Volunteer Park Cafe’s paperwork is in: Public process on restaurant’s future begins

One of the most important applications ever filled out by Heather Earnhardt and Ericka Burke is now in the hands of the City of Seattle — and the neighbors and community members who now have the opportunity to formally sound off on the future of the Volunteer Park Cafe.

Owners Earnhardt and Burke have submitted their paperwork for an administrative conditional use permit that will allow the nearly four-year-old cafe to continue operating as a restaurant at an address that is only legally zoned for a grocery market. We’re working to get the application from DPD to post on CHS for all to see without making the trek down to the Seattle Municipal Tower on 5th Ave.


We have confirmed that the application has been accepted by the city but not yet posted in the Department of Planning and Development land use bulletins so the clock is not yet ticking for interested parties to submit their feedback on the application. Once the bulletin goes up — and a notice is posted at the cafe — there will be a two week public comment period. During those 14 days, neighbors, community members and Seattle foodies can send in their feedback to DPD. We’ll have more on that once a DPD planner has been assigned and we know where to direct feedback.

Once feedback is collected, the DPD planner will conduct an analysis, weigh feedback and write a decision. After the decision is published, there will be another 14-day period for additional public feedback. Any appeals will be heard by the city’s hearing examiner, not DPD. DPD staff have told CHS that it will likely take months for a decision on the application. In the meantime, Volunteer Park Cafe will be able to continue to operate at its location at the corner of 17th Ave East and East Galer.

The application stems from a dispute first reported by CHS in June in which a neighbor reported the cafe to the city for violating land use codes by operating a restaurant in a location where only a market was permitted. Volunteer Park Cafe claimed ignorance of the zoning issue and pledged to clear things up with the city. But neighbors living near the cafe say only getting the paperwork in order won’t be enough. CHS spoke with the neighbor who first reported the cafe to the city about his concerns about Volunteer Park’s growth.

“I think a neighborhood cafe is an asset to the community,” Volunteer Park Cafe neighbor Paul Jones said. “But the issue is the growth that they have had. The expansion they have had is out of scale with what the neighborhood can support.”

A group forming to represent neighbors’ needs in the feedback process with the city provided a seven point list to CHS of areas they would like to see addressed before the cafe is authorized for the change of use.

  • Fire safety related to a busy commercial kitchen in a residential neighborhood
  • Limited seating
  • No crowding of sidewalk with patio seating
  • Fix overflowing dumpsters
  • Better solution for delivery trucks
  • Limited operating hours and patio and garden hours
  • Better parking solutions
  • CHS doesn’t typically give DPD land use bulletins this level of attention but the situation surrounding the cafe — as anybody who has witnessed the comment threads on CHS posts about the matter — represents many important Capitol Hill themes and is a significant land use decision in terms of how the neighborhood balances its growth as a business center and its desirability as a place to live. Themes are one thing. There is also the hard work of Burke and Earnhardt to consider in all of this and the real lives of the people who live nearby. Nowhere is the comment meme of “why do you live on Capitol Hill? move to Kent” less applicable. Nor does it seem like a positive solution for the cafe to be forced off 17th Ave East. People on all sides of the equation have valid, worthwhile points. Watching how the city functions to balance these and forge a solution everybody can live and do business with will be fascinating and important precedent for what life will be like for people living in Seattle’s most vibrant areas and the entrepreneurs who want to do business in that vibrant environment.

    18 thoughts on “Volunteer Park Cafe’s paperwork is in: Public process on restaurant’s future begins

    1. Thank you, Justin, for your even presentation of the baseline issues. I appreciate that in your last graph, you mention that “Like it or move” is an inappropriate argument for these pages. All of us have the right to work for what we want to see happen in our neighborhoods.

      The VPC’s owners are not the only ones who have worked hard. Anyone who owns on North Capitol Hill works hard to be here. I understand that the cafe’s hard work results in good food and a pleasant community place and ours might appear, on the outside, to be the result of lucky sperm and/or a Gordon Gecko pursuit of wealth. I speak only for myself when I say: that is not my story.

      I understand that the cafe owners and their employees feel our needs threaten their incomes. I would like to point out that all of us have a financial stake in the outcome.

      When VPC opened, I loved everything they stood for. Before they opened, they hosted a pumpkin carving. Because it was held on Halloween weekend, I assumed it was a costume party. My young son and I charged into the cafe (still under construction for that darn kitchen which has resulted in so much trouble) in full pirate regalia. My husband taped diapers to the corners of a diaper box, cut holes for his eyes, and went as Diaper Man. In a scene right out of “Legally Blonde,” we were, of course, the only ones in costume.

      Heather and Ericka laughed right along with us. They celebrated with us, too, when our daughter was born. We passed down a bunch of baby clothes and a double stroller, and wept alongside them as life turned in ways no one could understand. I always thought that when I published a book, I would hold my launch party at the cafe.

      I was shocked and disappointed when the articles started appearing last June, slamming my neighbor Paul Jones; you know, the one dubbed “Mr. Cranky Pants,” “Mr. Roper,” and “That fucker” by journalists and bloggers who had never met him and who showed no interest in his perspective. Two instances define the Jones family for me. The first: when that storm with hurricane winds smashed a good 20 feet of fence between our yards, Paul was out there the next morning, fixing it. He wouldn’t even let us cover the supplies. The second: on Yom Kippur, his wife looked up what you are “supposed” to say in greeting: “Have an easy fast.” I was so touched that she went to the effort to find out what Yom Kippur meant to me and to want to honor it in a way that I would prefer.

      That this good family was being maligned by the cafe pushed me past my “I care for my neighbors but I like the cafe” waffling.

      It has been incredibly painful to hear friends and neighbors tell me directly that while they understood that the cafe was operating illegally and that they personally wouldn’t enjoy the big patio rocking every night right next door, they still wanted to be able to have dinner on the patio in the summer. Some were wiling to listen to my perspective, but none were willing to go to the cafe and say, “Ladies, as much as I like your food, why can’t you do some of the stuff the neighbors are asking? This whole mess could be avoided if you’d do the right thing.”

      All of this has made me question what it really means to be a good neighbor and be great for the community? Does being a good neighbor extend beyond running an appealing business? Or does it also mean taking the time and energy to pay attention to the few whom your work is truly harming? Does adding to the community mean charging for a service the community clearly wants and is willing to pay for? Or does it also necessitate taking time away from the pursuit of direct success to focus on smaller needs, with an understanding that the overall good is at stake?

      I understand that most people want the cafe to be able to grow however they please, so that they can indeed have their al fresco summer evenings and pleasantly drunken wine dinners. I don’t really expect many to understand that, for me, this is about more than a good night out. This is where I live.

      All I can ask is that people do more than react to the cafe’s false battle cry of “They want to shut us down!” That has never been true. I ask people to talk to those of us most aversely affected, to listen to our points, and to make an informed decision.

      Thank you for taking the time to read.

      Alle C. Hall

    2. Frankly, after all these posts, I can’t for the life of me figure out how you are so “adversely affected”.

      Your long post is how you feel, but, balanced about how you feel are many other legal and community issues – of course – those you dismiss.

      By the way, community is a much larger concept than one block. It also has a dynamic far greater than just what the very close and biased neighbors think.

      As cities must change, NIMBY doesn’t work. And you have firmly set your position on that stale idea.

      I am certain your opposition will fail. And, hope you can handle that with grace and charm and friendship with the hard working women owned business.

      In the mean, I will continue to eat there, be charmed and pleased. And it has nothing to do with wine, I drink the finest at my home, not at a cozy lunch.

      I wonder if their hundreds of regular patrons will get involved in this debate? I think they might.

      Cheers.

      Mike with Curls

    3. I’ve never eaten there and I don’t even know exactly where it is, but it seems pretty clear to me: The two lady owners got a little cocky, overplayed their hand and now it’s biting them in the a@@. That seems to be an upper middle class neighborhood and i’m guessing for most of the surrounding families, that house is their primary investment in life. And people think it’s OK for a business operating illegally to mess with that?! No way. No f’ing way. If I was shopping for a house and I saw a business operating next door in the way it’s been reported this one to be, I wouldn’t even consider it. You are messing with the value of these people’s most valuable asset. That just isn’t right. Period. I’m sure it’s a fine restaurant, I’m sure the food is wonderful, I’m sure the ladies work their butts off – but these homeowners have a right to protect their investment.

      Oh, and for the guy who said “I drink the finest wine at home.” Do you realize what a d-bag you sound like?!

    4. The corner has been a business as long as the houses near have been there – depending on the year, small grocery or cafe. Some compelling and legally tested grandfather use issues. And, I bet, when current owners bought their houses, lo, the corner was indeed a business.

      The wine thing, in the above post the poster talked of people lounging there in a wine induced haze … not hardly. Like most patrons, you have a glass of the house wine and save the finer stuff for later. The cafe is nice, but not a wine bar, of which there are five or six on C. Hill who do it well. In my case, I pour the really good stuff at my house with friends….. not sure why that is douchey, whatever that means.

      So the name calling starts, from people who support the neighbors. Is there a trend here?

      Limited mixed use is the trend of this era, and frankly, the cafe in its classic ” small old building”, well preserved, adds value to the surrounding blocks, it is not a negative. And this neighborhood is NOT a posh gated community, just nice older homes of which there are thousands in the older, finer neighborhoods of Seattle, ie. Queen Ann, Magnolia, and so forth.

    5. When VPC took over, they built a kitchen, radically increasing their scope of the business. All other businesses in that space operated within their zoning: grocery store. VPC is a full-service restaurant, for which they are not zoned. The real conflict began when they wanted to expand with a back patio.

      Grateful codicil:
      Thank you very much, kbb, whomever you are! The neighbors get a lot of flack over our position, often from people who whose primary argument is that the cafe has the right to run a business; the primary arguement for that statement being that they like the cafe.

    6. Mike with Curls,

      You have been and continue to be a troll on this topic. Can you for once not feed your ego and comment? You don’t understand the topic, can’t take an objective view, and are constantly throwing fuel on the fire by making up issues that are not relevant.

      Just once, can you please take a break? I understand this will be hard for you but I know you can do it.

    7. I’m pretty sure there has not been a full blown restaurant in this space, ever. Which is what it is now, even if the name is Cafe.

      Restaurants require a type 1 hood, fire suppression, and if new, will need to adhere to all current building and health codes for the new use. I’m pretty sure there is only one bathroom there, which limits occupancy of a restaurant to 12 in King County. They will also need to be ADA compliant for ANY improvements they need to do to the space. ADA is never grandfathered despite what people think. A percentage of the improvement value MUST be spent on accessibility.

      I think what has happened here, is a small baking operation saw a taste of success, and quietly started adding and adding until what we have now no longer fits the “cafe” moniker and is in essence operating as a full blown restaurant. It is going to be very difficult to continue operating as a restaurant even if the DPD approves the change of use. Now that the city is involved there are codes and regulations that must be met which I’m guessing are not in place and there are plenty of people who will be quick to point these out.

      It’s a shame the 2 owners thought they could operate without the cooperation of those around them, in the end it’s going to cost them their business.

      I am a neighbor, and I’m not a fan. Even less after seeing how these 2 conduct business. I wish them no ill will, but I do hope they take from this a lesson on how to conduct business and operate in a neighborhood setting and use these lessons in their next venture.

    8. Oh come on.

      In the giant pond called community, only a few of the ducks are yours. What you mean when you say I don’t understand is that I don’t agree.

      Somewhere I read that is OK in our system, free speech, many opinions, diversity, ten roads to Rome, etc.

      In the end, the disposition of the city on this issue is all that counts …. will be interesting to follow it to the end ….. of course, that might be Superior Court. I am sure there is an appeal process beyond the city board, hmmmmm.

    9. It’s good to have Mike’s POV in this but agreed that it would be good for people to take an ‘anti-inflammatory’ approach to the discussion. ‘I am certain your opposition will fail’ = fighting words. It seems useful to me to avoid that kind of talk.

      I do — like Mike — wonder about how VPC’s customers will weigh in on this whole thing.

    10. Thank you Justin – I am not sure why saying your point of view will not prevail = equals anything that is fighting.

      I have been amazed how vehemently contrary the neighbors are, after the lid came off and the discussions started

      I do believe the hearing process will be full blown and fair to all parties.

      I will put my incisive tongue on mute …. or very low grade muzzle.

      (by the way, if you like the place, eating there or not, that is important community support which translates to saying let it stay, it adds value to the larger neighborhood)

    11. Re” “I’m pretty sure there has not been a full blown restaurant in this space, ever.”

      Correct.

      Under VPC’s current zoning — grocery — it is illegal to have the kitchen VPC added before they opened. As a side note; when they added the kitchen, they did not file for a permit to do so.

    12. Anyone seen the kitchen? Is it a full blown commercial kitchen with hood? Hoods require a mechanical permit too, and I’m pretty sure they’re cooking with oils, so they would also need fire suppression, clean outs, and grease collection on their hood. King County also requires grease traps to be used on drains, and prep kitchens need proper plumbing to ensure contamination from the sewer doesn’t go up the pipe into the sink (there’s a break between the sink and the floor drain). Were these rules followed?

    13. Parking and access is an issue too, given the size of the operation. And I like the VPC! But, it turns out that that particular block of 17th Ave, not like the continuation of 17th across the street, or 16th nearby, is very narrow. With cars parking on both sides only one car can get through the street. Its very tight. The VPC adds a lot of traffic to the street. And …some of it is careless traffic – speeds on 17th and on Garfield (at the other end of the block from Galer) are far too fast for the neighborhood, which includes a lot of kids. Cars speed up and down Garfield where visibility, due to a hill, is limited. Between the narrowness of 17th and the speeds that the patrons travel there will be trouble sometime.

    14. These are good questions to ask the cafe.

      Volunteer Park Neighbors has worked solely to find a way for VPC to operate in a way that both neighbors and the cafe benefit. We filed a complaint about misuse of zoning. Beyond zoning violations, no one that I know has filed complaints about — I guess you’d call them fire safety codes or coming up to codes.

    15. While there’s a lot of emotions, I suspect the city will skip all that and approve the change-in-use for reasons that are essentially “follow the money”. A change-in-use will support increased revenue for the city. But the change will be contingent on bringing the restaurant up to code, which to no surprise will generate additional permit fees for the city. I also wouldn’t be surprised if penalties are assessed for making modifications without having the proper permits.

      In the end, the real question will be whether VPC has the financial ability to make the business “whole” with the city’s requirements for a restaurant. If they do, they’ll likely get their change-in-use approved.

    16. In passing this restaurant I have noticed birds flying into some large holes that have been created in the bricks under the eaves. They appear to be nesting there. I am concerned what might be found in the walls of this buiding. Will it even pass an inspection to be used as a restaurant?

    17. Sandy – I am curious where you think hundreds of millions of birds worldwide in EVERY city on the planet, just where they nest? Of choice.

      In the eves, No cats, shaded, stable, food supplies near, and with flying ability, the eves are easily accessed. Some birds re-use nesting year after year …experts?

      It will not be a problem, ’cause it is very common. Just a hunch, there are birds in the eves of some of the houses in the near neighborhood.

      Cheers, Mike, who has always longed for wings. And even without, flies once in a while …

    18. VPC, please, please, please, move to Southeast Capitol Hill–there are some lovely spots on 18th and Union, bordering the Central District (not sure the zoning). We would love to have you as a neighbor! I live in this neighborhood so I can walk to brunch, coffee, dinner, and be part of a vibrant cultural scene. I understand that this means parking will be more difficult and it may occasionally be noisy. It is worth it, in my opinion.