Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Vacant, and likely to remain so

It’s been described as “a blight on the neighborhood” by one area merchant and as “the black hole in the middle of the commercial district” by a former tenant of the building. But when it was built in 1926 and for much of its life--at least up until the 1980’s--the wooden structure at 4116 E. Madison Street was a charming mainstay of Madison Park’s business community, “a beautiful little building.” It certainly is not that today. In fact the central retail unit of the building, which has been vacant since women’s clothing store Nubia’s moved out several years ago, confronts passersby with a visibly crumbling façade and strong hints of a water-damaged interior.

It’s not a pretty picture, and it naturally raises the question, “Why is this prime piece of Madison Park real estate being allowed to sit vacant and deteriorating?” The answer is known only to building owner Constance Gillespie. For everyone else, it’s a matter of idle (or, in some cases, informed) speculation. But virtually no one I talked to was willing to speak about Gillespie or her building on the record. Off the record, however, some area merchants who know her had plenty to tell me.

The most benign way to summarize their views is to say that Gillespie is unanimously considered “eccentric.” Believed to be in her late 70s, she is reputed to control many other commercial buildings in Seattle that she and her mother once owned or managed jointly. And while she does not live in Madison Park, she is often seen in the neighborhood, arriving in a battered old car filled to the brim with boxes, papers, and other detritus. I am told that she is suspicious both of computers and of the post office, so it is difficult to communicate with her. Talking to her is sometimes even difficult for people meeting her in person. One former tenant of hers told me that it was 23 years between the time that he moved out of her building and when she would finally acknowledge him when he said “hello” to her on the street.

She has the reputation as a shrewd lease negotiator, however. I am told that while her rents are reasonable, her leases are tightly written and effectively make the tenant responsible for virtually everything that happens in the interior space. As for the exterior of the building, she is known for her aversion to spending money on maintenance, let alone on making improvements. And it shows.

At one time the center unit of the building housed a firm of interior architects and designers who created something of a garden oasis on the alley side of the building. A magnificent plum tree, I am told, was surrounded by a lushly planted courtyard—a real amenity for the neighborhood. But what was once a garden spot has been allowed over the years to fall into rack and ruin. It's more of an overgrown jungle now:
There apparently have been several aborted attempts to lease the retail space from Gillespie since Nubia’s departed. In one instance a potential tenant reportedly made leasehold improvements to the space before abandoning the work in a dispute with the owner. Another potential tenant was supposedly unable to get approval from Gillespie to make necessary alterations to the space in order to accommodate his business needs. Whatever the truth of these stories, it is pretty clear that Gillespie has not been in any rush to establish a new retail tenant in the heart of Madison Park’s commercial district. And this fact is not making her any points with many other area merchants.

The building is assessed at $491,000, according to King County tax records. But people I talked to say the building’s value is well in excess of $1,000,000. Several of them told me that they know prospective buyers for the space who would be willing to rehabilitate or replace the building, but Gillespie has always said that she’s not selling. And no one’s expecting the situation to change anytime soon. There’s a general sense of resignation on the street about the property: it is what it is. “It’s a shame that a building in that prime location should be allowed to get into this condition,” says one area resident, “but what can you do?”

Nevertheless, there are still those who hope. Gillespie is known for not paying her property taxes in a timely fashion (indeed, King County property records currently show the property as delinquent for this and past years). I am told that each year as it gets to the point where a delinquency could result in the County’s foreclosing on the property, potential purchasers go on line to see if Gillespie has missed the deadline. But she never has.


  1. i'd rather have this than some swishy bellevue styl place.


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