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Inside Volunteer Park Cafe’s application: 9 proposals to be a better neighbor

As we reported last week, Volunteer Park Cafe’s application to have the zoning changed for its 17th and Galer Capitol Hill location has been turned in to the Department of Planning and Development. This Thursday, the land use bulletin was posted (both online and, per requirements, at the restaurant) and the two-week public comment period on the application has begun. CHS has reviewed VPC’s application — and a two-inch stack of support letters the cafe submitted with the application — and has details below as well as information about how you can add your support to the VPC stack, voice your concerns about allowing the change of use, or both.

We’ve included images of pages from Volunteer Park Cafe’s application here. DPD doesn’t yet provide digital copies of applications and VPC has not, yet, made the document available. If you would like to review the documents, you’ll need to make a trip downtown to the Seattle Muni building to visit DPD’s Public Resource Center. Ask for Project #3011437.

The key pages of the application for neighbors and community members who have voiced concern about the growth of the cafe contain this summary list of the 9 mitigation measures VPC is proposing to convince planners to grant the change of use:

Here are more pictures of a few key segments of the mutli-page document. It’s best viewed in full screen.

As we noted, the DPD folder for Project #3011437 also contains a big stack of letters from the initial June plea for help from VPC sent to followers of their e-mail newsletter, posted in the cafe and published on CHS. Most are from neighbors and people from across the city lending their support and describing what they like about the cafe. There are a few hillebrities in the mix — Dave Einmo from Head Like a Kite, for example — and a few key allies. A letter from the neighbors living directly across the street from the cafe says that family does not side with the “complainants” and that they like having the restaurant on their street. We also found a letter from the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce. Director Michael Wells was brave enough to get involved in the controversial issue where neighbor rights mix with commercial development.

We talked to Wells now that the application is in and more of the neighbor complaints have been brought to light. He says he still supports the cafe. “We sent a letter of support because we obviously support what Volunteer Park is trying to do to build a healthy, sustainable business there,” Wells said. But he also is eager to see VPC work out a good solution with its neighbors.

“I’d hate to see this successful business not find a way to adapt to the concerns of the neighborhood,” Wells said.

According to Wells, the Chamber has offered to help with mediation between neighbors upset with the expanding cafe and Volunteer Park’s owners, Ericka Burke and Heather Earnhardt who are Chamber members. Wells said, so far, nobody has taken him up on the offer.

How to add your comment
Public comment on the application may be submitted to DPD through October 13th. You can submit your comments online here. Once feedback is collected, DPD planner Scott Kemp 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.

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26 thoughts on “Inside Volunteer Park Cafe’s application: 9 proposals to be a better neighbor

  1. As a VPC neighbor who has been clearly identified on CHS and in other media, I was surprised to read the following comment from the Chamber of Commerce’s Michael Wells:

    “According to Wells, the Chamber has offered to help with mediation between neighbors upset with the expanding cafe and Volunteer Park’s owners, Ericka Burke and Heather Earnhardt who are Chamber members. Wells said, so far, nobody has taken him up on the offer.”

    Hmm. Mr. Wells has not approached any neighbors about such a mediation, so apparently the above sentence should read:

    Wells said, so far, the Volunteer Park Cafe has not taken him up on the offer.

    And, that, in a nutshell is why this illegal restaurant is now facing shutdown: its owners for months have ignored or paid lip service to neighbors who want only to ensure that a restaurant of *reasonable* scale and hours is in that building.

  2. I’m sorry if my comments weren’t clear on this issue. We offered our help in mediation specifically to the Department of Planning and Development, as is stated in the above copy of our letter. If there is anything that we can do to help find amicable results in this situation we’re more than happy to help.

  3. Thank you, Mr. Wells for your offer to mediate. I can’t say that we won’t take you up on it but — speaking for myself rather than the group of neighbors — I would like to make you aware that the neighbors have been trying for months to mediate the situation directly with the cafe. We also offered, in writing, to support them in their request for zoning change as long as they were willing to take the neighborhood’s into consideration.

    In both instances, the cafe balked.

    In early September, after months of ignoring neighbors’ requests to discuss the problems, VPC owners agreed to meet. We met in the cafe on Sept. 12th. The neighbors presented a list of six request.

    In short: VPC turned us down.

    In detail: VPC agreed to the requests such as closing the lids on their garbage bins and keeping the windows closed during clean-up time. The neighbors feel that those issues should have been no-brainers from the moment the cafe opened.

    VPC turned us down on the issues that were really critical, which had to do with keeping their growth in scale with 1) the lease they signed saying they were going to operate a cafe, not a restaurant; and 2) that which the neighborhood could physically accommodate. (Parking, deliveries, hours of operation.)

    Again, while I am personally willing to continue with a mediation, I am not sure that the cafe is interested. It seems they are only willing to play ball by their rules.

  4. Casting stones about the past will not help easy resolution now that all are at a table … yes the table of the City.

    And mediation is NOT direct push-pull negotiation. Third parties help to negotiate the situation to a resolution each side can agree to.

    Mediation stops costly, very lengthy law suits and more divisive squabble. It is widely used and can involve paid folks who do it for a profession.

    You, Alle, are a leader of the hostile neighbors. Take a deep breath and go to mediation. Then, there can be win-win ….

    This is advice from a Wise Owl.

  5. Funny how it takes a shakedown by the DPD to get the VPC to finally start down the good neighbor path. Now that it’s serious, they finally come around. Hate to say it but the list of government departments that are now going to get in and make sure things are swell is very very long. Change of use, new restaurant, no grandfathering. Get ready to spend a lot of money VPC.

    DPD is the first of many many problems that have now come to light. 45 person occupancy, as a store yes. As a restaurant? Uh, no.. Not even close. They’ll be lucky to get seating for 12 approved in that small small space.

  6. I’m struck by something when I read the parts of the application posted by jseattle (good detective work, BTW). Most, if not all, of these complaints, were things that the neighbors have apparently been trying to get VPC to address for some time. It’s unclear why it took this level of civic action to get VPC to agree to these terms – from an outsider’s view, it looks like VPC was threatened, and NOW they decide to act like good neighbors. Well, I can’t say I’m impressed with their efforts. I walk by this place pretty much daily on my way home – I’m often struck by how loud it is. Except for the winter months, they usually have the windows and doors open, with music, clanging of dishes and chatter audible for half a block or more away, as they did today. The garbage out back is pretty noxious, even to a passerby. And lately they’ve had these signs out front asking people to be polite when they park in the ‘hood – does that absolve them of all the parking problems? RE: the commercial parking, I can’t imagine where they would put that… simply no room unless they widen the street, or block a traffic lane on 19th or Galer, or block the alley. It’s just beyond me why Ms. Burke couldn’t have addressed many of these issues long ago… And really? Good neighbor placards? I don’t even know what that is.

  7. Most garbage is noxious, even yours.(ie. tampons, diapers, spoiled food, cat and dog shit, and longer, longer list)

    Their proposal mentions frequent pick-up … is that not a solution?

  8. I live on 17th, less than a block from the cafe. I’m writing just to remind all readers that the “neighbors” who often post on here do not represent the block. Many (probably most) of us who live near VPC adore the cafe and really appreciate the added quality of life it brings to our neighborhood. This is urban living at its finest. We have the bustling cafe right here, the park two blocks up the hill, and Stevens Elementary one block in the other direction. I am in heaven.

    Now, I also agree that the cafe should be a good neighbor to those that live in close proximity. I know Heather and Ericka a bit and I just don’t buy that they have been as rude as some make them out to be. Folks, you bought a house next to/near a commercial establishment in the city. Yes, it may have been a crappy, mediocre cafe with very little foot traffic when you bought in, but there was no guarantee it would not change hands and become more successful.

  9. “..but there was no guarantee it would not change hands and become more successful.”

    actually yes, there was a guarantee. it’s called a zoning permit.

  10. @Mike with curls

    yes, everyone’s garbage is noxious but most residences don’t have the equivalent of 30+ people in one day making that garbage. so while frequent pick-up may help it may not be a solution.

    the point of the comment is that vpc has been in business for several years now and it took the proposition of being shut down for them to make changes. a ‘good neighbor’ would have made those changes without the threat of city intervention.

  11. Curly,

    You are really going to call somebody out about being hostile? You are the most hostile person on any article related to VPC. You make up issues to pour fuel on the fire and never offer any solutions. Pleas stop being a troll and let the process resolve this. You do not help either side in getting to a reasonable solution.

  12. Mr./Mrs/ Z…

    Sorry, but the pertinent part of the garbage issue is simply a more frequent pick-up schedule, offered by the Cafe which will solve the issue. Are we not looking for solutions?

    There is no doubt that some of the folks living near will go to their end of days muttering about the bad neighbor Volunteer Park Cafe. Love fest is not in the works, but, solutions to perceived problems are possible. That is the best outcome I see.

    On my way to lunch at the Cafe, by the way — take the number 10, check it out posters, firsthand is valuable vs. hearsay.

  13. I think yours is a valid opinion, and I encourage you to submit it to DPD as part of the public process.

    It sounds like Ericka and Heather are nice to you. They were always nice to me, until I pointed out that they were taking advantage of me and unfairly slamming a neighbor in a very public way, and also followed the city’s suggestions about how to work with the public process. Their attitude changed right quick — to the extent that part of the memo to their staff about how to address their past mistakes included direct instructions to not be rude.

    I am wondering, then what you do with the information here, that says that while they treat you with respect, they are not extending the same good neighborly vibe to those of us who live in close proximity.

    i hope I am coming across as genuine as I feel. I know in e-correspondence, tone can be easily misconstrued. I don’t mean to be snarky. I really want to know. As you can imagine, I;ve spent a fair amount of time talking with neighbors about this issue. A lot of people bog down around the idea that because the cafe is nice to them, they are not nice to their closest neighbors.

    I really hope you respond. You sound like a reasonable person.

  14. And – not nice – is a reason for the city to rule against them?

    I don’t think nice is even a criteria for getting into heaven.

    And, “don’t be rude” seems very proactive.

  15. We didn’t buy near a commercial establishment in a city.

    The cafe set up shop in a residential neighborhood.
    In a space zoned for a grocery store.

    There was no guarantee that neighbors would bend over when the cafe decided to become a full-on restaurant.

    If other cafes there managed to maneuver around their grocery zoning without causing this kind of fight in the neighborhood, it could be because it didn’t take them over 3 years to work out how to shut the lids to their garbage bins or schedule truck deliveries for later than 8am on Saturdays.

    Not heaven, I promise you.

  16. To Mike who insists on remaining anonymous while tossing about invectives,

    I am surprised that you do not know that on Sept. 12th, the neighbors met with the cafe. We thought we had come up with a reasonable solution. We promised, in writing, that we would write on our letters to DPD that we supported their request to change their zoning to that of a restaurant. In return, we asked them to agree to six issues having to do with mitigating their impact on us.

    The cafe turned us down.

    Next time you are considering dispensing wisdom, wait until I ask for your opinion. Or you could check your facts. You don’t want to look foolish.

  17. as a complete outsider, who does not live near the cafe or have an opinion either way, it looks to me that there are 2 main issues here with the comments. 1. the neighbors next to the cafe want change in how the cafe operates 2. the neighbors next to the cafe (in some shape or form) also want an apology and to be acknowledged that they made an effort before this all came into motion. In my opinion you (the neighbors) are only going to get #1. There is already bad blood. You are going to get the changes you want, but you are going to get them with a forced smile and forced handshake. You will not get any sort of concessions or recognition of your past attempts to negotiate with the cafe, nor will you get them to acknowledge your plight. If I was in your shoes I’d be mad as well. I would just want someone to say “yes, you were right”, but it’s not going to happen. Let the past be the past. Yes, they ignored you and paid you lip service, but you found a loop hole in the zoning for the business, pushed it to the city, and now you have change in motion. Just move forward with getting the changes you want through the city process. Do your best to leave the hurt feeling out of it. Easier said than done I know, and maybe I’m misreading things here, but that’s what it looks like to me

  18. Alle- I have appreciated your more thoughtful approach, even though I do not always agree with your posts. Unfortunately, for me, some that share your concerns have pushed things way over the line. Many of the posts on here have been very threatening (talking about wanting to shut down their business, etc.). I probably would not have jumped in but now I am motivated to counteract some of these folks. I am not surprised if Heather and Ericka now have their backs up, I would too. If they were rude to you before all of this chaos, then that was wrong. Now, unfortunately, you are kind of lumped in with the haters and that will make it more difficult to achieve your goals.

    Xthestreet- I am assuming you bought your place within the last 100 years so that big yellow building on the corner of 17th & Galer should have given you some pause (and living near Galer, a busy arterial, would also have given me pause). Hmmm, what might move into that building some day… If you did check the use permit for that property you would have seen that it was not zoned single family – huge red flag. That is the key – not single family. Any land use attorney would tell you that counting on the “use” remaining the same during your entire tenure was a substantial risk – especially give the history of this specific place. You took the risk (and probably paid less for your property because of that risk, just like people who buy a house next to an apartment building – great price, but the risk of major headaches). Now, you do have an angle with this ‘change of use process’. And the cafe should be respectful to its close neighbors. But don’t overplay your hand.

  19. I am going to say first that I hear you about not overplaying our hand, and I think it is a good one.
    Someone wrote about about tone in e-conversations being hard to gauge. I say this next bit without nasty intent, and hope it comes across that way. Just the facts, as the say.

    Your points about “any land use lawyer would say” and “Not zoned single family – huge red flag. That is the key – not single family.”

    A land use lawyer lives within the 300 feet of the cafe. This lawyer is a professor in land use law. This lawyer is not representing the neighbors, but disagrees with your statement about land use.

    The cafe building is not zoned commercial use. The first floor of the building that houses the cafe was granted non-conforming use in a residential area.

    “Non-conforming” recognizes that the building operates in a zone in which they are the exception.

    The whole point is so that people who want to live in a residential neighborhood within a city (rather than in a suburb) can make the biggest investment of their lives (a house) with the most confidence that the city can provide about neighborhood stability.

    People often use the argument “You moved in next to a commercial building, you have to expect that one day, the business could change.”

    Logically, the same people should say: “VPC took a lease in a residential building with non-conforming use granted to the inside, on the first floor only. They should have expected that some of the neighbors would want the neighborhood to stay the same.”

    They should have understood that code is very specific about how non-conforming use can adapt. They should have understood that if they started to encroach on the residential zoning, not only would they run up against the code, they would certainly run up against some neighbors.

  20. 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…siness 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.

  21. Really interesting thoughts. I had a conversation on Sat. evening with a neighbor re: how mixed zoning creates a more interesting landscape and a richer city life.

    While this city kid agreed with the intellectual concept, this city kid-now-adult-with-two-small-children wants something quieter. Even as an empty nester, I can see moving to a mix-use neighborhood. For this period of my life (for which I bought this house), I am not interested in living on the same street as a full-fledged restaurant. I might b e convinced if the owners were willing to take my needs into consideration and were respectful to me when I approached them. VPC is not that restaurant.

    But the whole concept of mixed use enriching city life is certainly one to explore. What’s been done at the north end of Broadway is a great example. Maybe in my retirement …

  22. As a neighbor, parent, and teacher at the elementary school across the street and down one block, VPC has been a wonderful addition to our community. A place to gather with friends, family, fellow teachers, and meet with parents to discuss their child’s progress at school. My family has lived in the neighborhood for over 10 years and we have seen the Cafe exchange hands twice. What a relief it has been to have the current owners.

    I grew up in Spain and VPC has brought me back to my childhood when neighbors gathered at the local plaza or bar to see one another, exchange stories, and be with your family. They improve our quality of life and are very conscientious neighbors.

  23. VPC is able to thrive in large part b/c they break laws which require them to respect land use in a residential neighborhood.


    This link lists 9 serious violations, including a number of permits for which VPC simply didn’t apply. Of course they can offer a European “cafe” expereince:

    1. They serve wine and beer. Yet their liquor license — public record — shows that Ericka (who signed the doc) DID NOT ANSWER the question asking if VPC was less than 500′ from a public school. Stevens Elementary.

    As a Stevens parent, I think VPC should stop serving wine and beer. It’s illegal. I am wondering if your children went to Stevens.

    2. In 2006, Ericka signed a document — also public record — for the City which asked the intent of her proposed business. Ericka wrote “restaurant.” No other business in that space tried to open a restaurant. As of today, a restaurant still is not legal at 1501. It certainly wasn’t in 2006.

    3. VPC misuses their sidewalk license. Per their permits, VPC is allowed 8 tables on 17th and an additional 8 on Galer. Each table is allowed a max. of 2 chairs. VPC squishes all tables onto 17th and ignores the chair limit altogether. They also ignore the law that says they need to allow a 5″ walkway on the sidewalk. Ericka is the owner. It is her job to make sure that 5″ exists.

    I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 7 years. As unpleasant as I found the previous owner, he didn’t exploit the public sidewalk to make extra money.

    4. VPC blows past City quiet hours with every profitable wine dinner. The owners don’t live here, so they go home to their neighborhoods, living my street to deal with their unwanted impacts.

    I lived here before VPC opened, and there is no doubt that VPC’s impacts are greater than that which “would be occasioned” (to use the City’s language) if a grocery store was in that space.

    That is the exact question DPD wants answered; is VPC more or less impactful that if that space was used by a grocery store. As pleasant as it is for you to revisit your childhood in Spain, it is not a part of this issue.