January 14, 2015

Seattle Retail Hot for Authenticity

Seattle retail has the authenticity high-income shoppers crave, though there are still gaps in the urban fabric that could be home to even more unique shopping, according to the speakers at Seattle Retail, our first event of 2015.

Our speakers explain that for a city its size, Seattle already has great Downtown retail as part an urban core with history and authenticity. It has unique places that draw shoppers in, such as Pike Place Market. The fundamentals supporting retailers are enviable, too, with a primary trade area of about 600,000 people, and of those, 78% of them are “urban inclined” shoppers. There are also 22 million visitors a year to Seattle, and 60,000 people who live Downtown—few of whom did as recently as the 1990s. About 250 people came to our event.

Kemper Development Co chairman Kemper Freeman kicked off the event, telling the story of his grandfather, who not only founded Miller Freeman Inc but also Bellevue Square, beginning in the 1940s with Kemper's father. There is no “retail war” between Seattle and Bellevue, Kemper stresses--retail in each of the cities serves different markets in a complementary way. Bellevue is a sub-regional city to Seattle, so it's important to Bellevue that Seattle is economically strong. Seattle, Kemper points out, is now the super-regional city in the Northwest.

As a super-regional city, the basis of Seattle's economy isn't just its 650,000 residents, but the 8 million to 10 million people of the region. Planning hasn't kept up with the reality of a super-regional economy that brings millions of people in and out of Seattle on a continual basis, Kemper adds. For instance, there's been almost nothing done in the last 40 years to plan regional transit. It's a critical piece of the puzzle, since the regional economy is so strong, supported not only by giants like Boeing and Microsoft, but dozens of growing, innovative companies in tech, retail and more. Kemper's snapped with colleague Jennifer Leavitt.

Kemper Development continues its development of the Bellevue Collection—Bellevue Square (pictured), Bellevue Place and Lincoln Square; Kemper says based on community needs. Underway are a new four-star hotel, 250 luxury apartments of condo quality, a 710k SF office building and 177k of retail, plus parking for 2,000 cars. These properties will be open within two years, with more to come. Also, the former JC Penney building is being redeveloped and will include seven new tenants with openings beginning by next October. Kemper projects that the new tenants will generate about six times the sales that Penney did in its last year.

Speakers CBRE SVP Susie Detmer, Callison principal Bret Wiggins, Lake Union Partners principal Joe Ferguson and SD Deacon GM Brian Northcott. Connectivity between Downtown Seattle's retail nodes and communities is an important issue, according to our speakers. There are still gaps without quality retail, such as along numbered avenues running north-south, or to the Amazon campus, or to South Lake Union. One reason is that retailers want to be in a very specific part of Downtown—Fourth, Fifth or Sixth, between Pike and Pine. It's tough sometimes to persuade them of other high-quality locations in the area, though progress is being made on that front; some retailers are going on Second, for example.

Cairncross & Hempelmann attorney Sandip Soli, who moderated, Downtown Works principal Midge McCauley and Susie. The renovation and reuse of heritage buildings in parts of Downtown, so that more retail can go on their ground floors, is a complicated process. Especially difficult is the expense of seismic retrofitting to bring them up to modern standards, our panelists note. There need to be incentives to do that kind of work, because these kinds of structures are an important ingredient in the city's authenticity--a concept major retailers are eager to capitalize on.

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