Downtown Tacoma’s urban university is taking a different tack to fill up some if its last vacant spaces along Pacific Avenue, turning its eyes to restaurants instead of boutiques.
The University of Washington Tacoma is spending between $300,000 and $350,000 to install infrastructure needed in food service in an attempt to lure them to the newly renovated Joy Building just north of the Grand Staircase.
“It’s a shift in focus on our retail strategy,” said school spokesman Mike Wark, who also emphasized that no state money will be used to pay for the work. The funds come from the school’s auxiliary budget, which is generated by rents and intended to be used for property improvement as tenants move in and out.
The Joy Building’s $25.3 million renovation was completed in the spring of 2011. During the planning phases in 2009, the school floated the idea of converting the ground-floor Pacific Avenue space into classrooms and offices, and surrounding retailers cried foul. Such a change would isolate the few retailers who, they said, pioneered businesses on downtown’s main street on the promise that eventually the school would attract other retailers.
The school kept the retail bays intact. But more than a year after Joy opened, Wark said the business owners who express interest want to open restaurants, not boutiques. And restaurants need to lease space that’s set up to handle special equipment, particularly vent hoods and grease traps.
Wark said the school isn’t closing the door on specialty retail; it’s merely responding to the market. The school must strike a balance between serving the university’s users, incorporating businesses as part of an urban university, and managing its assets responsibly.
“We are continuing to examine how we can best support and grow retail operations to serve everyone, and the food businesses are doing well. Clearly there’s interest in that from students, faculty and staff. And visitors, too,” Wark said.
One longtime retailer who fought the school’s plans in 2009 to put classrooms on Pacific Avenue had mixed feelings about the school’s new plans.
“I’m disappointed, in that we were told about two years ago that there would not be more food – that they had maxed the street out for food, and it would be retail,” said Ken Grassi, who owns Grassi’s Flowers & Gifts on the corner of Pacific Avenue and South 17th Street.
But a landlord can’t ignore the market.
“I understand it’s hard if that’s where you’re getting inquiries from,” he said. “At some point you can’t keep saying no. I understand the dilemma they’re in. They put a lot of money in that building, and they need to recoup that.”
Two new tenants reflect both goals. An artists’ cooperative called Catwalk opened where craft art retailer BKB & Co. used to be, and a creperie called Savor is opening in the old Meta Books space.
While retailers desire other retailers to create a larger overall customer base, at least one restaurant owner doesn’t feel quite the same.
“I think there’s plenty of places to eat down here,” said Keith Flowers, owner of the Renaissance Café, just south of the empty Joy Building space. “I would like it to be other retail.”
Flowers would prefer any new business be a sole proprietor, like himself, and not a chain.
Wark said that the school will work hard to ensure all its tenants are successful, but it won’t commit to avoiding leases to competitors of its existing businesses.
“We don’t do exclusives, but we are really sensitive. We want our tenants to be successful so we’ll listen to their concerns,” he said. “We have these retail spaces and want to make sure that we support what goes into them and make them successful.”
After 15 years in business downtown, Flowers is philosophical.
“I survived the light rail. I survived them building the university. I survived the repaving of Pacific Avenue,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll survive this.”Kathleen Cooper: 253-597-8546