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.