A downtown in transition, a reborn surrounding area

Consider Dylan Avila a representative of downtown Renton’s dueling reputations. He’s a regular at comedy nights at The Local 907 pub on South Third Street, and often emcees the sessions. On a recent Monday, he had the crowd rolling with jokes about a Creedence Clearwater Revisited concert (“They couldn’t be ‘Revived.’”) and a game his kids play called “Mom and Dad” (“Mom barks orders, while Dad just keeps playing the drums. They’re good at this game.”).

Today, Avila is the face of one of Renton’s more popular social activities. A few months ago at the club, that face was beaten with a baseball bat by a fellow comedian. Avila’s skull was fractured, yet he returned to the scene of the crime with no reservation, no fear.

“Folks in Renton have a good sense of humor about this stuff,” says Avila, who grew up in and lives in neighboring Skyway.

This is Renton’s quandary: Residents of the 97,000-person city are aware of the increasingly vibrant downtown, but many outsiders associate downtown Renton with crimes like the one that took place at the 907. “That’s not what defines Renton,” says Terrence Vaccaro, co-owner of the 907 and the 8 Bit Arcade across the street.

Steven Matsumoto. Photos by Jesse Rogers

Steven Matsumoto

Downtown isn’t Renton’s only active location. Since the Seattle Seahawks moved team headquarters to the shore of Lake Washington in 2006, the surrounding area has seen a rebirth.

The Landing retail complex is 90 percent leased. Two nearby high-end apartment complexes are always full. When completed, the neighboring Southport development will have a 12-story hotel and 750,000 square feet of office space. Nearby, Boeing is ramping up production at its 737 plant — by 2018, 52 planes a month will be assembled there.

Back downtown, local stakeholders are banding together to better downtown’s image and choreograph the neighborhood’s future. The Renton Downtown Partnership, a coalition of business owners, residents, and nonprofit workers, is coalescing, and the city and the chamber of commerce are aiming to change downtown’s mixed rep.

“It all starts with safety,” says Vicky Baxter, the Renton Chamber of Commerce president who previously oversaw downtown revitalizations in Santa Ana and Sacramento, California. “Then comes in the foodie movement, and then you plug in small-business retail entrepreneurs.”

There’s work to be done on the safety front. Renton has the highest crime rate on the Eastside. Per FBI statistics, Renton saw 53.7 crimes per 1,000 residents in 2013. Bellevue’s crime rate, by comparison, was 31.9 per 1,000.

Johnetta Thomas

Johnetta Thomas

In response, the city has gradually ramped up the police presence downtown since 2008, and Renton’s crime rate is falling — though it’s highest on the Eastside, it’s far lower than neighboring Tukwila, Seattle, and SeaTac.

As for Renton’s food scene? Check it off the list. The Landing alone has more than 20 dining choices within its 607,000 square feet of mixed-use space. A pedestrian downtown can grab pizza, burgers, a steak, or fried chicken. Vietnamese, Indian, tapas, Italian, and Afghan cuisine are all within walking distance of each other. “When you look at the economic sectors downtown,” says John Collum, who spearheaded the Downtown Partnership, “the strongest sector now is the restaurants. … If you get those restaurants working together to help promote as a group, downtown becomes a dining destination.”

Now it’s time for the city to coax entrepreneurs to downtown, an effort aided by Renton’s affordable real estate. Lease rates in the Western Wear building, in the heart of downtown, are advertised as $13 to $15 a square foot — half of what office space in Seattle and Bellevue can fetch.

Rates like that could draw Seattle and other Eastside entrepreneurs south, a trend that’s been observed elsewhere. “To use a local analogy, (Renton) could be Columbia City on steroids,” says Steven Matsumoto, who runs the Seattle Fashion Incubator on South Second Street. “To use a national analogy, I see Renton as the next Brooklyn. It’s just getting some more pedestrian-friendly businesses down here, and getting some things that draw some activity.”

Deciding what types of businesses and organizations will differentiate downtown Renton is a key aspect of the Downtown Partnership’s process, but downtown business owners aren’t yet united on what the area’s calling card should be. Matsumoto wants an arts and fashion district. Nick Hill, owner of Antiques 4U, is focused on preserving the historical buildings. Vaccaro doesn’t care much about saving old buildings — he’s just ready for even more bars and restaurants to come to the area.

One possible element of differentiation is diversity. Downtown Renton is one of the most economically and racially diverse neighborhoods in the Seattle area — the 98057 ZIP code, which includes downtown and the surrounding residential areas, is 20 percent African-American, 18 percent Asian, and 13 percent Hispanic, all well above rates for the Seattle metro area. The neighborhood’s diverse eateries reflect the diversity among business owners, too — finding Southern food is a challenge in Seattle, but there are three restaurants that serve it in downtown Renton, all with African-American owners.

“I think it will become more diverse,” says Johnetta Thomas, a co-owner of cheesesteak restaurant Philly Fever. “When people see other people that resemble them, they feel more comfortable, and they’re willing to try something new.”

A refined downtown would have ripple effects on the area economy. Baxter says downtown’s small businesses and the Landing’s big-box stores can coexist, and a more vibrant downtown will make it easier for major employers like Boeing or game-maker Wizards of the Coast to lure employees to the city.

Many in the downtown community feel the next wave of entrepreneurs will not only be diverse, but young. “This is a new dynamic. You’re going to see younger people downtown, and they’re going to want to have their shops and businesses (downtown),” says Hill, president of the Downtown Partnership. “You’re going to see more people living downtown not because they have to, but because they want to.”

Renton by the numbers
Population: 97,000 (est.)
Land area: 23.57 square miles
Median household income: $66,096

Renton’s largest employers (2012)

  1. Boeing 14,428
  2. Valley Medical Center 2,267
  3. Renton School District 1,837
  4. Providence 1,663
  5. Federal Aviation Administration (relocating to Des Moines) 1,480
  6. Paccar 1,290
  7. City of Renton 722
  8. King County 425
  9. Fred Meyer 404
  10. Puget Sound Educational Services 364