Closing in - Lorig Associates defends its management of Wallingford Center against community members concerned about vacant storefronts

An overflowing crowd of Wallingford residents and business owners met in one of the many empty spaces at the Wallingford Center on Sept. 21 for a heated discussion about the future of the sparsely occupied shopping center.

Bruce Lorig, co-owner and managing partner of Lorig Associates, was at the meeting - or perhaps better described as a showdown - to answer questions and get feedback from the public about what they would like to see at the center.

Representatives from other companies involved in the project also were present to take note of the community's comments and concerns.

A changing population?

The Wallingford Center, 1815 N. 45th St., was originally built in 1904 as the Interlake Elementary School. But due to changes in demographics, the Seattle School District closed the school in the 1970s.

In 1985, Lorig Associates revamped the building into a combination of retail spaces on the lower levels with 24 apartments above them.

But what was once a bustling shopping center filled with families and excited shoppers is now a little quieter. Out of about 21 retail spaces, only 13 are occupied, the lowest number the center has seen in the last decade, according to Meghan Dickston, Lorig's marketing director.

Why so sparse? Dickston and Lorig contend that it's because of the changing population in the area.

According to demographic studies from three different companies, Dickston said, there are far fewer families and more single people and couples without kids in the area than there were 20 years ago, which means the area's residents are working instead of shopping during the day.

One- and two-person homes represent almost 75 percent of households, according to the Wallingford Chamber of Commerce's website.

As a result, Lorig said, many businesses - including more family-oriented businesses like original tenant Imagination Toys - have left.

Now, Lorig wants to make sure it has the right kind of businesses in the center to cater to the current population.

Lorig said they are looking at the change as "an opportunity to rethink the whole center."

'No clear profile'

But the demographics seem incorrect, according to many parents who attended the meeting. There are still families in the area, they say, and now they have nowhere to shop.

Many are also concerned that Lorig has a profile that may be too difficult to fill right now. Residents say that the center should sign a lease with any reasonable business simply to help bring in traffic; after all, an occupied space is better than an empty one.

"There isn't a clear profile at this point," Lorig responded, adding they wanted to "take our time to do the job right."

Kara Ceriello and Jon deLeeuw are sure there is a profile. The two are moving their card and gift shop, Not a Number, from its Queen Anne location and had hoped to relocate to the Wallingford Center, but were turned down.

Connie Strader, a senior property manager at Lorig, told the couple they didn't fit the profile, deLeeuw said in a phone conversation after the meeting.

"That was not the message we intended to transmit," Lorig said.

A competitive market

While many also pointed to high rent as a reason for failed businesses, Lorig said they are competitive with the market.

Kathleen Koch, owner of Crackerjack Contemporary Crafts, a crafts shop that has been at the center since 1986, agreed, saying that according to her own research, the rent is reasonable.

Some stores, for one reason or another, just don't make it, she said: "Some businesses run their life course."

But according to the majority of the center's tenants who attended the meeting, something's wrong if businesses are steadily leaving and the ones left are barely surviving. Rents shouldn't be going up when people keep mov-ing out, they said.

"We are failing," said a teary-eyed Dana Vizzare, owner of the Tin Horse, an antique toy and collectable shop that has been at the center since 2001. "I don't have any more to give."

Attracting new tenants

Lorig has begun renovations to the building which, they hope, will attract tenants and customers. Changes include a new coat of paint, air conditioning, landscaping and interior renovations.

But according to Wallingford business owner Dan Newman, shoppers and prospective tenants don't care that much about a fresh coat of paint or new landscaping.

Kevin Byrne suggested that since Lorig has money to do the renovations, they should instead use it to help attract new tenants and keep current ones by, for example, offering discounted rent.

"How are you getting money for the renovations?" asked Byrne, a former employee of Imagination Toys. "It doesn't make sense."

Byrne also accused the company of not doing enough to keep loyal tenants. No one called Imagination Toys to say goodbye or "thank you" before they left the building, he said.

"I may have made some mistakes," Lorig admitted.

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