A new study on the vulnerability of small businesses in the University District has been released. Peter Steinbrueck (a former member of the Seattle City Council and newly elected Port of Seattle Commissioner) led the study on behalf of local businesses to take stock of businesses operating in the community and gauge perceived challenges that zoning changes could have on them. The study took a close look at businesses on The Ave (University Way NE) using a survey approach.

The study particularly concerns itself with implications to businesses on The Ave (University Way NE) between NE 40th St and NE 50th St since properties fronting the street were excluded from the neighborhood-wide rezone early this year. However, the study also evaluates businesses widely on The Ave as far as NE Ravenna Blvd (the boundary of the University District). Business owners hope that the study will inform the city council on actions that could be taken to promote and preserve existing small business regardless of whether further zoning changes are made.Committee Hears Testimony

The proposed rezone to SM-U 75 was excluded on The Ave earlier this year, pending a study on local businesses. (City of Seattle)
The proposed rezone to SM-U 75 was excluded on The Ave earlier this year, pending a study on local businesses. (City of Seattle)

On Tuesday, the city council’s Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development, and Arts Committee got their first glimpse at the study. Peter Steinbrueck and local business owners Rick McLaughlin, Pamela Jacob, and Chris Peterson presented key findings from study, discussed challenges that small businesses face, and highlighted specific recommendations.

Rick McLaughlin, owner of Big Time Brewery, described The Ave as an “incubator” for small businesses. “It essentially brings in business where they can start off and then they can grow or expand to other parts of the city,” he said.

Pamela Jacob, owner of Pam’s Kitchen, explained one of the challenges that business owners like herself can face. She has been running her restaurant for more than 11 years, but it’s been tough to get ahead. Her restaurant was originally located on the northeast corner of NE 50th St and University Way NE. Expecting to stay there forever, she put a lot of money into the space to make it the kind of place that patrons would keep coming back to.

However, her month-to-month lease was ended in 2014 due to redevelopment of the building and site, forcing her find a new location for her restaurant. She had trouble finding a space to rent, but eventually secured a new location in Wallingford. That meant buying out the spot from another restaurant owner just to lease though and creating a new customer base.

Chris Peterson, owner of the hidden down an alley but well known Café Allegro, highlighted the need for the city to be thoughtful in protecting small businesses, even old ones like his own, and consider what implications that rezoning could have on them, especially in light of the recent neighborhood-wide rezone.

“We’re as much at risk of future development as any business on The Ave despite our 47-year history,” he said. “What I’d say is at risk in the U District, especially in the core area that has not yet been upzoned, is a sense of place and authenticity in the city.”

Key Findings

The study relies largely on surveys and on-the-ground research to better understand how small businesses are operating and the issues they face. The following are some of the key findings in the report:

  • Restaurants and eateries (not bars and breweries) are the largest category of businesses (45.5%) with retail following in a distance second (29.3%);
  • Most storefronts are small with 50% 25 feet in width or less (11% are less than 15 feet wide);
  • Most businesses occupy 2,000 square feet of space or less (55%);
  • 73% of businesses have been in the University District more than five years (24% over 25 years);
  • Most businesses are women and/or minority owned (65%);
  • 88% of businesses have 15 or fewer employees (51% with five or fewer employees); and
  • 27% of business owners were either unsure or didn’t believe that they would be on The Ave in 10 years.

Business owners also identified some common issues that they face, such high rent, parking challenges, drug use, public safety, and street homelessness. Those who didn’t think they would remain on The Ave in 10 years said they would need more customers, protection from redevelopment, or more affordable rents.

When asked about positives and negatives from rezoning, business owners identified as more customers as the biggest benefit while displacement and higher rents as the largest drawbacks.

Key Recommendations

The study makes four key recommendations to promote and sustain local businesses in the University District. These include recommendation on land use and zoning, transportation, displacement, and business services.

  • Land Use and Zoning. The study suggests that the city focus on refinement of any potential zoning, development standards, and design guidelines changes on The Ave to minimize unintended consequences, particularly to local businesses. One strategy identified suggests developing zoning and development standards that would foster and promote small businesses in small tenant spaces (e.g., a range of small storefront widths and small unit sizes) since most business occupy a small footprint.
  • Transportation. A variety of strategies are highlighted for transportation, including accessible parking, transit pass incentives, and addressing construction impacts.
  • Potential Development Map from the University District Urban Design Framework. (City of Seattle)
    Potential Development Map from the University District Urban Design Framework. (City of Seattle)

    Displacement. Many businesses operate on month-to-month or short-term leases, which can make them susceptible to displacement on properties likely for redevelopment. The study suggests identifying locations where displacement is greatest and developing anti-displacement measures to assist local businesses.

  • Business Services. In terms of business services, the the study recommends connecting businesses with Office of Economic Development, communicating with local businesses in culturally-appropriate ways, maintaining a business database for planning and outreach purposes, and better utilizing the University District Partnership.
  • The study also provides several other strategies for policymakers to consider. These include:

    • Developing a “legacy business program,” which is something that Councilmember Lisa Herbold has championed to keep deeply rooted businesses in place. The study suggests specific policies, such as tenant relocation assistance, incentives to keep tenants in place, and commercial rent stabilization.
    • Creating specific design guidelines for The Ave in addition to revised neighborhood-wide design guidelines.
    • Nominating eligible structures on the city’s inventory for historic preservation instead of postponing nomination to the time of development. Successful designations could then allow transfer of development rights to be sold and reduced property taxes on historic sites. The benefit from this would be restoring and sustaining those structures now and provide benefits to commercial tenants.
    • Establishing a size restriction on development to prohibit single tenants that are considered to be big box retail.
    • Developing a cohesive public and private parking strategy.
    • Improving the delivery of social services, particularly for the homeless and those struggling with chemical dependency.

    What’s Next

    The study sheds light on many aspects of local businesses in the University District and challenges that they can face. It’s not yet clear what actions that the city council may take in response to the study recommendations. But some of those recommendations could certainly inform the ongoing design guidelines update process, interactions between city agencies and businesses, and the workings of the University District Partnership. The city council’s shelved proposal for zoning and development standards changes for The Ave could also be dusted off and revamped.

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    Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. Stephen lives in Kenmore and primarily covers land use and transportation issues for The Urbanist.

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    Glen Buhlmann

    #TheAve is the perfect place for the city to take over ownership of parking. The city can design one large underground parking lot connected across the entire area from 50th down to 41st. As properties are redeveloped, they must design for the city parking which is connected together as buildings develop. Then the entire area can be made a giant pedestrian mall with no street parking and a few parking garage entrances on the edge from Brooklyn/15th/50th/41st. This is not a new concept. Some European countries have done it (I think The Netherlands is one example). Microsoft’s new campus plan is somewhat trying to lean in that direction although as a car-oriented suburban campus which is planning to build an insane amount of parking, is not going to be quite what this could be.

    This has multiple benefits:
    1. No cars in the business district. Even deliveries can be done via the parking garage.
    2. Very few driveways on perimeter which makes it much better for traffic on those streets as well as protected bike lanes, sidewalks, etc.
    3. It allows people to drive here and get easy parking
    4. The city can manage the parking, setting price appropriately to make sure that there is always some parking. And they can ensure too much parking does not get built, sabotaging transit.
    5. The money from parking can go back into non-car improvements to the district like public spaces, art, even transit service if that’s what the city decides.
    6. It has always been a no-brainer for #TheAve to be a ped mall. Yet SDOT and Council/Mayor’s office has never been willing to consider because they fear the backlash of it being framed as anti-car (which of course Seattle Times Ed Board and Jason Rantz will absoliutely do). At least this cannot be realistically claimed as anti-car if the city is forcing developers to contribute to construction of a city-managed parking garage.

    Preston Sahabu

    Building underground parking is expensive though, and it isn’t needed because the new light rail station should be a major transit hub. Sufficient off-peak and alley access would be enough to support Ave businesses.

    I imagine the Ave as a superblock bounded by Brooklyn, 15th, Campus Parkway, and 50th, with 45th passing through the middle. Cross streets of the Ave would be pedestrianized between the Ave alleys, with business access only between the alleys and Brooklyn/15th. The alleys would be activated into small shared streets, inviting to pedestrians but accommodating of motorized deliveries.

    Glen Buhlmann

    Hey I would love to have a car-less Core U District without even car parking. But I don’t see anything like that happening in my lifetime in America. Yes underground parking is expensive. Although so is above-ground structured parking so having a couple lots on the edges might not be all that different in price? If it is only a single-level of parking, I would think that it becomes much cheaper. I don’t know much about the specific breakdown of costs of building underground parking but I suspect 1 level is quite a bit less than half the cost to build than 2 levels. And as car use dwindles, the space could be re-purposed as storage for the businesses or homes built above.

    Preston Sahabu

    If parking becomes a blocking issue, then your approach makes a lot of sense as a compromise. However as an aspirational goal we should aim to have no garage, pointing to the Street Fair to argue that a pedestrian Ave already works without additional parking, and that the transit hub should only boost that. We could also add that such a garage would be in opposition to other goals (livability, affordable housing, narrower towers, etc.) due to cost.


    One big advantage parking garages offer is electric car charging stalls, which should be indoors, out of inclement weather. We can fairly assume EVs (both PHEVs and BEVs) are inevitable in the future. We can also fairly assume fully self-driving cars will never happen, nor would it do much good if the technology were possible, which it isn’t. It’s like putting the cart before the horse; diverting attention from conversion to EVs with the empty promise of self-driving tech fantasy. At level 3, most of the safety features are possible. Platooning or tailgating on freeways and boulevards will always have a high potential for multi-car pileups. Levels 4 & 5 (distracted drivers and then no steering wheel nor brake/accelerator pedals) are pretentious nonsense. Stuff that in your pipe and smoke it.


    In part, the ave businesses are suffering because the u district has been diminished as a transit hub with the opening of husky stadium station and the interim bus restructure. And with property values and rents reflecting the the station area rezones, It really is a double blow for the existing businesses.


    And yet, they are primarily complaining about lack of access to parking — consistent with other neighborhood intercept research showing that small business owners wildly overestimate the % of customers coming by car.

    I’m curious how many UW students now have dinner in the International District rather than the U-District. It’s just as easy to get there by light rail, than to trudge over to the Ave — and the food’s a lot better in the ID. I see so many more international young people eating in the ID than I remember before light rail.

    Preston Sahabu

    I imagine there’s been a shift among international students, but not a big one generally. Even from the nearest dorms, walking to the UW light rail station takes about as long as walking to the Ave. Factor in the wait and the ride, it takes at least twice if not three times as long to get to the ID.

    On the other hand, Brooklyn Station is going to be a blessing and a curse for the Ave: the potential for customers is huge, but they’ll be in direct competition with a lot of the city. Pedestrianization will be the strongest step forward, creating a welcoming space for customers coming through the new transit hub.

    Preston Sahabu

    I like that the report didn’t rail against upzoning per se, but sought to preserve the essential (and economically resilient) small storefront character of the Ave.

    One recommendation I would’ve liked to see is pedestrianization of the Ave. It would create a unique space in the city, driving foot traffic and hence business activity. Business parking would still be needed, so it would need some sort of off-hour access or alley arrangement, but overall the concept is sound. It could be combined with open space surrounded by retail at 43rd, either centered on the Ave (https://www.udistrictsquare.org/474/option-c.html) or on the current UBookstore footprint (https://www.udistrictsquare.org/1464/option-e.html).

    With the impending opening of light rail on Brooklyn, it already makes sense to shift the Ave buses to Brooklyn. To help transfers to 15th buses and augment the pedestrianized Ave, 43rd could be closed to traffic between Brooklyn and 15th.

    Bryan Kirschner

    “Most storefronts are small with 50% 25 feet in width or less (11% are less than 15 feet wide);
    Most businesses occupy 2,000 square feet of space or less (55%);”

    Sounds like (re)legalizing corner commercial everywhere would be quite helpful.