On a typical weekend morning, the line at the Volunteer Park Cafe snakes out the door. Neighbors greet each other, children play on the sidewalk, dogs are tied to every spare surface. Sure, the food is exceptional, but then so is the cafe: Located in north Capitol Hill a block from its namesake in an old converted house, it's one of a handful of Seattle businesses that are allowed to operate in residential neighborhoods.
Simply stated, it's a neighborhood treasure—one that city leaders agree there should be more of in Seattle.
To make that happen, the Seattle City Council's land use committee has set a May 9 vote on legislation that would allow more neighborhood treasures—corner retail stores, bodegas, and other small-scale commercial businesses—to open in select residential zones. "It's a small but significant change," explains Richard Conlin, the legislation's sponsor. "We're talking about making neighborhood corner stores the norm rather than the exception."
The measure, which is part of an eight-part zoning-reform package being considered by the committee, would update the city's outdated 1950s land use regulations to allow 2,500-square-foot commercial spaces in residential areas near urban villages and light rail stops.
It's expected to pass—provided the standard NIMBY carping doesn't derail it—and if it does, small business uses would suddenly be allowed on 90 new blocks on Capitol Hill. The University District would be similarly affected. It would help new small business owners set up shop around Seattle without committing them to the pricier overhead of renting space in more established areas, like Capitol Hill's Broadway. It would also reinforce the psychic shift happening in Seattle development, as the city evolves from segregated business districts surrounded by sprawling single-family neighborhoods to an integrated city with light rail, corner stores, and neighborhood cafes—much like New York and Chicago.
Conlin says some members of the East District Council, the Capitol Hill Community Council, and the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce support the change, in theory, however no formal vote has been taken (as that would be way too productive for members of these councils). But, predictably, some residents are lobbying to kill the measure—or, at the very least, cut it off at the knees by restricting businesses to arterial streets only (a change that would cut the city's eligible areas by 60 percent). Calling the legislation "Orwellian," Jeannie Hale, a Laurelhurst resident and president of the Seattle Community Council Federation, argued in an April 11 letter to the council that the zoning change would create "noise, pollution, congestion, and other disruption" in neighborhoods, forcing families to flee to the suburbs as evil businesses encroach on their peace and quiet.
Hale didn't return calls for comment, but Conlin says her fears are baseless. Citywide noise ordinances would apply to new businesses, and "we're not looking at allowing destination services," Conlin explains. "We're talking about corner stores and walkable businesses that residents want near their homes. I really have a hard time seeing increased problems from this."
"We've fostered monocultural neighborhoods for too long," Conlin continues. "It's time for this change."
This article has been updated since its original publication.