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Sunday, January 8, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Coming To Life -- Seattle's Retail Center Could Become A Destination Spot With More Shopping, Night Life

Skyscrapers built in the 1980s made downtown Seattle the place to work.

But a place to shop?

Go east, young shopper.

While the Eastside exploded as a retail center, led by an expanded Bellevue Square, downtown Seattle shopping seemed to stagnate - symbolized by the bankruptcy of Frederick & Nelson.

All that seems to be changing. Seattle's retail center is beginning a dramatic turnaround, led by the planned renovation of the F&N building and two surrounding blocks.

Counting public and private sources for several projects, the retail core is getting close to $500 million to build stores, a garage with some 1,000 spaces, a world-class Nordstrom store, a hip-hopping sports retailer, two huge cinema complexes, a virtual-reality arcade and more. Darkened buildings (the former Coliseum Theater, the old Woolworth store) are coming back to life. New retailers and restaurants have opened or said they're coming. Big-name stores are taking serious looks at downtown. Business, civic and government groups are talking about creating a pedestrian corridor on Pine Street from the convention center to the waterfront.

There's new life in the old town. By gaining more than 1 million square feet for various new uses, downtown could become a true destination for visitors and shoppers.

The scale of the changes is impressive.

"We've never seen anything like this," says Jim Norman, a 53-year resident of Seattle and president of The Norman Co., a downtown real estate services company.

It's the most significant event in downtown's history since D.E. Frederick in 1918 moved his store to a new building at Fifth Avenue and Pine Street, says Dick Outcalt and Pat Johnson of Outcalt & Johnson Retail Strategists.

"This is going to redefine downtown," they say.

One result: a high-stepping night life.

The Paramount is reopening after a major remodel. A Contemporary Theater is expecting to move into the old Eagles Auditorium. With the 5th Avenue Theater, that gives downtown a mini-live-theater district.

Then there's the "something completely new" - NikeTown, a leader of the entertainment-style retailers, which stays open late, floods streets with the amplified sounds of heavy-breathing basketball players, and draws tourists and customers from an entire region.

Planet Hollywood, with its reproductions of movie sets and visits by celebrities, will make eating seem like a trip to Universal Studios. That will certainly appeal to film buffs next door at the 70,000-square-foot movie complex to be operated by Cineplex Odeon. With seats for 4,000 people, the 16-screen complex will be the region's biggest.

By late 1997, when nearly all the pieces are in place, a jazzy downtown could be hopping with an eclectic crowd: culture matrons wrapped in furs headed to restaurants, gawking conventioneers on generous corporate expense accounts and teens shopping for the latest pump in their jump shoes.

"We will become one of the best shopping destinations in the U.S., rivaling San Francisco, Chicago and New York," says Jennifer Severson, vice president and general manager of Westlake Center.

The list of other new, announced or expected tenants downtown is long and varied: Ross Dress for Less, Borders Books & Music, Virgin Music. Banana Republic turned the Coliseum Theater into one of Seattle's most stylish stores.

Even Bartell Drug Co., retail's equivalent of an ancient forest, has shown added life. A downtown merchant since 1890, it plans to nearly double the size of its store near Westlake Center.

"We have faith in downtown Seattle," says Bartell Senior Vice President Val Storrs.

Apart from all the retailers, there's also a stunning list of projects in the civic pipeline: a new home for the Seattle Symphony, a new Seattle Public Library, an expanded convention center, expanded Seattle Aquarium, and the Seattle Commons, an entirely new gateway to the downtown.

Plus there's the dozens of tenants expected for the F&N project. Those names will be announced in the next several months.

Part of that project includes a new garage with more than 1,000 spaces and a cinema-retail complex of a whopping 500,000 square feet. For comparison, the F&N building is 688,000 square feet.

The developers also plan to renovate the Nordstrom building, the Seaboard building and possibly the Metropolitan Savings & Loan Building to house offices, shops, a hotel and some entertainment facilities.

Downtown retailers think they're catching a wave.

"From what I've been reading recently, downtown Seattle is on fire," says Keith Peters, spokesman for Nike. The NikeTown will open in April 1996.

Naturally, the go-go Downtown Seattle Association has gone ga ga.

"Downtown's looking different," says Lucinda Payne, DSA marketing director. "It's looking to be a 24-hour destination."

That's hardly what anyone would have said over the past decade or so, as Seattle's share of taxable retail sales for King and Snohomish counties fell from 37 percent in 1978 to 28 percent in 1993. In addition to F&N's closure, downtown lost Rhodes, Kress, Ernst Hardware, J.C. Penney, Klopfenstein's, I. Magnin and Woolworth. Old-timers will remember MacDougall's, a department store at Second and Pike, that closed in 1966, after 92 years downtown.

According to San Francisco-based Economics Research Associates, Seattle's retail construction did not keep pace with office construction. Although many shops continued to thrive, downtown's retail sales as a whole did not keep pace with inflation.

ERA says the F&N project represents a major turning point. Seattle's downtown "has the opportunity to break with both its own historical trend of steady decline and the pattern suffered by most of America's downtowns."

If the project goes through, downtown would gain about 650,000 square feet of new retail and restaurant space.

If you add the project's office and hotel space, the total comes to about 1.1 million square feet added to downtown Seattle.

That's the rough equivalent of a Two Union Square building.

Or all of Bellevue Square.

Ironically, the biggest blow to downtown - F&N's demise - set in motion its revival. When the store closed, it set in play a large amount of retailing space, and that created an opportunity, says Susan Zimmerman, senior sales associate with CB Commercial.

The turnaround is also because of other factors:

-- Seattle has worked hard to maintain its downtown. Taxes have financed the Seattle Art Museum, the state Convention Center, the Metro bus tunnel and other projects.

-- The city's relatively strong economy and the growth of the region's economy have made Seattle a strong candidate for new retail locations.

-- Retailers, like cows, travel in herds. The herd is coming this way.

The boss bull nationally is Seattle's own Nordstrom. When Nordstrom conditionally agreed to spend an expected $100 million on its move into the F&N building, that sent a powerful signal to other retailers who are now considering a move to the F&N redevelopment.

Anne Levinson, Seattle deputy mayor, says several major retailers who rejected Seattle in the past are now looking to locate. As examples of interested companies, she named J. Crew, FAO Schwartz and Crate & Barrel.

"From our estimation, the retail market here has really picked up," she says.

As yet, she cannot quantify the number of retailers coming to downtown. A number of deals are under discussion.

Then there's a big caveat: The F&N project is by no means a certainty.

It still awaits financing, signed tenants and building permits. And there's the matter of Pine Street: Nordstrom insists that it be reopened at Westlake Park between Fourth and Fifth avenues. The city government has all but agreed, but some activists are threatening lawsuits or an initiative to block the opening.

Nonetheless, downtown real estate experts expect the project to go forward, given the mayor's strong backing and what is regarded as the project's strong concept and management.

Another caveat: Not all the new retailers will succeed. A downtown retail climate is different from a mall. Mall customers are somewhat more homogeneous, while downtown shoppers vary from impulse-buying conventioneers to secretaries who only shop during lunch hours, says Outcalt & Johnson, who preach research, research, research to their clients.

Of all the expected retail newcomers, Norman is particularly pleased to see Ross Dress for Less looking at the vacant Woolworth building. A lower-price retailer helps enhance one of downtown's strengths - the diversity of its shopping, he says.

One of the most vivid symbols of the downtown turnaround is a short walk from Westlake Center: the Harbor Steps project, long the dream of lawyer-developer Stimson Bullitt. He was the visionary who also, as president of King Broadcasting, quietly assembled the properties that led to the revitalization of First Avenue by Cornerstone Development.

Designed by Canadian architect Arthur Erickson, Harbor Steps opened late last year, connecting First and Western avenues at University Street, with a broad set of terraces framed by fountains, places to sit and new retail spaces.

The steps are private property but open to the public - the sort of private investment in Seattle's downtown that has helped keep it vibrant.

Another ancient forest of the downtown is Ben Bridge Jeweler, a retailer since 1912. Company Co-Chairman Herb Bridge, grandson of the founder, says downtown's success is due in part to business owners who taxed themselves to widen sidewalks, pick up litter and plant trees.

A tireless champion of Seattle's downtown, Bridge says the district's future is looking bright. And that reflects well on the entire region, he says.

"We are judged by our downtowns. That's where our civilization is," he says. "I'm looking at a future that is absolutely wonderful."

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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