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Mayor Harrell Proposes Legislation to Fill Vacant Storefronts in Downtown, Belltown, South Lake Union, and Uptown through Expanded Uses

As part of his Downtown Activation Plan, Mayor Bruce Harrell has submitted new legislation to Seattle City Council aimed at filling vacant commercial spaces in existing buildings on key streets in Downtown, Belltown, Uptown, and South Lake Union.  The proposed Land Use Code changes will provide greater flexibility in allowable uses of street-level commercial space and broaden the pool of eligible commercial tenants, further advancing efforts that create engaging, pedestrian-oriented street environments throughout the urban core.

Exterior of a business on a Seattle street.-Removal of regulatory barriers will create additional tools for the city to activate street environments, improve continuity of occupied street-level storefronts, and bolster economic revitalization.

As part of his Downtown Activation Plan, Mayor Bruce Harrell has submitted new legislation to Seattle City Council aimed at filling vacant commercial spaces in existing buildings on key streets in Downtown, Belltown, Uptown, and South Lake Union.  The proposed Land Use Code changes will provide greater flexibility in allowable uses of street-level commercial space and broaden the pool of eligible commercial tenants, further advancing efforts that create engaging, pedestrian-oriented street environments throughout the urban core.

“Downtown runs on people. Optimizing our built environment with diverse business types will encourage a constant flow of people traveling throughout our city core to shop, eat, enjoy arts and culture events, play and work. As our city continues to evolve, our regulations must also, and this proposal allows us to be nimble as we create a downtown for today and the future,” said Mayor Bruce Harrell. “Today’s vacant storefront has the potential to become the next thriving restaurant, research lab, art installation, medical office or retail shop that meets the needs of our communities. These changes are another critical step in ensuring Downtown, Belltown, South Lake Union and Uptown have a variety of goods and services available and a vibrant atmosphere for residents and visitors alike.”

The proposed legislation would apply to certain streets in the Downtown, Belltown, South Lake Union, and Uptown Urban Centers where the street-level uses are currently limited to retail, restaurants/bars, entertainment uses, and cultural and community facilities such as libraries, museums, childcare and religious facilities.

If adopted, the proposal would allow permit applications over the next three years for new businesses to occupy and provide a wider range of activities and services in street-level spaces that are currently vacant. However, businesses that receive a permit and invest in a new storefront under this temporary law could remain indefinitely.

New options for permitted businesses would include medical offices, research and development laboratories, food processing, horticultural operations, crafts manufacturing, art installations and any similar use or activity determined by the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) to attract and increase pedestrian activity or increase the variety of goods and services available. Downtown neighborhoods like Chinatown-International District (CID) and Pioneer Square businesses already have this kind of permitting flexibility through the Special Review District process.

Key changes in the proposed legislation include:

  • Broadening the uses allowed along sidewalks.
  • Expanding flexibility in the space filled by street-uses. Currently, uses at street-level must occupy a space with a minimum depth of 15 feet Downtown, and 30 feet in South Lake Union and Uptown. This is an obstacle to smaller-scaled businesses that can function in smaller spaces and thrive. The proposal would reduce this minimum requirement to a depth of 8 feet.
  • Encouraging occupancy of spaces on the first two floors of buildings. Current Land Use Code exempts businesses from floor area limits. However, this exemption does not apply to uses on the second floor of buildings, except in the Downtown retail core, and a few other limited areas. Proposed changes would promote the filling of second floor spaces and exempt the floor area limits on the second floor for the expanded list of uses.

The proposal provides more incentives than interim Ordinance 126421 (effective September 2021 through September 2022), which was prompted by the economic impacts of the COVID 19 pandemic. It is also complimentary to other city efforts focused on revitalizing downtown and activating vacant commercial spaces such as newly proposed legislation to convert existing buildings from commercial to residential uses, legislation supporting development along the Third Avenue Corridor, increasing flexibility for siting hotels in parts of Belltown, waiving citywide permitting fees that are associated with food trucks, food carts, small-to-medium scale street and sidewalk events and activities that are open to the public, and filling vacant commercial properties with small businesses, pop ups and art installations through Seattle Restored.

Businesses seeking to occupy a vacant storefront space Downtown can obtain dedicated permit coaching from a single point of contact in SDCI and an expedited permit process here.

What People Are Saying 

Councilmember Bob Kettle, District 7 (Downtown to Magnolia) 

“Filling empty spaces and storefronts is a step in the right direction towards more eyes on the street and people patronizing our downtown core. By amending current code, we’ll be in a better position to cut the ‘red tape’ for folks working in areas ranging from lab research to arts and culture, as well as ensure further activation of our streets and vacant buildings in a way that will help our economy continue to grow and improve our public safety posture.”

Councilmember Tanya Woo, Position 8 (Citywide) 

“As someone who has walked in the shoes of a small business owner, I understand that the vibrancy of downtown has always been about the people who live, work, and enjoy the area. As downtowns across the world change, this legislation will give Seattle tools and flexibility to ensure we are creating environments where storefronts can truly thrive, build robust economies, and lift up our communities.”

Nathan Torgelson, Director, Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections

“Regulatory flexibility is an important tool in supporting economic vitality and allowing smaller-scale businesses to improve the quality of our downtown neighborhoods. In full support of Mayor Harrell’s Downtown Activation Plan, my department is poised to provide prioritized permit assistance for any business seeking to fill a vacant storefront Downtown.”

Jon Scholes, President & CEO, Downtown Seattle Association

“Activating storefronts is an important part of stabilizing downtown retail. Through supporting diverse businesses, downtown can be more vibrant even if the tenant is not necessarily a retailer. It’s important for downtown’s future that we foster the types of spaces that bring people together in fun and interesting ways, whether that is in a business setting, arts, sports and entertainment setting, or retail environment.”