvement District is one of the options that business and property owners need to hear this fall, but it will, of course, be up to them.
“They’ve got to buy into it,” she said.
“Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay so retailers can be successful,” Law agreed.
Wallace said the possibilities downtown are great and there is already much to do. Despite some high-profile businesses closing, such as Renton Western Wear, Wallace said the downtown occupancy rate is still pretty good and there are many great, local businesses and restaurants.
“If you look at what we have, we’ve got a lot of occupancy downtown,” she said.
Law said he plans the first meeting of his stakeholder group for November and both he and Wallace said they hope to build on partnerships already in place.
“There are some opportunities out there to get our Renton downtown developers in front of the folks that make those investments,” Wallace said.
“I want to keep the momentum up,” Law said. “I look at it as a great opportunity.”