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The Death of Pike/Pine

Seattle Developers Have Used the "Hip" Factor to Sell Condos Up and Down the Pike/Pine Corridor. Now They're About to Kill the Bars and Businesses That Make the Strip Vibrant.

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On a recent Saturday night, the block of East Pine Street bordered by Summit and Belmont Avenues was filled with people: gay, straight, black, white, long-haired, emo, goth, pretty, ugly, rich, and poor. Homeless guys with scraggly beards bought beer and bummed cigarettes in front of Harry's Grocery. At Kincora Pub, middle-aged men in trucker hats and a crowd of twentysomething guys sat around on battered vinyl furniture and shouted out stories as punk music blasted in the background.

Next door at Manray, impeccably groomed boys sat at impeccably white tables sizing each other up. Over at the Cha Cha Lounge, twentysomethings with greasy emo hair (overheard: "Everyone in Seattle has the same hair—the guys and the girls") crowded around the bar and made small talk. ("I wonder how many STDs he has." "Probably like 25." "Yeah, he's, like, the salad bar of STDs.") Next door at the Bus Stop, an attractive transvestite gulped down a double Red Bull and vodka and chatted up the bartender. The place is tiny, warm, and welcoming; despite being a relative newcomer to the neighborhood, it has quickly become an institution.

Every one of these thriving businesses—along with Harry's, Bimbo's Bitchin' Burrito Kitchen, and the Winners Circle boutique—will soon be shutting their doors. Their landlord, Garage Billiards owner Alex Rosenast, informed them that their leases would not be renewed earlier this year. All seven of these neighborhood-defining businesses have to be out by next November, when the buildings on the block will be razed for a six-story condo development with just three retail storefronts. Most of the business owners haven't figured out what they'll do; several say they may not stay in the neighborhood even if they can afford to.

"We're not going to try and relocate this bar," Manray general manager David Briggs says bitterly. "If we do anything, it'll be to open another bar. You just can't take the spirit of a place and try to transplant it." Briggs, voicing the sentiments of many longtime residents, says he's "furious" about what developers are doing to Pike/Pine. "They're pushing out what has made this the neighborhood that it is."

Capitol Hill is no stranger to change. People come and go, shops open and close, old buildings come down, new buildings go up, neighbors groan, and life goes on. But sometimes so much change happens so fast that it can induce a collective panic, sending a whole neighborhood into shock.

That's indisputably the case in the Pike/Pine neighborhood, where a dozen new condo and apartment developments have been conceived, designed, or completed in the last few years. The pace of development is unprecedented for the area, and on par with that in a much different center-city neighborhood—Belltown, where condo towers replaced a wasteland of parking lots, warehouses, and unused industrial space. There was some grumbling about the loss of a relative handful of independent businesses in Belltown (like the original Cyclops, World Pizza, and the Ditto Tavern), but development of mostly derelict land in that neighborhood led to a greater gain (dense, if pricey, housing for people who might have otherwise moved to the suburbs). By contrast, the newest development in Pike/Pine threatens to displace the good stuff that's already there: the independent bars, clubs, shops, and restaurants that made the area desirable to developers in the first place.

Across the street from the Cha Cha block, Linda's, the War Room, and Bill's Off Broadway are threatened by another massive development in what is currently the BMW Seattle parking lot. Although initial plans show a six-story building wrapping around the existing businesses, observers in the neighborhood speculate that the developers may wait and build out the entire block, which the zoning allows them to do, by buying up all the remaining buildings and evicting their current tenants.

Contrast these and other block-razing proposals with developments that have gone up on empty or underutilized lots in the neighborhood: the Braeburn and Cameo developments on 14th Avenue and East Pine Street, which replace a closed Red Apple supermarket and an empty parking lot, respectively; the 12th and Pike Lofts, which will restore a historic building and add 24 new housing units; and the Capitol Hill Housing Improvement Program building at Broadway and East Pine Street, which will replace a Texaco gas station with 44 low-income apartments.

But as developers run out of empty lots along Pike/Pine to develop, they're starting to eye blocks where businesses already exist. The end result? The death of Pike/Pine as we know it.

This is not the first time that Pike/Pine has seen dramatic changes; nor is it the first time residents have predicted the neighborhood's demise. Back in the late '80s and early '90s, the area was, according to different accounts, a wasteland of industrial buildings and auto-repair shops; a dangerous place by Seattle standards, where a woman wouldn't want to walk alone at night. It was also a great place to start a business, with cheap rent and unbeatable proximity to downtown and the rest of Capitol Hill.

"This used to be a place people could afford to live," says Bus Stop manager Mark Mitchell, who has lived and worked in the neighborhood, off and on, for 20 years. "You could work 30 hours a week and have a good life."

Jeff Ofelt, who opened a clothing store on East Pine Street called Righteous Rags in the early '90s, paid just $125 a month for a tiny storefront. In 1995, he opened the Cha Cha with two partners, Wade Weigel and Rebecca Olson. He describes the area at that time as "more gritty than scary." According to Ofelt's then-neighbor Nils Bernstein, who opened a record store called Rebellious Jukebox in the late 1980s, it was "a fairly rough area without a ton of respectable businesses... mainly some crappy teriyaki places and tired gay bars."

Linda Derschang says friends discouraged her when she talked about opening a bar on Pine. "They said, 'We already have the Comet and Eileen's—nobody's going to come to another bar.'" Not only did people come, "but then more bars started opening up, and then a lot of retail." Today Linda's, with its worn vinyl booths, knotty-pine walls, and buffalo head over the bar, is a neighborhood institution.

Some of the businesses that opened during Pike/Pine's last transformation are long gone: Righteous Rags, Hairy Mary, Uncle Rocky's, Squid Row, the Puss Puss Cafe, Tugs Belmont, Vintage Voola, Sin, the Blue Canoe. Others have thrived: Linda's, the Feed Bag, Bimbo's, Toys in Babeland (now just Babeland), Edge of the Circle Books, Bauhaus Coffee, Rudy's.

Not many people lived in the area when small businesses began setting up shop in Pike/Pine—around 2,400, according to the 1990 census; 3200 lived in the neighborhood at the time of the 2000 census, an increase of 33%—though the median residential rent was, by today's standards, astonishingly low: $400 in 1997, according to an article in the P-I. As late as 2000, the median rent in the Pike/Pine area was still "just" $612—far lower than today's $837 average for a one-bedroom apartment.

Not long after the first wave of independent businesses started opening up, developers "discovered" the low-rent neighborhood. The first sign that "the sky was falling," as Mitchell puts it: the development of Harvard Market, the QFC-anchored mall at Broadway and East Pike Street, in 1995, which many saw as the beginning of the end. At the time, Mitchell was working at a tattoo shop on East Pike Street called Tattoo You (now Supergenius). After Harvard Market opened up, Mitchell says, a group of newcomers (the Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council, or PPUNC) started trying to "clean up" the business district. "They started going around to all the businesses in the neighborhood and saying, 'We've got to do something about the needle exchange,'" which had recently moved to Capitol Hill. "We were like, 'What are you doing in our neighborhood?'"

Jerry Everard, cofounder of Moe's and current part owner of Neumo's and two downtown bars, agrees with Mitchell. "The concern at the time was that [the Harvard Market] was going to start dragging the area down," Everard says. "But it didn't. It just ruined that one corner."

Developers and real-estate agents love to talk about the "vibrancy" of neighborhoods like Pike/Pine. The website for the Braeburn describes the neighborhood as "vibrant and diverse." An ad for the Brix, which is going up at the north end of Broadway, calls the area "the neighborhood that shows Seattle how to have fun." Promotional materials for the Press Condos right across the street from the Weber + Thompson development that will displace the Cha Cha, the Bus Stop, and Manray show black-clad hipsters in ripped jeans sitting around in bohemian bars. Of 21 local businesses included on a map available on the Press website, half will soon be gone.

When developers talk about "vibrancy," what they mean is places like the Cha Cha, Bimbo's, Manray, the Bus Stop, R Place, Bauhaus, Babeland, and dozens of other small, independent businesses. Pike/Pine wouldn't be "vibrant" without those businesses. Yet as empty lots get harder and harder to come by, developers are increasingly gobbling up land that's already occupied—by the very businesses that make the area attractive for development in the first place. What goes up in their place is often chichi salons (like Swoon in the Braeburn), chain stores (like Kinko's at the north end of Broadway), non-retail uses (like the builder and architect who fill two of three storefronts at the new-ish 615 East Pike lofts) and, frequently, empty storefronts.

It's not that there isn't room in a neighborhood for Walgreens and Kinko's and pricey salons—all three are improvements on the empty lots they replaced. But when the Walgreens and empty storefronts and salons start displacing established local businesses, the character of the neighborhood—the hook used to draw high-end buyers into the area—is destroyed.

Laura Miller, a commercial real-estate agent who sells properties in the area, says it's getting "harder and harder to find cool old buildings with character. Unfortunately, not very many property owners are keeping them intact. They're choosing to just demo them to maximize the zoning."

Derschang attended a design review meeting concerning the building that will soon displace the Cha Cha block across the street from her bar. "When I saw the scale of the building I felt sick," says Derschang. "I was devastated."

The most recent proposed development for the block behind Linda's showed a six-story building with 208 condos on top of 50,000 square feet of retail space; the building wrapped around Linda's, Bill's Off Broadway, the War Room, and a small convenience store. Dozens of condos would loom directly over Linda's back patio.

"I don't mind the condos," says Derschang. "I don't mind the density. I just don't want everything to look like the Braeburn." Derschang also worries that the new developments are "going to change this neighborhood into something else—Belltown."

In Pike/Pine, the newest developments have some obvious aesthetic similarities—to each other and to buildings that have gone up in Belltown. They're often clad with a perplexing array of materials, from red brick to aluminum to unfinished concrete to brightly colored siding. The Braeburn exemplifies this aesthetic. These new buildings frequently include a concrete "plaza," an amenity that helps developers meet open-space requirements, but rarely interacts with the sidewalk. (Compare the sterile plaza at the Press Condos, for example, or the dark recesses of the courtyard at the Braeburn, with the sunny sidewalk at Bauhaus on East Pine Street and Melrose Avenue, and you'll get an idea of the difference.) And, more often than not, the new buildings meet private outdoor-space requirements with balconies that are nearly unusable—one-to-three-foot-deep shelves protruding awkwardly from the side of the building.

The development on the Cha Cha block is no exception: Although architect Peter Greaves of Weber + Thompson has repeatedly promised concerned neighbors that the building won't be "a Craftsman hat on top of a masonry box," like so many other developments in the neighborhood, he did concede that the balconies will be tiny—between three and four feet deep—and the outdoor space minimal. "Rather than hang out on your deck, we think you should go out on the street, meet your neighbors, get a cup of coffee," Greaves said during a recent meeting of the Capitol Hill Design Review Board.

Although no design drawings are available yet, a scale mockup of the building looks monolithic: six stories over the street, with a small plaza on the southwest corner. One neighborhood resident, Becki Fredstadt, called it "a pretty massive building with little consideration for the neighborhood." Chip Wall, who lives on East Pike Street and is a member of the PPUNC, worries that the new building will look like another notorious Weber + Thompson project: the ugly brick apartment building at the north end of Broadway, where the only long-term retail tenants are a tanning salon and a Kinko's. "That building is awful," Wall says. "We really hope Mr. Greaves takes a clue and doesn't build something like that again."

As for the development that threatens Linda's, the War Room, and Bill's Off Broadway, it appears to be at least temporarily on hold. (The developer, Pryde + Johnson, did not return numerous calls for comment). It is unlikely, however, that Pryde + Johnson will sit on the property indefinitely.

In October, WHEN the Capitol Hill Design Review Board held a public meeting at Seattle Central Community College to vet Weber + Thompson's plans for the Cha Cha block, residents got to see the scale of the proposed building. The model Greaves unveiled lacked any architectural details, but the mass of the building was unmistakable—six stories straight up on East Pine Street, the same size as the Press Condos. When Greaves—a slight man with wavy white hair and an architect's uniform of black turtleneck, stylish jeans, a shiny rectangular silver belt buckle—showed a photo of the block as it is now, juxtaposed with a model of how it will look in a year or two, faces around the room fell in dismay.

Although Greaves insisted that Weber + Thompson's proposal, which includes just three large storefronts at ground level, could be "easily modified" to give smaller and independent businesses a chance to move back in, the design review team and neighborhood residents remained skeptical. "I'm concerned at this point that there's a big part of the fabric of the neighborhood that's being lost," review board member (and 13-year Capitol Hill resident) Robert Humble said. Other board members expressed similar concerns, but noted that there isn't much they can do. Seattle's design review process, unlike that in other cities such as Vancouver, BC, is merely advisory; since it was implemented in 1989, not one project has been rejected because of bad design, and the board cannot compel the developer to modify the design to accommodate the kind of small businesses that give the neighborhood its character.

Ironically, the previous owner of the block is himself a small-business owner in the neighborhood—Alex Rosenast, part owner of the Garage pool hall and bowling alley on Broadway and East Union Street. Rosenast did not return calls seeking comment; however, a story in the Friday, November 24, P-I revealed that Rosenast plans to expand his restaurant, bar, and bowling alley. Thus a small-business owner in the neighborhood is simultaneously knocking out the competition (five bars and a restaurant) and, paradoxically, helping to destroy the bar circuit that keeps places like the Garage afloat.

Rosenast's former tenants say he bought the block up piece by piece, with the clear intention of selling to a developer. While most of the business owners are angry, Bus Stop manager Mitchell says he doesn't blame Rosenast. "If I'd been less of a bohemian my whole life, maybe I would have gotten into real estate and I'd own this block now," Mitchell says. "And who knows if I'd do anything different?"

"I FIgured if there are condos, that's good, because there are going to be more customers," says Derschang. Now she's concerned that all the interesting, independent retail stores in the neighborhood will soon be replaced by tanning salons, dry cleaners, and check-cashing stores.

Why do new developments engender such uninspiring retail? Why don't local businesses move back in when new buildings are completed? Why can't nightlife thrive alongside new density in a neighborhood, like Capitol Hill, where bars and apartments have coexisted for decades?

At the street level, the difference between new buildings and old is indisputable. In the QFC building, built in 1995, are three chain stores—Cingular, Subway, and a UPS store—a teriyaki joint, a nail salon, and a smoke shop. Across Harvard Avenue, in a three-story building that dates from the turn of the century, there are several independent businesses: a Thai restaurant; the Rosebud Restaurant & Bar; a small fabric shop; Babeland; Honey Hole; and Edge of the Circle Books. Liz Dunn, a developer who buys and restores old buildings in the neighborhood, says, "You can pretty much chart how interesting the tenants are by whether it's a new building or old."

One reason is financial. New retail spaces cost much more to rent: anywhere from $25 to $40 a square foot, compared to rents as low as $15 to $20 a square foot for "less desirable" older properties. "People who want to start their first business can't afford to pay those kinds of prices," the Cha Cha's Ofelt says. And with a large proportion of new retail space consisting of owner-occupied "condo retail," meaning the store's owner bought the space, it will be harder and harder for small, independent businesses to get a foothold in the neighborhood. (Real estate agent Miller estimates condo retail will make up 30 to 40 percent of new retail in the next two years.)

"The Pike Lofts are condo retail, and what's there?" Asks Derschang. "An optician, a lawyer, and an empty space."

Bars and clubs, the first businesses to come to the neighborhood, are even more endangered by new development. Belltown had its housing boom in the 1990s, and condos and clubs have had an acrimonious relationship ever since. New residents move in for the "vibrancy" but expect dead quiet after dark.

"I remember someone saying, 'So what if Linda's goes away? We'll get a new and better bar,'" Derschang says. "No, you won't. The developers are not going to lease to any bars. They don't want to deal with people in the condos complaining about noise from people standing around outside."

It's easy to look at what's happening to Pike/Pine and get discouraged. Many residents approach the changes with resignation. "The kind of thing that fights these [developments] is money. Look at this building we're in right now," Mitchell says, gesturing around the Bus Stop. "There are holes in the ceiling, holes in the floor. There was nothing here but a broken toilet when we moved in. There's nothing to preserve."

Some would argue otherwise. In Ballard, citizens and business owners pushed for—and got—a "historic preservation district," which mandates that landowners preserve the "historic character" of buildings in downtown Ballard. That means no large signs, no shiny awnings, no flashing neon, and no modification or destruction of distinctive or historic buildings. Some residents have discussed the possibility of a similar "conservation district" in Pike/Pine, which would restrict what developers could do with older or historic buildings while encouraging density through infill development like the low-income housing going up at East Pine Street and Broadway.

Additionally, the city could decide to loosen some restrictions (like seismic standards) and get rid of others (like minimum parking requirements) that make rehabilitating old buildings more expensive. Another idea is allowing people who own underutilized property (a three-story building, for example, on land where up to six stories are allowed) to sell their development rights to developers elsewhere in the city; a scheme has been implemented to encourage low-income housing downtown.

"There have got to be ways to creatively encourage developers to rehab old buildings instead of tearing them down," PPUNC member Wall says. "I would like to see the owners of these buildings keep in mind not only making a profit but making a contribution to the culture by encouraging and facilitating good development."

Two women who are doing just that are Anne Michaelson and Liz Dunn, both longtime property owners in the neighborhood. Michaelson owns the Wild Rose building, among other buildings in the area; she says the reason she has hung on to her properties (and kept rents low) for so long is that she's "emotionally involved in the neighborhood... I really care about the people here, all of them. I care about the students, the artists, the homeless people, the alcoholics, the junkies, and the halfway-house people. I want all of them here. Most developers want them out."

Dunn calls her development strategy a combination of sentimentality and economic calculus. "I think building owners tend not to place enough value in those old buildings," Dunn says. "If we tear down all the cool old buildings in Pike/Pine, that neighborhood's not going to be that interesting anymore." Dunn's company, Dunn + Hobbes, developed the award-winning lofts at 13th Avenue and East Union Street and renovated the Piston and Ring Building on 12th Avenue, adjacent to a 24-unit loft project that's currently under construction; she says she tries to rent only to local, independent stores "because if the retailers become really bland and uninteresting the neighborhood won't do well. In the long run, if the neighborhood does well, I do well."

The trouble is—developers' claims of "vibrancy" aside—the neighborhood won't do well if its independent businesses can't survive. No one I talked to for this story was optimistic about the area's future. "We want to move, but I don't know. Finding a space is so hard, and any block can go down at any time," says Gary Zinter, co-owner of the Bus Stop. "It feels like it's turning into Belltown. Like downtown's just creeping up."

Ofelt also invoked Belltown to describe the changes in the neighborhood, as did Derschang and Mitchell. "I'm not slamming Belltown," says Ofelt. "We own a business in Belltown [the Viceroy]. But it is different."

Within a few years, Derschang says wistfully, "we're going to be asking, 'How can we fix Pike/Pine?' the way we talk about fixing Broadway now."

barnett@thestranger.com

 

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