By Joel Lee
The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. — Eleanor Roosevelt
All of this recent rezoning talk has gotten me thinking about North Beacon Hill’s business district. I’ve lived in many different areas of Seattle and although I love Beacon Hill, I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that does not work with our business areas. I love our coffee shops, funky grocery stores, and ethnic restaurants and I do my part to make sure that I spend money locally, but why do I so often find myself leaving the hill for other services? Some of the answer is obvious: when I want to go see a movie I head over to Columbia City Cinema or the Admiral Theater, since this is a service that I just can’t get in our neighborhood. But I also find myself going to Georgetown just to eat dinner or grab a beer after work. If you have been paying any attention you will have noticed that Georgetown has been booming for the last ten years, with many new restaurants and shops and just funky things going on. What do they have that we don’t?
First I decided I should look at available data to see if I could find some truths. According to Zillow.com, Beacon Hill has 4104 residences, our median income is $45,965 (above Seattle’s median income), our highest percentage age group is people in their 30s, and our average household size is 3.107 people. Add to this mix an awesome underground light rail station, stunning views, a large brand-new park coming soon, convenient freeway access, and a location that is a stone’s throw from downtown, and Beacon Hill has been dealt a winning hand.
Now let’s take a minute to look at Georgetown. If you can dodge that freight train and try to concentrate over that low flying plane noise for a minute, let’s try to take a look at their numbers. Depending on where you draw the line, Georgetown has a mere 379 residences, their median income is $33,654 (almost the lowest in Seattle), their highest percentage age group is people in their 20s, and their average household size is 1.94. Add to this mix a few Superfund sites, eclectic zoning, and some disjointed industrial areas, and it’s a wonder that Georgetown survives at all. Despite all of this, Georgetown is not only surviving, but thriving. Their vibrant business district has added new bars and restaurants almost yearly, and their events such as Artopia attract people from all over the region. Music stores, bakeries, multiple coffee shops, pet supplies, a beer store and antique stores have all opened in the last few years.
The Seattle Office of Economic Development (OED) recently released a study focused on retail in Rainier Valley. Although the study didn’t focus on Beacon Hill, one of the study’s main finds was “leakage,” which is roughly defined as people leaving their own neighborhoods to buy products and services in other areas. Just as Beacon Hill clearly suffers from leakage as many people leave the area for basic services, neighborhoods such as Georgetown clearly capitalize on this, since there is no way that the 379 people that live there could possibly support their range of businesses.
It’s hard not to conclude from this data that zoning alone will not fix our business district. Neighborhoods like Georgetown and Columbia City have certain less-measurable qualities about them that have helped them thrive. Chief among them has to be neighborhood pride, creativity, activism, long-term vision, building owners willing to take chances, investors with vision and tough as nails entrepreneurs that are brave enough to swim against our economic current. None of these are qualities that we can zone for; they are qualities that we must earn with a lot of difficult risk, vision, community participation, cooperation and tenacity.
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