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Saturday, February 10, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Empty storefronts litter 'the Ave'

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Customers sporadically dribbled into the University Smoke Shop, each exiting with a pack of cigarettes or perhaps a package of cut tobacco.

Business has slowed, partly because of anti-smoking campaigns, said Nasim Choudhry, co-owner of the 7-year-old store that sells tobacco and smoking paraphernalia.

But most of all, he said, his shop has been hurt by business closures and employee layoffs on University Way Northeast, better know as "the Ave."

"Those people are my customers," he said. "But they've disappeared now because they don't have jobs here anymore."

The exodus is continuing, with Pier 1 Imports, on Northeast 45th Street and University Way Northeast, the heart of the University District, announcing it will close Thursday because of lagging sales.

The furniture and home-decoration store joins Wizards of the Coast, McDonald's, Jamba Juice, Breadsmith, Java Express Cybercafe and others whose windows have gone dark in recent months.

"In the last two years, business started going down and down," said Choudhry. "We're hardly breaking even. We're just paying the bills."

Charles Grimes, co-owner of M.J. Feet, the Birkenstock footwear store on the Ave, said retail in general is having a hard time.

"But the University District has lost its critical mass of retailers," he said.

Grimes blamed the loss in part on the lack of a cohesive plan for the Ave.

"We're not an organized shopping district. We're very much like Main Street America," he said.

The absence of a coordinated retail strategy to reach different segments of the population isn't the only problem.

Jenny Bigley, a health educator at Group Health Cooperative, said she hasn't been to some of her favorite restaurants and stores on the Ave in years.

"Parking is a big factor," said Bigley, who was shopping at nearby University Village. "And just the general layout of the Ave. There are no awnings, no tables. There aren't any chairs where you can sit down if your feet get tired."

She said the Ave also tends to look dirty.

Bob Cross, the general manager of University Bookstore, said the image of businesses fleeing isn't a good one.

But Cross said the future of the Ave isn't as bleak as it may appear.

"There're too many good things out here for it to not get better at some point," he said. "The university's here - they aren't moving. We've got great transportation, and Safeco is headquartered here."

Janine Brackett, executive director of the Greater University Chamber of Commerce, said the Ave still gets plenty of foot traffic.

She labeled the recent closures coincidental and saw the empty storefronts as a chance to diversify the types of businesses on the Ave.

She said some of the businesses that left did not fully understand the unique demographics of the area.

"The U District is a very eclectic area," she said. "Some of the national chain-type stores haven't done well on the Ave."

University of Washington student Angelina Ruiz said she regularly shops on University Way Northeast, drawn by the used music and clothing outlets.

"There are great, locally owned smaller businesses," she said. "So it's fun to be in places that are going to carry stuff that's not on the Top 10 trendiest list."

Stores have closed for a variety of reasons. The Wizards of the Coast Game Center shut down last week because executives said it was expensive to operate and there wasn't enough foot traffic to justify the cost of running it.

Ellen Mohl, a senior agent at the Yates, Wood & MacDonald commercial real-estate firm, said even though there are more empty storefronts on the Ave than usual, they have begun to fill up. Buffalo Exchange, a second-hand clothing store, is expanding into the bigger Windfall space, she noted.

"I think that the spaces will be absorbed," she said. "The demands of the street require you to be a really good retailer to do well, but there is money to be made there."

Also in the planning stage is an $8 million street renovation, scheduled to begin in 2004, according to Patty Whisler of the Ave Group, a community organization.

Sidewalk widening and the installation of street lamps and greenery were supposed to begin this summer, but a $4.1 million federal grant has been delayed, Whisler said.

"It's a little mystifying as to what's going on," said Scott Soules, vice president of Soules Properties, which owns five buildings on the Ave.

"But in the entire history of the street, businesses have come and gone. ... The street's been a great street to do business on for over 75 years, and whatever comes and goes, there will be something else. Things change."

Gina Kim's telephone message number is 206-464-2761. Her e-mail address is gkim@seattletimes.com.

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