Revitalizing business districts

At last week's Lake Union District Council's community forum, attendees from five North End business districts met to discuss ways to make less-frequented districts more successful. Overwhelmingly, business owners saw community alliance as the most effective method.

Presentations from Seattle's Office of Economic Development, National Trust's Main Street Program and Muir Publications helped small business owners to learn about revitalization techniques.

"Many business owners just don't know where to start looking," said the Department of Neighborhoods' Antoinette Meier, regulator of the forum. "Unless they are well-developed, they don't know about the different services this city offers."

Available opportunities

The topics discussed ranged from grant funding to public and private workshops. The fa├žade improvement program, which is a grant of up to $10,000 for business districts in low-income areas, was highlighted in light of the revived Ave (University Way Northeast).

The Main Street representatives outlined its work with community building and assessing the changes needed to improve faltering districts.

Public-relations manager Jeanne Muir also highlighted the necessity for businesses to market themselves with a positive light and form a resourceful community among both neighboring stores and districts.

"There are a lot of successful business districts, and it is good for others to hear from their peers to find out how to go about doing things," Meier said.

Changing perceptions

During the community feedback session, members from both Fremont and Eastlake neighborhoods spoke out, both to answer other small business owners' questions and to share services and tactics that have proven successful in the past.

"Part of the purpose of this meeting was to get business owners together in order to stimulate one another," said Eastlake Community Council member Chris Leman.

One of the worries that Leman voiced at the meeting was that Eastlake is being used as a corridor to speed people through rather than serving as an urban village. Leman is referring to the commuter lane that eliminates street parking during rush-hour traffic.

About eight years ago, Susan Kaufman, owner of the Eastlake restaurant Serafina, chaired the Eastlake Main Street chapter and worked to gather information on what would attract people to their district. The majority said a grocery store, which would attract other spinoff businesses to make Eastlake less of a throughway.

"We need these services so people can walk instead of drive," Kaufman said. "Neighborhoods should support themselves."

Other models

Leman hopes to look at other districts' reconstruction plans in hopes of stimulating Eastlake's own. "Fremont has been a model for how business communities have worked together to make it more of a destination for people," he said.

According to Fremont resident and business owner Suzie Burke, chair of the Lake Union District Council, Fremont has been making it a group effort to ensure its parking circulation is not problematic.

They have replaced unused loading zones with two-hour parking zones and are preparing to add five new traffic lights and undergo an 18-month construction period to replace the elevated roadways at each end of the Fremont Bridge.

"We are already a close district, but we are going to get tighter," Burke said. "It's the forward planning that made this all possible, and we hope to be just as successful as the U-District has [been]."

Forward planning is something that both Leman and Kaufman hope to begin to grow a community within Eastlake.

"A good thing that came out of this meeting is many businesses in Eastlake are going to get together and have morning coffee to talk about an effort to improve," Leman said.

A cyclical process

While the Neighborhood Business District Revitalization forum worked to give city services visibility, it also allowed business owners to have their questions fielded by people who are experienced with funding and community planning. "Even though some districts are further along, it's cyclical and always important to keep the services that are working for your business in mind," Meier said.

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