COLOURBOX. THE RED WHITE & BLUE restaurant. Ruby Montana's Pinto Pony. These are just a few of the storied Pioneer Square establishments that got squeezed out in the last couple years by the redevelopment efforts of Samis Land Co. To date, these businesses have been replaced by: nothing, nothing, and nothing.
A walk through the Square and its environs finds a startling number of ground-floor "For Lease" signs, many of them in the windows of Samis buildings. In recent years, Samis has undertaken a massive renovation and restoration of its many historical buildings, an effort that required giving the boot to existing businesses. Trouble is, in many cases, no replacements seem to have been found, leaving the already struggling neighborhood with a more empty, uninviting streetscape.
On the western side of First Avenue, for example, in the commercial heart of the Square, the former home of the Colourbox has been vacant for two years, and several adjoining Samis storefronts have been empty since October. (The upper floors, however, are attracting new loft residents.) "Some of these are real key retail spaces," says Pioneer Square Community Council President Bif Brigman, who runs the Laguna pottery store. "I don't understand why they're not leased." Local business owners wonder if Samis is just asking too much rent. The head of Samis Land, William Justen, did not return a call seeking comment.
Pioneer Square has certainly received plenty of bad press in recent months, no doubt adding to Samis' challenge. Area merchants complain bitterly about excessive media coverage of the Mardi Gras riots and earthquake damage, which added to the Square's perennial reputation for social "undesirables." Brigman says he's "thrilled" that Samis is "not [just] throwing bars in there. Their rehabs have been respectful to the district. But we'd like to see some contributing businesses."
The vacant spaces stick in the craw of some displaced merchants. Elliott Bay Antiques was one of several businesses kicked out of the Washington Shoe Building at the corner of Occidental and South Jackson. Owner Stephen Croft ended up a few doors further east, where, he says, his payroll has shrunk "from three full-time employees to just myself. I used to get good walk-by traffic. Now it's just the established clients." Croft says he tried to rent his old corner back from Samis but was told the company wanted to put in a coffee shop. It remains vacant for now.
Mark D. Fefer