It's late Friday afternoon and the urban neighborhood is just beginning to buzz.
A young woman rides a yellow cruiser bike down the street, stopping at a handful of music stores to flip through boxes of old records. The promise of happy hour lures a neighborhood couple into a restaurant as the bartender mixes the first drinks of the evening. Down the block, the door of a darkened nightclub opens as the first shift of employees arrives.
This isn't Seattle's Belltown or Portland's Pearl District, though local business owners hope the neighborhood grows into something of the like. It's Sixth Avenue, a Tacoma neighborhood that people used to be scared to visit transformed into what developers, real estate agents and entrepreneurs say is now one of the city's hottest areas for new business.
At least two dozen restaurants and retail shops have opened on the avenue between Union Avenue and State Street in the past two years. Property values and lease rates are rising. Housing on the blocks sandwiching the avenue is, too, though it remains relatively affordable for young families and couples. That combined with the nearby University of Puget Sound provides a built-in customer base that is drawing even more business interest to the area.
"What's happening is Tacoma is growing up," said John Hogan, the owner of Poole's Corner, a new building on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Union Street that houses a restaurant, a coffee shop and offices. "Some of these small, urban communities that Seattle has had for years, like Fremont, Ballard and Wallingford - they are now just happening down in Tacoma."
And then, Starbucks
Tara Scott, 29, and Bret Draven, 33, sip cocktails and nibble appetizers at Asado on Sixth Avenue on a hot, Friday evening. The pair live a few blocks away and often walk to the Argentinian restaurant, which opened in November, or to their favorite watering hole, O'Malley's. They've noticed the changes in their neighborhood, especially over the last year.
"It's an overdue face lift," Scott said.
The neighborhood hasn't always been as lively or nice.
When Fred Minniti bought his first building on Sixth Avenue in 1990, the area was run down and many of the buildings were dilapidated or vacant.
"It was awful," said Minniti, owner of Puget Sound Real Estate and a long-time neighborhood booster. "There were still shady characters running around. There was still some prostitution and drug dealers on the corners."
Still, Minniti and his wife saw the neighborhood's potential. They helped form the first business district association and, along with business owners on the street, began a program of clean-up and improvement plans that continues today. Minniti upgraded his building and was selective about new tenants. The business association urged owners to fix up their properties. It organized promotions and events, such as last weekend's Art on the Ave.
And then - almost a decade later - came Starbucks.
Popular brew pub Engine House 9 and the now-defunct Lorenzo's had been in the neighborhood for years. But Carole Wolfe, an economic development specialist with the City of Tacoma, said the arrival of the national coffee chain signaled a unique change.
"There were a lot of individual businesses, but Starbucks helped people realize that there was a market there and then everything started to happen," Wolfe said.
Primo Grill opened in the same building. Jazzbones debuted a few months later as the area's first nightclub.
To neighborhood newcomers, it seems like new storefronts and eateries arrive monthly. But John Loesch, owner of the Sixth Avenue Neighborhood Market and an active member of the business association, said the development has been a long time coming.
"It's been a slow process of changing," he said. "It sounds boring, but that's what it is."
New kids on the block
Funky, foreign music plays softly in the background at Posh Home as the workday winds down. White chairs with zebra-patterned upholstery beckon shoppers to take them home. Jewelry from Tibet and Indonesia glitters in the store's front counter, and a lime-green couch greets customers at the door. A lone shopper peruses chairs in the back, though a couple left just minutes earlier after buying a chocolate brown velvet sectional with avocado green and brown pillows.
This is Jennifer Colley's store. The former Intel marketing manager chose Sixth Avenue for its edge - and its promise.
"Downtown didn't have enough traffic and the mall was too generic," Colley said.
Two years after opening, she's already expanded into a new, larger location across the street, and she's drawing customers weary of heading to Seattle for everything that is hip. Several new business owners in the area have come for similar reasons: the market, the neighborhood feel and the area's growth.
Lease rates are rising, but business owners say for now they are manageable.
Building space rents for $18 to $21 per square foot annually and can be as high as $24, according to local real estate agents. Three years ago, the same spaces leased for closer to $15 per square foot.
Property values are rising, too. The assessed value of the Starbucks and Primo Grill building has increased 82 percent to $2.1 million in the past five years, according to the Pierce County assessor's records. Others on the street have seen similar increases.
A lack of quality spaces is putting spots on the avenue in demand - and keeping the costs up.
"There's limited supply," said Dominic Accetturo, an associate with Colliers International. "Good tenants will typically only go into great locations. . . . There's not a lot of quality buildings."
Like Colley, many of the new business owners who have landed a spot are seeing success. Urban Gourmet and Garden, an upscale kitchen and garden shop, is expanding this fall. Chopsticks, a dueling piano nightclub, has brought even more people into the area at night. Nearby Asado has been crowded since its fall opening. The restaurant's general manager, Troy Christian, and his partners are renovating the building across the street with plans for a high-end Mexican restaurant in the space.
"This is the only entertainment district in the South Sound that has a neighborhood feel," Christian said. "It's not as vibrant or as big" as Belltown or the Pearl District, "but it's holding its own."
Local shoppers, eclectic shops
Kristina Thalen, 20, is the young woman on the yellow cruiser bike. She lives a few blocks away, works at Gateway to India on the avenue and spends her free time sifting through records in the district's many music shops. She even bought her bike on the avenue, from a guy who sells cruisers in the alley.
"It's nice because there's people my age around," Thalen said.
The district attracts all ages and types, shop owners said.
But Thalen is part of what they say is the neighborhood's changing demographic, a trend they see toward younger people, couples and young families choosing to play and live in the area.
Thalen said the neighborhood rent is increasing, though still affordable.
The same goes for homes. Located between Tacoma's pricey North End and the more reasonable Central District, houses in the blocks hugging Sixth Avenue are usually less expensive than those in the Proctor District.
A "South" address a few blocks off the Avenue can cost thousands of dollars less than a similar house a few blocks north of the avenue.
"It's getting an urban, creative class of people," said the city's Wolfe. "The housing prices are going up as the business district has gone up. But the beauty of Sixth Avenue . . . is that people who can't afford the North End end up buying houses there" on the south side.
The neighbors and many of the businesses treasure the district's funky feel - a place where people can get a tattoo and a fine bottle of wine in the same block. Many welcome the changes, but don't want to see the growth push out the quirky shops.
"I really like the eclectic feel," said Robin Jensen, co-owner of Urban Gourmet and Garden. "I don't want to lose the little businesses, but I do wish there was more space."
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON JULY 16, 2006