Community Post

Union Street Business Group: Meet the people working to change 23rd and Union

Image: jseattle

The corner of 23rd & East Union here in the Central District has been getting a lot of attention lately.  With the sudden closure of a gas station, the long vacant restaurant space that used to be home to the best cheesesteak sandwich in Seattle, and an empty lot waiting impatiently for stalled development to start, three of the “Four Corners” are barren. As one long time Central District resident put it, “Sometimes it seems like a vortex, and you worry that it’s sucking the rest of the neighborhood with it.”

But thankfully there is a group of local business and land-owners who are committed to long term development and are making plans to see the area thrive.  Although the patience of many neighbors is wearing thin, the determination and enthusiasm being shown by The Union Street Business Group’s members is bringing hope to the neighborhood.

The Union Street Business Group (USBG) was started in 2004, and its original members included, among others, Central Cinema, Katy’s Corner, 20/20 Cycle, Mind & Body Pilates/Yoga Studio, and Tinnea & Associates. **

Kevin Spitzer, who operates Central Cinema at 21st & Union, explained that when the group formed over six years ago the intention was to create something more established and formal, with a president, vice-president, treasurer, etc.  The group started out strong, but after a few years things started to wane, and understandably so.  “We’re all so busy trying to run our small businesses that it’s hard to find time to organize a committee too,” Spitzer said.

Thankfully there is strength in numbers, and the Union Street Business Group is growing.  In 2009 Cortona Cafe opened at 25th & Union, and others have purchased local properties that were neglected or ignored in the fallout of the recession these last few years.  

Spitzer explained that recently the USBG decided to “decentralize” some and started a Facebook page to replace their website, which was more cumbersome to update and maintain.  He said that currently there is no official board for the group, but there are a lot of people showing involvement.  With this momentum the group is working with the Central Area Development Association, or CADA, to apply for a grant to improve the neighborhood.  CADA is the organization behind the the revitalization of 23rd & Jackson a few years back.  

Will Little and Jason Davison own and manage Cortona Cafe and they are excited by the “synergy” they are experiencing as they meet with other local business owners to discuss what they can do to support the neighborhood and create an environment that is “economically beneficial and diverse.”  When we spoke on Sunday, Little was looking forward to Tuesday morning’s meeting to discuss the grant they are partnering with CADA to apply for. 

Ian Eisenberg is also excited to be involved in the USBG and said that in the future he would like to see the group become more of a formal entity with membership dues, advertising and marketing.  Besides owning and operating the car wash near the intersection, Eisenberg also is working to lease the long-vacant restaurant space at the corner of 23rd & Union.  He had six serious inquiries into the property, but he said five of the six proposals were from large, national chains that wanted 10-20 year leases.  Eisenberg didn’t want to tether the property to one corporate entity when the neighborhood is in transition and there may be opportunities for redevelopment that would better serve the community in the next few years.  So instead he is working with a friend to open a coffee shop and bakery in the space in about two months, which will likely be a welcome addition to the corner. 

Eisenberg also said that he is under the impression that Jim Mueller is committed to getting his mixed use development at 23rd & Union underway in 2011, and that Merle Richlen, the owner of the recently vacated gas station, has repairs and improvements planned and a tenant lined up to move in. We’ll have more from Mueller soon.

Tom Bangasser, who owns MidTown Center, said some of his tenants are planning holiday promotions and he would have more to share about that soon.

While the Central District is fortunate to have some established, successful businesses along Union Street, there is still a lot of work to be done to make it a thriving business district.  In the meantime, some of these local business owners have pulled together to bring a little holiday cheer to the downtrodden intersection with hundreds of LED lights strung on the four corner properties.  And Little says a holiday event is planned for the evening of December 18th, likely on the plaza at MidTown Center – stay tuned for more details on that. 

**EDIT & CORRECTION** Jean Tinnea has notified us that Tinnea & Associates is a tenant in the building near 21st & Union, which is owned by 21 Union, LLC.  The building also houses 20/20 Cycle, Mind & Body, Central Cinema, Reel Grrls and Hollow Earth Radio.  Tinnea & Associates is a corrosion engineering firm.  21 Union, LLC owns one (1) building at 21st & Union that houses the above-referenced tenants.  Thanks for the clarification, Jean!  Sorry for the oversight.

0 thoughts on “Union Street Business Group: Meet the people working to change 23rd and Union

  1. What the corner really needs is a new business that isn’t already established all over the area.

    So how about a combination coffee-shop mini-mart gas station carwash that sells fried chicken and tacos?

  2. I wanted to add that I know I probably missed speaking to some of the business owners in the USBG and I’m sorry if I missed you or we weren’t able to connect. If you have things you think are important to be added to this article feel free to send me an email at lizwas13 @ gmail . com and we can discuss it.


  3. A coffee shop every 2 blocks along Union. Just what the neighborhood really needs!

    18th: Tougo
    20th: Katy’s
    23rd: this new thing
    25th: Cortona

    I actually wouldn’t mind a Subway or something. I just don’t have much faith in the staying power of another coffee shop. Density around there is actually pretty low. Maybe if the condos on the southwest corner are eventually built there will be enough business to support it.

    Does anybody else wish the police drop in center could be replaced by an actual business that is open to the public? It could connect the strip mall a little more to the corner. I would be a huge fan of a place that was open in the evenings. Somewhere for the neighborhood teenagers to hang out other than the parking lot would be great.

  4. Folks, meaning no disrespect to anyone here, but two thoughts.

    1) Businesses exist to make money. Landlords own property with an eye to their bottom line. The highest and best use of all four corners of 23rd/Union is not single-story retail. Signing a 20-year lease with a national chain isn’t something a rational property owner would do. You don’t have to like it, but it’s true.

    2) Small businesses are prone to failure, and getting financing is not an easy thing. Restaurant/coffee shop establishments are no exception to this. Having said that, a coffee shop is relatively low overhead/cost of entry, so it’s not a big surprise that’s what Ian’s looking at for the Philly’s space. Don’t like it? Give him some reasonable, practical, profitable ideas for the space.

  5. I agree with Spiff – the area is saturated with combination coffee-shop mini-mart gas station carwash that sells fried chicken and BBQ – please let’s have something different! I would love to see Pho, Rancho Bravo or All Purpose Pizza move to this area!

  6. One of the challenges to getting new businesses on the corner is that the property owners are looking at developing the properties with new buildings and do not want to have any long term leases that would interfere with future demolition and building. Businesses generally do not want to start something in a space that may be gone in a couple of years. Either the business needs to be relatively temporary like a pop-up shop or the new construction needs to get started. The existing buildings on the corner are not really usable for new businesses. The immediate challenges are how to get the new developments started sooner and what do we do in the meantime with the emptiness.

  7. One corner has no building. It would be great to get one well-known business to anchor a little business district there. I would love an organic grocery and nice hardware store. I have to say that with the current economic situation it is difficult to think of something realistic. What types of businesses are expanding? Not many. Seattle has a glut of commercial space. The best bet may be some of the small places that seem to be copies of what we already have. Hopefully, that would mean that the great ones survived.

    PS I love that we have the coffee shops. Yeah and, they are good ones. This was once home to nowhere-to-meet-a-friend and miles-to-walk for a good coffee. Thank you baristas.

  8. JohnS – Totally right on. Regarding old Philly’s and new business – think more bakery than coffee shop. I love that we have great coffee shops in the area, I just wish there was parking to run in and grab a coffee. Stbx at 23rd and Jackson is my normal place cause I know there will be a place to park.

  9. Anyone know what will happen to the Mexican food truck that had opened for business on the gas station property? The food truck was a welcome addition to 23rd and Union, and I assume they’ll need utilities to start cooking somewhere else in our ‘hood.

  10. I would welcome another coffee shop. Each of the shops listed above has added to the community. People walk there, hang out there, and actually converse with neighbors there. Coffee shops are good for neighborhoods and most thriving neighborhoods have a coffee shop every couple of blocks.

    Ian described the 23rd and Union as a coffee shop AND bakery. I like the bakery idea and think that would be a great addition. (My boys have burned out on the awesome waffles at Cortona).

    Perhaps Ian and his partner might be able to offer some sandwiches. (There is a coffee shop down in Columbia City called Empire that makes great panini sandwiches in pretty tight quarters). An expanded menu would help set his shop apart from the others close by.

  11. Although the area is well saturated with good coffee shops, there is a shortage of fresh baked goods nearby. I would definitely patronise a bakery that had warm sticky buns, for example, or croissants. It would make that corner smell nice too.

  12. I was thinking that the location at a corner with bus stops would be a plus for a coffee/bakery type of place. That’s a major intersection and it could get a lot of foot traffic. I love Katy’s, but it will be great to have an open business on the corner!

  13. Ian, are you going to utilize the drive through? Drive through coffees, how convenient. But I’m always walking. :)

  14. This intersection has so much going against it: three inappropriate buildings and a vacant lot. If the building on the sw corner hadn’t been wrecked by the earthquake, you could have at least had affordable retail space for funky stuff like thrift stores with student-esque housing above.

    But unless you are a developer with deep pockets, what can you do with this intersection? And even if you have the deep pockets, what can you fill the street level retail with? The rule of thumb seems to be that if it’s new, you can only rent to national chains or really ugly, characterless small business (nail stores, check cashing, teriyaki, etc)

    It’s too close to the Safeway and Grocery Outlet for anything other than a sleazy mini-mart or impossibly precious boutique grocery. There’s already a sleazy mini-mart west on union so that’s out.

    It’s stuck. It really is.

  15. Marge – no disrespect but that is a defeatist attitude. Just drive down MLK by the light rail and you will see all kinds of interesting new shops opening up, or north on 23rd to Montlake and there are great stores and restaurants. The possibilities are endless. No one can predict the future or really even dictate their own vision upon a neighborhood. If the environment is right then new and interesting businesses will flourish.

    When I grew up, no one would have thought Madison Valley would become what it is today and the renewal is continuing west past 23rd. Madrona (34th) has become a mecca for foodies and home decor. I think these things take off organically when people have enthusiasm and optimism for an area. Some of the businesses that grew with Madrona were things no one could have predicted…….Glassy Baby (I still don’t “get” these).

    Liz – We hope to serve walk up and drive through traffic :)

  16. Apparently a new Gas Station operator has been found to take over the running of the station. Word is they already operate a few other stations so there is some experience they are bringing with them. At the recent meetings the property owners stated that the building would be fixed up and painted before reopening.

  17. The corner that houses the strip of businesses including the post office – is this destined for any change or will this corner remain the same for years to come?

  18. thank you, John. this and the 23rd and Cherry post make me laugh–people being mad about–hmmm–capitalism! and Ian is doing the right thing–short-term fix to a long-term investment in a place that will not continue to be a “vortex”

  19. I love the way top pot has established itself in other neighborhoods – downtown, capital hill, the north end. You would think they might want to consider setting up shop in the space formerly occupied by philly cheese steak.

    Wonder if that would help turn that corner around?

  20. I take issue with calling the Union Market “sleazy”. It’s not sleazy. Some of the clientele is or has been of questionable character, but the owners are nice and respectful, they keep their property clean and litter free, and the drug deals have moved elsewhere. I do wish they carried some different items, but honestly any time I’ve needed something that I was out of, (oil, sugar, beer), they had it. They are nice, hardworking people.

  21. The owner of that property was out of town when I wrote this article so we only ‘spoke’ briefly about that property via email. I haven’t heard anything about that changing hands, only lots of complaints here about the ‘drop in’ site for SPD that seems ignored and unused. My thought is that he’s got tenants – leave it alone, worry about the SW corner that’s a big empty lot and the vacant existing buildings before we get worried about the MidTown Center – except maybe getting a business in there instead of the SPD drop in, or get it utilized for community meetings or something like that.

  22. Yes! Hardware store or organic grocery would be wonderful. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but it sure sounds good!

  23. Yeah I understand it doesn’t exactly hold priority right now. When I first moved in there was rumor that when the post office lease was up it may be open to change. But then the recession hit and I wasn’t sure if the post office signed a new lease or what. All I’m going off of are rumors though.

  24. Little hardware stores cannot survive any more (except in Madison Park). There was once a hardware store at 23rd and Union, and another at 23rd and Jackson; both closed after the big box stores came to be. People like the convenience of a local store to buy a light bulb or get a key made, but when making a serious purchase they go to Lowe’s.

  25. Post Office’s are important part of a community. The use of the rest of the space probably won’t be more innovative until something happens on the other three corners. At least the spaces are occupied.

  26. Once again its all talk. We’ve been watching that “vortex” for 15 years now and nothing has happened. Its the same thing every year, next year, next year…and on and on. There’s been 1 art display which was a great temporary “fix” and $25 worth of Christmas lights. Not a very impressive, frankly down right cheap and uninspired. How about some copies of Land use proposals that actually tell us that steps are being taken or better yet a plan from each land owner with timelines…..I know, that’s not going to happen, instead we get a string of lights.

  27. I hope I’m not sounding down on the post office. If changes do happen to that corner I hope they manage to find a way to stay. I just hadnt heard anything about that corner and was hoping for some “official” updates.

    The post office is very close to my home so any changes there have the biggest immediate impact on us. Hence my curiousity.

  28. top pots would be AWESOME!! But the idea of a pastry/bakery/coffee place sits well with me too :)

  29. Until there is a plan for the empty lot, is it possible to make a temporary activity zone that builds on the “The Corner” project and the Alley Cat Acres garden by Cappy’s?

    How about an imaginative play area for kids and families? Can we bring together artists/architects/developers/builders(McKinstry’s Innovation Center??) to use the space for fun, fitness and play? (Casey Family Programs is right next door, it would be a great place for foster families to be while waiting for meetings or the bus). The new trend in playgrounds is less structured play and more room for imagination…simple, creative and fun. Maybe the SU wants to get involved to study how the development of space effects the people who live there, get kids/schools involved in the planning. When the space is ready to be developed, move the idea to another location. Developers need to be more creative while waiting for the economy to improve – big fences make big statements!

  30. So you have financing for Jim Mueller for his property all lined up then? Bank papers all ready to go?

  31. While I love the idea of a bakery, or maybe even a ping pong table in the Police site, does no one buy coffee at the little drive-through by the Post Office? I don’t see it mentioned along with the other indies yet it’s been there a long time. How’s the coffee?

  32. I’ve honestly never bought coffee there. I tend to shy away from the little walk up/drive up places like that, though I don’t know why. I like to go into shops, I guess. I like a little atmosphere.

  33. I go there about once a week because I am too lazy to get out of my car. It is average at best.

  34. Not meaning to sound defeatist. My point was just that new construction in Seattle *tends* to preclude local small business. Or, at least, the kind of interesting local small business that helps a neighborhood become known for something other than nail salons, teriyaki joints, Kinko’s, etc.

    And since that corner hosts one totally vacant lot, one inefficient gas station (unless it can be reinvented into some sort of “Eco station”) and two troubled, somewhat ugly properties, it’s a unique challenge, Not impossible, just challenging.

  35. Sadly the lattes are pretty bad. It used to be OK 5+ years ago, but there was a change of ownership.

    I think the only people that patronize this place regularly are post office employees

  36. The CD needs a good grocery store. A metropolitan market would have my business. Safeway & Red Apple suck.

  37. ‘Little Hardware stores can’t survive anymore’.
    Not true – and don’t hate on Madison park just for fun. Examples of thriving hardware stores that I frequent. Ace – MapleLeaf, Ace Soutlake Union. University True Value, Hardwick’s University Disctrict….to name just a few that seem to be doing quite well OUTSIDE of Madison Park.

  38. Leschi Market is too far away for me to frequent. We shop at TJ’s a lot, but Madison Market is expensive and doesn’t have all of the things we need (then again neither does TJ’s). We do a lot of shopping at the 23rd & Madison Safeway, and a little at Broadway Market QFC, but having more of a Leschi Market store along 23rd would be pretty nice.

  39. gets my vote. Would also welcome high chairs so that patrons big and small can enjoy the place.

  40. Marge – I guess it is all a matter of personal opinion and taste. I sort of know what you mean by generic shops in cookie cutter little shopping complexes. But remember the reason that they are there is that they have clientele, so someone must like them. The complexes at Lk Washingotn Blvd and Madison have a terryaki shop and a nail shop but also some more interesting places and the same could be said further west on madison. Not sure what an “eco” service station really is and how it could survive.

  41. it’s so difficult to get produce in the cd. i know they tried to have a mini farmer’s market on jackson street but nobody ever went there so that closed. but that was only open on weekends and jackson street is pretty dead on weekends.

  42. This might be good at least on a temporary basis. Wonder how that might relate to Alley Cat Acres? As a collaboration, not as competitors.

  43. Trader Joes is good for what they have (the parking garage whilst improved is still a nightmare)but it means you have to go to several places to get your groceries so I end up going there and Safeway but Safeway meat is dodgy and vegetables are tasteless so then we end up going to QFC on broadway. Leschi market is not bad but it is out of the way.