Set up shop in the ID, get months of free rent

By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly

A storefront in the International District gets an artistic makeover as part of the Storefronts Seattle project. (Photo by Assunta Ng/NWAW)

With the recent economic downturn, many businesses are closing down and property owners are hard pressed to find new tenants to occupy their storefronts. Chinatown and the International District are no different, but a few local organizations are teaming up with the City of Seattle to tackle this issue with a project called Storefronts Seattle.

Combining the efforts of the city’s Department of Planning and Development and Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA), Seattle Chinatown-International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), and the Alliance for Pioneer Square and Shunpike, the program is a creative solution for activating vacant storefronts.

Don Blakeney, director of the CIDBIA, said they were looking at ways to deal with their vacancies when they learned that Pioneer Square was facing similar challenges. Pioneer Square was working with the city to bring art into the neighborhood as a way to liven up the empty storefronts. Blakeney, who took part in a similar project in Times Square in New York, thought it was a great way to revitalize the neighborhood.

Juliana Lai, the owner of a new business in the ID, Liana Cafe House, pointed out that free rent is not abnormal. “It’s conventional for commercial leases to have three to eight months free rent, even in good times,” she said.

But adding art to the mix certainly is new.

“[Art and vacant storefronts are] a great combination,” he said. “That’s why we’re involved. It’s a great way to create something out of nothing.”

The pilot project launched on Sept. 2 and featured original artworks by local artists displayed in storefront spaces throughout the ID as well as Pioneer Square. The artworks will be exhibited through February. The project has also allowed artists to establish residencies so they can work in a studio-like setting. It allows creative enterprises to occupy vacant spaces rent free for three to six months.

Twenty-three artists or ventures were chosen to occupy a total of 10 spaces. Seven spaces in the ID have been occupied by seven artists or ventures.

Nine more artists and arts groups will be added in late November. Participants were chosen by selection panels comprising project steering committee members, neighborhood property owners, business leaders, government representatives, and Seattle-based artists. There were a total of 176 applicants.

Andy Fife, executive director of Shunpike — a local organization that helps arts groups build the business tools needed to succeed — said property owners donate their spaces to the program. In return, the selected participants pay for required business licenses and permits as well as the utilities for their respective spaces.

“As the purpose of this pilot project is to energize a streetscape, bringing the streets to life and increasing exposure for future businesses, all participants have agreed to either relocate or give up the space if the property owner finds a permanent tenant within the negotiated time frame,” Fife said.

“When the free rent time is up, artists and entrepreneurs can either become a permanent tenant or move out of the space.”

Storefronts’ pilot phase was funded mostly through grants from the city, local arts groups, and individual community members. However, Fife said additional financial support would be needed for the program to be extended.

Joyce Pisnanont, who manages IDEA Space with SCIDpda, said the project has received a lot of positive feedback and interest. “People have been really excited to see the storefronts activated,” she said. “I think it has spurred people to ask, ‘How do I get involved?’ ” ♦

For more information about Storefronts Seattle or to donate to the project, visit storefrontsseattle.wordpress.com.

Samantha Pak can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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