When Henry Romano first saw the vacant shop space in the little business park on Westlake Avenue, just south of the Fremont Bridge, it seemed a little too good to be true.
The space had high ceilings, an open floor plan and three-phase power — perfect for the design and fabrication firm Romano co-founded last year — but increasingly hard to come by in booming Seattle. The park’s other tenants — an assortment of makers, fixers and crafters — all appeared friendly and helpful.
Then there was the price. The landlord, a woman named Sooz Appel, was asking just under a dollar a square foot for monthly rent. That’s, what Romano had paid 10 years ago for shared work space in pre-Amazon South Lake Union, and maybe half the market rate in Seattle today.
“It was an awesome shock,” says Romano, 29, who, moved his company, Jump Ship, into the park eight months ago. “It’s so hard to find any decent workshop space in the city right now.”
Romano’s reaction is a familiar one for Appel, a 74-year-old former urban planner with a wry smile, a firm handshake and an unconventional approach to commercial real estate.
In the early 2000s, Appel and her late partner, Bill Wiginton, began transforming what had been a private recycling business into a preserve for the kind of blue-collar businesses — “the welders and the auto places and the woodshops” — that were getting priced out of Seattle’s urban center.
They called their venture Pelington Village (it’s an amalgam of various family names) and set rents based on what they needed for retirement income and “what was affordable for people,” Appel says.
The location wasn’t ideal. Traffic on Westlake is brutal, and the hillside behind the property is prone to slides. There were also aesthetic issues. Wiginton, aka “Bill the Junkman,” was as famous for his massive “collections” of recycled building materials, antique tools and other 20th century detritus as he was for his progressive politics and his “WAKE UP AMERICA” reader board. For years, Pelington Village looked like what might have happened if the Merry Pranksters had organized a swap meet.
Even so, the “village” became a surprisingly effective incubator for blue-collar enterprises. Tenants now include a furniture maker, a welder, an electrician, a builder of theatrical sets, a manufacturer of canvas bags, a glass artist, four woodworkers, a small-batch coffee roaster — and, in the large center space, a mechanic specializing in Volkswagen Vanagons, which often crowd the tiny space between the building and the busy avenue.
All seem to regard the village as a sanctuary and Appel as something of a saint. “There’s no way I could afford a retail space like this” elsewhere, says Lance Nelson, 56, owner of Seattle Electric and an early tenant. Ditto for set-builder Dan Haskett, 30, who arrived this year and credits the low-rent approach as “the catalyst for me wanting to go out and start my own business.”
But Appel’s purpose-driven business model has encountered obstacles, too. Since 2013, the village’s property taxes have more than doubled, thanks in part to Seattle’s booming economy, and that has ratcheted up tenants’ costs.
Appel has pushed back. In January, she asked the King County Board of Equalization to lower her property’s assessed value, currently $1.57 million, to reflect, among other things, the social benefits of preserving affordable light-industrial space in Seattle. The board demurred: By law, assessments must reflect the “highest and best use,” which the county defines as “the most profitable use that a property can be legally used for.” Appel knows that on her property, all 0.81 acres of it, that probably means high-end lake-view apartments, not a scratch-built industrial park for blue-collar work.
Still, Appel is galled by the assumption that the market is the best judge of a parcel’s true worth. “The highest value — who’s the value for?” Appel asks, in her small office overlooking Westlake Avenue. “I think the highest value is keeping small businesses alive in the city.”
There is something quintessentially Seattle in Appel’s efforts to save the city’s blue-collar culture. Small-scale manufacturing has been on the run in the United States for decades thanks partly to automation and globalization. But the decline has been especially sharp in a tech town like Seattle, where “knowledge” firms and their well-paid employees can push real estate prices beyond the reach of the small industrial shops that helped define the city’s quirky, DIY character.
From 1990 to 2011, as Seattle shifted from Jet City to Amazonville, the number of light-industrial jobs plunged. U.S. Census figures show textile sewing-machine operators fell from 1,365 to 555. Machinists dropped from 3,285 to 421. Industrial electrical equipment repairers went from 1035 to 20. The census figures stop at 2011, but there is little reason to think the trend has slowed, given the heated growth in the city’s job and property markets since then. To the contrary, the recent closures of several local shipyards merely confirm the decline.
High rent isn’t the only culprit. Congestion, permitting hurdles and rising living costs, among other things, also make Seattle hard for any small business. But high rent — and its close cousin, scarcity of space — are key. In Seattle, vacancy rates for industrial sites dropped from 3.6% in 2007 to just 1.5% in 2016, according to a 2016 Office of Economic Development study.
That scarcity is even worse for smaller entrepreneurs. These companies tend to need smaller spaces, whereas many commercial landlords prefer the efficiencies of renting to larger tenants. And many of the landlords who once catered to smaller tenants — for example, by subdividing old office buildings into smaller spaces — have gradually sold out in the development boom.
Seattle still has pockets of smaller craft spaces — examples include Industry Space in South Park, and Equinox Studios in Georgetown — but nowhere near enough to meet demand. Equinox Studios rents spaces to 125 tenants, but has a waiting list of almost 150, says owner Sam Farrazaino. Little wonder that many would-be makers end up leaving Seattle for cheaper places like Auburn or Tacoma.
Slowing Seattle’s “maker flight” wasn’t exactly the goal when Appel and Wiginton launched Pelington Village. The couple was winding down Nuts ‘n’ Bolts Recycling, which Wiginton had founded in 1976, when recycling was still a radical act, and they wanted retirement income from the sliver of property. (Appel had retired as director of the city’s Office of Neighborhood Planning in 1983.)
After turning down an offer by a self-storage company, the couple leased space to a series of small industrial outfits, starting with a local bridge-building company. In 2007, a blacksmith named Eddie Unsal, newly arrived from Turkey, set up his metal fabrication business, Exor Iron Works, at the village.
“They literally adopted me,” says Unsal, 44, of Appel and Wiginton, who helped get his startup off the ground. “I had no idea — and my English was terrible.”
In 2010, Seattle Electric moved in, followed by Conduit Coffee Co. in 2012, and Eion’s Automotive in 2014.
As the community grew, it became clear that the tenants brought more than just rental income. They had the tools and skills that Appel and Wiginton needed to develop the village, which has since added a live-work space for artists, and a large shop where woodworkers can rent bench space.
Life at this homegrown industrial park has downsides. The buildings, many of them made from recycled materials, have mazelike staircases and passageways, and other quirks. The walls of Romano’s space are built in part from pair of old semi truck trailers and office doors from the old Seattle police department, and the floor tilts gently toward the lake.
But there are definite perks. Decades of recycling left vast stores of scrap wood, metal, fixtures, and other materials, which Wiginton had carefully organized and which tenants can use. Tenants also have access to “house” tools, such as table saws, a forklift and a 1987 1-ton Toyota flatbed, and substantial freedom in how they use their spaces. Romano’s girlfriend, Jen Oishi, recently converted one of his truck trailers into space for her canvas-bag startup, Lost Commodity. Seattle Electric doubles as a practice space for Nelson’s band.
And, of course, the rent is cheap. That’s a boon for any business, but it can be a lifesaver for startups, especially maker or fixer companies, which often need a lot of expensive equipment.
Cheap rent meant Jump Ship could invest in a computer-assisted router, which has cut labor requirements — a big advantage for a two-person shop.
Cheap rent can also help small businesses stay small if they want to.
Jesse Nelson, 36, founded Conduit Coffee around the idea of small batches of carefully roasted beans delivered to local customers by bicycle. His total output is around 50,000 pounds a year, a fraction of what even a high-end craft roaster like Caffe Vita puts out. If Conduit Coffee had to pay market rate rent, Nelson says, he’d need to more than double his output to cover the extra expense, which would require more equipment, more permits and a more “corporate” scale. The village’s “mission,” Nelson says, has made it possible for a handful of Seattle entrepreneurs “to have reasonable, small businesses.”
That mission suffered a serious setback on Sept. 23, 2017, when Wiginton, then 71, collapsed and died while jogging. Appel was devastated. The two had been together since she answered Wiginton’s personal ad in The Weekly in 1983, and they had been a team on everything, including business and political activism and, in one instance, a two-week jail term for civil disobedience. After Wiginton died, some of Appel’s friends urged her to sell the village, something realtors and developers had been proposing for years.
Appel wasn’t even tempted. The village is, literally, her home. She lives on site in a bespoke apartment, much of it crafted from recycled materials, with a huge patio and garden. Her son, Pete Hanning, 50, (the middle third of the “Pelington” amalgam) is nearby; he owns Fremont’s Red Door bar.
And Appel feels just as strongly as ever about the village’s mission: “I knew I wanted to finish making the [work] spaces.”
Since then, Appel has been busy. She and her maintenance manager, Dan Devine, sold off most of Wiginton’s various collections, hauled off tons of scrap, and finished paving the property. She found tenants for newly created spaces (there’s currently no vacancy) and recently installed a new sign, built on-site by Jump Ship.
When King County rejected her tax appeal, Appel considered appealing to the state, but ultimately decided against it. “I just didn’t have it in me,” she says, adding that she knows her tenants can absorb the higher taxes, thanks partly to the low rent.
But the battle to save blue-collar work is only getting more relevant in Seattle, as demand for housing and office space continues to crowd out smaller, light-industrial business.
Many economists and housing advocates say that transition is not only natural but highly desirable: in a booming 21st century city, housing must take priority over blue-collar business.
But even die-hard density advocates understand that as Seattle loses its blue-collar base, it loses some of its character.
There are policies that might slow that loss. Hubs of affordable commercial space might be preserved through tax breaks, much as King County has done with some farmland. The city of Seattle could create public development authorities for small manufacturing spaces, much as it did for Pike Place Market and is now trying to do for artist spaces; the city could even tweak residential zoning to allow small maker spaces in neighborhoods, says Equinox Studios’ Farrazaino, who served on a city advisory committee looking at commercial affordability. “But if we just leave it up to the free market, nothing will change.”
Yet such fixes would require a lot of political heavy lifting at a time when local and state policymakers seem overwhelmed by the challenges of homelessness and affordability.
In the meantime, saving blue-collar Seattle likely depends on informal, private initiatives, such as Pelington Village, where the battle is fought one job at a time.
For now, the battle goes well. In 2016, a young woodworker named Ian Cooper rented some workbench space in the village’s shared wood shop and began building custom furniture and cabinetry part time. The space was small, but the rent — $185 a month — meant Cooper could buy tools and start expanding his business.
The bet paid off. In 2018, Cooper asked Appel to rent a larger space for his business, Cooper Woodworks, and by the end of the year, the 29-year-old was able to quit his day job.
Today, standing in the sawdust-filled room near Romano’s shop, Cooper smiles and pronounces the six words that many would-be entrepreneurs can only dream of saying: “I’ll be doing this full time.”