On Wednesday evening, September 21, dozens of neighborhood residents and business owners elbowed into an empty retail space inside Wallingford Center for a face-off with the landlord, Bruce Lorig of Lorig Associates.

It was an appropriate venue. The high-ceilinged, vintage classroom—Wallingford Center is a former school that was converted to a mixed-use building 20 years ago—has been vacant for more than two years. It's one of seven vacancies in the shopping center.

Moreover, a pair of small-business owners recently wanted to move their shop into the space. Remaining merchants, many of whom are barely hanging on in the half-empty center, hoped the new business would spark a turnaround. But Wallingford Center's landlord turned the retailers down. The space remains empty, a potent symbol, for the current tenants, of the landlord's indifference.

At last week's rowdy meeting—people lambasted Lorig and even stormed out in frustration with the landlord—residents and business owners outlined the problems. Several of the center's most high-profile tenants, including a toy store, an Asian restaurant, a bridal store, a bakery, and a garden shop, have recently left. Foot traffic for remaining businesses is dismal. With rents in the upper range for Wallingford—the high $20s per square foot, merchants report—many of the remaining Wallingford Center shops are struggling. "We are failing because we don't have the support of businesses that were in here when we started," said one woman, an owner of Tin Horse, a children's furnishings shop. Tenants say Lorig's company has rebuffed their pleas for help, like a February petition for a six-month, 50-percent rent reduction.

Neighbors worry that Wallingford Center's problems could pull down the rest of the neighborhood. The massive building—which hosts occasional community events—is important to other businesses on North 45th Street's retail strip, bridging places like the Guild 45th movie theater and QFC. "It's pretty important for us as merchants in the area," says Victor Rudolph, at the Bee Well vitamin shop across the street. "They serve as an anchor for us." The current empty spaces, neighbors fear, are not only problematic for the center's remaining merchants but could turn the building into "a black hole" that would affect the rest of the neighborhood's retail strip.

Kara Ceriallo—co-owner of the quirky Upper Queen Anne gift shop, Not a Number, that was interested in moving into Wallingford Center—was also at the meeting. Two weeks ago, she was ready to sign a lease; her shop had its eye on the very space neighbors were now gathered in for this evening's showdown. But a Lorig Associates rep had turned her down, citing a marketing "profile." "There are so many empty spaces, how can you turn businesses away?" an incredulous neighbor asked Lorig.

Lorig—the patriarch of Lorig Associates real estate developers, and the guy behind the former school's conversion—listened patiently from his perch on a folding table, his glasses hanging from a cord around his neck. He said he wasn't aware Not a Number had been turned down, and explained that the center's available space won't be actively promoted for another four weeks.

The center's problems, Lorig explained, had given his company a chance to "rethink the entire center." Lorig outlined a $3 million renovation, including new landscaping, paint, and air conditioning. The renovation, he hoped, would draw tenants.

Lorig's presentation only made neighbors angrier. "Why are you performing plastic surgery on a cancer patient?" yelled one man, from the back of the crowded room.


India Bodien contributed to this report.


SOUTH PARK: Neighbors from the "Sliver by the River"—an unincorporated swath of the neighborhood that falls under county jurisdiction, which leads to all sorts of confusion over things like police and fire response—want the city to annex their land. But first, city and county officials have to figure out who's going to foot the bill for repairs to the South Park Bridge, which lands in the sliver. On Monday morning, September 26, sliver residents headed to city hall to monitor a city-county presentation on the bridge. "A strong showing of... South Park citizens will show [the city] that it is okay to invest in the future of South Park" and move ahead with annexation, one resident said.