The rise in Seattle’s downtown density makes for scarce real estate and higher prices. As a result, one industry is heading south to the Sodo neighborhood: car dealerships.
Sodo has space and easy highway access, but it isn’t perfect. The high traffic can be a plus, but with three professional sports teams in the area, game days can be intense.
“Downtown is expanding; there’s only really south that it can go,” said Steve Bates, operator of a BMW dealership now in Sodo. “So when we saw the opportunity of coming down here, and there was a parcel of land that allowed us to at least build something where we could go up, it was one of the few options that we had.”
Amazon is gobbling up the Toyota dealer in South Lake Union. Honda of Seattle will be demolished so the Washington State Convention Center can expand. They’ll join others from Capitol Hill that have already set up shop in the shadow of the stadiums, creating a new auto row in Seattle.
The locale has advantages, but Brad Miller, the owner of the Toyota and Honda dealerships, has reservations about leaving.
At the Honda of Seattle, the all-wood floor in the car servicing area is a reminder of the car’s legacy in downtown Seattle. The sales office is down on the ground floor and you have to drive on a wood ramp to get up to the service area. This building has operated continuously as a car dealership through the Great Depression and the Great Recession.
Miller said the new building will be “absolutely outstanding,” but he is not like his Capitol Hill colleagues who made the choice to leave for Sodo. On a tour of his Honda dealership, his fondness for its wide beams and the neighborhood is clear.
“You know what modern car dealerships don’t have? They don’t have the view of downtown Seattle. They don’t have the vibrancy of our location,” Miller said. “We are part of the neighborhood here. We aren’t part of an industrial auto row. This is the neighborhood and this is going to be hard to leave."
Gather Together, Gather Customers
Miller is moving his two dealerships together into Sodo. The new Honda and Toyota will take up separate sides of the same building in their new home, with six lanes of traffic running into the building.
“We found property over the years that we liked, we couldn’t afford. We found property over the years that we could afford, we didn’t like. Sodo is the perfect marriage for us,” Miller said.
The car dealers moving to Sodo are not recreating the vast car lots of old. They are building multi-story dealerships where cars sit warm and dry, indoors.
Mercedes and BMW dealers are already installed on Airport Way, and BMW’s Bates said the new dealers moving in are welcome. “The more the merrier,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned it could fill up from here to Georgetown – and beyond.”
It can seem odd when competitors band together instead of keeping their distance.
But Leonard Garfield, executive director of the Museum of History and Industry, said this strategy is as old as the hills – specifically as old as the Pike-Pine corridor running to Capitol Hill from downtown. That car row is so old that the Mercedes dealer used to sell Packards – the luxury car of the first half of the last century.
“Car dealerships very early on recognized that clustering together actually was a strong business model,” said Garfield. “Sometimes people think, ‘Why would I want to be located next to my toughest competitor?’ But the truth is, with car dealerships, they gather more customers by gathering together.”