Photo of a window display above Hing Hay Park. Photo credit: Erin Johnson.

Boarded windows and “For Lease” signs are a common sight scattered throughout the International and Pioneer Square districts. But community members and business owners hope to change this with Storefronts Seattle, a plan to “activate” vacant space through art.

With a call to artists in effect and a launch date of Sept. 2, advocates hope the pilot project will increase foot traffic and community engagement in areas where the empty stores are sending a negative message to visitors.

The idea is simple: Organizers will provide local artists with donated vacant store space to transform into short-term exhibit and creation venues.

Storefronts Seattle, which took cues from similar projects nationwide, began in early 2010 when members of the community decided to combat rising numbers of empty commercial spaces in the International and Pioneer Square districts.

“The impetus was all the vacancies,” said Quang Nguyen, economic development specialist at Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda). He explained that in the Chinatown-International District, 15 to 20 percent of the commercial storefronts are vacant.

SCIDpda partnered with community members from both the Chinatown-International and Pioneer Square districts, along with the Seattle Office of Cultural Affairs and Shunpike, an organization that helps artists create sustainable businesses, to pilot Storefronts Seattle.

“We see art both as enrichment and as an ingredient that will drive economic development,” explained Nguyen. “Art creates a buzz. … It’s a dynamic niche.”

Organizers believe art events like First Thursday and Jam Fest, coupled with Storefronts Seattle events will bring positive change to the neighborhoods.

“Foot traffic is what people depend on,” Nguyen said. He believes that Storefronts Seattle will give exposure to existing businesses and allow donating rental owners to “showcase their space” in an effective way.

Ellen Whitlock Baker, the project manager from Shunpike, explained that not only will the community and the store owners benefit, but artists will have access to space they wouldn’t normally have funds for.

“Affordable space is hard to find (for artists),” she said in a phone interview. This project will provide space for art and art making for no or low-cost, and artists will be able to use the space for at least three months, according to the Shunpike website.

Shunpike has been involved with this type of project recently in Tacoma. Last year it partnered with the City of Tacoma and the Tacoma-Pierce Chamber of Commerce to bring Spaceworks to Tacoma, which Baker said has been successful.

Don Blakeney, executive director of Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area—one of the collaborating organizations, has also been involved in a similar program in New York’s Times Square.

He said that by activating the vacant store space, Business Improvement Areas were able to “keep the street active and alive at night.”

Blakeney said that here in Seattle the International and Pioneer Square districts are the perfect place to kick off the program.

“It’s fun to see this neighborhood be the incubator,” he said.

Blakeney explained that in choosing artists, organizers will look for art that interacts and activates the neighborhood it inhabits. He said that not only is the general aesthetic of the art important, but the cultural aspect, and “how it relates to the personality of the neighborhood” are key components in the decision-making process.

He added that not only will Storefronts Seattle increase foot traffic and business; the program will also shift perceptions of the neighborhood.

“Vacant storefronts send the message that it is unsafe,” Blakeney said. “Perception is powerful. If we do something we can make a big positive change.”

Artists interested in vying for one of six of the pilot storefront spaces have until July 29 to submit their proposals, according to Shunpike’s website ( A panel of community members, along with a Shunpike representative, will determine the first artists to “activate” the storefront spaces to open on September’s First Thursday event.

SCIDpda’s Nguyen believes that Storefronts Seattle is just the start of using art to revitalize the Chinatown-International and Pioneer Square districts.

“This is just the beginning of bringing more arts and culture to the neighborhood,” Nguyen said. “We want to see more.”

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