BUSINESS IS DOWN but rents are up at Pike Place Market. Predictably, merchants' anger at their landlord, the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority (PDA), is bubbling over. "We're here to fight these dogs—that's why I'm here tonight!" longtime store owner Darrell Strand declared at a merchants association meeting recently. His mood has proved contagious: The merchants association sent a "no-confidence" resolution to the PDA leadership last week, with merchants vowing to force changes in the PDA's management policies. Pike Place Market News editor Michael FitzPatrick says he hasn't seen the merchants so stirred up in 15 years. "This is the boldest move they've ever made, and it's not going to end with this," FitzPatrick predicts. City Council member Nick Licata has requested that PDA leadership begin monthly meetings with merchants to talk about the problems.
Merchant complaints about the PDA are nothing new—they've surfaced periodically since 1990, when the PDA gained exclusive ownership of the historic Market area. But for the first time in decades, more businesses are shuttering in the Market than are opening up—recent prominent closures include Retro Viva and Goldman's Jewelers. Given the hard times, merchants say, they expected the PDA to hold the line on rent, be flexible with lease agreements, and spread the costs of maintenance and utilities—now mostly paid by shopkeepers—to stall vendors. But the PDA's 2002 budget calls for a rent increase, and merchants say they get nothing but the high hat from the PDA's property managers when they ask for reasonable concessions to help their businesses.
Cindy Speare closed Retro Viva last month after 21 years in business on First Avenue. Traffic through her vintage clothing store had dried up, she says, and she'd been disappointed when the PDA, unlike her landlords at other Retro Viva locations, refused to help her pay for remodeling so she could add new merchandise. Meanwhile, she says, rainwater regularly doused customers and clothing racks (Speare's building, the Sanitary Market, is notoriously leaky), and her Market location was no longer worth the trouble.
In theory, the PDA and Market vendors are business partners. Fees paid by businesses are used by the PDA to sponsor Market festivals and buy ads, and the PDA enforces regulations that keep chain stores from muscling in on the homespun craft shops and restaurants. But communication between the merchants and the bureaucrats has never been good. Darrell Strand's recent experience has heightened tensions. He claims his store, Market Coins and Collectibles, is permitted to sell rock posters and Mariners souvenirs. But PDA staff say Strand's lease restricts him to "vintage" merchandise and have threatened to evict him if he doesn't pull the disputed items. Strand says he'll go bankrupt if he can't change with the times.
Larry Goldman, who recently gave up his family's 54-year-old jewelry store and is moving his pawn shop, Ace Jewelry, out of the Market, says merchants see little evidence that the PDA cares about the survival of their businesses. In fact, shop owners fear the PDA, says Goldman. He claims PDA staff aren't amenable to merchants' requests and don't return phone calls.
Artist Patrick Kerr, who's miffed that PDA staff won't help him move into a better space currently laying vacant, says merchants are tired of the "gestapo" tactics. Kerr recently circulated a questionnaire to Market merchants polling their satisfaction with PDA policies. While the poll was far from scientific, it did show that few merchants have anything good to say about the PDA. And whereas merchants association meetings used to draw few participants, the debate over the no-confidence resolution has been filling the meeting room beyond capacity.
In their no-confidence resolution, merchants say that the PDA fails to negotiate cooperatively over lease provisions, enforces rules arbitrarily, gives bad or conflicting information, and fails to help store owners with limited English skills understand their lease. The merchants also want a role in hiring PDA property managers.
But store owners are not sure how to get the PDA to change its ways. There's talk of withholding rent, but that strategy has not been considered formally, says Betty Halfon, merchants association director. Halfon, who was lukewarm to the no-confidence vote when it was debated, says she hopes the PDA can be persuaded to work with the merchants.
PDA director Daniel Lieberman says his staff have to maintain a "fragile balance" of conflicting demands in the Market, but that they support merchant requests when possible. Lieberman says unreturned phone calls are not accepted practice at the PDA office.
But Kerr, who was instrumental in producing the resolution, believes that some influential members of the PDA leadership are hostile to the Market's small businesses. He says the situation will only improve if the merchants take back power: "The PDA will soon find that they are no longer the dominant governing body of the Pike Place Market."