Photo depicting a store window at night with a flower-wall display.

OED’s ‘Seattle Restored’ Program Will Bring BIPOC Artists to Downtown Seattle Storefronts

by Amanda Ong

On Dec. 10, 2021, the City of Seattle Office of Economic Development (OED) and then-Mayor Jenny Durkan announced the launch of Seattle Restored — a new program focused on activating vacant commercial storefronts in Downtown Seattle neighborhoods. The program has partnered with the Seattle Good Business Network and Shunpike, as well as other property owners, to provide spaces and support for local artists and entrepreneurs who can then use their designated space for 2 to 4 months, with hopes for eventual longer-term leases and expansion into different neighborhoods. 

In addition to free space downtown, chosen participants will receive an additional $2,500 and support to set up their businesses, including commercial space development, marketing strategy development and execution, and technical assistance. Participating property owners will also receive $1,500. These pop-up shops and art installations will prioritize featuring BIPOC artists and entrepreneurs. Applications for artists and small business owners have been open since Dec. 10 and will remain open on a rolling basis until 25 slots are filled. 

This approach to community support has origins in previous work by Seattle Restored’s partner Shunpike, which began activating empty storefronts with art in 2010. “In Pioneer Square and CID, they started activating empty storefronts because there were so many empty storefronts in the wake of the ’08 Recession,” Shunpike Executive Director Line Sandsmark said in an interview with the Emerald. “They realized that more neighborhoods could benefit from this and contacted Shunpike to work on expanding it beyond the two neighborhoods. So for us now with Seattle Restored, we’re going back to the roots of the program.” 

Photo depicting a storefront at night with blue photographs of the ocean waves and seaside rocks.
Photo courtesy of Seattle Office of Economic Development (OED).

Seattle Restored arose from a different crisis impacting small businesses. The idea for the program came out of the OED’s growing awareness of community needs following the onset of the pandemic, as Seattle witnessed many small businesses struggle. 

“When the pandemic hit, we were really scrambling to try to help businesses immediately,” Ken Takahashi, an advisor with the OED and a manager for the program, told the Emerald. “As the pandemic continued, we started to learn more about the businesses and the needs that they have, and businesses really need affordable space. We felt like this could be a really good way to help businesses who may have lost their space or are trying to access a new market and try new ways of doing business to get restarted.”

As of June 2021, the number of small businesses open in the Seattle metropolitan area was 38% lower than in January 2020. BIPOC businesses faced excessive losses. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that on average, 41% of Black-owned businesses, 32% of Latino-owned businesses, and 36% of immigrant-owned businesses experienced closures compared to an average of 22% across all businesses. In addition, more than 62% of artistic and creative workers reported unemployment, and 95% reported significant income loss. Seattle Restored has come together to find solutions for both of these hard-hit communities.

Furthermore, they are offering spaces in downtown neighborhoods, where the barrier for entry can be particularly high. “I am very excited about commercial affordability,” Chera Amlag, owner of Hood Famous Cafe + Bar and a business district advocate at OED, told the Emerald. “We are understanding the need and the challenges that specifically BIPOC small business owners have to be able to access affordable commercial spaces and [commercial spaces] that have high foot traffic areas like downtown at that.” 

Takahashi emphasizes that the program will not just attract people to the space but help activate the entire neighborhood — and with it, other local small businesses that have been struggling in the pandemic. Rather than focusing on continuous support for a few artists and entrepreneurs, Takahashi says that they think of the program as activating an entire community.

“I just think it’s so exciting to offer people in our community reasons to come downtown, go shopping, support local businesses, and see new things happening in these neighborhoods,” said Andrea Porter, program manager at Seattle Restored and at Seattle Made, a branch of Seattle Good Business Network. “We recognize some of these neighborhoods have really been hit so hard by COVID. It’s really nice for us to give people a map and a grid to go, ‘Okay, I’m going to hit four or five different spots today and go support these local artists and entrepreneurs.’”

Photo depicting a storefront window at night containing colorful stained-glass art pieces.
Photo courtesy of Seattle Office of Economic Development.

Jamie Lee, the director of community initiatives at the Seattle Chinatown-International District Preservation Development Authority (SCIDpda), says that by offering Seattle Restored use of their buildings, they can highlight the diversity of businesses in the CID.

“We aren’t just one type of community. We’re a community that has traditional dim sum places but also a place for expression and for artists. We are a multifaceted community, and we are an Asian American community,” Lee said in an interview with the Emerald. “There’s not really quite something like this that exists. It will be very visible to the public, so it is a great example of everything that kind of makes up the neighborhood.”

Porter echoed a similar sentiment. “It’s critical to enliven our neighborhoods, activate them, and bring this vitality and excitement to our neighborhoods,” Porter said. “What makes Seattle so special is the entrepreneurs and artists that make up our community. This is an opportunity to see them and support them.”

The OED and partners all hope for the initial pop-ups to turn into longer-term leases as they focus on long-term recovery and growth. Hopefully, should many participants eventually become long-term tenants, Seattle Restored could have a hand in a bustling downtown area that is much more accessible to BIPOC small business owners.

“This is so, so, so important for giving voice to people who might not have a voice in our society,” Sandsmark said. “I’ve been in many situations where I’ve been able to see how impactful the arts are in really supporting a healthy society. It’s a wonderful way to make the space available and accessible to people, to artists, who have lost so much space, who have been displaced because of gentrification, to focus on and create more opportunity for those who have had less opportunity in the past.”

For the time being, the team hopes to encourage applications from a range of potential participants, artists, and businesses, as well as property owners who are interested in partnering with them to provide space. According to Takahashi and Amlag, the application process for Seattle Restored will be very open, as they hope to keep the barrier for entry low. Whether you have an established business or just started an Etsy store, as long as you have a vision of what you could do with an open storefront for two months, don’t hesitate to apply.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Amlag said. “Art is very healing, too. And I think our city needs that.”

Apply online to be a part of Seattle Restored: Property owners can apply via the Seattle Restored Property Owner Application. Artists and entrepreneurs can apply for space and support via the Art Exhibits & Pop-Up Shops Application.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured image courtesy of Seattle Office of Economic Development (OED).

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