On Target: A dramatic turnaround in the Emerald City

With the opening of City Target on Second Avenue in Seattle, we have a clear sign of how retailers are shaping strategies for the new urban residents.

Mark Hinshaw, Better! Cities & Towns

Last week, the Target Corporation’s rolled out new, small-format, urban stores in both Chicago and Seattle. (A third City Target will open in Los Angeles in a few months.) The hoopla and fanfare were more subdued here than in the Windy City. But perhaps Chicago’s higher-profile celebration was due in part to their City Target finally occupying the long-vacant building that had once been the well-loved and architecturally-celebrated Carson Pirie Scott Department Store.

A supremely elegant confection designed by Louis Sullivan and built in 1899, the building has been gracefully converted to a 21st century business model. The renewed appearance is not unlike the re-purposed “City of Paris” department store in San Francisco, which is now the home of Neiman Marcus. We really knew how to build those old flagship stores. Solid structures, adorned with dramatic theatricality of whimsical details, all intended to attract of the growing numbers of middle class American shoppers that were flocking to cities at the end of the Victorian era. Seattle's best example was the old Frederick & Nelson store, now a Nordstrom.

Chicago was fortunate. The City Target here in Seattle was thrust into the lower floors of an apartment tower possesing a style most charitably described as “not one of the better buildings by Skidmore Owings and Merrill.” My review of the Newmark tower when it first opened commented that the shiny white rectangular tiles on the exterior of the ground floor were "reminiscent of the men’s room of an old bus station.” The tiles are still there, so the new owners evidently don’t hold the same view.

Not to question the wisdom of corporate executives, but I do wonder if they were fully aware of the area’s rather dodgy history. For years, it has been on the periphery of what is referred to by the Seattle Police Department as “The Blade” — a several-block area of drug dealing, public inebriation, random shootings, gang fights, and other sketchy behaviors. Indeed, the stretch along Second Avenue seems to have been hexed.

In 1997, news programs carried live coverage of a crazy person wildly swinging a sword on Second Avenue, surrounded by a large and heavily armed contingent of police officers who eventually captured the perpetrator after an 11-hour stand-off. As recently as last year, a taxi cab crashed into the branch of Chase bank, coming to a halt completely inside the space — a sort of life-imitates-art version of the cars sailing through the lobby of the Seattle Art Museum, which shares the opposite corner of the block.

The wonderfully quirky Maximus/Minimus pork sandwich truck which has holding down Second and Pike for the last couple of years has been a good omen for the future of the area, long plagued by social miscreants and careening cars. Now instead of — or maybe in addition to — unpredictable people and events, we have hundreds of shoppers scurrying about, toting the brown paper bags emblazoned with red targets. I myself was one of those recently, purchasing a pack of razors at a significantly lower price than anywhere else downtown.

And since this City Target also carries groceries, its going to give the IGA a block away a run for its money and customers. The IGA, occupying the old Kress Drugs building, has been convenient, if not inexpensive. In the full exposure of daylight coming though the big windows on Second, the meat and produce in Target looked really good. I am very grateful that the new store owners did not wall up the windows and place phony displays behind the glass, as has been the case with some other downtown retailers like Walgreens. The store feels light, airy, and open.

Of course, this Target offers only a fraction of the stock that its big-box brother carries. But it is terrific that such a store has found a new niche that works in dense downtowns. Not long ago it was conventional wisdom in real estate circles that retailers were fast decamping to the suburbs where land was cheaper and there was plenty of space for big parking lots. Well, it’s a new economy and a new set of demographics. And to survive in the face of these massive shifts, many retailers are rapidly reinventing themselves.

Last week, The New York Times business section carried an article about the new City Target model. The reporter, Stephanie Clifford (who grew up in Seattle, by the way), cited recent findings by the Brookings Institute about the dramatic shift toward people living in denser urban centers, and the implications of this shift for retail. "Retailers are now willing to come into cities on the cities' terms — with all the zoning headaches, high rents, and odd architecture — because that's where the growth is," the article reported. "Most large American cities are growing faster than their suburbs for the first time in almost a century." It continued: "Young adults are choosing urban apartment life. That population shift, along with Internet competition, have made the car-focused, big-box model less relevant."

An old adage in real estate is that "retail follows rooftops." Retail stores like Target are seeing a new future, one quite different from the past 50 years. The rooftops in this new era may be flat, rather than peaked, but the residents are there nonetheless. This should be good news for cities, many of which have endured a long, slow erosion of retail tax base to outlying areas.

It's not that Target is turning off the tap in the hinterlands. Rather, it is simply hedging its bets by realigning itself to a rapidly growing part of the population, the one that prefers city life.

One irony in Seattle is that, up until the early 1980s, another department store occupied almost the same location. J.C. Penny had a downtown store in the next block to the south, now filled by the Russell Investments tower. Penny's display racks also contained less expensive clothing and consumer goods. Unlike Penny's, Target has no refrigerators or washing machines; instead, it sells Apple products and urban bicycles. (I noted it carries the American classic Schwinn brand, updated in styling.)

So you could say we have come full circle. A staid and stodgy, bargain-packed department store is replaced with a hip and cheery, bargain-packed department store.

Better, the impact on this part of downtown is likely to be nothing less than stunning. Flanked by the venerable Pike Place Market with its 10 million annual visitors, the Seattle Art Museum, Benaroya Hall, and one of the most successful retail cores in the country, this formerly tawdry part of town will likely see massive changes.

Some years ago, an architect working late one night was viciously attacked by a group of people hanging around the area and was pelted with rocks for merely intruding on their turf. Such was the risk one took passing through the district then.

Now, you are more likely to be jostled aside by someone pushing a stroller, rushing to a sale of iPads at "Tarjay."

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner at LMN Architects in Seattle. He was an architecture critic for The Seattle Times and is the author of many articles and books, including Citistate Seattle (1999). He can be reached at editor@crosscut.com.

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