OUT OF GROCERIES Just one of Broadway’s ugly, low-rise, and empty buildings. Alice Wheeler
Last week, ominous posters sprouted on telephone poles throughout Capitol Hill. "Stop the Destruction of Broadway!" the flyers barked, urging residents to hit a May 3 meeting on the future of their neighborhood.

No doubt the notices garnered attention. Broadway, Capitol Hill's main drag, has been on the decline for years, and it's quite possible the retail strip has hit its lowest point: A QFC building at East Republican Street is now boarded up, and surrounded by a chainlink fence--the grocery behemoth moved next door, where it displaced a few shops. Bartell's, one door north, is vacant, its windows papered over. A Safeway across the street is also empty. A Kinko's at East Denny Way is vacant and dark, as is an adjacent restaurant. Several more shops, like Rado Clothing at East John Street, are advertising closing sales. Even beloved staples like Bailey/Coy Books have made it known their sales are slipping. This street definitely needs help.

Unfortunately, the neighborhood flyers were a call to arms against the one proposal that could actually save Broadway: Mayor Greg Nickels recently sent legislation to the city council that would allow taller buildings on the strip, which would encourage redevelopment. The proposal is just the thing to aid the ailing street.

Not so, says the poster: Nickels' plan to raise Broadway's roofs "may block sunlight, destroy buildings that give character to our neighborhood, [and] eliminate views." Loudly anti-heights neighbors spoke up against the proposal at the May 3 meeting.

Two years ago, folks on Broadway were just as agitated as they are now. A handful of Broadway leaders made a pitch to the city: Let property owners build housing over retail on Broadway. The redeveloped buildings would be a sign of investment, drawing in new residents (who might move from within the neighborhood, freeing up their likely lower-cost former housing) and then new retail. Moreover, putting housing right in the middle of the neighborhood--on Broadway, not two blocks away--would put more bodies on that street, which in turn would give retail shops more customers, enhance street life, and boost public safety. It's a long-term strategy that sure beats out neighborhood e-mail reminders--like one that went out on May 10--to patronize shops like Bailey/Coy, lest they go belly up.

There was a catch, however. Property owners--like Bob Burkheimer, whose company owns the block at Republican, the one now known for the empty QFC--said they needed to be able to build 65-foot buildings in order to make their redevelopment work. The current height restrictions, which cap Broadway buildings at 40 feet, or about four stories, mean that the cost of construction isn't worth it to those footing the bill, like Burkheimer and also Sy Iffert, who owns property at John. (Iffert's looked into redeveloping his building twice and shelved the 40-foot plans both times. "It's absolutely impossible," he says.)

The taller Broadway idea initially met city resistance. Then a study by the firm Gardner Johnson, completed in late 2003, confirmed that the 40-foot height restriction is a "limiting factor" for Broadway developers. Neighborhood business leaders hoped the study would prompt the city to raise building heights, but folks like Burkheimer weren't holding their breath. "Call me in about a year or two," an exasperated Burkheimer told The Stranger in 2003, "when Broadway hits bottom."

Thankfully, two years later--as Broadway is hitting bottom--the proposal is in front of the city council. The stakes are high: If it passes, developers--like the new owners of the empty Safeway property--say they'll develop tall, multiuse buildings that boost Broadway. If it fails, the big vacant buildings will likely remain empty (or, hardly better, fill with chain retail stores), and the rest of Broadway's mostly one- and two-story buildings, like Iffert's, will stagnate.

The proposal could fail if the city council listens to anti-heights neighbors, like the ones putting up the alarmist flyers.

It turns out Capitol Hill Community Council president Ann Donovan--usually the calm, mediating, even unopinionated voice in neighborhood debates--had printed up the "Stop the Destruction of Broadway!" flyers. Based on her testimony and comments to developers after the May 3 meeting, it's clear Donovan is on board with keeping Broadway's squat status quo.

About half the people who showed up, many at the behest of the posters, were there to rail against a higher Broadway. Most had reactionary arguments that echoed the flyers, including fears that 65-foot buildings--the same height as those on nearby, thriving streets like Olive Way, and

Pike and Pine Streets, by the way--would turn Broadway into a dark and dreary canyon. Donovan herself showcased a neighborhood survey that claimed the majority of Capitol Hill folks were opposed to taller buildings--though the survey included just seven business owners, and not a single Broadway property owner. "People felt that four stories is adequate," she said at the meeting. In an e-mail to the mayor's office, she further explained the neighborhood position, as she saw it: "We DO want the vacant [buildings] to get redeveloped with attractive mixed-use structures," she wrote. "Preferably at four stories as present." Simply put, critics of increased heights want it both ways: They want developers to help Broadway, but they aren't willing to outright help the developers.

Those opposed to raising heights throw out other irrational sound bites in favor of the status quo: Taller buildings will turn Broadway into Belltown, they say, and ruin Capitol Hill's "character." The neighborhood is "dense enough" already, and greedy developers could swing four-story buildings now, if they really wanted to help the neighborhood.

Hopefully, the city council will see through those arguments. The mayor's proposal won't turn Broadway into Belltown--where buildings can be 30 stories, five times six. Moreover, only a handful of Broadway buildings are expected to redevelop in the next few years. The Capitol Hill pro-density camp, including Broadway neighbor Matthew Amster-Burton (a guy who also chairs Seattle's Pedestrian Advisory Board), points out that a six-story building, in relation to the width of Broadway, is a near-perfect pedestrian-friendly ratio. Plus, he says, adding housing to Broadway proper would enhance its "urban character," not ruin it. As for Capitol Hill being "dense enough," very little of that density is in the Broadway business district, which counts fewer than 1,000 residents. "We have the capacity here to absorb a lot more people," Amster-Burton says, which would both benefit businesses and reduce housing costs in the neighborhood.

Finally, a look at either Burkheimer's or Iffert's properties refutes the "greedy developer" argument. If a four-story building could work, wouldn't they have made that investment years ago, instead of letting their buildings go vacant?

amy@thestranger.com