As 17th and Galer turns: Latest from the Volunteer Park Cafe dispute

It’s been a while since we updated the situation around the Volunteer Park Cafe and a dispute with neighbors at 17th and Galer that has grown into a major land use process with the City of Seattle. The last time we broached the subject to round-up some of the top CHS food + drink stories of 2010, the comments again crackled with frustration from all sides — those who oppose the cafe’s effort to secure the city’s permission to continue operating at the site, those who support it, and those who have heard just about enough, thank you very much. But the story has progressed and news is afoot. We’re stepping back in.


Coming soon is likely a public hearing on the Volunteer Park Cafe’s application for a change of use permit to formally allow the business to continuing operating as a restaurant on 17th Ave. Mike Silva, a consultant hired by the cafe to assist with the change of use, said the goal is to kick-start dialogue and publicly put to rest some of the ongoing misinformation Silva says the Volunteer Park Neighbors group is spreading about what the cafe is trying to accomplish. “We’d like to address this in a public forum, where the city can corroborate that, ‘yes, indeed, it’s not part of the application, so won’t be permitted.'”

In June 2010, we first reported on the dispute between a neighbor and the Volunteer Park Cafe that lead to a complaint with the city that the cafe was operating illegally as a restaurant in a building permitted only as a grocery market. In October, we documented the objections to the application of the Volunteer Park Neighbors group and their nine proposals for the cafe to continue operating in the neighborhood as a restaurant. You can learn more on their Web site http://vpneighbors.wordpress.com/

With bringing on Silva as a consultant, the cafe isn’t the only side that has geared up for the dispute.

CHS has learned the neighbor group opposing the cafe is working with high-powered Seattle lawyer Peter Buck of the Buck Law Group and DPD is already facing significant legal questions. According to DPD’s Bryan Stevens, Buck, who Stevens says represents a number of neighbors concerned about the proposal, has filed a request for an interpretation of DPD’s application of the land use code. “Mr. Buck is suggesting that the originally permitted use has lapsed and therefore the space cannot be changed to a restaurant use,” Stevens said. In other words, Stevens says Buck is questioning whether it is even legal for DPD to grant a change of use in the case. Stevens says DPD must answer that one prior to making a decision on the cafe’s proposal.

Meanwhile, the Volunteer Park Neighbors have company. A new group, Friends and Neighbors of Volunteer Park Cafe, has formed to support the cafe in the neighborhood. Silva tells CHS the group has collected signatures for a petition supporting the cafe from neighbors on the immediate block — minus a few who side with the VPN. With FNVPC, VPN, consultants and lawyers, we’re hoping day to day life isn’t too weird on 17th Ave.

What’s next is more time for additional information requested by DPD to be gathered and then time for the department to make a decision. Prior to the holidays, DPD was still saying “several months” and told us one key component still required was a parking study from the cafe to examine conditions on the streets near the restaurant. VPN’s spokesperson Cliff Meyer said he believes the cafe’s Heather Earnhardt and Ericka Burke are dragging their feet on the study to delay a decision. The cafe says the delay is due to a change in the request from DPD to require a professional traffic consultant to perform the study and the difficulty in finding an available consultant.

As for the upcoming public hearing, Meyer said he supports a public dialogue but that it would have been more appropriate last summer and that he believes this, too, is a stalling tactic.

Stalling or not, the costs for VPC continue to mount. In addition to whatever fees owed to consultants for the information they are responsible for providing, Earnhardt and Burke have also payed around $3,500 in fees to DPD for various forms and filings thus far. Silva says the cafe is getting support from the Office of Economic Development which has provided a staffer to help navigate DPD’s permits and procedures. And he says the support from the community continues to be strong. You can sign up for a supporters e-mail list here http://www.alwaysfreshgoodness.com/supportVPC.html

We also asked Meyer for an update on his group’s activities. Given some of the past frustrations with our coverage of his group’s issues, we’ve included Meyer’s update, in full, here:

Public hearing
VPC would have to pay DPD to hold a public hearing — probably costing $1,000, from what I’m told. If VPC is considering this expense, I’d rather see them use that kind of cash to feed the homeless. It’s hard to believe that a hearing would provide DPD with new information beyond the comments already submitted, although it would further emphasize how VPC’s attempt to expand illegally has led to divisiveness in our neighborhood.
VPN has no issue with all the people who love the food at VPC, and would like a neighborhood cafe on that corner. In fact, I remain one of those people! VPN hopes all cafe supporters will urge Ericka and Heather to honor our neighborhood’s residential zoning — and the rights of nearby neighbors — by agreeing to some reasonable, binding limits VPN proposed for the size of their restaurant.
Opinion is split
Neighbors’ opinion is split almost evenly on VPC’s plan for a restaurant with patio seating. We are heartened by the support we found in canvassing the neighborhood in the fall. We visited the homes of  112 nearby residents and learned 44.3% oppose both the restaurant legalization and use of patio. More information at http://wp.me/p13gjT-sTand background on the canvassing is at http://wp.me/p13gjT-vm
VPN encourages dialogue on the facts
Volunteer Park Neighbors would like to invite neighbors to discuss the issues in small-group salons, to be scheduled at people’s convenience. Contact us at volparkneighbors@gmail.com or 425-298-6575. More info at http://wp.me/p13gjT-vv
Parking Study?
We’re eagerly awaiting results of the parking study that DPD requested 3 months ago from the Cafe. VPC has moved so slowly in its attempt to become a legal business that we wonder if they have any respect for the zoning law meant to protect the neighbors who live near their business. I think they know that promoting the restaurant as a citywide destination ensures that the parking demand is far greater than that of a little grocery store. The data some of the neighbors collected show that the cafe draws many cars to the neighborhood. See http://wp.me/p13gjT-z5
VPC office is illegal
We’re gratified that DPD determined that the cafe owners cannot use this application to expand the building’s non-residential uses to the second floor, where VPC currently — illegally — has an office. That space is supposed to be residential. (This was in the Dec. 15 Correction Notice, which also requested floor and site plans from VPC.)
We’d STILL like to support the cafe
We remain open to hearing from the cafe’s owners, and would support legalization if they and the building owner agreed in a legally binding document to a few conditions, primarily that the restaurant won’t expand beyond the first floor’s interior.

102 thoughts on “As 17th and Galer turns: Latest from the Volunteer Park Cafe dispute

  1. A few days ago, I saw an argument between neighbors right across from the cafe. I think it was an argument. One woman was yelling a lot and the other was mostly calm and just responding.

    I haven’t ever commented on this blog, although I have read it regularly since this started. I am a loyal cafe customer, and want them to continue. Originally, i really wanted the patio to be a great place to have a great summer dinner, because I know Ericka could do that really well.

    Then, one of the people who are against the cafe came around door to door. She was really respectful and honest, and she answered my questions so that i understood some things that I had asked Ericka to explain once, but she couldn’t.

    The woman from VPN never asked me to change my opinion, but she did ask what I planned to write to DPD, if I sent them a letter. I said Ii now agreed with VPN, that the cafe becoming a restaurant was a good idea, but that having seats in the back was too big for the neighborhood. I said that I still really, really wanted the cafe to stay. She said something that was o logical that I still remember it. She said, “That sounds like something you can write to DPD.”

    This VPN woman was one of the women in the fight the other day, in front of the house right across from the cafe. She was the one staying very calm and trying to answer the other woman, who was really screaming at her about the cafe problem.

    Since the VPN woman came to my door, i see her now in the mornings when she walks her child to school. Some of the cafe staff and some customers make fun what she is wearing or her hair (I think she has really cool hair), and I still have not been brave enough to say, “She came to my door. She is very respectful and listened really well.”

    I probably never will because I know I am not brave in that way. I could never do what she does, or the other neighbors who are standing up even when it is not the popular or easy opinion. And I like the cafe enough that I will keep going. It makes me kind of hypocritical, I know that. I don’t really know what to do except post here and hope that the VPN group knows that there are people in the neighborhood who support them, even if we don’t say anything.

    I don’t I think l will go to the public meeting that they are talking about. I am worried that everyone will just scream a lot. II felt really bad the other day, when I saw the neighbor scream mean, mean things at at VPN then slam the door on her. Other customers in the cafe saw it, too, and I don’t think it is fair to the VPN.

    i wish VPC would not have that meeting.

  2. Smitty,
    I am a loyal cafe customer and I want them to get their restaurant land-use. (I wrote about this in the next comment.) But now that I understand the technical issues better, what the cafe wants to do is illegal. They want to have what they call commercial use on the back patio, but the back patio has the zoning of the neighborhood, which is residential. The VPN page points to city documents that describe this, so even though I love the cafe and like Heather a lot, it is not legal to have a business out there.

    So it is our business if it is in the VPC’s yard because the yard is residential. That’s why the cafe is breaking the law, because you can’t have a business in a residential zone.

    Also, even though the cafe is a neighborhood place, on days that it is busy, there are a lot more cars parked on the street. so that means that all those people are driving HERE, which wastes gas, too.