For the last year, another controversy has been quietly brewing on 15th Avenue, at the corner of Republican Street. Last November, City People's Mercantile--a 15th Avenue fixture at that site since 1984--announced it would close after a post-Thanksgiving liquidation sale. Neighbors mourned the loss of the general store, which sold everything from hardware to children's toys. News reports at the time indicated that a Bellevue developer, JSH Properties, had bought the property for $2.6 million dollars and hoped to eventually build apartments on top of street-level retail. Stating that the neighborhood was overbuilt with apartments, JSH Properties' Steve Hansen said his company would fill the space with an "interim retailer."

Just a few months ago, the neighbors found out which retailer would take over the site. Residents of the Twin Gables building, adjacent to Walgreens on Republican, had kept an eye on the site since City People's left. Once demolition began, Twin Gables condo association board member Bryan Bucklin says, their group started to investigate.

"Quite a lot of the building was disappearing, and we were starting to get worried," Bucklin says. "Something was going to happen, but we didn't see a public comment or review process." Neighbors soon found out a Walgreens would be opening in January.

Almost immediately, neighbors opposed the project, which they say slid through the city's permitting process without public review and, moreover, didn't fit into their neighborhood.

Twin Gables residents tried to get a copy of the site's plan and initiate a meeting with the developer to discuss the project. When the meeting didn't materialize--and Walgreens hung a large banner just before Halloween, announcing their arrival and boasting amenities like a 24-hour drive-through pharmacy window--Twin Gables responded in kind by hanging their own banner, a large white sign that read "Walgreens: Bad Neighbor" in bright red letters. A website (www.badwalgreens.com) and an e-mail list were quickly put together, and nearby cafe Victrola Coffee & Art offered up space for a neighborhood meeting.

Neighbors made an exhaustive list of the problems with Walgreens on 15th. Most egregious, they said, was the lack of a public review (the city's Department of Construction and Land Use [DCLU] classified the project as a renovation instead of a new construction, so it didn't require public review). They also noted problems with a drive-through, a reconfigured parking lot (which directed cars through the alley next to the Twin Gables building), an alley loading area, bright lights across from residential homes, and signs that don't mesh with the neighborhood's design plan.

The neighbors didn't stop at complaints; they also put together a list of solutions to lessen Walgreens' impact on their pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. From the Twin Gables residents' perspective, the site needed a landscaped barrier between the parking lot and their homes, as well as quiet deliveries and muted lighting. Other neighborhood folks added to the list, saying low-profile signs and a nicer façade (instead of blank walls) would make the project more bearable.

Their complaints got the attention of the DCLU, the developer, and Walgreens. On Thursday, November 14, DCLU employees met with neighbors at the Miller Community Center on 19th Avenue to answer some of the residents' questions. Neighbors didn't get the answers they wanted, however.

DCLU land use planner Jerry Suder explained to the gathering that Walgreens' plans were in compliance with the city's land use regulations. "If they meet the code, we must issue the permit," Suder told a frustrated crowd. Suder effectively said the DCLU's hands were tied, though they would direct the developers to get rid of the drive-through (it's illegal in a pedestrian zone like 15th; Walgreens has said their sign was mistaken and they never planned a drive-through) and make sure the store's lights pointed away from nearby residences.

Neighbors pushed for another meeting, this time with Walgreens reps. On November 20, in the basement of a Group Health building on 15th, angry neighbors confronted Walgreens real estate manager Kathy Tavitian, two other Walgreens representatives, and the developer. Tavitian announced a few concessions--like the screening fence Twin Gables had asked for, and narrow delivery hours--and promised there would be no drive-through window. Tavitian also pledged to take the neighbors' loud concerns about a proposed tall pole-style Walgreens sign back to headquarters for review.

Several days later, Walgreens axed their plans for the poletop sign. Bucklin and other residents--who are "encouraged, but still vigilant"--are hacking out definitive plans for the other promised concessions, like the screening fence and limited deliveries, and want a letter from Walgreens addressing those issues. "They've asked what it's going to take to get the [Walgreens: Bad Neighbor] banner down," Bucklin says. "The letter has to be signed. We may want to see actual implementations before we take down the banner."

And that's not the end for 15th Avenue residents who oppose Walgreens: They're still miffed that there wasn't a public review in the first place, and plan to lobby the DCLU for changes in the land use code. "I think DCLU is actually largely at fault," Bucklin says. "They need to make changes in their policies and practices."

Sean Reid contributed to this story.

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