An entrepreneurial dream sidetracked in a changing Central District

The Promenade 23 shopping center at Jackson Street and 23rd Avenue South in Seattle isn’t much to look at — a neon-signed Red Apple Market flanked by a dozen squat, cinder-block storefronts. But it’s one of the main commercial hubs in the Central District, a place where Washington Middle School students buy after-school snacks and neighbors call to each other by name across the parking lot.

It’s also been a holdout against encroaching gentrification. The Promenade’s small businesses are beauty salons, barbers and nonprofits — not the pot shops, brew pubs and sleek restaurants that are bleeding south and east from Capitol Hill.

But all that may be about to change. Last month, Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate announced it had purchased Promenade 23, as well as a second shopping center on the other side of Jackson, with plans to build 570 apartments with underground parking, a public plaza and retail on the ground floor. Construction is slated to start next year.

For Berhane Amanuel, owner of East African Imports and Restaurant, that could mean the end of an entrepreneurial dream.

“There was no big Ethiopian store here, and I decided to do importing from Ethiopia,” says Amanuel, remembering the decision to open his business in the Promenade in 2002. Among the store’s items are berbere, an Ethiopian spice, and teff flour, used to make injera, an Ethiopian flat bread.

And it was a good decision. Six years ago, the import business and store was doing well enough that he quit his job as a part-time Metro bus driver and expanded into an adjacent storefront. He used the extra space to open a restaurant that specializes in traditional Ethiopian beef dishes.

He says the location of his business has been key to his success. Not only is he centrally located but also near large East African populations, including an Ethiopian and an Eritrean church.

“Fasting started yesterday,” he says, referencing the start of Ethiopian Orthodox Lent. “But if you were here last Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it was crazy. It looked like a zoo here.”

But Vulcan’s plans to tear down the Plaza would mean a major loss of investment, says Amanuel, whose lease runs out next February.

“For other people, it’s very easy for them. They take their shelving and tables and things like that and they go. But for me, I put a lot of money in this,” he says, gesturing to the built-in bamboo booths with attached goat-hide lamps, marble bar, walk-in freezer and industrial kitchen, installed after he took out a loan.

Vulcan’s plans for businesses in the to-be-demolished shopping center are unclear. I asked the company about compensation for displaced businesses and the possibility of discounted rent, or right of first refusal when the new retail space is finished.

Vulcan responded with an emailed statement saying it’s “too early to comment on specific plans around the retail component,” though they are seeking “input” and are “confident” the project will align with “common goals” of the community.

Amanuel isn’t hopeful. He says he’ll take a major financial hit on the improvements he made to the now doomed location, and he doubts the new retail space will rent at a price he can afford.

“For my small business, spice selling, it’s going to be expensive,” he says, as the store’s doorbell announces a steady stream of customers stocking up on piles of spongy injera and bags of unroasted green coffee beans. “Too expensive.”

He hopes to be able to find another, smaller, location in the Central District for his import store but says he won’t reopen the restaurant.

Despite the stress of losing his business, his outlook is philosophical. He says he’s seen a lot change in his time, both in his home country of Ethiopia and here in Seattle, where he arrived in 1987.

“But is it good for you?” I pressed.

“No,” he answered, as the sounds of the kitchen opening for lunch filtered into the still-darkened dining room. “Not for me.”