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Neighbor puts Volunteer Park Cafe in a pickle over plans for outdoor seating

**UPDATE 6/29/10 3:31 PM: Volunteer Park Cafe not going anywhere anytime soon**
The Volunteer Park Cafe has been churning out “always fresh goodness” in a former neighborhood grocery store at the corner of 17th and Galer for more than three years but its new effort to add a garden and patio dining has put the restaurant in hot water with the city. A complaint filed by a neighbor with a bone to pick has owners Ericka Burke and Heather Earnhardt scrambling not just to make sure they have the proper permits for their new garden and sidewalk seating plans but also filing paperwork for the restaurant as a whole.

According to an e-mail sent out by the cafe to customers and media, a neighbor who was not happy with VPC’s plans for increased outdoor dining discovered that the 1904 structure’s use is officially approved as a grocery store, not a restaurant. VPC says the neighbor turned them in. It’s a Department of Planning and Development technicality — and a violation of city law, the department’s inspector decided:

Below, you’ll find the note from the cafe e-mailed to the restaurant’s newsletter and media list asking for letters of community support to be sent to Burke at as the restaurant mounts a campaign to have a change of use approved by they city. “We need to present a supportive agreement as to why the city should grant us a change of use,” the e-mail states. “We just need to change our non-conforming use and with support from the community it will happen.” A message posted inside the cafe on Sunday afternoon notified customers that a video was being shot in another effort to illustrate support. Also posted was a fresh DPD permit application notice for sidewalk cafe seating dated June 21.


Photos: CHS

You might have noted that the original complaint was made to the city back in mid-May. In the e-mail, VPC’s owners say they tried to make a “win-win” situation but apparently time has run out. The DPD warning shown above requires compliance by July 1.


Burke and Earnhardt also say that the lease they signed lists the property as a cafe. Seattle Met reports that Burke told the magazine she may have to resort to a lawsuit but is considering buying the building in an effort to keep the matter with their landlady out of court.

There hasn’t been an honest to goodness grocery operating in the space since at least 2002. Before VPC, the building housed the infamously odd Cafe Europa. It apparently also was operating in violation of the city’s muni codes. Volunteer Park Cafe might also not be alone in the neighborhood distinction. Not far away near 19th Ave E and Aloha, the approved use of the building that is home to the usually-packed-with-families Vios Cafe is also listed in the DPD records as “grocery store.” In addition to housing the kid-friendly Greek restaurant, it’s also the location of a dentist’s office.

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126 thoughts on “Neighbor puts Volunteer Park Cafe in a pickle over plans for outdoor seating

  1. But if the Lookout has a “happy neighborhood vibe,” then why are the “crabby ass neighbors” trying to close it down? And keep in mind that while our effort to keep the bar in compliance with the Seattle noise ordinance has been unsuccessful so far, there appears to be a very good chance that the bar’s failure to properly acquire the necessary land use permit may solve that problem for good.

    And although other bars may “contribute to the neighborhood douche baggery,” it is the inconsiderate drunk loudmouths on the Lookout’s rear deck that are keeping us awake at night, in direct violation of the noise ordinance.

    Buy a six pack and yell and scream all night in YOUR OWN back yard, or YOU shut the fuck up. Deal? Deal.

  2. ‘a loyal customer’ says: ‘…Buy a pair of ear plugs and shut the fuck up…’

    cool idea. there are a five-, a seven-, and a nine-year-old child living directly across from the deck that you and your douchebag and bimbo loudmouth drunk friends party on all night.

    when they are woken up by your idiocy and loss of control, should their parents either stuff earplugs into their ears or simply tell them to ‘shut the fuck up’ and go back to sleep?

    let me make it clear again: many people moved here because it is not broadway, it is not 15th, it is not summit. these long-established areas with bars and restaurants are close enough to walk to, but the place we chose to live was across from a landscape company and a corner store.

  3. Let’s just hope that “Not DB” is onto something, and the Lookout’s “Microsoft millionaire” ownership is on the lookout for another place to lose their cash.

  4. I know for a fact that the staff of the Lookout is constantly concerned about the noise on the patio. There are signs posted all over the patio about keeping your voice down after 10pm and I have personally witnessed the staff bringing people inside for being too loud. They truly care about the neighborhood, I mean shit, 2 of them are my neighbors. (I live 2 blocks away). They are friendly, happy people with a thriving business. All of this mean spirited hatred makes me sad. Instead of bitching and moaning and planning futile sabotage plans, you should enjoy a meal and a drink, and see just why MOST of Bellevue ave LOVES the Lookout!!

  5. Mimi, these comments are from the neighbors of the Lookout. Trust us, the signs and concern of the staff are simply not working to bring the Lookout into compliance with the city noise ordinance.

    Put yourself in our position, awakened night after night by drunks shouting from the back deck or from in front of the bar. After a year of sleep regularly interrupted by woefully inconsiderate Lookout patrons, this has gotten very, very tiresome.

    I have no reason to doubt your assessment of the owners. But you and the owners live on YOUR block. None of you live across the street or in any of the condos and apartments facing the back deck, where the Lookout presents a nightly nuisance. Do the owners really care? Then how about closing the deck after 10 PM for starters.

    Time will tell how “futile” our efforts are. The DPD has yet to speak on the matter. We will continue to call the police non-emergency number (625-5011) each and every time the Lookout violates the noise ordinance. State Liquor Board staff have stated that noise complaints to the SPD are considered at liquor license renewal time. Maybe this time, what’s right will speak louder than money.

  6. Can you say, “stick in the mud”? Nothing like a flock of old curmudgeons to blow the whistle on the festivities.

  7. Where ear plugs – it’s a city – that’s what you do when you live in the city. $2 – bartells – grab yourself a pair.

  8. But we CAN blame it on the Lookout, for the simple reason that Lookout patrons are exactly the ones waking us up every night. Before the Lookout opened, the neighborhood was as quiet as any residential part of Capitol Hill. Even its predecessor under the same ownership, Artemis, did not significantly raise nighttime noise in the neighborhood. But then Artemis did not have a back patio, either.

    Sure, it may be “the way people behave today.” But those people didn’t wake us up, night after night after goddamned night, yelling in front of and behind 757 Bellevue Ave E, until the Lookout first occupied that address one year ago.

    I think it’s safe to say there’s a causal relationship there, Diane.

  9. To my friends next door:
    I read all the comments. Some pro some con….
    I think you guys should keep your heads up, stand firm in your beliefs.
    They are the ones in the wrong, if they had a legal business license it wouldn’t even be an issue.
    The old lady that owns the building mislead them, its not your fault.
    When ever I have built anything I get a permit, they should have too, before they started working in the back garden, and they should have walked the neighborhood and talked to everyone to see if it was acceptable to make an addition to the business.

    When I have visited you lately I have a hard time getting in your driveway its blocked by people illegally parking, I wouldn’t like this at my house!
    Its been noisy when I visit and I would not have this at my house. I know you lived there before any restaurant was there!!! From what I’ve read they aren’t coming up with a solution just a lot of bashing, it shows the true personality….dog eat dog, not just a simple quiet eatery as they are trying to portray themselves.
    You custom built the house in a quiet little part of Capitol Hill to raise your kids in a residential neighborhood close to the public elementary school and the local church you go to.
    I know how sensitive you are, but don’t let it get to you, its not your lively hood its theirs.

    Be strong, stand firm and everything will work out to be the way it should be.
    No matter what….. they need to get licensed its up to the city, if you don’t want a restaurant next door let them know about it, its freedom of speech, most of the people that wrote in wouldn’t like it next door to them either, its easy to say they would until some one started building a restaurant next door to them. YOU are the only family next door no one else can know the true impact it has on your household!
    If anyone wants to be next to a restaurant and city life I have a condo for rent in Belltown, Macrina bakery is just as good as VPC!!!!!

  10. I know it must represent a prohibitive bureaucratic nightmare, but what if we had a new building code in Seattle which had a zoning classification for non-franchised, single shop, small businesses, which are locally owned, sourced, and *operated*? This would make room for places like Vios, VPC, Cairo, coffee roasters, local gift shops, art galleries, specialty shops, etc. Yes, this is the stuff of yuppie dreams because it’s the stuff people *value.* Places where neighbors can gather which bring a character to the neighborhood.

    As someone who moved from Queen Anne to CapHill to another place in CapHill to another place in CapHill just a few steps from VPC, I think having a few places like this is what brings charm to the neighborhood, makes for easy living, and generally keeps property values up. Places like this are WHY I moved to the Hill. Throughout Seattle we’ve got houses with business fronts on the first floor which are zoned as grocery stores. The grocery business doesn’t sustain this kind of storefront nowadays especially given our preferences for quick food, our nonchalance with waste, and the high-quality refrigeration in our homes. Most of these storefronts ARE boarded up and are eyesores to the neighborhood.

    They weren’t good neighbors if they decided to expand without talking to their neighbors. I wouldn’t be a good neighbor if I cut down a tree which provided shade to my neighbor’s yard or if I built a huge addition which blocked their sunlight or if I threw parties late into the evening when I know they’ve got young children without CONSULTING THEM. It’s good business to be a good neighbor especially when you own a neighborhood cafe. These ladies and the couple next door should learn a lesson from this – build better fences.

    Yes, these ladies didn’t do the research they should have done. It sounds like the zoning doesn’t permit them to run the business they want to run. Times change. Let’s make this the city we WANT to live in.

  11. Howy,

    It doesn’t matter how long Cafe Europa was there. What matters is what VPC did once they moved in. They built a kitchen.

    None of the previous businesses — cafes or grocery stores — had a kitchen. It wasn’t legal, under the zoning, and wasn’t when VPC moved in. They built it anyway — without a permit and without applying for a zoning change. Not what I’d call “a technicality.”

    “Disingenuous at best” is most accurate when applied to the cafe’s shock, shock in discovering that their zoning does not allow for a restaurant.

    As soon as VPC went public about their plans to expand, neighbors alerted them about the zoning issue and said that if the extension continued, we’d file a complaint. Having no problems with the growth of their own pairs, the cafe responded as they have for the entire time they’ve been in operation and someone came to them with a problem their business created: ignored reasonability and common sense in favor of plunging ahead with what they wanted for the cafe.

    Howy, if you are going to be so rude as to order someone to “grow a pair and negotiate with the cafe owners,” you might want to make sure they had not already for two years tried to negotiate with the owners. Lest you look like an ill-informed who is happy to sling insults under an alias before getting both sides of the story.

    I’m just saying.

  12. Dear Burt Reynolds,

    Does 520 have the legal right to operate? Yes!
    Does VPC? No!

    Three years ago, VPC illegally built a kitchen in a spaced zoned for a grocery store, and began operating a restaurant in a neighborhood otherwise zoned as residential.

    520 = law on their side.
    VPC = no law on their side.

    Mr. Reynolds, you are the poor citizen, supporting illegal business activity because you like them.

    You should move to a neighborhood where small businesses are allowed to operate outside of the law and in total disregard for basic good neighbor behavior such as cleaning up the big messes left by and keeping down the noise caused by their illegal activity. Why not look into Chicago circa Al Capone and let the rest of us get along with life in the neighborhood we bought into and wish to maintain.

    Alle C. Hall,
    Unafraid to put her name behind her sassy opinions. Mr Reynolds?

  13. Business owners are legally permitted to provide services to happy customers as long they stay legal. Once they step outside the law, as is the case with VPC, it is up to VPC to come into conformity with the law.

    The neighbors only come into the picture if and when they file a complaint with the city. These neighbors tried to get the cafe to cooperate about neighborhood issues for more than two years. The only action the cafe took was to go public with Sarah Palin-like aghast and victimization when the neighbors filed the complaint they said they would file if VPC continued their expansion.

    When VPC failed the inspection that resulted from the neighbor’s complaint, they were given months to ask the neighbors to work on a solution. Twice, the neighbors went to the cafe, both times in writing. Twice, VPC wrote that they would get back to us.

    And you see where things are today.

    If after reading all these post, you are still convinced that the neighbors want to drive VPC out of business and that poor little VPC is sittin’ in the corner, all homey and cookin’ up a moose stew, gosh darn it, I have Tea Party candidate for you to vote for.


  14. Dear Mike Silva,

    “Particularly, when you consider that the neighbor purchased the land to build his home from VPC’s landlord in the late 1980s, and built a house smack on top of a retail space that existed there for a hundred years.”

    1805 17th Ave E. is not a retail space. 1501 was given a non-conforming use in an otherwise residential neighborhood to operate as a grocery on the main floor. Not out front, not out back, and not as a restaurant. When “Mr. Crankypants” bought his home, verified with the city that 1501 could never legally operate as a restaurant.

    Rather than trashing him, you should congratulate him on his foresight. Back in the 80s, the now-beautiful homes right across from 1501 were crack houses. “Mr. Crankypants” had the intelligence to understand that neighborhoods change, and for this reason, you should do due diligence before buying a home or — I don’t know, let’s just say: rent a place that looks like a cafe, turn it into a full-service restaurant, and put tens of thousands of dollars into creating a back patio, only to discover that you have no zoning for the cafe itself, let alone the back patio.

  15. Mike Silva:

    You are so right. It is not fair that Mr. Crankypants is so savvy about the local development rules. How was VPC supposed to know they had to read their lease and understand zoning? They’re just trying to run a business.

    And it is a crying shame that rather than trying to negotiate, Mr. Crankypants next door just went ahead and filed his complaint. Couldn’t he at least have tried to talk with them for two years? So what if they initially responded by ignoring him, before moving to full-on mockery. He’s really really rich.

    At the very least, when VPC started building their back patio, Mr. Crankypants could have warned them one last time that he would report them for zoning violation if they continued. Why didn’t he trust them to do the right thing?

    It mystifies me that unlike “Mr. Crankypants,” VPC doesn’t think they are really-really-special-enough. Otherwise, they might have created a full-service restaurant with patio service operating all hours on a street zoned fully residential WITH THE EXCEPTION OF the grocery store they rented as a cafe. Then, they really could have fucked with people they don’t like.

  16. To assume the next-door neighbor had lived with cafes all along and was now upset to be living next to a full-scale restaurant that planned to double its occupancy by adding patio seating, would be … correct.

    WHen VPC took over the space, the owners built a kitchen. Setting aside for a moment the fact that they filed for nary a building permit, let alone for the zoning change that would legalize cafe/no to restaurant/yes, the “cafe” used their illegal kitchen to start serving as a full-scale restaurant. Which, understandably, angered the neighbor.

    And if you claim you wouldn’t mind if this sweet little cafe did that to you and your home, I will call you a big faker.

  17. Wrong. None of the businesses that preceded VPC had the full kitchen that VPC installed — without permitting and without applying for the zoning change needed to legally operate a restaurant.

    VPC can gather all the support the want for their good food. This isn’t a popularity contest. There are laws they have to follow.

  18. I, too, live in the immediate neighborhood and I do not find the tradeoffs of the cafe worth it.

    You will notice that I do not rudely say to you: go find a neighborhood already zoned for restaurants with “a wonderful atmosphere to see a neighbor for coffee, have our children enjoy a familiar place where they feel welcome and safe to enjoy that gumball, … etc.” There are certainly no shortage in Seattle.

    Instead, I say to you: you are clearly a devoted customer. The cafe should listen to you when you say, “You know, I love your food and all, but you have always operated illegally and you started expanding illegally, and you pissed off the most of your adjacent neighbors, always the most likely to file complaints

    Be sensible. Talk to them. Make it work so we can continue to be your customers.”

  19. Jez Manners, you old school Democrat, you!

    You crack the argument clearly into halves– on one hand, the sunny future of life on our ever-appreciating Hill; and on the other, the ashen wreck of that which used to be the homey corner shop — she of gumball-safety fame!! — consumed by the tobacco/weed/meth fireball that was hers to avoid.

    And then you back the business who values its wants and needs over everything else. Even the needs of your own neighbors.

    See, now I’m a new Democrat. I’m not going to worry that what might happen will be so much worse that I’m gonna settle for whatever mess you’re willing to put up with.

    You don’t own the future. Who knows? Maybe VPC will be struck with a bolt of common sense and realize they could scale back their “flagship” store to fit the corporal reality of the neighborhood; let’s just call that: “What they were doing when they first opened.”

    They could then find an ideal place for the destination restaurant they envision. The new store could draw all the “destination” business that is causing the big problems on our street, leaving us once again served by VPC in all its corner shop charm.

    And if they have shot themselves in the foot by breaking all manner of laws and regulations, and by not cooperating with their neighbors, well — there could be another restauranteur who is willing to work within the law and with the neighbors to build on the success of their Culinarily Gifted But With The Business Know-how; Not So Much predecessors.

  20. Remember the article where one of the owners said something like, “Oh that guy who complained, he’s the only neighbor who’s never even come in to buy something.”

    I guess those that buy form VPC are the “real’ neighbors. You know what I mean.

    All those other neighbors, the ones that don’t buy from VPC, they aren’t “real.” Only neihgbors who think the way the attractive and charismatic cafe leaders think are “real.”

  21. Putting out sidewalk seating a la VPC is illegal.

    VPC has a permit to serve beer and wine inside. Their sidewalk permit allows for four tables with two chairs each. (Think: Vios.) They can not serve or bus on the sidewalk, but customers can take their food out to sit.

    No alcohol is legal on the sidewalk, period.

    To answer the original question: seating on the sidewalk becomes “aggressive” when the cafe’s illegal practices interfere with the neighbors willingness to put up with it.

    Once again, if the people who LOVE the cafe and LOVE having a drink on the sunny summer sidewalk would go to the cafe owners and say, “Ladies! Get it together with the laws and with the neighbors,” most of us might end up with the kind of cafe that suits most of our needs.

  22. What worries me most is that the expansion will be handled with the same competency as may of their current business practices.

  23. Mike. You’re on crack. I live nearby. I go into this cafe and ask them to turn down the music and close the door regularly. They do and they are nice about it.

    But the noise comes through the living room on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

    But the real point is that the owners of a local cafe who get in a fight with their neighbors are either complete business idiots or completely spoiled brats. It’s one, the other or both.

  24. Could you tell me where your address is so that I can have 10 folks you don’t know park in front of it every day? Why didn’t they have to go through a parking zone process?

    But in reality, they should really just ask their customers to park up on 15th where there are plenty of spaces. But they don’t do that.