Seattle speeds downtown revitalization by making it easier for artists & entrepreneurs to activate and repurpose empty storefronts

On August 16, 2021, following unanimous passage by the Seattle, Washington City Council, Mayor Jenny A. Durkan announced that she will sign into law legislation to help revitalize the downtown area by allowing more flexibility in permitted uses for empty downtown storefronts.

The new temporary proposal will provide flexibility for businesses, artists, and other organizations to activate empty storefronts by allowing art installations, museums, and a greater variety of businesses, among other new options. Previously, downtown businesses on select streets had to abide by a much narrower set of permitted pedestrian-friendly uses for storefronts.

Downtown is Seattle’s economic engine and heartbeat, and it’s up to us to help it build back better than ever for all those who live, work, or visit. As part of our effort to revitalize downtown, we’re making it easier than ever to pursue new, innovative uses for storefronts, like art installations or museums,” said Mayor Durkan.

This temporary change to allow more uses for our storefronts will help restore the vitality of our downtown. I appreciate the City Council for quickly passing this legislation and supporting the City’s work to help downtown small businesses, workers, and arts and cultural organizations recover,” she added.

As downtown Seattle’s recovery continues, I was glad to work with my Council colleagues and City departments to provide more flexibility to fill vacant downtown storefronts. When COVID-19 first hit our community, I worked with Mayor Durkan and City departments to move our permitting process to a virtual platform, ensuring that permitting did not come to a complete stand-still. Later, I sponsored the Bringing Business Home legislation to provide flexibility to small neighborhood businesses operating out of homes, and championed street cafes to help restaurants stay open. This legislation builds on that work by giving downtown storefronts the tools they need to recover and restore the vibrancy of downtown,” said Councilmember Dan Strauss (District 6, Northwest Seattle).

For the next 12 months, the City will allow permit applications for new businesses to provide a wider range of activities and services, including medical offices, gyms, art installations, and bike parking. Businesses that received a permit and invested in a new storefront under this temporary law could remain indefinitely, but they would not be able to expand their footprint in future years.

Active storefronts support retail sales, dining and nightlife, and cultural events that will draw people Downtown, make the public realm more vital, and put more eyes on the street,” said Rico Quirindongo, interim director of the Office of Planning and Community Development. “This additional flexibility will open the door to new businesses who want to be a part of our Downtown community of residents, workers, shop owners, artists, and visitors.”

This new flexibility will be available on the main shopping streets in the commercial core, Belltown, Pioneer Square, and parts of South Lake Union, where new options for permitted businesses would also include food processing, horticultural operations, and crafts manufacturing. Chinatown-International District businesses already have this kind of permitting flexibility through the International Special Review District.

Once these new rules go into effect in September, businesses and building owners will be able to apply for a permit from the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) to change the use of their storefronts in these areas. To get started with the permitting process, please visit this page on how to submit.

Temporary flexibility for street-level businesses will allow for a wider range of storefront activities and encourage more to invest in our downtown,” said Nathan Torgelson, director of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections. “Our staff will be primed to support downtown recovery with streamlined permitting to improve our vacant storefronts.

As part of the City’s $9 million investment in downtown recovery, the City will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to support storefront activations by providing resources for small businesses and arts and cultural organizations that want to come downtown and bring new life to the streetscape.

In the coming weeks, the City will announce additional efforts to activate empty storefronts, including potential matchmaking services for small businesses or artists to find empty storefront space, as well as additional financial supports.

Photo via Pexels.

Learn more about Seattle’s downtown recovery efforts.

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