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Volunteer Park Cafe not going anywhere anytime soon

Despite a “compliance due” date of July 1st, CHS comments talking about padlocks on the doors and this Slog post and interview with one of the restaurant’s owners, a violation of the city’s land use law isn’t going to close the Volunteer Park Cafe on Thursday. Or next Thursday. Or many, many Thursdays from now. In fact, according to information provided to CHS by a Department of Planning and Development spokesperson, VPC will have months to put its business in order and work through the public process that surrounds a change of use application with the City of Seattle.

Between Tea and Wine

Originally uploaded by decoypdx

“There is a date for compliance,” DPD spokesperson Bryan Stevens tells CHS. “If people are making progress, we will give them time.” Stevens said that process could take anywhere from three to five months. And while it plays out, VPC is free to continue its business.

“As long as they are making progress, we do allow them to stay in operation,” Stevens said.

As we first reported this weekend, VPC has found itself in a bind as a dispute with a neighbor over the restaurant’s ambitious plans for increased outdoor dining has boiled over into a violation of the city’s land use rules .

Stevens said it’s a matter of history that modern businesses ever existed at 17th and Galer — and that same history might be what allows VPC to win its effort to change the allowed use for the 1904 building. “A store technically isn’t allowed in this zone,” Stevens said. “Since the store has been there for over 100 years, there is an opportunity to change the use.”

Here is what comes next. Volunteer Park Cafe’s owners Ericka Burke and Heather Earnhardt must submit an application for a change of use with the DPD. Once that application has been received and publicly posted (you’ll see a sign go up at VPC and a notice on the DPD Web site… and CHS, of course), there will be a two week public comment period. During those 14 days, neighbors, community members and lovers of scones can send in their feedback to the DPD. You’ll find information on how to address those comments when the notice goes out.

What follows after that is what will guarantee that VPC is free to continue business until at least early fall. Stevens says that DPD will conduct an analysis, weigh feedback and write a decision. That process is not a quick one and could take weeks. And even then there will be more public process. After the decision is published, there will be another 14-day period for public feedback. Any appeals will be heard by the city’s hearing examiner, not DPD.

“When you have a public process it takes a little longer to complete,” Stevens said.

Here is the section of the muni code describing the process and outlining the factors DPD will be considering:

SMC 23.42.110 Change from one nonconforming use to another nonconforming use.

A nonconforming use may be converted by an administrative conditional use authorization to another use not otherwise permitted in the zone subject to the following limitations and conditions.

A. In single-family, residential small lot, and Lowrise, Duplex/Triplex zones, a nonconforming multifamily use or structure may not be converted to any nonresidential use not otherwise permitted in the zone.

B. The proposed new use must be no more detrimental to properties in the zone and vicinity than the existing use. This determination shall be based on consideration of the following factors:

1. The zones in which both the existing use and the proposed new use are allowed;

2. The number of employees and clients associated or expected with the proposed use;

3. The relative parking, traffic, light, glare, noise, odor and similar impacts of the two uses and how these impacts could be mitigated.

C. The existence of a single residential unit, such as a caretaker’s or proprietor’s unit, accessory to a nonconforming commercial use shall not be treated as having established a residential use, and such a unit may be converted or changed provided that it is the only residential use in the structure and comprises less than half of the total floor area of the structure.

D. Parking requirements for the proposed use shall be determined by the Director.

E. If the new use is permitted, the Director may require mitigation measures, including but not limited to landscaping, sound barriers or fences, mounding or berming, adjustments to yards or parking standards, design modification, or limiting hours of operation.

One additional factor that might be in VPC’s favor: According to Stevens, part of the analysis on change of use situations is whether the change will be more detrimental to surrounding properties than the use that the structure had already been approved for. In essence, VPC’s application to change the building’s approved use to restaurant won’t be weighed against the impact a busy cafe makes in comparison to a single family home but, instead, with a grocery store.

On the other hand, another recent example of a similar situation in Beacon Hill raised in the CHS comments shows just how expensive and challenging and extensive grapple with the DPD can be.

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15 thoughts on “Volunteer Park Cafe not going anywhere anytime soon

  1. Thanks for the informative post.

    Just curious, are there any nearby property owners negatively affected by the business who purchased their property before this location was a business?

    With the possible exception of later evening hours, I cannot see a meaningful distinction between the burdens caused by a restaurant, and those posed by a grocery store. Both are commercial uses that attract traffic and customers, both generate garbage, and both have the potential to be noisy.

  2. I am glad – I see no reason this rule should be a club to close this business.

    In fact, it is the opposite of community building.

  3. It’s a shame the neighbor decided to go down this path. I mean, how is this course of action the least bit constructive?

  4. RE: “You might want to read the other thread associated with this issue!”

    Yes, I had, which is why I queried if any neighbor complaining about current business purchased before this parcel was designated for a business use (which it apparently was in or around 1905).

  5. I love N. cap hill so much more now that the VPC is a part of it. A place to eat within a block away, a place to meet neighbors, organic food and community. It’s lovely and adds value to the neighborhood. I hope this zoning issue can be worked out. it would be a shame to lose the jewel of the neighborhood.

  6. I live just a few houses away from the VPC. Like the neighbors who have filed the complaint, I bought my house knowing that there was a commercial establishment in the immediate neighborhood. As many have noted, it’s been a commercial establishment for roughly 100 years.

    I agree with other commenters that there’s little difference in impact between a grocery store and a café, though personally speaking I much prefer the café. In my opinion, it’s a wonderful amenity for the neighborhood in a way that a little convenience store would not be. Sure, there’s going to be a range of opinions as to whether or not you’re a fan of VPC in particular, though my sense in the neighborhood is that fans far outweigh detractors. Seems to me, though, that if the neighbors have concerns about specific issues (such as the way the alley dumpsters are handled) then the proper course of action is to address those issues in particular rather than attacking the right of the VPC to exist at all. Anonymous posters claiming that VPC is a “bad neighbor” are clearly a lot more interested in getting other folks riled up with their childish antics than they are in the vibrancy of a wonderful neighborhood.

  7. I can appreciate that a neighbor might not want the restaraunt near his house. I don’t know how long he has been in residence, but there was a grocery business there before and a restaraunt for years after. I really appreciate the local restaraunts as a breathe of fresh air for the neighborhood to the standard box restaraunts that fog the landscape today. I would hope that the neighbor would find a way to resolve the issues. I would hate to lose the local availability of this great asset.

  8. This is a looong post, and I apologize … but hope people will read it.

    As a nearby neighbor of VPC, I welcome a good public process to resolve this by no later than the fall. I hope it doesn’t become expensive or involve lots of legal fees, because I think the VPC should exist, with limits. Some points:

    1. I’m surprised that people might see the comparison as being of an average neighborhood grocery vs. an average neighborhood cafe. I’d guess that most neighborhood groceries of the size/location of the VPC space have perhaps a dozen customers at any one time. VPC, due to great food, reasonable prices and lack of nearby competition, is far busier, especially at lunchtime (when people fill almost all of the current 40ish indoor and outdoor seats). The line for service sometimes goes out the door. Dinners don’t overwhelm the space in that way, but the cafe’s reputation is growing, and the p.r. surrounding this fracas is likely to draw even more people.

    2. I suppose it’s natural (and customer-service-oriented) that the cafe owners wanted to add seating in the backyard. Maybe I missed an announcement, but I don’t think they have ever stated the number of seats. I’d guess at least 2 dozen more seats should fit. **Is it fair** to nearby neighbors (and consistent with city policy) to have this former grocery become a 70-seat restaurant in an area zoned residential? No!

    3. Ericka and Heather didn’t make much effort to reach out to nearby neighbors. I’m confused and sad about this, as someone who is a good customer and who has tried to be neighborly to them. Unless I’ve missed something, they remain vague about their plans. They said last week that the vagueness is because they haven’t figured things out yet. But, back in the spring they put out p.r. about using that backyard for not just seating, but also a large barbecue (think about grilling for dozens of customers). That’s something else not appropriate for this location.

    4. My position: Let’s support the cafe AND the nearby neighbors by urging that the owners propose a specific plan, that the cafe use be permitted, and that reasonable limits be set on critical issues such as seating and hours of operation. There should also be agreement in areas such as how the cafe will better handle its often overflowing trash/recycling, and delivery trucks that park illegally and partly block the westbound lane of Galer.

    5. Let’s stick to the issues. It’s unfair for anyone to vilify the neighbor who tolerated the increased noise, trash, parking squeeze, etc. that has resulted over their years as the store changed from grocery to destination restaurant.

  9. VPC moved forward with plans to put in backyard seating for a 30+ person meal service til 11pm at night without taking the neighbors into consideration, nor asking for their input. They also planned to put in a huge BBQ literally a couple of feet from the neighbors wooden fence. The whole time they told the neighbors that it was just going to be garden seating that people could take their coffee out to, which the neighbors did not object to. It was only after The neighbors learned of VPC’s true intentions that they filed a complaint. Lack of respect for your neighbors is just unprofessional and bad business. VPC is twisting the truth to make themselves look like the victims when their plans are simply too ambitious for the space. In the long-run their business would benefit from a larger space that could support their growth. Capitol Hill’s 19th Street would be a great location for the business–it’s zoned to meet their needs and VPC can still serve their same client base.

  10. Your question is a reasonable one, but you may have come to a wrong conclusion based on parts of the story you might not understand.

    Before opening, VPC remodeled, putting in a full kitchen and taking out the cold case that allowedthe previous cafes to legally operate as a grocery store.

    None of the groceries or cafes that occupied 1501 previous to VPC had a kitchen.

    At the time of their remodel, VPC applied neither for kitchen permitting or zoning change

    Thus, from the beginning, VPC has operated illegally as a restaurant in a space zoned for a grocery store, without operating a grocery store.

    To answer your first question, YES. Everyone concerned with the VPC’s back patio expansion bought well before VPC opened three years ago. We bought next to a small cafe who had no legal right to expand into a restaurant. VPC didn’t have their right either. They just did it.

    More to the point: VPC then proceeded to make a great deal of distinction between the burdens caused by previous owners and the burdens caused by VPC. Which is why they find themselves in a very bad situation.

  11. It would be a shame, but it is important to recognize the neighbors are not asking VPC to close or move.

    The neighbors are asking VPC to curtail their business to inside on the first floor, which was the way VPC operated when they first opened.

    Despite the two years of back and forth rats and garbage that usually goes on between neighbors and restaurants, none of the neighbors filed any complaints with the city until VPC broke ground on their back patio extension.

    At that point, neighbors told VPC that if they continued their work on the expansion, we would file a zoning complaint.

    VPC has always had the power to nip this argument in the bud. We have always wondered why they put their energy in to talking to the press and their customers aboutthe nasty neighbor trying to shut them down, instead of responding to our numerous requests to talk about mitigating the situation.

  12. “I agree with other commenters that there’s little difference in impact between a grocery store.”

    I live closer to the cafe than you do, Paul, so maybe my house absorbs enough of the brunt that you can feel free to enjoy nothing but the good parts of living next to the cafe.

    “Seems to me, though, that if the neighbors have concerns about specific issues (such as the way the alley dumpsters are handled) then the proper course of action is to address those issues in particular .. “

    We have. Many, many, many times.

    It was only after the complaint went to the city that the cafe owners bothered to reply with “We’ll talk it over and get back to you.” Which they did not.

    I’m just wondering what you would do, Paul, with a neighbor who simply refused to change their illegal and disrespectful behaviors no matter how many times you went directly to them. How long would you put up with it until you turned to someone who had the power to make them comply?

    I know it is hard to believe, given how bright and cheery the cafe is to their customers. So you can believe them or you can believe me when I say: they are as bright and cheery to you as you are unilaterally supportive of them

    ” … rather than attacking the right of the VPC to exist at all.”
    Show me once where any neighbor’s insisted that VPC close.

    We filed a complaint about a zoning violation. The most the city can do in this instance is order VPC to comply with zoning. All VPC has to do come into compliance for a grocery store or apply to change to restaurant zoning. Which they are in the process of doing.

    Who was it then, that got the neighborhood all riled up with childhood antics: “An unhappy is making our lives difficult.” “He doesn’t like our beautiful patio and garden!” “We need your love letters!”

    It was the cafe, Paul.

    The cafe started this, first in how they went about their expansion and then in their public slamming of Paul when he filed the complaint.

    If you can’t see their part in this, Paul, you don’t want to see it.

    Anonymous posters claiming that VPC is a “bad neighbor” are clearly a lot more interested in getting other folks riled up with their childish antics than they are in the vibrancy of a wonderful neighborhood.

  13. I’ve been by there when I venture back into my old neighborhood. What I’ve noticed that they haven’t done very well is keep the sidewalk clear in front of their establishment with their outdoor dining.
    I lived in the neighborhood when that was “Groucho’s”–the neighborhood store to get milk, candy, cigarettes, etc. So, I hope the restaurant gets the very clear message they need to stick to not only the spirit of zoning law but the letter as well. Or as another poster says: move to 19th Avenue East into a building zoned for restaurants. I bet there are some vacancies between about the 300 block of 19th Avenue East to about the 1200 block.