Future Endeavors

If You Vote for It, They Will Come

A new South Lake Union office tower is crowdsourcing its restaurant tenants.

By Allecia Vermillion September 11, 2012


Crowdsourcing the old-fashioned way: A new chalkboard mural collects ideas on site. Photo via 400 Fairview.

 Local developer Skanska is planning a 13-story office building at Republican and Fairview, teetering on the brink of Amazonia, with a cluster of shops and cafes forming a vaulted, open-air "Market Hall" on the ground floor, forming a path of sorts that will culminate in a larger market-driven restaurant. Think DeLaurenti, but with a bigger area for sandwiches, or a fish market with a catch of the day counter. Lisa Picard, an executive vice president with Skanska who is leading the project's development, describes it as similar to Manhattan's Chelsea Market, or market spaces you might see in Europe. The 13th-floor rooftop could be a beer garden, she says, inspired by Eataly's Birreria, or perhaps some other food use where diners could marvel at the views of the Space Needle, Waterfront, Mount Rainier, and the Cascades and Olympics.

Don't get excited and start making Melrose Market comparisons just yet. The 400 Fairview project still needs to clear some zoning hurdles. In fact, it won't become reality until late in 2014. But the development team is already collecting local input on what should go into this space, using a using a tool so ridiculously Seattle that it's hard to believe it was developed all the way across the country in DC.

Popularise is a site where the public can vote on what should occupy a development's empty retail space. Random people can submit ideas (so far suggestions have inclued a 3 Girls Bakery, La Carta de Oaxaca and a Chinese street food stall, as well as nonfood ideas like a blow dry bar or hot yoga studio) and other people can vote yea or nay on them.

This is the first time Popularise has been used outside DC, according to Skanska. Since then, projects in Baltimore and Oklahoma City, and the rebuild of the old Magnuson Park firehouse have signed on as well.

Currently a bar for Washington State Cougar fans and a jazz cafe are leading the pack of 34 ideas. None of this is binding, says Picard. So why bother doing it at all?

Here's how Picard dewonked it to me: Obviously a tall building like this is subject to major zoning scrutiny, and moreso because the Market Hall layout is unusual. Most ground-floor retail spaces are larger than the 425-square-foot slices that she's envisioning. Larger spaces means fewer leases to get signed, hence less work and less risk, but Picard allows it also means fewer small-scale entrepreneurs can afford to set up shop here. And that's who she wants to see here.

Skanska hopes Popularise will solve a common developer conundrum. Public input is a critical part of securing city zoning approval, but the citizens who write letters or take the time to turn up at a Tuesday night public meeting overwhelmingly skew towards opposition, be it to the project specifically or change in general. As for the opinions of the young, tech-savvy types who will eventually work in this building, says Picard, "How do you tap into the voice of other people who care with their dollars but don't necessarily care with their evenings, or by writing a letter to city council?"

A quantifiable measure of what restaurants and shops people would use also helps Skanska woo businesses when the time comes. But right now the space is a parking lot where food trucks frequently set up lunchtime shop to feed hungry Amazonians. The 400 Fairview team has installed a mural here, punctuated with chalkboards so neighborhood denizens can make suggestions in nondigital form. Right now chalk scrawls request a butcher shop, a pho place, and, ahem, a few more ribald types of businesses. Hey, the democratic process isn't always G-rated.

Younger residents, especially ones who are newer to Seattle, "don't even know the powerfulness of their voice in this city," says Picard. "Seattle has a very big ear for community." 

The developer is setting up a food truck night and parking lot party this Wednesday, September 12, to raise awareness for both the project and this new form of community input. It will be held at the site, at Fairview and Republican, from 5 to 8 and will feature Skillet, beer from Manny's, ping pong, beanbags, and live music.



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