Critics of mayor's proposals see cure for 'malady we don't suffer'
Some residents fear that a package of land-use and zoning changes now before the Seattle City Council would not only wipe out the remaining stock of historic homes, but also allow entire blocks of ground-floor retail such as check-cashing and convenience stores on what are quiet residential streets.
Seattle Times staff reporter
What's nextThe Seattle City Council's Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee will discuss and possibly vote on the proposal, and the mayor's other proposed "regulatory reforms."
When: 9:30 a.m. Wednesday
Where: City Council Chamber, City Hall, 600 Fourth Ave.
The top of Seattle's Capitol Hill would seem to be the poster child for Mayor Mike McGinn's vision of a dense, walkable neighborhood.
The area is an eclectic mix of classic, old apartment buildings; historic houses in varying states of repair; a hospital; a senior residence; and dozens of businesses, from major grocery chains to a locally owned food cooperative, restaurants and coffee shops.
The storefronts are along the busy arterials; the apartments and houses are mostly on nearby residential streets.
But part of McGinn's package of land-use and zoning changes now before the City Council would allow small commercial businesses in neighborhoods currently zoned low-rise, multifamily.
Some residents say they fear new development will not only wipe out the remaining stock of historic homes, but also allow entire blocks of ground-floor retail such as check-cashing and convenience stores on what are quiet residential streets.
"The city is treating us as a patient for a malady we don't suffer from. This is a totally walkable neighborhood," said Patrick Tompkins, a former general contractor who is restoring a 1908 classic Seattle house two blocks from busy 15th Avenue East.
The Capitol Hill Community Council last week voted unanimously to oppose the package of changes.
According to an estimate by the Seattle Planning Commission, about 60 blocks of Capitol Hill are zoned multifamily and could be opened to ground-floor retail businesses. About 30 blocks in the University District, 13 in Lower Queen Anne (Uptown) and eight each in Columbia City and Othello also would permit commercial uses up to 2,000 square feet under the proposed change.
Supporters of the proposal envision a city more like Chicago or New York with corner stores and small-scale coffee shops and cafes interspersed in residential areas.
Councilmember Richard Conlin explained at a recent hearing that zoning that traditionally separated residential from commercial uses should evolve to better reflect that people want to live, work and shop in the same neighborhoods.
Councilmember Mike O'Brien said the zoning change could allow more small groceries in areas of the city now devoid of healthful food. He said it also could provide a business corridor between light-rail stations along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and business districts in Columbia City and Rainier Beach.
O'Brien said a small storefront along one of these corridors could allow a business that isn't large enough to afford the higher rent of established business districts to get a start.
"An entrepreneur or refugee who opened a business on a scale appropriate to the neighborhood could bring real benefit to the community," he said.
O'Brien also said he believes the worst-case scenarios being posed by Capitol Hill residents of a fish-packing plant or a woodworking shop next to their house or apartment weren't realistic.
"Why do that on Capitol Hill when there's much cheaper real estate in other places?" O'Brien asked.
But one urban planner says the city should anticipate worst-case scenarios and plan accordingly.
Mark Hinshaw, an architect and former Seattle Times architectural critic, says he remembers the neighborhood outcry in another city when a barbershop was proposed as a neighborhood storefront business.
"Who could object to a barbershop?" Hinshaw said he remembers thinking. Until he learned the proposal was for a topless barbershop and the owner planned to hire only women.
"Philosophically, I agree that we should be breaking down the barriers to having services within walking distance of where people live so we don't have to get in the car for everything we need," Hinshaw said. "A hair salon, a tax accountant, a wine store, people appreciate having that at their fingertips."
But, he added, "if someone wants to abuse the zoning, can the city do anything to stop it? It should anticipate unintended uses."
Several City Council members say they plan to support an amendment that would restrict ground-floor commercial uses to arterials in multifamily zones.
Councilmember Nick Licata, who lived on Capitol Hill for 20 years, agrees with those who worry that what they get won't be a "cute little store" but a national check-cashing business.
"The only way it's acceptable is if it is limited to arterial streets," Licata said of the zoning proposal.
Back on Capitol Hill, several residents pointed out where old homes already had been lost to development. Two homes from the turn of the 20th century recently sold and will be leveled to make way for a four-story, 31-unit apartment building.
That's sad enough, said John R. Fox, who runs a bed-and-breakfast in another historic house nearby: To allow ground-floor retail in the big apartment building would shatter their quality of life.
"We've got density. We've got nearby businesses," Fox said. "What we don't want to lose is a quiet, lush neighborhood that's totally peaceful."
Lynn Thompson: 206-909-7580
On Twitter @lthompsontimes