Empty retail spaces, like this locked storefront in downtown Seattle, represent an opportunity to create “third places” to foster a greater sense of community. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

In Seattle, city government and the Downtown Seattle Association continue to build on the “Amazon Great Return” through a variety of strategies to reactivate downtown. While attempts to maintain safety and deter drug trafficking remain forefront in the news, increased foot traffic, intriguing office-to-residence retrofit proposals and trends toward park and retail reopening suggest a spirit of renewal. But here’s an old term—”third places”—that can help even more to set the tone for continued recovery, and spur more innovative ideas.

Long before the impacts of pandemic and protest on downtown Seattle, I wrote about the closing of Borders Books adjacent to Seattle’s Westlake Mall, in 2011. Then, I argued that the “third place” purpose it fulfilled as a gathering place and hub of social interaction should be replaced by equivalent square footage somewhere nearby. The article described the ongoing need for safe places for people to cross paths, buy, sell, and socialize, and fulfill basic legacy purposes of cities throughout history.

Although third places seemed plentiful overseas during five years abroad, I’ve not heard the term used much during the current recovery, even in the city that calls the “Third Place Books” chain its home. 

What are third places? Think informal public spaces (or commercial places that foster community) where people gather, socialize, and interact outside their homes (first places) and workplaces (second places). In addition to bookstores, they include cafes, libraries, parks, community centers and grocery stores.

According to urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, third places and their criteria are essential for creating a sense of belonging, identity, civic engagement, and diversity in a city. More recently, they are identified with environmental sustainability if they are accessible by foot, bike, or public transit. Post-pandemic they can help transcend times of isolation with renewed social encounters; after lockdowns and social distancing, we need them even more.

How can we create sustainable third places after the pandemic? The general approach seen worldwide is to repurpose vacant storefronts into temporary or permanent third places that align with the needs and interests of residents, as well as workers and tourists. Ideally, new and diverse uses can complement existing, ongoing activity with creativity and collaboration among various stakeholders, like Seattle Restored and its ongoing efforts in various downtown neighborhoods.

GeekWire’s recent startup coverage has also shown how one traditional path-crossing venue—the corner store—is being reinvented in new forms as entrepreneurs expand upon ways to capture shopping habits of hybrid workers who are often closer to home several days per week. One such example, Kitchen and Market, has opened suburban outlets of a business model that began in Seattle’s Pike Place Market.

This brings us full circle to the ongoing reinvention of downtown.

Challenges remain for urban businesses that rely on foot traffic and social interaction. In 2011, when Borders closed, the City Council was simultaneously focused on legislation to enable food trucks. Today, the stakes are much higher. Attention has shifted to whether the City Attorney and Municipal Court should be empowered to prosecute the drug-related crimes. This could encourage the further return of businesses, presumably ranging from groceries and art galleries to restaurants, cafes, bars and gyms.

Remaining empty storefronts may suggest a loss of vitality in the city. But they are also call to action to rethink and reimagine the use of urban space for places that emphasize community, culture, and well-being, with sensitivity to local populations and traditions.

Cities around the world are repurposing empty storefronts—and related spaces—into innovative and inclusive third places.

Here are five typical examples worthy of review and comparison:

1) Multiple storefront venues such as downtown malls remain at risk, as evidenced by the recent turnover of San Francisco’s downtown Westfield Mall to a receiver. 

  • These revitalization challenges are familiar to Seattle developer Matt Griffin based on the need to reimagine formerly successful retail gathering spaces such as Pacific Place.
  • In nearby Portland, Lloyd Center is in the process of reinvention under the guidance of Seattle-based Urban Renaissance Group, with a focus on independent businesses, local culture, and family-based sporting activities within former retail spaces. 
  • In Norwich, United Kingdom, research and interviews for my last book showed a similar scenario: In the city’s emblematic and partially underground Castle Quarter mall, community uses and activities now occupy former storefronts, and the mix of businesses is distinctly local.
The exterior of Castle Quarter mall in Norwich, UK. (Photo by Chuck Wolfe)

According to Castle Quarter management, increased emphasis is on leisure and recreational uses rather than on restaurants and awaiting leases from national and international chains as previously. There, the original mall architect, Michael Innes, maintains that the density and immediacy of Norwich’s center always will provide for contemporary use of the space, integrated with cultural and historical space above-ground. The message is that communities can sustain culture and character by leveraging third-place assets with an eye toward the future.

Inside Castle Quarter mall, where management has put a greater emphasis on leisure and recreational uses. (Photo by Chuck Wolfe)

2) In Boston, a former restaurant on Tremont Street has been transformed into a tea room that offers afternoon tea service with live music and art exhibitions as part of post-COVID Boston trends. The owners hope to create a cozy and elegant space where people can enjoy a traditional British ritual with a modern twist.

Though an arguably unremarkable redo, the third place intent is key: “Connecting with others over food and drink is an important ritual and so we strive to give everyone’s experience the attention and care it deserves.”

3) In Amsterdam, a former bank building on Haarlemmerstraat now serves as a community hub and host for activities and events aimed at residents and visitors. This multipurpose venue includes a cafe, a library, a co-working space, a yoga studio, and a cinema. Third-place characteristics are readily apparent, with an emphasis on inclusion, meeting, working and recreation.

4) In Melbourne, a former Smith Street clothing store transformed to a pop-up art gallery for emerging and established artists. The gallery curates public workshops, talks, and performances on related contemporary themes. The initiative champions the local creative community and art to revitalize a Fitzroy neighborhood street.

5) In London, a former Kingsland Road pub is now a social enterprise that trains and offers employment opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers (reminiscent of Seattle’s Farestart Café). The space is more than a cafe, and offers a bakery, catering service, and a cultural event venue. In the spirit of a classic third place, the project offers a welcoming environment where people can share stories, talents, and ethnic cuisines.

These examples are a summary, and of course there are legions more, including interior green spaces, specific artisanal hubs, tech incubator centers, and even temporary housing. The focus is as much thematic as applied: How are cities repurposing empty storefronts into third places that can enhance the social, cultural, economic, and environmental sustainability of urban areas? A third place agenda and re-upping of Oldenburg’s principles provide an agenda for the task ahead, for which there should be no shortage of ideas.

Why not The Mercer Island, Wash., light rail station, finished and awaiting the delayed expansion of Sound Transit light rail service. (Photo by Chuck Wolfe)

I recently suggested a third place approach (without saying so explicitly) for light rail stations where construction is complete, but the station remains open due to Sound Transit delays. I asked: Why not pop-up bookstores, restaurants, art studios, or starter markets which became so familiar to me while living overseas? Numerous comments on LinkedIn noted impracticality, insurance concerns, multiple land ownership complexity, and further economic damage to nearby downtowns with already empty spaces.

Third places, however, offer a way to keep our eyes on the prize.

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