The sky is falling in Occidental Park, so Phen Huang is headed east.
On Thursday, April 6, Huang's Foster/White art gallery, located for the past 32 years at 123 S. Jackson St. (Foster/White operates a second gallery in Rainier Square), will move into spacious new digs in a former City of Seattle office building at 220 S. Main St.
Foster/White's defection comes on the heels of the closure of the nearby Calix and Bryan Ohno galleries, and will be followed at the end of May by Carolyn Staley's Fine Japanese Prints, which is moving its operation from Occidental to a space near Pike Place Market.
"Six years ago, I had a rent of $2,300," Staley says of her namesake gallery. "Now it's $3,400. But the last straw for me was the trees. There are other forces at work here who have their own plans."
By "the trees," Staley is referring to a swath of age-old London planes chopped down recently as part of a controversial city-backed plan to redevelop Occidental Park. And by "other forces," she's doubtless referring to Pioneer Square landlords who seem content to let storefronts remain vacant for months on end.
"After the dot-com crash, everybody left, and no one gave any consideration to that," says Huang. "The part I don't understand is they're saying market value is $21 to $26 per square foot. But how can that be if they're vacant? What market are they playing to?
"I think it's interesting that developers are willing to have their ground floors empty. I think it truly could be a ghost town during the day."
While Huang doesn't blame the city for wanting to spruce up the park, she feels gallery and small-business owners were given short shrift in the planning process, which featured work groups pairing the likes of Huang with local developers and urban-planning types.
"Their ideas were to put movies in the park, a temporary ice rink, and bocce ball—all of which seemed perfectly ridiculous to me," says Huang. "The few times they've had movies, most of the people watching are homeless. Which doesn't bother me, but it runs counter to what they're trying to do."
"I would say our objective there is to make the park lighter, brighter, and more inviting," says Seattle Parks and Recreation Department spokesperson Dewey Potter. "We want to create activities for people in the park, whether they're playing chess or bocce. And we hope to program a lot of events in good weather, which we've been doing for the past two years as a trial."
These developments, coupled with the sale of Foster/White's existing home to an owner intent on turning the building into condominiums, compelled Huang and her parents, who bought the gallery from David Foster in 2002, to venture east and purchase their own facility. While she's thrilled to own her new space— it's twice the size of her old one—it's an option Huang insists she wouldn't have considered for another two to three years had things played out more favorably along Occidental.
As it is, Foster/White's migration to a space just south of Greg Kucera's formidable gallery appears to cement the former no-man's land surrounding the Union Gospel Mission and Tashiro- Kaplan artists' lofts as south downtown's new visual arts nexus.
"There's definitely a shift, no question," says Sam Davidson, who recently opened a contemporary gallery in the T-K building to augment his longtime space on Occidental. "Greg has seemed to make it work enough that Phen bought that building—and that's a pretty serious commitment. If you get enough critical mass, that's enough to make a shift."
"I just think Pioneer Square in general has lost a lot of its attractiveness," adds Bryan Ohno, who's traded exclusively online since closing his Occidental Park gallery this past June. "It's pretty much sports-bar town, and by going east, you can kind of cocoon yourself on that little hillside."
Yet there remains a substantial number of artisan outposts downhill in Pioneer Square proper, many of which are quivering at the perceived real-estate maelstrom.
"To me, the rent has been too high for quite a while, and there's a lot of empty space that's staying empty," says Erik Painter, whose Pottery School occupies an underground space in the Grand Central Arcade building that abuts both Occidental Park and First Avenue South. "It's hard to know what's happening in Pioneer Square. Maybe they want to get artsy people out and something in that's more high-end."
The roots of Painter's paranoia can be traced to beloved Pioneer Square property owner Alan Black's September 2005 sale of the Grand Central Building to Goodman Real Estate, a prominent property owner that has more than doubled its downtown holdings in the past six years. Almost as soon as the sale was announced, longtime tenant David Ishii Booksellers split. And this past Sunday, the Paper Cat, a stationer which had operated on the building's ground floor for 31 years, locked its doors for good after renegotiations with Goodman's leasing agent, Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis (CBRE), came to a screeching halt.
"The offer they made was 30 percent higher than what we'd been paying," says Janet Mullis, who ran the business with her husband, Roy. "We countered, and they didn't get back to us until we had started our going-out-of-business sale. And what they countered with wasn't acceptable.
"We love Pioneer Square, and we're sorry to leave. We tried to sell the business to staff, and that was what our plan was, but [CBRE] just didn't get back to us quickly enough."
"My understanding is she decided it was time for her to sell her business to her employees," counters Goodman Real Estate's Julie Clark, who acknowledges raising rents in the building to help cover planned upgrades. "So we tried negotiating to fit the needs of her employees, who couldn't afford market rent. So we decided to take back some space they wouldn't need in order to accommodate them, but it just hit the wall. By no means did we want to push the Paper Cat out."
But betwixt the slingshots lie cooler heads in the Square who've seen it all before.
"I don't think there's any hidden or latent conspiracy to rid the neighborhood of small businesses, and I don't think there's any move afoot to clear galleries out of the core of Pioneer Square," says Synapse 206's Tina Bueche, a longtime local business owner. "I just think there's a lot of change going on, and change is sometimes painful."