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Sunday, November 27, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Architecture / Urban Design

Three New Neighborhoods -- Emerging Business Districts Are Lively, Diverse And Scaled To People On Foot

Something quite wonderful happened in Seattle during the past decade. While we weren't looking, we picked up three new business districts - Madison Valley, what might be called Upper Madison, and Little Saigon.

Usually it takes years, if not decades, for commercial streets to emerge and mature, but our three newest streets, while still a bit rough around the edges, are already pretty fine.

All three districts are essentially the result of actions by a handful of people and businesses who saw opportunities, took risks and forged ahead undaunted by the odds against their success.

The Madison Valley

The Madison Valley appeared first, popping up a dozen years ago along a forlorn stretch of Madison Street between 27th Avenue and the Washington Park Arboretum. What had been a stretch of decrepit buildings and trash-strewn vacant lots now is packed with buildings, shops, cafes and apartments. There is even a landmark building - the Bailey-Boushay House.

The similarity of buildings along the street is no coincidence. Ten of them were designed and built by Charles "Bud" Bergmann, an architect who forged out on his own after working for other well-known architects around town.

Small two- and three-story stucco-faced structures, the buildings embrace the street with storefronts, awnings and signs scaled to people on foot rather than in cars. Some have courtyards leading to offices and apartments in the rear or above.

Few buildings stand out, but that is the strength of this district: The effect is that of a finely tuned orchestra. The resulting composition is in the almost lost tradition of building quiet little business districts in which the buildings are well-mannered and unobtrusive. The street feels comfortable, intimate and lively.

Bergmann did not initially have an easy time. Banks had redlined the area. Insurance companies would not provide fire insurance. Merchants were reluctant to open shop along a street that had been known for drug dealing and high crime rates.

With help from an enlightened banker, a progressively thinking insurance agent and some brave co-investors, Bergmann began buying up properties, renovating, expanding or building one block at a time. As he proceeded, other folks came in.

The owners of City People's Mercantile purchased the run-down garden store at the east end of the district and hired architect Catherine Barrett to transform it into the City People's Nursery. GGLO Architects were commissioned to design the renovation of an old store into the elegant Cafe Flora.

Walking along Madison in this stretch now, it is hard to imagine that it was anything other than a splendid little pocket of urbanity.

Upper Madison

The second new district is also along Madison Street in what might be called "Upper Madison," between Terry and and Boylston avenues, in the middle of First Hill. The district has a fine collection of stately older buildings such as the Sorrento Hotel, the Gainsborough and 1223 Spring Street, all of which have extraordinarily fanciful rooftops.

Over the past several decades, the district was slowly chewed up by the expansion of health-care institutions and a number of rudely scaled residential towers. But finally, Upper Madison is beginning to come together. Enough pieces are falling into place to suggest that the district is well on the way to being a pretty fine neighborhood business district.

Recently, Swedish Hospital has included storefronts along the street as it has added new buildings. They have been filled with needed cafes, drugstores and services. The facade along the eastern wing is a bit bloated with enormous, clumsily proportioned columns. The colonnade is too high at one end and too low at the other and principally serves to block views of the storefronts from the street.

The recently completed west wing - designed by Loschky Marquardt Nesholm Architects - demonstrates how to do street-facing shops the right way. The facade includes well-proportioned windows and decorative details. Elegantly curved canopies project out from the wall, protecting people from the rain without blocking visibility of the showcase windows. Signs are often placed inside windows and give off a warm glow at night.

The extra-wide sidewalk allows for a long row of cafe tables and chairs. There might have been a tad more detail at the ground level. The drugstore windows are pretty boring, but that is not the fault of the designers. Someone needs to offer to drugstore managers

a course on interesting methods of displaying signs and merchandise.

One of the new tenants is Torino's - the first of many cafes to be built by the family-owned company that has been making sausage for over 60 years. The cafe and deli is neat, cozy and well-appointed, with gorgeous displays of pasta and Italian sandwiches.

John Small, the assistant manager, claims that Torino's has been an instant hit among local employees starved for fine food.

Across the street, McDonald's recently gave itself a makeover. While it's better than many, it is pretty mundane. But the prize for the worst facade has to go to U.S. Bank. A huge, ungainly white brick box, it has a nonsensical arch set behind a barren apron of asphalt. If the bank has to have a parking lot along the street, it need only look at its neighbor to the east.

There, Key Bank is housed in a finely scaled masonry building that might be in a small town. Its L-shaped form joins with the sidewalk and has a welcoming entry. There is a parking lot, but it is tucked off to the side and holds two massive trees.

To the east of Key Bank is First Hill Plaza - a tower of extraordinary dullness. At least the ground level gives something to the street, though even here, the split-level sidewalk is pretty strange. After a series of tenants that came and disappeared, the complex is finally getting some decent shops.

One of the most interesting is Frankie Rae's Pizza, which just opened. Owners Daryl and Teresa Perna placed the ovens along the street and packed in a bunch of little tables and metal chairs. It feels and smells (and tastes) like it could be somewhere in Manhattan. "We've really been made to feel welcome by the neighbors," says Teresa Perna, "its been just like buying a home."

Upper Madison is not as lively, as intimate or as diverse as other districts, but it could grow into something very fine. One thing that would help is if the city could put together a project to add street trees and more decorative lights.

Little Saigon

The third new district is a fascinating concentration of food markets, restaurants, shops and services that has rapidly expanded around the intersection of 12th Avenue and Jackson Street. Officially known as Little Saigon, it is a wonderfully chaotic crazy quilt of buildings, signs, people and merchandise.

For the moment, the district's centerpiece is the pleasant, three-story complex of shops called the Ding How Shopping Center. One wing of the complex, which wraps around the corner and faces 12th Avenue, contains the first and only grocery store in Seattle to have underground parking - the Hau Hau Supermarket. The market displays an astonishing array of fish, and sells French bread as fine as can be found in Paris.

Hiep Quach, a local banker who moved to Seattle 30 years ago, explains that many of the merchants originally came to the U.S. as boat people in the early '80s. Because it has been seen as a desirable place to live, he said Seattle now has one of the largest concentrations of Vietnamese in the country. Little Saigon is seen as a major location for Vietnamese to socialize as well as attend to shopping needs. Says Hiep, "Vietnamese love to eat."

Indeed, on a recent Saturday, most of the cafes and restaurants were packed. Cars were queued up waiting to get into parking lots. For now, the district is pretty much a commercial center. But as the local Vietnamese population ages, housing for singles and seniors may start to crop up around the edges, transforming it into a real urban neighborhood.

Even without new housing, the energy and enterprise seen in Little Saigon could be reinforced by enlightened application of public investment. This could come in the form of art, sidewalk enhancements or public spaces.

But please, let's not make it pretty. The "messiness" is absolutely magnificent.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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