Big plans for U District, but merchants worry about 'heart and soul'
Published on February 6, 2017 by Daniel Beekman
Some small-business owners are raising concerns about Seattle’s proposed U District upzone. Others say modest changes on The Ave are nothing to fear.
Rick McLaughlin loves The Ave. That’s what locals call University Way Northeast, where University of Washington undergrads and their professors scarf pizza, slurp pho and chug coffee alongside University District residents and homeless teenagers.
But the owner of Big Time Brewery is anxious about Seattle’s plans for the scruffy shopping and dining strip, as Sound Transit constructs a new light-rail station and the City Council considers an upzone that would allow taller buildings in the neighborhood.
McLaughlin says he and more than 50 other business owners are asking the council to postpone a vote until they can study potential impacts on mom-and-pop operations.
He says they’re worried about teardowns of existing buildings and higher rents.
“The U District may be a little rundown, but we have amazing businesses here,” McLaughlin said. “Eclectic small businesses are the neighborhood’s heart and soul.”
Proponents insist the upzone wouldn’t wipe away the U District’s weirdness or shutter the restaurants on The Ave that are run by immigrants from around the world.
The modest bump would threaten small businesses less than existing challenges, says Lois Ko, who owns Sweet Alchemy Ice Creamery. Rent hikes are a problem across Seattle. Owners should be seeking more help, not blocking growth, she says.
“I don’t think the upzone is the battle that we should be fighting,” said Ko, who hopes the change would bring more people to the U District to live, work and eat ice cream.
“More people living and working in the area would mean more foot traffic for us,” she said. “Right now, most of our customers are students. During the summer and winter breaks, we sit idle. It would be amazing to have more people here throughout the year.”
Dave LaClergue, a planner with the city, says redevelopment on The Ave is likely with or without an upzone. The upzone would, at least, require developers to create affordable housing.
McLaughlin is dubious. Many U District business owners have leases obligating them to cover their landlords’ property taxes, which the upzone would boost, he says.
Some owners have month-to-month leases or leases with escape clauses for landlords who sell or tear down their buildings for redevelopment, McLaughlin says.
Big Time Brewery has a long-term lease, so McLaughlin is confident his bar would survive the upzone. But he says other small businesses could easily be displaced.
“There could be rapid turnover,” he said. “These businesses are ripe for the taking.”
The council members weighing the upzone say they want to address such concerns. Last month, they discussed amending the proposed upzone to help small businesses.
One amendment would raise maximum heights on The Ave to 75 rather than 85 feet. Another would limit new building widths. Yet another would require small retail spaces.
Councilmember Rob Johnson, who chairs the land-use committee and represents the U District, wants to move ahead with the changes. But in an interview this week, Johnson said he now believes the council should cut The Ave out of the upzone.
That would allow time for more study, and the council could revisit an upzone of the street when it considers zoning changes in other neighborhoods next year, he said.
“Tabling this would give us the best opportunity to move forward with the rest of the package,” Johnson said.
McLaughlin and other owners have hired former Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck to carry out a comprehensive survey of the neighborhood’s hundreds of businesses.
Steinbrueck says he wants to know how many employees the businesses have, what they make or sell and how many are owned by immigrants, among other things.
Kate Barr, who manages Scarecrow Video on Roosevelt Avenue Northeast, says the city should already have done what the businesses are now paying Steinbrueck to do.
“How can we make decisions when we don’t have the proper data?” Barr said.
Though Scarecrow is located outside the upzone area, Barr fears rent hikes and construction activity associated with the changes could affect the movie-rental Mecca.
Development shouldn’t come at the expense of legacy businesses, she says.
“We’re not standing on the shore trying to hold back the tide of change, but we want a sustainable path forward,” Barr said.
Kristine Scott, who runs the U District’s ROOTS Young Adult Shelter, has noticed a division between property owners and renters, even among nonprofits, she says.
The YMCA, which owns its U District property, is supporting the upzone because it would allow the organization to build a larger space, with housing for homeless youth.
Scott says she’s nervous about losing the office space her organization rents and that upscale development could make homeless teens less welcome in the neighborhood.
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