Will the Ave as we know it survive the pandemic?
Will the Ave as we know it survive the pandemic? Charles Mudede

After meeting and talking with a number of business owners and urban advocates, I've come to the conclusion that landlords with deep pockets are trying to choke the life out of one of Seattle's most famous streets, the Ave.

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I will present my evidence for this conclusion in a moment, but first I want my position on urban matters not to be confused with the knee-jerk anti-density types. I'm an urbanist, though not a market-oriented one. I strongly believe that there is no future for humans if most of us are not soon concentrated into areas that are very small. Density is energy efficient, and so is public transportation.

This is why the bad news is not that the University District was upzoned, and is soon to be connected to a light rail system that will run from Northgate to the Sea-Tac area, and from downtown Seattle to downtown Bellevue. The problem is these developments will be structured in a context that always benefits those at the top.

That said, let's have a look at the Ave.

John Owen, Makers Architecture

As I said before, the small businesses (restaurants, bars, shops) on the Ave have been hit hard by the pandemic for a number of reasons. One, the three-month lockdown brought commercial activity in the whole city to a standstill. But after the lockdown was lifted and the economy gradually reopened, the Ave was met with another and possibly lethal difficulty: the University of Washington transported 90% of its courses from real-space to cyberspace. This resulted in a terrific reduction of the Ave's main source of income: UW students.

To make matters worse, it is unlikely that students will return until fall of 2021, a possibility that heavily depends on how Americans will vote on November 3, 2020. If Biden is elected, then we can expect that science's role in federal-level pandemic responses and rules will increase considerably. But science will still be stuck in the shadows until Biden is sworn in. That happens in late January 2021. And when it happens, it will give science enough time to impose the behavioral and logistical regimes that could conceivably have the virus under control by fall of 2021. That, at this point, these ifs are our best shot. It is either that or a catastrophic experiment in herd immunity.

What's to be done with a future that looks as bleak as this? For small businesses, the chances for survival will be greatly improved if the street is taken away from cars and handed in its entirely to pedestrians, to consumers, to outdoor drinking and dining. A car-less Ave would be safer, and it would potentially attract business from outside the standard circle of student consumers. I suggested this idea in late summer. But the idea, in another and less radical (and therefore more feasible) form, was set in motion long before my article was posted. A group called Together On the Ave created Summer on the Ave (PDF), a project that would minimize the impact of cars, enhance pedestrian access, and claim more of the street for outside dining and drinking.

I had a Zoom meeting with this organization. It is composed of business owners and urban activists who are mindful of the challenges that the pandemic poses to the Ave, which is a diverse welter of cafes, bars, groceries, and shops.

The Ave is one of the most cosmopolitan cores in the city. An impressive 65% of its small businesses are owned "by women or persons of color" (PDF).

Together on the Ave worked long and hard with the city to create an Ave that could rejuvenate small-scale commerce and infuse the street with the right destiny. Summer on the Ave would initiate from this point the march towards a city that a clean-energy future can only understand: the car reduced from necessity to a rare luxury.

According to the organization's research, 73% of the businesses (93% of which are non-white) supported the Summer on the Ave. And just 11% (40% of which are white-owned) opposed it. Twenty-three businesses applied for an outdoor permit. The Seattle Department of Transportation was down with the plan. SDOT had arranged for a reduction in car traffic, and for bus traffic to be relocated to another corridor—Metro advertised that buses would run on 15th beginning on September 5th. Everything was ready to go when, at the very last minute (literally the day before the plan was implemented), SDOT pulled the plug. Why? Is the word "cowardice" familiar to you?

Ethan Bergerson of SDOT in an email:

[...To] clarify, it is not accurate to state that SDOT pulled out of the Summer On the Ave plan because that is not our role in the process.

We created tools to help small businesses be successful during the ongoing public health crisis that have shown success in other neighborhoods. One such tool is the temporary street closure permit. The goal of this permit is to create more space for businesses to operate safely by using the streets and sidewalks. Our role is to work with communities when they decide collectively on the best way to leverage these tools.

In early August, we received a permit application from Summer on the Ave proposing a partial street closure of University Way NE. Shortly thereafter, we began receiving communications from the University District Partnership (UDP) expressing concerns over this proposal.

In the following weeks, we prioritized communication with both parties to ensure as much transparency throughout this process as possible while continuing to encourage communication. On September 3, 2020, we notified all parties which were involved in the process that we were not approving the permit at that time because these permits are intended to support adjacent businesses, and it was clear from the ongoing correspondence with both the UDP and Summer on the Ave that there was not general support for this proposal among the businesses along the University Way NE.

After consulting our partners at the Seattle Office of Economic Development, we believe that support from the UDP is needed for us to issue this street closure permit given the potential impacts to businesses. We would like to acknowledge Summer on the Ave’s hard work in organizing and preparing this proposal. We are working with Summer on the Ave to help interested businesses apply for individual permits for business uses such as temporary outdoor cafes and merchandise displays. We remain open to working on a street closure if the issues expressed by UDP were resolved.

We believe? The University District Partnership? This organization, which appears to represent the deepest pockets on the Ave, attacked the plan like a predator on the prey's jugular and snapped the life out of it. SDOT did not even try to oppose them. It is clear the city fears their power. Re-read the SDOT email. It's dripping with fear. And, in fact, when I asked why they so easily submitted to the concerns of the University District Partnership, which refused to answer my questions about its power and influence, the SDOT went silent. This wordless fear. But why the fear? What is so scary about UDP? And why did it not support a plan that was popular with small businesses, despite promoting on its website the Ave's "walkability?"

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At this point, I can't give a hard answer. But let's step back and look at the Ave from the perspective of deep capital. The street is dominated by small businesses that, until recently, made a modest living. But anyone with any familiarity with the history of capitalism knows that doing just fine doesn't cut it for the Lords of the Universe. The area was up-zoned, it will soon be a major hub on the growing light rail system, and the UW has an academic reputation that's in the same snobby club as Oxford and Harvard. Combine these developments with the defining character of a market crash, which is to concentrate wealth (think of how the jupitarian WaMu was absorb by the galactic Chase), and you will see something of the Ave from the position of a powerful property owner.

The small businesses only amount to scratch, and they are apparently treated as such. According to Together on the Ave, which is pushing hard for a car-reduced/pedestrian-increased spring, the majority of businesses on the street have month-to-month leases. This exposes them to the risk of sudden expulsion or hikes. But even the most brazen increase of rent is still peanuts when compared to the kind of speculative capital that an Ave-wide redevelopment scheme could lock in flashy towers and gentrific commercial spaces.

And it is here we realize what capitalism truely is. It's not selling and buying. It is speculation. If a landowner wants to make big the bucks on a piece of property, he/she must remove the small businesses and begin building luxury this and that for upscale students from around the world and plushed-out urban types who want market-priced walkability. Why wait for the end of the pandemic when you can now take advantage of the crisis by squashing the scratch (rent from small concerns) and begin directing massive flows of capital to this one speculative potential: the Ave.

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