In Praise of the ‘Ave’ reprinted from Aug 4th 2010 edition of Pacific Publishing Newspapers in Seattle (Carolee Colter and John V. Fox)

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University District small businesses under threat

(Note: Carolee and I wrote the following piece back in 2010 but it seemed appropriate to run it again given current sweeping plans to upzone two-thirds of the UDistrict for highrises. The rest of the neighborhood also would not be spared some upzoning. Unless there are fundamental changes/additions to that plan, the result will be massive and wholesale displacement of existing small businesses and loss of most of the 1500 units of low income and affordable housing that fills the community.

For years, large property owners, developers, and the University of Washington have sought a massive remake of the community and removal of it’s unique multi-ethnic, historic, funky, and affordable character. Their lament, for as long as I remember, has been “oh why can’t we be more like University Village.” Now, thanks to their pal Mayor Murray and his “Grand Bargain” they finally may get their wish.

Many in the community however are pushing back including small businesses, housing advocates, tenants, and homeowners. You could help by calling or writing councilmembers today to urge them to oppose the UDistrict upzone plan, and tell them instead to put first things first and address problems we’re seeing now due to runaway growth under current zoning. Ask them instead to approve developer impact fees to help pay for the backlog of infrastructure needs and approve a ‘no-net’ loss policy that requires developers to replace 1 for 1 any low cost housing they remove. Remember, they’re coming for your neighborhood next

As you read along, just substitute the words “University District Partnership” for “Chamber of Commerce” and switch around some of the names and faces. Anyway, here you go.)

We’re hearing it again, the hue and cry from the University District Chamber of Commerce that the “U-District” and its main thoroughfare, University Way or “the Ave,” have become another Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Drugs and crime are rampant!” and “Where are the police when you need them?” and “All our customers have left us for University Village.” That’s what councilmembers Tim Burgess and Sally Bagshaw of City Council’s Public Safety Committee heard from key landowners on a recent morning tour of the District hosted by the local Chamber.

Since my days as a student at the University of Washington in the late 60’s to early 70’s, I haven’t strayed far from the District. Most of that time, I’ve lived and or worked here. Scarcely a day or evening goes by that doesn’t take me down the Ave to meet someone for lunch, dinner, or a drink, or walk between work and home. I’ve kept a UW Daily from 1970 featuring the same stories we read today about the druggies hanging out on the Ave and fears about rising crime rates. The Chamber is quoted railing about all the street kids running amok and driving away businesses and shoppers. They were hippies, not punkers or Goths back then but the moaning and groaning sound like today.

Because the Ave is the backbone of the University District, it always has been and always will be a place where young people congregate. By its nature it’s a liberal community that tolerates/attracts/encourages diversity of lifestyles, behaviors and politics. People who stand out like a sore thumb somewhere else go unnoticed along the Ave. Every day is Halloween here–one of the reasons why the Ave appeals to me.

As for its youth character, it reflects the best and worst. If drugs are a problem in society as a whole, it’s on display for all to see along the Ave. If poverty and homelessness are problems in the larger community, they’re on display there, too. Crime rates, by the way, are on par with other neighborhood business districts, no better, no worse.

The District’s so-called seedy reputation is more myth than reality, fueled by the Chamber’s constant complaints. If only they’d spend as much time marketing the good things about the District! Over my decades here, day or night, I’ve only felt threatened once and that was solved by walking away and calling police.

Ironically, the district’s alleged reputation helps keep rents lower on the storefronts (although still too high) allowing small independent first-time businesses to give it a go here. No other area of the City offers so much ethnic diversity with first generation immigrants running unique little niche shops and restaurants, (Southeast Seattle notwithstanding.) After a while the chain stores give up on the Ave and move to the strip malls (thank heavens).

No other area in the Northwest offers so many movie theaters, inexpensive restaurants, sporting events on campus, and bars and clubs, all within easy walking distance. There are more churches here than anywhere else in the City. The U District is the intellectual center of the city, tied to the campus with bookstores, libraries, and other activities including a performance hall, two art museums, and three theatre companies.

Don’t get me wrong. The District has its problems. For my list:

Ø Too much redevelopment, demolition of low-cost housing opportunities and displacement of small businesses. Some of it is due to the University’s insatiable quest to expand. (City Hall currently is on a crusade to upzone this neighborhood meaning even more displacement)

Ø A cabal of large property owners controlling most of the Ave and dictating rents, sometimes resulting in empty storefronts. In hard times, why don’t they either negotiate better deals to keep loyal businesses or to fill an empty storefront?

Ø Instead of embracing and marketing the District’s youthful and ethnic character, chamber types seem always to be fighting against it, fruitlessly fixating on or trying to emulate their pretentiously bland rival, U Village.

Ø Not enough services, community based treatment, and housing for those in need, especially homeless youth. That’s the way to get serious about the panhandling, drugs, and homelessness we see on the Ave.

I’m more than a casual observer of the District’s goings-on, and frankly it actually seems quieter and less raucous here today. In 2002, police shot and killed a young man who pointed a BB gun at them in front of the Rite-Aid. A few blocks away about that time police shot and killed a disturbed young man who refused to drop his knife when ordered. In the mid-nineties, an all ages club on the Ave at closing time often was the scene of fights and even gunfire on a couple of occasions.

Of course if you go back to the 60’s and 70’s, those were the days of massive anti-war protests, flag burnings, and overturned dumpsters. Police covered their badges and clubbed protestors, and once donned civilian garb and marauded through campus beating up “longhairs”.

No, today things along the Ave seem downright sedate. I recommend you all come down and visit.

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About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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