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Dispatch From The SPC: Let’s Get Proximate: the Economics of Neighborhood Business District

2011 October 12
by David Cutler

Note: This post is part of an ongoing series of dispatches from the Seattle Planning Commission.

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Business districts are the backbone of economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable neighborhoods.  They diversify the City’s tax base, which helps build fiscal stability.  They provide jobs for a range of skill sets and levels, which supports upward mobility. They offer convenient, neighborhood-specific shops and services, which make living without a car possible.  And let’s not forget, neighborhood business districts generate a buzz of positive activity at the sidewalk, which make them places where people want to be.  It’s no accident that at the top of nearly every neighborhood’s wishlist are “mainstreet” staples like a corner coffee shop, a wholesome grocer, a friendly bistro, a hopping pub, or a local movie house.  These things help foster local identity and can build an authenticity that is elusive among today’s branded developments.

But, here in Seattle, as is the case nationally, not all neighborhood business districts hum with the constant din of stroller wheels and impromptu sidewalk conversations.  The metal lounge chairs outside Victrola on Capitol Hill’s 15th Avenue East are full on any random Tuesday, you name the time, and nearby residents have the choice of supplying their pantries from QFC, Safeway, Madison Market, or Trader Joe’s.  While many other neighborhoods in our City are not as fortunate.  Why?  Well, without delving into demographics, disposable income levels, and a smorgasbord of other important market determinants, one might say that it has to do with local density.  Or, to put it a better way, with proximity.

< 15th Ave E in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood >

The mechanics are complex, but the concept is simple.  Neighborhood business districts thrive when there are enough nearby residents and synergistic land uses to establish a stable base of patrons.  That means that in a high-proximity neighborhood like Capitol Hill, the multitude of people that live within a five minute walk of 15th Avenue East, together with the jobs base at Group Health, help nearly five blocks of businesses flourish day in and day out.  The street is safe, secure, and inviting, and the pace of business turnover has been moderate and typically in response to local needs.

So, you might ask, what would it take to make my business district function more dynamically?  Where can I learn more about this proximity elixir?  Well, you can start by looking at our City’s Comprehensive Plan: “Towards a Sustainable Seattle,” which establishes a land use framework that, at its best, enables people to live near where they want to work, learn, shop, and play.  This framework informs zoning, with the goal of opening opportunities, balancing the local mix of housing and jobs, and fostering responsible growth.

The Comprehensive Plan is being updated this year.  So, check it out.  Get proximate.  And start planning whether you’ll pick up a macchiato on the walk home from the grocery, or a Manny’s at the pub after the movies.

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David Cutler, AIA, is the Vice Chair of the Seattle Planning Commission, which is the steward of Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan—Seattle’s framework planning document—to be updated in the coming years.  He is also Co-Chair of the Seattle Light Rail Review Panel, and serves on the board of the Seattle 2030 District.