The neighborhood between Capitol Hill, First Hill, and the Central District--otherwise known as Squire Park--is crammed with East-African businesses. In the small square from Cherry to Jefferson Streets, and 12th to 14th Avenues, nearly two dozen of these mom-and-pop businesses, many of them Ethiopian owned, offer everything from traditional dresses to injera bread. The area is so dense with Ethiopian restaurants and shops that neighbors refer to it as Little Ethiopia or Downtown Addis.

At the northern edge of this little ethnic enclave, in a green warehouse-style building, eight small businesses--a salon, a retail shop, a sign maker, and a realtor, among others--have been humming along for nearly five years. Adwa Productions anchors the space, selling everything from T-shirts screen-printed with East African and Rastafarian images, to silver jewelry, CDs, and framed art. The multi-service building functions as a de facto community center for local Ethiopians; children chase each other through the shops while their parents browse or chat. The halls are lined with posters--in both English and Amharic--advertising calling cards with low rates to East Africa, or giving notice of upcoming community events. "If people have immigration problems or questions of what to do, they come here," explains longtime neighbor Ron Boddie, who heads up the Squire Park Community Council (SPCC).

In December, however, nearby Seattle University bought the half-acre property for $2 million, after having its eye on the space for decades. (The university, as a "major institution," is limited to purchasing property within a city-approved "master plan" zone, and often purchases property in that zone as it becomes available.) They told tenants--like Netsanet Solomon, who runs the Queen Sheba salon, while her husband Tsegaye Milke heads up adjacent Adwa Productions--to vacate by July 31. SU doesn't have immediate plans to redevelop the space. The university's 6,000-student main campus is a block from the businesses, at 12th Avenue and Cherry Street, though satellite buildings, like a gym, are scattered throughout the neighborhood.

The neighborhood is now scrambling to keep the businesses in Squire Park past July--losing them could gut Little Ethiopia. The businesses have put down roots, and clearly want to stay where they are. "If I move from here it's going to be a disaster," Solomon says, sitting in the store last Sunday afternoon among racks of jewel-toned scarves and stacks of drums. She wrote a letter to Mayor Greg Nickels on April 2, asking for "any help with this dilemma." Neighbors who patronize the businesses don't want them to go. "What we want is for the businesses to stay [at 13th Avenue and Cherry Street] until we can find them another space in this area," says Boddie.

Interestingly, the current Squire Park situation is shaping up as a potential repeat of recent neighborhood history: In 2000, the school purchased a lot across Cherry Street from the Adwa site, intent on building a bookstore topped with graduate-student housing. A popular Ethiopian restaurant, Meskal, had to move out to make way for construction. But today, the site is an undeveloped parking lot--a victim of the economy's downturn, says Denis Ransmeier, the vice president of finance at Seattle University. Neighbors' conventional wisdom is that it's premature to eject the businesses at 13th Avenue and Cherry Street if university redevelopment is distant, and the school's bookstore project hasn't even broken ground. "Why are you going to insist that [these businesses] move when you're not doing anything over there?" Community Council President Boddie asks.

With that in mind, Boddie has been acting as a go-between for the businesses and the university, doing his best to diplomatically negotiate a "win-win." "We want to keep everything positive, and see what we can do," Boddie says, explaining that the neighborhood has built a collaborative relationship with the university in recent years that he's trying to maintain. He'd like to convince Seattle University to let the businesses stick around for another year or two, until suitable replacement space can be found--or developed--in the neighborhood. "If Seattle University is not going to build this year or next year, Adwa could stay here," Boddie says hopefully.

Ransmeier says that plan is a no-go. The 13th Avenue and Cherry Street building is uninhabitable, he explains, though the former owner rented out commercial space. "It's an old building that doesn't meet code. We have a building… that's essentially illegally occupied," he says (the city's building inspectors have no violations on file for the space). "We wouldn't put our own people in it."

The school's also trying hard to be diplomatic, extending the original May 31 vacate date after they discovered the building's previous owner hadn't told tenants they would need to move, Ransmeier explains. And the university's not collecting rent, so the businesses can save up cash to move. The school has even researched other spaces in the area that the businesses might be able to move into, though Ransmeier acknowledges that rents in the developing neighborhood are steep. But the reality is, the university doesn't want to be in the commercial landlord business. "I don't know what people are going to be able to do," he sighs. "It's awkward."

amy@thestranger.com

IN OTHER NEIGHBORHOODS

FREMONT: The Fremont Neighborhood Council has a newly proposed tactic to combat drunken debauchery in the neighborhood, where the nightlife has been booming in the past few years. The council plans to oppose all liquor-license renewal applications from bars that haven't hashed out a Good Neighbor Agreement and hired private security to patrol the neighborhood. PRITCHARD BEACH: Residents near this Southeast Seattle beach have been fighting the city for two years to restore a $40,000 "temporary" budget cut that nixed their lifeguard. Pritchard neighbors' pleas were rejected again by Mayor Greg Nickels on March 29. "It's just too much trouble for him to amend the budget," neighbor Rebecka McKinney says wryly. FIRST HILL: For the past three and a half years, there's been a gigantic hole at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Madison Street, just across I-5 from downtown. Developers AvalonBay broke ground in August of 2001--ripping down the neighborhood's only grocery store in the process--to build a 16-story high-end office and luxury residential tower, but scrapped the project soon after the economy tanked. Neighbors were thankful to learn this spring that new developers have taken over the site, and plan to build a grocery store topped by market-rate housing. --AJ

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