Revitalization is in the works in downtown Renton — and Mayor Denis Law says it’s beginning to breathe life into that part of his city.
When it comes to large businesses headquartered on the Eastside, Renton has several reasons to boast. IKEA, the Hyatt Regency and the rest of SECO Development’s waterfront projects, and the Seattle Seahawks all call Renton home. Additionally, Boeing operates a production facility here, manufacturing on average 42 aircraft, annually — put another way; More than 30 percent of airliners in the sky were made at Boeing’s Renton factory.
With these companies occupying different parts of the city, it’s easy to overlook the city’s downtown, a .51-square-mile pocket bordered by Grady Way to the south and Airport Way to the north, and populated by a collection of locally owned small businesses and more than 3,000 residents.
Downtown might be quaint today, but Gary Slotnik, owner of Garland Jewelers (a business his father opened in 1953), remembers the middle of the 20th century, when the family business was in the middle of a thriving city center with anchor stores such as Bartell Drugs and JCPenney.
“As a kid, I would come here with my dad on Friday nights, and the streets were packed,” Slotnik said.
That changed on July 31, 1968, when Southcenter Mall opened in neighboring Tukwila, wooing Renton residents with its glitzy, multilevel shopping and dining options. Many of downtown Renton’s largest retail spaces were left vacant or were rented to businesses that didn’t last long.
That’s not to say downtown became a desolate ghost town. Garland Jewelers, Melrose Grill, and Cugini Florists and Fine Gifts predate the Southcenter Mall, and all have survived recessions and other economic downturns.
But downtown’s revitalization has been on the city’s docket for years, according to Mayor Denis Law, and that movement has slowly started to breathe new life into the area.
“What we have envisioned for a long time is not to compete with shopping centers,” Law said. “We don’t expect to duplicate The Landing and certainly not Southcenter or anything like that, but instead create a very vibrant, pedestrian-oriented community that offers lots of restaurants, bars, and service-oriented businesses (that will) attract people to live and work in the downtown core.”
Downtown Renton 2.0
The plan is off to a good start. Owners of the midcentury Cortona Building — formerly home to Woolworth, then Renton Western Wear — tapped the city’s façade-improvement loan program to help complete a $1.1 million renovation that restored the building’s exterior, overhauled its interior, and became prime real estate for prospective business tenants such as plant store Urban Sprouts and the Griot Gallery.
Last year, just one block away, Four Generals Brewing turned the former City Hall into a microbrewery, tasting room, and sidewalk café.
And the former McLendon Hardware building is now home to Intermountain Lock and Security Supply, bringing more than 30 jobs to the neighborhood.
Additionally, the city hopes to develop more multifamily residential properties downtown, offering tax credits to developers who want to tackle such projects. These types of buildings would increase foot traffic and encourage more new businesses to take root in the area.
The lure of tax credits seems to be working. Earlier this year, the Second and Main Apartments and Lofts opened in the downtown core; seemingly overnight, the building was 80 percent occupied. Cugini Florists and Fine Gifts co-owner Bill Gaw says he saw a definite uptick in foot traffic.
“I would say it gets a little better every year,” Gaw said. “The more apartments that are built downtown, the better (foot traffic) is going to get.”
Garland Jewelers’ Slotnik noted more city-led, downtown events have helped build his client base, citing a recent wine walk that drew more than 500 participants to his storefront.
“Jewelry is an impulse item, and the more people that are walking by our windows, the better our business will be,” he said. “I thought that was one of the best events that has ever been put on down here because a lot (of participants) were new faces and people that didn’t realize we were here.”
Part of the city’s long-term plans could include an annexation of Piazza Park on Burnett Avenue South. Doing so could create more events by adding curb-free festival streets and a possible splash park or other fixture for families. The proposed annexation site is located in a lot formerly occupied by Big 5 Sporting Goods; it was initially purchased by the city to construct a new library, but has since lain vacant.
“We’re at loggerheads over that. I think they should sell that and develop it,” Gaw said. “For us, we are separate from the focus of the downtown, so we are kind of outside of that (central area) by just a couple of blocks, but that is a big distance for people to go if there is nothing in between.”
Thoroughfare No More
Walkability and pedestrian-friendly streets are big parts of the city’s revitalization efforts. More than half of Renton’s traffic comes from commuters that neither work nor live in the city, according to Law.
“Speeding cars going by just doesn’t feel good when you are walking around a vibrant business district that has parks, activities, coffee shops, and outdoor dining,” Law said.
To facilitate this change, the city hopes to regain control of Third Avenue — actually a state route — from the Washington State Department of Transportation and convert the main arterial from one-way to two-way.
“Sixty-five percent of the thousands of cars that buzz through the downtown every day are just commuters,” Law said. “We want downtown to be a destination location, and we want the commuters to go elsewhere. Slowing down the traffic and going back to two-way, it helps accomplish that. We feel that is really necessary to create a safer, more pedestrian-friendly type of environment.”
Additionally, the mayor has proposed moving the transit center’s downtown operations to Rainier Avenue South and South Grady Way. The existing downtown transit center would remain a hub for commuters who begin or end their trips in the downtown core. The new transit center would serve transferring commuters, thereby reducing the number of buses currently congesting downtown streets.
This plan could be implemented early next year, but not everyone in the neighborhood is happy about it.
“We’ll be keeping an eye on what happens when they move the Metro Transit center,” said Cugini’s Gaw. “That could potentially take a lot of pedestrian traffic out of downtown. (But) it could also make it better so that the people that are here want to be here. That way they are going to stay here rather than people just passing through.”
Progress is Progress
As downtown Renton’s revitalization plan moves forward, business owners and city officials are feeling optimistic following the disruption created by Southcenter Mall almost 50 years ago.
“There is more exciting activity taking place now than I have seen in the 20 (plus) years that I have been somewhat involved in downtown redevelopment,” Law said. “There was a lot of visioning for many years, and we had the ups and downs of the economy and things of that nature. But downtown has really come to life now with a lot of interest from developers, new property owners, and the city.”
“Over the last 15 to 20 years, things have really turned around,” added Gaw. “It is not something that happens fast enough, and a lot of people don’t see it if they haven’t been here very long … They really want things to change fast, and that is really not how it works.”