Times still tough at 23rd/Union, Part 1: Post Office is out, is it time for redevelopment?

To many, the openings of Med Mix and The Neighbor Lady were signs of 23rd and Union’s long-awaited economic revival. But the trials for the storied corner are not over as businesses and property owners prepare for the departure of one of the Central District’s biggest employers: The US Post Office.

Tom Bangasser—who owns the entire block on the southeast corner of 23rd and Union, including the UmojaFest PEACE Center—confirmed that the Post Office will be vacating the property by April 30, 2013. With a large employment force that helps keep nearby businesses afloat and a large soon-to-be vacated space that could be difficult to rent, the departure could put extra urgency behind redevelopment plans.

“The Post Office is that one area of the community that has always been a hub,” said Bangasser. The Post Office currently leases 50,000 square feet, including much of the parking lot. It operates both as a retail location and a distribution center. We reported in May that several distribution centers were consolidating at USPS’s 4th and Lander center. A Post Office spokesperson said they intend to keep a retail location somewhere in the area.

Facing the prospect of increased vacancy at the struggling corner, Bangasser said the time for development is here, and those developments will probably need to be tall. How tall? He and other property owners are looking for 65 feet, or about six stories.

“If we knew what the zoning were going to be, we could get going on design,” said Bangasser. Most of the intersection’s properties are currently zoned for 40 feet, which is not as profitable and not as likely to get financing as a 65-foot building. He urges the city to start serious discussions on rezoning the corner soon.

Now, before you immediately label this as gentrification, consider that Bangasser has been connected to the management of the property in some form for 50 years. Obviously, he has a stake in the zoning change: He wants it to be appealing for sale to a developer. But he’s also not some Wall Street fat cat. He and I had a discussion about gentrification that was nuanced and open-minded (which you don’t always get from developers and property owners). He said his parents were involved in the Civil Rights movement, and his father invested in the property because he was concerned about redlining—”why we invested here when others were leaving.”

If he had his way, a development at the site would include “workforce” housing (typically priced a little below market rate, designed to house workers within a quick walk, bike or bus ride from work). He also spoke lovingly of his current business tenants, expressing a level of pride in being able to be a part of their success. He would want them to be involved in any new buildings if they wanted to be.

“We want to make sure our tenants all have a place in that future,” he said. “I have no doubt in my mind Earl [of Earl's Cuts & Styles] could go into any of these new buildings and make it,” citing Earl’s as a business that started from little and has attracted a strong and dedicated client base.

“I remember signing the lease with Earl access the street in Miss Helen’s with his grandmother,” he said.

The value of the corner seems like a no-brainer. The intersection sees about 35,000 cars per day and is the intersection of two popular bus lines, including King County Metro’s busiest route: the 48. The corner is “remarkably diverse,” as Bangasser put it, and has long been considered the heart of the Central District.

“If you understand change and you’re willing to embrace it, then you’ll probably ask, ‘Why hasn’t it happened yet?’” said Bangasser.

He hopes discussions about rezoning the corner will be an opportunity for members of the neighborhood to discuss what they would like to see happen on the property. That input could help interested developers “get a better idea of what this community is all about,” he said.

On the other hand, the desires of the neighborhood have to mesh with a plan that is profitable in order to attract a developer and financing. And if Bangaser plans to sell the property, there’s no promise the future property owners will necessarily share his hopes.

But it’s a conversation that needs to happen. And that means we will need to have some serious and respectful neighborhood conversations about gentrification (including discussions in person, since online conversations about gentrification seem destined to turn into yelling matches. Prove me wrong below, CDN readers!).

No matter your opinion on what kind of changes the corner needs, doing nothing seems like the worst option.

“What would be terrible is to have the Post Office gone and boarded up,” said Bangasser, “or vacant like across the street.”

In Part Two, we will look across the street where the site of an approved but financially-stalled 65-foot building has been put up for sale.

50 thoughts on “Times still tough at 23rd/Union, Part 1: Post Office is out, is it time for redevelopment?

  1. I use the post office at 23rd and Union at least once a week, and unless I get there when it opens, there is a line. Often a long line. It doesn’t make sense that they are closing it.

  2. It would be interesting to know how they are making the decision on where the new retail post office is located. The rumor that I have heard is that the 23rd and E. Union, Broadway and International District locations will all be consolidated into one. However, I haven’t been able to get any rumor on the planned location. Easy access will hopefully be a requirement. I agree that the the 23rd and E. Union location seems a busy and well-used location. It would be interesting to see use stats for all three locations and compared to others in Seattle, along with future plans in most of Seattle. I certainly hope we are not the only area losing our post office.

  3. and I live close enough to see a building that height.

    I care a lot more about a less auto-dominated design than the current block. I care about preserving (and restoring) the fountain on the plaza. I care about keeping *some* open space. I care about pedestrian circulation on what is a good-sized block. I care about street-level design and what size retail spaces would be provided in a future development. And yeah, I care about workforce housing and family-sized units too. All these things matter more to me than height.

  4. FYI, this is nothing new. Bangasser has been after a 65 foot rezone for at least 20 years. like it or not if that corner goes up 65 feet it will be very very different.

  5. The distribution aspects are consolidating, but not necessarily the retail. I believe the retail locations are profitable, and the post office intends to keep one in the area. But much of the space and many of the jobs currently there is for the distribution work.

  6. Tom, I am not sure that we disagree. Yes, the distribution center is consolidating, but I have heard that there is also a plan to consolidate those three retail locations into one somewhere in the area. The other two are strictly retail now. At the EastPAC meeting Ian seemed to know more. However, I did not have a chance to follow up with him on that issue. It would be nice if the retail could at least remain on 23rd and E. Union. It seems a good useful location. I am sorry to see the jobs move.

  7. Oh, I see what you’re saying (I misunderstood). I’ll see what I can find out.

  8. Or did that rezone just apply to the west side of 23rd? That seems odd.

  9. No the commercial area is all NC2 40 feet. The empty lot across from the gas station had a contract rezone to 65′. A contract rezone is specific to just that property.

  10. I’ve lived in the CD for 10 years and I think it’s sad that you have to pre-empt the gentrification-trolls by stating how long the owner has owned the property. Have I mentioned that I’ve lived in the CD for 10 years? Because I have and it’s very relevant to any point I may make when discussing the merits of doing things or not doing things in our neighborhood.

  11. It was specific to that development, which is not happening, as the property is up for resale. 65′ did not move that plan along. I am wondering what the height zone along N.45th Street, an area that seems to accommodate good commercial/neighborhood/residential development. On scale that is a lager area, but the commercial area is larger too. I am not sure that there is much to prevent the continued holding of the property at 23rd and E. Union for speculation, rezone or no rezone, especially at the southwest corner. In the meantime we can hope, that the other corners continue to house some useful retail or services.

  12. We’ll have more on that project in part two. But the design (and it’s permits, rezone, etc) are included in the sale.

  13. I would love to see a more ped/bike/bus facing building here with wider sidewalks, more plaza and shops that are accessible from the sidewalk. I almost never go to these business -because as a bus rider, I never see the signs and as a pedestrian, the building is not welcoming.

  14. What a great opportunity for the CD. Redevelopment and density on that corner fits Seattle’s development model perfectly. 65′ feet is very reasonable. I hope it goes through quickly.

    It would be nice to have some tasteful village like design. Not just some red/orange/grey modern uglitarian facade. Some stone work, trees, retro look or something. Some restaurant bar space with patio seating on the sidewalk. The buildings second floor and up could overhang the patio, but first floor should have a very open to the street feel. So we can sit outside and engage the pedestrian traffic. Fly to Bolognia to get a look at the sidewalk feel there. Excellent for a rainy city.

    Go for it Bangasser. Will be nice to see some progress there.

    Post office is a completely seperate conversation. Nothing to do with that property any more. Hopefully they consolidate and cut Saturday service so we don’t have to subsidize them any more.

  15. Postal service is constitutionally mandated. The reality is that it should be treated as a service, not a profit center. In the meantime, private enterprise was allowed to take over the profitable easiest pieces of the service, while the public sector is responsible for rural and difficult deliveries. All the private groups turned that mail over to the USPS. Services should be delivered efficiently as possible in the public good. However, our taxes are suppose to cover some services. We pay for them.

  16. Again – I object on grounds that your comments are not relevant to the subject! This is about the potential growth and revitalization of a sad corner of the city. Starts of hope are sprouting. Now we can plant a village where we previously had a federal dreariness blighting out any spirit. Let’s cheer on the new and look away from the waste and bloat that sat upon us for decades.

  17. Part of the plan should be to restore and properly display the fountain on the plaza (the Fountain of Triumph). Fifteen years ago, for a while after it was dedicated, this sculpture was the centerpiece of a plaza that was a gathering place for many events, concerts, and informal activities.

    Many people do not know that the fountain was created by James Washington, Jr., a local but world-reknowned African-American artist who lived a few blocks north of Union on 26th Avenue. The foundation that carries on his legacy has restored his home and studio and holds relevant events there, including an artist-in-residence program. He was a friend and contemporary of Jacob Lawrence, and they died within a few days of each other about twelve years ago.

    This fountain is a treasure that does not now have even a plaque to recognize its significance and tell the story it portrays. It could and should be a featured part of any redevelopment of this corner!

  18. Grumbo, to some extent I agree. However, I was responding to your commentary regarding subsidizing the post office. I believe that the decision has likely been made. However, I have only respect for the service provided and the workers. If you promise not more commentary, I won’t provide anymore either.

  19. As one who does urban design I am trying not to write my ideas down that could start a troll riot, Tom. So I will simply say that a few of us could meet with the owner but the final say on how it will look and what it is made up of will come from the developer and the development design team and the design review board for the CD. I served on it years ago and they can do a good job. We do have some non-adopted CD Design Review Guidelines as a good source to start the discussion. Ooops, I am trying not to reach for the key board, ahhh, We need a living building like the Bullit building on Capitol Hill as an example, retail below and residental above., ahh now I have control of the hand again. Sorry about that.

  20. Just the old Coleman building site is zoned for 65′:

    http://www.centraldistrictnews.com/2008/04/03/23rd-union-dev
    http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/Research/gis/webplots/k41w.pdf

    The essential point here is that the 65′ limit (NCP-65) is just putting this intersection back to the functional state it had historically when the Coleman building was built. 40′ reflects the obsolete technology and population density of that time and needs to be updated to reflect the modern city that we have become.

    The James Mueller project has been stalled for a while now, and it isn’t clear what will get that going beyond the economy getting back on track.

    However, the state of the rest of 23rd and Union certainly can’t help attract investment, so the latest from Bangasser may push things forward finally — the whole block may need to move together. And that’s where the city and zoning come into play. My suspicion has been that the city is intentionally loosening restrictive zoning in an attempt to concentrate or stage development. With Madison now completely build out, it would seem like things should now move south along 23rd.

    I’m sure the majority of the neighborhood supports restoring the built environment to its historic function. We need to let that be heard over some vocal resistance.

    -Eric

  21. Whether it’s “relevant” or not, it’s important that the truth be put out there: the post office is self-supporting, and always has been. The only reason they got a few bailouts recently was because of the absolutely ridiculous “reform” put in place by the party of other people’s business (who have no idea of how either business or government should operate)

    There’s the world of reactionary talking points, and the people who repeat them, and then there’s reality. We must never let the talking points spread.

  22. We use the 23rd st post office, and as noted often find a friendly line of neighbors. As to the Broadway location verses our 23rd local, I find ours easy to park, lots of interior room for lines and business dealings, while Capital Hill’s post office has no parkng, is cramped, and not as desirable a retail space. Even if we retain a local postal retail space, I wonder at the cost advantage of the current consolidations.
    —–Seems to me the postal system has not changed with the times, and still has the larger overhead burdens Federal Government Agencies are often believed to support. As a true business, I think the US postal agency needs a major business model revision to survive.

  23. instead of QFC how about metropolitan market and some smaller apt buildings still 3-5 stories but with less units total around 6-8 per floor. these megablock developments are starting to be unsightly and only thehyper rich can take a chance at building them

  24. I’m not sure what the specific problem is with the Red Apple on Jackson (too much space, too few customers?), but the Red Apple on Beacon Hill is really nice. I love the checkers at our Jackson R.A. they are way more friendly than anyone I’ve talked to at QFC or Madison Market in the last few years.

    I was going to rail against a Metropolitan Market, because their prices are so high, but when I went in to the MM on Queen Anne the other day, I realized they aren’t any higher than the Red Apple on Jackson.

  25. Whatever they do, please do not allow any more chain link fences at 23rd and Union – the police mandated illegal zoning practice.

  26. The rediculous reform is that they fund retirment so we don’t have to pay for it later. There have been several postal system bailouts over the decades. And since when is USPS exempt from managing the business to fit modern economics. Change is a requirement for any successful organization. Man, how do we consider ourselves to be a liberal city with so many people that want to live in a static world?

  27. Why are we advocating grocery stores? How about just some retail/comercial space. Bars, gun shops, coffee shop. I want someplace to hang out, kick back, chat with the neighbors. The grocery store I just want in an out. Plus I go to better grocery stores in more affluent hoods to shop. QFC sells different stuff at different locations. You simpletons don’t care about the good stuff.

  28. Why another grocery store at all…. we already have TJ’s, Madison Market and Safeway within walking distance of one another…. we need some variety and some things that get people out of their cars walking around the neighborhood much more.

  29. I would love a gun-shop on 23rd. 23 and U or J could also use its own wood fired pizza

  30. it needs a medical marijuana cafe, food, coffee, internet, and god Dawa! it’ll calm a lot of people down!

  31. ‘urban design’ as a profession is a pseudonym for not having a real job…self-appointed experts who speak in gibberish. the bullit building displaced an icon of the Hill, and is basically a support structure for solar panels. that thing will look ridiculous in 2 yrs. nice job shading the neighboring building.

    i hope they dont hold development so the can figure out what to do with the ‘fountain’….can it really be a ‘fountain ‘ with no water?? ive seen it with water about once in15 yrs! move it to somewhere where someone will care for it, but stop fawning over it already.

  32. It’s all very simple… you need the guns to make it convenient to rob the pot dispensary (or the potheads, uppity?)….

    [i]SHORELINE, Wash. — King County detectives are looking for a pair of armed robbers who held up a Shoreline medical marijuana dispensary over the weekend.

    Armed robbers escape with cash from medical marijuana dispensary -
    Two armed men “bum rushed’ employees at a Central District medical marijuana dispensary, shut them in a bathroom and fled with cash, according to the Seattle Police Department.

    A man was arrested for an armed robbery of a medical marijuana patient Wednesday night in West Seattle, but three suspects remain at large.
    [/i]

  33. I would like to see postal retail retained at the intersection, but unfortunately postal management is shrinking services rapidly. The problem is a law passed in 2006 that pumps $5.5 billion annually from the Post Office into a federal treasury account. That law has ruined postal finances, yet despite years of lobbying Congress has not been repealed it. The benign take on this: it helps mask the federal debt. The sinister take: the anti-government service ideologues such as Darrell Issa want to “take down” the Postal Service, privatize and eliminate employee unions, fair hiring practices, etc.
    The relevance is that you need to contact Congress to stop the cuts in service that are unwarranted. I am concerned that Broadway, East Union, and International Station will be closed with no retail replacement in the area.

  34. I work at the East Union post office and have asked my immediate supervisors and station manager that same question and they are totally clueless. No one has a good answer for this, so I suggest you start asking directly. The customer service line for East Union is (206)328-9712. See if they can give you a number for the district offices, because the people in upper management who are making these short-sighted decisions need to hear that these services are important to the customers. I’d also like to add that according to my supervisors (not a completely reliable source…), Bangassar is the problem here — if he wasn’t significantly raising the rent on this building (which is frankly, in a sad state of repair), then the post office wouldn’t be forced to vacate.

  35. How dare that guy try to fix up the property and make some money. He’ll probably bring in one of these FedEx stores that pays 10 more in rent. Hmm, actually, I use those FedEx stores all the time. They do copying, scanning, notary, help me prepare and bind proposal, and get them deliverred. Man, that would be great. Currently I have to go downtown or to Georgtown for that.

  36. Yes, Grumbo, I am biased, and probably a sucker for believing in the post office and the work that I do. Of course Bangassar has a right to seek profit. But I do work in that building, and it is obvious that over the years he has put in absolutely minimal spending on property maintenance. Basic stuff like taking care of the asbestos flooring that was starting to chip (finally covered it up with some kind of laminate last year). And plumbing that backs up all the time. Kinda slumlordy.

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