Press on Gilman Village
By Bruce Ramsey
Most shopping centers these days start with detailed plans: Traffic flow studies, market analysis and the like. Issaquah's Gilman Village started pretty much by accident, was designed in progress, and is relying on good luck to help it expand.
Like Milltown in Edmonds or the Grand Central Building in Pioneer Square, Gilman Village has used old buildings to produce "atmosphere" for its 1970s blend of specialty stores, arts and crafts and natural food eateries. But instead of taking a large building and renovating it, the developer has taken small buildings and moved them to his site, building his shopping center in bits and pieces.
It all started with the Boeing cutbacks of 1970. That year, a volunteer group set up the Issaquah Christmas House to sell arts, crafts and other materials made by laid off Boeing workers. It was disbanded, but some of the workers decided to start it up again as a business, operating out of a house built in 1909. That was the beginning of The Country Mouse.
In 1972, Safeway decided to develop the land, a move that would take the Mouse's house and two others. Betty Konarski, owner of the Mouse, went to local developer Marvin Mohl with an idea: Take all the houses, move them somewhere else, and start a specialty shopping center.
Mohl had developed the Issaquah Shopping Center in 1961. Only a person with a proven record in development was likely to get bankers to put their money into a scheme to convert old farmhouses into a shopping center.
Mohl bought Konarski's idea. He was also an attorney, and as luck would have it, was representing the owner of the two other houses, one built about 1900 and another built in 1925. Safeway didn't want them, and Mohl's client didn't want them, so he got them free. He moved all three houses to the present site, which conveniently had a fourth house, vintage 1909.
In 1974, Rainier National Bank expanded, which would have destroyed three Issaquah buildings: a 1900 house, a 1936 house and an old garage. Mohl got them free and moved them to his site.
In 1975, the 50-year lease on the Issaquah Grain and Feed Store and Mine Warehouse ran out, and Northern Pacific Railroad demanded the return of the property with no building on it. Mohl got that building too, sawed it into four sections, and moved it to his site. Mohl has a share in the property next to his site, in case more buildings are available. "They either come up or they don't," he says. "When they do, you either take them or they're gone."
Gilman Village has been no bargain basement deal, however. Mohl got the houses practically free, but old houses aren't well suited to retail sales. Under the direction of El Baylis Associates, Bellevue architects, the houses were gutted, leaving only the outer shells. Then they were redone. On some, roof sections were raised to make a second story.
"They cost just about as much as new construction, about twenty-five dollars a square foot," says Mohl. But if it were just new construction Gilman Village wouldn't be the success it is.
Much of that success is due to women. On weekdays, nine out of 10 shoppers are women; on weekends, says Mohl, it's closer to seven out of ten. Of 27 shops, 25 are run at least partly by women.
"In every case," says Mohl, "the wife has been active in the business. The husbands have worked with the wives more than the wives with the husbands."
One of the two main restaurants, The Boarding House, a luncheon eatery, is run by four Issaquah women. None had ever been in business before Mohl recruited them. The other main restaurant, Original Ellen's, is run by Mohl's daughter, Ellen and her partner, Stephen Paul.
The "Sparkplug" of Gilman Village, in Mohl's words, continues to be Konarski, who still runs The Country Mouse and has a half interest in The Calico Cat. "Mr. Mohl locates the buildings," she says, "and I get the tenants."
She has received inquiries from a vacuum cleaner company, from Transamerica Title, and from "any number of dentists and architects who would like an office here." But prospective tenants who would clash with the homey atmosphere are rejected.
Mohl's wife, Ruth Mohl, who helps manage Gilman Village, puts it this way: "We want to avoid the Sausalito trap, the cheap import shops. This is distinctly not a touristy place."
Maybe that's why the tourists are discovering it. Sunset magazine did a story on it. And now, in the gravel parking lot, there are quite a few cars with blue license plates.
Gilman Village enters third decade
By Eric M. Stahl
ISSAQUAH-Don't tell Marvin Mohl that Gilman Village is some kind of design wonder.
To 1990s planners searching for alternatives to strip malls and suburban sprawl, the shopping center is often mentioned as an example of development done right. It's human in scale, pedestrian friendly, with a historic character that blends into its surroundings.
But Mohl, who with his wife Ruth opened Gilman Village 20 years ago this month, says he simply set out to create a nice place to shop. What's happened since has been more fortunate accident than visionary planning, more evolution than design.
"It was experimental. It continues to be an experiment," Mohl said this week as he reflected on the Village's anniversary.
Gilman Village began operating in December 1972-no one seems to know the exact date-with what at the time was considered an oddball idea: moving unwanted old buildings from around Issaquah to the site, refurbishing them and turning them into businesses.
Gilman Boulevard then was seen as a lousy location, an ugly trip offering cheap hamburgers, a go-cart track and little else to make anyone but a trucker want to stop. The Mohls were not expected to succeed.
But the center caught on. And it continued to expand gradually, almost haphazardly, until it reached Issaquah Creek in 1985. Some of the 28 buildings are 100 years old, and most predate 1930.
Gilman Village is mainly made up of former homes, but includes what was once a feed store, a 300-foot-long mine warehouse, and a chicken coop.
Filling them with specialty shops and restaurants seems today to be a formula for success. But Mohl never had a formula.
"It's luck. It turned out to be a much better idea than he thought," said Aaron Barouh, the Mohl's son-in-law and Gilman Village's general manager.
The Village has become more than just a retail center. It's truly a tourist attraction, for many years better known than the city itself. Local residents also value Gilman Village, perhaps because it still feels like a small town while more and more about Issaquah no longer does. Earlier this year, those who live and work in the city selected Gilman Village as a top "community treasure."
Milenki Matanovic, who led the forums that identified the treasures, says design-its labyrinth of historic buildings-is a major reason Gilman Village has endured.
"Architecturally, it's a very homey place. People feel very comfortable there," he said. "It's the kind of place people would wish to live in."
Customers echo that sentiment.
"The malls are everywhere and they're all alike," said Sandy Bean of North Bend, a nurse who was shopping for holiday gifts around dusk Friday. With its landscaping and open spaces, she said, "It feels good walking around here."
Gilman Village has won numerous design awards over the years. Even its parking, which is in small sections rather than a huge sea of concrete, has been praised.
But Barouh rejects any notion that the place is "some cornball Victorian construct."
"When you get down to it," he said, "it's just a shopping center"-and not a very big one at that. All of its retail space could fit inside a Super Safeway.
How, then, to explain its success?
"customers feel protective about it. There's a very personal kind of feeling about the Village," Ruth Mohl said.
The unique selection of shops also helps. The only thing resembling a chain store is Made in Washington, which got its start at Gilman Village and now has several shops in the state. Most of the tenants are start-up businesses, run by the owner.
"I needed a Pomeranian gift and you can't find Pomeranian things just anywhere," said Van Vanosdoll. The Tiger Mountain resident had just bought some stationary featuring the dog breed at Mykens, a store specializing in gifts for bot pets and pet lovers. It's located in what was a Front Street bungalow built in 1925.
Marvin Mohl was a recent Harvard Law School graduate when he and Ruth moved west in 1946. They soon settled in Issaquah, where 800 people then lived. He planned to work as a "country lawyer."
"But there was only one lawyer (in town), and you need two to survive," Ruth Mohl joked.
They began developing residential property in the 1950s and opened the Gilman Square shopping center in 1960.
When Gilman Village opened, a trip to Issaquah from almost anywhere was considered an outing. That's changed, but the comfortable feel of the Village hasn't. And the family running the center says the more the city around them grows, the more Gilman Village needs to stay the same.
Issaquah is on the verge of a retail explosion. The city's largest commercial project ever, near the Village on Gilman Boulevard, is close to approval. An even larger shopping "power center" has been proposed on the other side of Interstate 90.
Barouh is worried about the increased vehicle traffic. But he says he's not sure the added competition will hurt the Village. Even if it does, it wouldn't change the way he and the Mohls do business.
"In a weird sort of way, the only way to raise our profile is to lower our profile. We can't outshout anybody. We can't put up neon signs to attract attention…When others yell, we stay quiet," Barouh said.
Nothing major is planned to mark Gilman Village's two decades in business. The family may acknowledge 1993 as a 20th anniversary year, but not with any lavish celebration. "We don't tend to look for an excuse for a sale," Barouh said..
As thing have turned out, that wouldn't be Gilman Village's style.