Benjamin Romano/The Seattle Times – PCC Community Markets, the regional chain of cooperatively owned organic-food stores, is joining the ranks of downtown grocers in a big way with a new location in the under-construction Rainier Square tower.
As in urban centers around the country, downtown Seattle’s residential population is growing, with developers building apartments and condominiums on top of and adjacent to the city’s office towers.
Residents of the downtown core have had few nearby choices for grocery shopping, but that’s been changing gradually over the last decade as stores follow people back into the city.
Another new grocer, H Mart, is on track to open downtown in the second half of this year.
PCC will be the anchor retail tenant on the ground floor of the 58-story Rainier Square project. With a mix of shops, restaurants, offices and apartments, it will be the city’s second-tallest building when it’s completed in mid-2020, according to the schedule of developer Wright Runstad.
In the floors above PCC, more than 3,500 employees of Amazon will toil for the retail and technology giant, which claimed all 722,000 square feet of office space in the project in one of the city’s largest leased deals, announced last fall. Above them, 188 high-end apartments are planned, part of more than 6,700 residential units under construction in the city’s downtown.
The development also includes a 12-story luxury hotel.
“Because of the juxtaposition of tourism, theater, sports, daily workers, residents — it is a unique location,” said PCC CEO Cate Hardy. “We’re from Seattle, and downtown is the heart of Seattle.”
More than 72,900 people live downtown, including close-in neighborhoods such as Uptown, South Lake Union and the west side of Capitol Hill, according to estimates from the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA). Almost four times that many work in the city core.
“Seattle is one of the strongest markets for new urban residential, because your economy is so good and because you’re a hub [for] young people who want to live downtown,” said Jeff Green, a retail-location analyst based in Phoenix. That’s what can make it viable for slim-margin grocers, who face higher rents and limited store footprints in dense city centers.
Operating a grocery store downtown brings a unique set of challenges, Green said. Grocers need to tailor store layouts and selection to office workers seeking a quick lunch, tourists looking for iconic Northwest foodstuffs and residents carrying home ingredients for dinner.
Hardy said PCC, with kitchens in each of its stores making scratch soups, salads and other hot and cold fare daily, is already doing a version of this at its Fremont store, serving a neighborhood that has grown dense with technology companies.
“We do a kickin’ lunch business five days a week over there,” she said. “I see the downtown store being a larger scale … more high-powered version of that exact same thing. More office workers, for sure, plenty of residents. We know how to do both.”
Green said walk-in traffic can offset the lack of parking at most urban grocery stores. Rainier Square will have a seven-story, 1,000-car below-ground garage with an undetermined number of free spaces available to PCC shoppers.
Customers can be expected to walk, on average, five blocks to get to a grocery store, Green said. Walk Score, a rating service of Seattle-based real-estate brokerage Redfin, awards maximum points for amenities that can be reached on foot within five minutes, a distance of about a quarter of a mile.
There are about 17,830 people living within a half mile of the planned PCC location, on Fourth Avenue between University and Union streets, according to the DSA. There will likely be more by the time it opens, given that nearly 2,500 residential units in the area are in some stage of development.
Green described a downtown grocery customer — “young, sophisticated, high-income … somebody who cares a lot about organics, supplements, vitamins” — who would seem to be a good fit with PCC’s target market. Through the first half of this decade, downtown’s affluent population — people earning more than $75,000 a year — grew 12 times faster than people earning less.
“Price is not going to be important,” Green said. “Quality is going to be important.”
Hardy expects shoppers to be drawn to PCC from farther away, including more densely populated downtown neighborhoods such as Pioneer Square and Belltown. “We believe we’re going to be the most convenient and by far the highest quality option that they have,” she said.
But PCC is not without competition for downtown shoppers’ grocery dollars. Whole Foods Market, among the first and largest, opened its store on Westlake Avenue in 2006. Kress IGA Supermarket set up two blocks from PCC’s new location on Third Avenue at Pike Street in 2008.
Another new entrant, Asian grocery store H Mart, is on track to open a 15,000-square-foot store at Second and Pine in the third or fourth quarter of this year, a representative said Thursday.
There are other players with long histories operating downtown or adjacent to it. Uwajimaya has been in its current Chinatown International District location on Fifth Avenue since 2000, but its presence in the city goes back generations. Smaller grocers and delis fill other niches.
And, of course, Pike Place Market is the longest-tenured downtown grocery purveyor.
For PCC the downtown store is one of five new or remodeled locations it plans to open in the next three years — including its Burien store, slated for May — a 50 percent increase.
“We aspire to be in all the neighborhoods in the Puget Sound region where we’d be welcome,” Hardy said. “The recognition for us is that downtown has been, and increasingly is, a neighborhood.”