To celebrate 15 years of the Storefront Studio, UW hosts ‘Building Blocks,’ a multimedia exhibit detailing the project’s history. Photo by Kailey Waring/University of Washington

To celebrate 15 years of the Storefront Studio, UW hosts ‘Building Blocks,’ a multimedia exhibit detailing the project’s history. Photo by Kailey Waring/University of Washington

UW’s Storefront Studio Project Revitalizes Historic Northwest Streets

For 15 years, the student-driven program has given new life to thoroughfares in Northwest communities.

Main streets often overflow with history. To walk down one can feel like traveling through the decades. Bringing change to these storied streets takes a thoughtful balance between honoring the past and renovating for a healthy future.

For 15 years, University of Washington architecture senior lecturer Jim Nicholls and his Storefront Studio Project have trekked out to towns all over the state to reimagine the historic—often decaying—facades of main street buildings and public spaces.

The work of the project is chronicled in Building Blocks: Storefront Studio on Main Street, a multimedia exhibit featuring old news articles, videos, and posters of past proposals which highlight some of the project’s best moments through the years. Building Blocks is on display at University of Washington’s Gould Hall through May 4.

There’s always a tough balance between innovation and wanting to hold onto history. Some fiercely protect these old buildings and street corners, while others see the spaces as an opportunity to set up shop for new businesses. Nicholls found that tapping into the local community was the best way to find a middle ground.

“Rather than focus on the problems that need to be fixed or corrected, [we’re] working with the community to try to find the good things and then build on them or enhance them,” Nicholls says.

The Storefront Studio Project started after the City of Seattle gave funds for streetscape updates to businesses on University Avenue near the UW in 2003.

During the quarter-long projects, the students set up shop in a donated storefront and work alongside city planners, downtown association members, business owners, and residents. They start with public open houses that guide them in creating a visual analysis of their host street.

An important step in the process, according to Nicholls, are the asset maps the students create to pinpoint areas of a street that can be built upon without changing its historical features. Later they use archival research and photographs of the current streetscape to create before-and-after proposal renderings.

“We’re not just about making it pretty,” Nicholls says. “We really want it to be economically viable. We’re really trying to help design jobs.”

The various projects on University Avenue were such a success that the city’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative formed a partnership with Storefront Studio. Through word-of-mouth, the project soon spread to other locations from Gig Harbor to Roslyn to Bothell—and even back to the University District.

During a quarter in Gig Harbor, the students proposed building parking decks into a small hill that could be closed off on weekends and turned into a small retail space. Suggestions like these are compiled into a book that is given to the town, which they can refer to when applying for grants and building construction plans.

In 2016, the program collaborated with Cafe Allegro co-owner Kate Robinson and other property owners on the University District Alley Activation Project. The project is one of several in the city that works with the Seattle Department of Transportation to make alleys safer and functional for pedestrians.

“Working with Jim’s class was fantastic and we appreciated the intense focus on community needs for the project,” Robinson says.

Storefront Studio set up wooden benches and overhead lighting in the alley between 15th Ave NE and University Way NE.

“We approached the project with the intent that the space would be a living lab for the community so that we could better assess what works on a human scale and functionality level,” Robinson says.

To commemorate the work Storefront Studio has put into revitalizing these small business communities, Nicholls is also releasing a book co-authored by former student Stacy Cannon. A release party for Building Blocks: The Storefront Studio on Mainstreet Fifteen Years of Community Architecture will be held on Wed., April 25 at 5:30 p.m. in the gallery in Gould Hall.

kdeluca@seattleweekly.com

More in News & Comment

Bob Ferguson is going after controversial Trump administration policies once again. Photo by Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons
AG Ferguson Takes on Trump’s Immigrant Family Separation

Washington’s Attorney General plans to sue the federal government over the “zero tolerance” policy.

Since he first ran for the King County Prosecutor’s Office in 2007, Dan Satterberg has never faced an electoral challenger. Photo courtesy Dan Satterberg
The Political Invulnerability of King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg

He hasn’t faced an electoral challenge since taking office. Does his new longshot social justice-minded challenger stand a chance?

Aneelah Afzali, executive director of American Muslim Empowerment Network, was the featured speaker at 21 Progress’s Rise #7 event. Photo by Melissa Hellmann
How a Local Muslim Activist Is Bridging the Faith Divide to Foster Hope

As part of 21 Progress’ Rise series, Aneelah Afzali drew parallels between anti-Muslim rhetoric and immigration xenophobia.

After Seattle’s controversial employee head tax was repealed, King County Executive Dow Constantine wants to bond against existing tax revenues to generate $100 million for affordable housing. Photo by Joe Mabel/Wikipedia Commons
County Executive Proposes $100 Million Affordable Housing Bond

The money was already coming, but Constantine wants to speed up the process.

The exterior of the University District crisis pregnancy center, 3W Medical for Women. Photo by Keiko DeLuca
How Title X Cuts Impact UW Women’s Health

Some student advocates worry that slashed budgets could drive student to misleading crisis pregnancy centers.

Trans Pride Seattle seeks to strengthen the transgender and non-binary community. 
Photo courtesy of Gender Justice League
Trans Pride Seattle Continues Marching

In light of federal budget cuts, the parade that highlights marginalized voices survives due to community crowdfunding.

As the executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, Violet Lavatai (left) believes that YIMBY policies 
do not actually help the communities most in need of housing. Photo courtesy Tenants Union of Washington State
The Growing Power of Seattle YIMBYs

The tech-funded “Yes in My Backyard” movement thinks the housing crisis can be solved by rapid development, but does it only benefit those at the top?

Hidden River Farms is 100 acres of farmland in Grays Harbor County. Photo by Lucia Wyss
Sowing the Seeds of Mental Health

Suicide is an epidemic amongst agricultural workers, but young farmers and state legislators are working to find solutions.

Most Read