Benz Friendz, an auto-repair shop in Georgetown on Flora Avenue, specializes in fixing old Mercedes-Benzes. The shop's large metal barn, plopped between two houses, has served as a repair center for the last 20 years: Spare parts line the walls, three cars await service with their hoods up, and fiftysomething owner Rob Cairnie buzzes around, directing his crew. Out in the shop's lot, a half-dozen other cars wait for repairs.

Owners of older Mercedes-Benzes love him: He's got a vast knowledge of the classic cars, and he's adept at repairing them. "They bend over backwards to help people," says a longtime customer, Debbie. "They are decent, hardworking gentlemen, and they've been there for so long."

But plenty of Georgetown residents want him out of the neighborhood. For years, Cairnie has put up with neighbors who call and complain about his shop (there are too many cars in the yard, he's parked on the street, he's open too late). But in the past few months, those neighbors have turned up the heat: They've been petitioning the city to close the place down. The battle reflects Georgetown's changing spirit. While the area used to have an industrial flavor, it's been discovered as an affordable residential haven, with trendy restaurants, cool bars, and artists' studios. The median home price in 2001 was just $166,000, which made it the cheapest neighborhood in town. To buy an average home there, you only need to make about $42,000 a year.

Joe Hasson, Cairnie's 83-year-old landlord, has seen the change. "I think the new people buying houses in Georgetown--because houses are cheaper--want to make it extra-special residential," he says with a sigh. "They want to make Georgetown like the Magnolia area."

Georgetown Community Council Vice-Chair Allen Phillips is one of the people who discovered the neighborhood in the last few years. When he moved to Georgetown in 1998, he saw Benz Friendz and thought it was an out-of-place wrecking yard. He says the shop is ugly, and Cairnie isn't a good neighbor. Plus, he alleges, the whole operation is illegal in a residential area. "I'm doing what I can to shut this place down," admits Phillips, a friendly man with a slight Southern lilt. He has a yellow envelope of evidence that Cairnie's business is illegal.

Phillips and his allies contend that Benz Friendz's permit to operate in a residential section of Georgetown was issued erroneously 16 years ago. In 1986, Cairnie and Hasson got a non-conforming use permit, arguing that an auto-repair shop had always been at the site, and was therefore legal in a residential zone under grandfathering laws. But Phillips disputes that, citing his evidence: Records from the King County Assessor, old phone books, and insurance maps show that the building was used for storage in the past, not auto repair. "We've done a hell of a lot of research," Phillips says. "The city issued the permit illegally."

Phillips took over the campaign to oust Benz Friendz last fall, and sent a letter to the city's Department of Design, Construction and Land Use (DCLU) in February, outlining his case. The DCLU wrote back, saying the mechanic's non-conforming use permit was legal, and that Phillips' evidence was insufficient. Phillips and a few other Georgetown residents plan to meet with the DCLU soon to appeal.

Phillips enlisted State Representative Velma Veloria, and booked an August 12 meeting with Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis to fill him in on the Benz Friendz saga. "He seemed to be impressed with my documents," Phillips says proudly. "Nobody ever brings this much documentation."

Marianne Bichsel, spokesperson for the mayor, says Ceis met with Phillips and then asked the DCLU to take another look at it. Diane Sugimura, DCLU's director, says there's nothing in their file on Benz Friendz to indicate the 1986 permit was issued in error.

Phillips plans on presenting his own file of evidence to the DCLU soon, and appealing the Benz Friendz permit. If that doesn't work, he and a few other residents may talk to the state attorney general. In the meantime, they are keeping an eye on the shop and reporting any violation of the special rules Cairnie has to follow in a residential zone.

The scrutiny has put a squeeze on how much work Benz Friendz can do, Cairnie says. "My books are off 60 percent," he says. "And they keep on chasing us."