“I hear it all the time,” says Avout Vander Werf, owner and operator of the beloved Belltown neighborhood pinball bar, Shorty’s. “People always say, ‘I’m super happy your building got Landmark status.’ But we didn’t.”
Indeed, although Shorty’s is celebrating its 20th birthday this year, the building does not currently have Landmark status, historical status, or any other architectural or cultural designation that could immediately save it from potential demolition and redevelopment. The building (2222 2nd Ave.), which the carnival-like pinball bar occupies, is as vulnerable as any in the Emerald City. But there is a new hope for Shorty’s.
On Wednesday, this year’s candidates for citywide office gathered across the street from Shorty’s at a forum hosted by Project Belltown (a non-profit organization founded last year to advocate for the neighborhood). Community members, business owners, and even the two mayoral candidates met at 115 Bell Street to discuss the future of the neighborhood. While there are still many options on the table, one strategy, says Evan Clifthorne, who is spearheading Project Belltown, would be to commodify the airspace above the Belltown neighborhood, which could create new revenue streams for Belltown property owners.
The idea goes something like this: Owners of culturally important buildings in Belltown could sell their airspace to other property owners in the neighborhood, who could then build higher buildings. Since selling their air would limit future development, this could offer the owners of cultural and historic buildings new revenue without needing to displace the businesses inside. “This is a big deal,” says Clifthorne, who says the plan is based one that is helping save New York City’s Broadway Avenue theaters. “We’ve never done anything like this in Seattle. It’s an incredibly heavy lift.”
As the proposal is discussed and worked over, Vander Werf is left wondering what’s next. The longtime owner, who took over the business from his ex-wife after working for decades as a pinball machine repairman, at times expresses hope for his business and at times seems resigned to an unceremonious ending. “The writing is on the wall,” he says at one point. “I don’t know 90 percent of what’s going on behind closed doors. My fate might have already been sealed.”
In between now and the potential wrecking ball, Shorty’s remains, much to the joy of its many patrons. “We were offering pinball before it was hip,” says Vander Werf. “Pinball was kind of dying at one point. But it’s made a big comeback and that basically started here in the Pacific Northwest.”
And while plenty of people still pack Shorty’s, stuffing quarters into the games or bites of their famous hotdogs into hungry mouths, Vander Werf says he’d be doing his thing even if the bar was essentially empty. “If everybody walked away and said they were tired of it,” he affirms, “we’d still be doing it. It’s just what we do.”
But now it’s many neighbors and patrons are hoping Shorty’s won’t be forced to leave them. And with the new airspace proposal, they may just get their wish.