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Capitol Hill community groups fighting Seattle’s ‘corner store’ reforms

Keep retail off Capitol Hill’s residential streets. That was the message attendees at Thursday’s Capitol Hill Community Council meeting will send to city officials in the coming days.

“The development community has a interest in controlling as much space as possible,” said Hill resident Oliver Osborne at the meeting. “It has nothing to do with the needs of the community.”

Debate over the city council’s Regulatory Reform package took up the bulk of the Capitol Hill Community Council’s most recent meeting Thursday night. Included in a long list of tweaks, updates and economic enhancements to Seattle’s development and planning code, the 67-page zoning overhaul would also enable small commercial and retail outfits to permeate off arterial roads into areas of the Hill many consider residential.

A map of zoning changes being circulated by a Capitol Hill group opposing Regulatory Reform. Click for larger version

The major complaint voiced at the CHCC meeting was that the proposed ordinance would open the door to unwanted and unforeseen commercial uses. Concerns were raised over increased noise and traffic on residential streets due to deliveries and garbage pickups.

The 30 community members in attendance unanimously passed the following resolution in opposition to the proposal :


We are deeply concerned about the proposal to bring commercial uses into the heart of our neighborhood currently pending before the Seattle City Council’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability (PLUS) committee.

We oppose this commercialization proposal.

We ask PLUS and the Seattle City Council:

(1) Not to adopt the proposal; and

(2) To engage the residents of affected neighborhoods in an open, serious, frank discussion of the pros and cons of various options in an effort to achieve consensus.

Adopted by unanimous vote this 17th day of May, 2012.

Seattle Gay News publisher and CHCC officer George Bakan said he would present the letter at the council’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability committee meeting, this Wednesday at 9:30a. The committee will be discussing the reforms and taking public comment.

For some, part of the problems with the Regulatory Reform package has been the way the proposed changes were created — you can hear from one member of the roundtable of developers, planners and community members right here — and how they’ve been communicated to the neighborhood’s they will impact the most.

At a Seattle City Council committee meeting earlier this month, land use chair person Richard Conlin said many concerns were being overstated. “I have to say, I think it is going to make some modest changes that I think will be generally positive,” he said.

A group calling itself the Capitol Hill Coalition has also formed to oppose the reform package. You may have seen these flyers posted on utility poles around the neighborhood by the group. According to the coalition’s web site, its goal is to eliminate the provisions around introducing commercial zoning to certain lowrise and midrise areas around the city. The long-empty John Court development retail that we looked at here — What’s wrong with the retail space at John Court? — last sumer is one of the group’s “poster boys” for why Regulatory Reform’s commercial zoning changes aren’t needed on the Hill.

Regulatory Reform Smaller Images

While the Regulatory Reform package’s retail changes are part of a citywide set of laws, with the focus around “urban centers” and “station area overlays,” Capitol Hill holds the lion’s share of the land where the new zoning laws would be applicable. There are also opportunities the amendment creates that most anybody could get behind — more cafes on the edge of Cal Anderson Park, for example. The Regulatory Reform package also has other important amendments for Capitol Hill including a loosening of the rules around temporary uses to be more “micro-business” and pop-up friendly.

A community council working group, open to all community members, is slated to meet May 31 at 6p in the Cal Anderson shelter house to discuss further action.

In other CHCC news:

  • Elections: The Capitol Hill Community Council will hold officer elections during its next meeting, July 19th at 6 p.m. at the Cal Anderson Shelter House. Most current officers are not seeking reelection. Anyone who lives in Capitol Hill, as defined in the council’s bylaws, is eligible to run.
  • Marriage equality: The group discussed passing a resolution in support of marriage equality. It was tabled until the next meeting.

The Capitol Hill Community Council is open to everyone who lives and works on Capitol Hill. Meetings are held at the Cal Anderson Shelter House on the third Thursday of every other month. For more information visit

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36 thoughts on “Capitol Hill community groups fighting Seattle’s ‘corner store’ reforms

  1. I love living within a block & a half of a corner store, a 2nd hand shop/gallery, pub, lounge, pizza place, and espresso/doughnut shop. They add so much to the neighborhood!

  2. I for one want more of these spaces in our community. The more the better. Retail rents are going down due to the commercial street fronts going up under residential buildings.

    That means more people can afford to have a pizza shop, coffee bar, pet shop, zumba studio, or what ever. Maybe even a new boxing gym could open closer to my house. I’d like to open a shop but for so many years the huge cost of rent has scared me off.

    I want a variety of businesses in my neighborhood to walk to. This ain’t the burbs where we come and go through the garage. Stop the haters from sucking the live out of the city. Open a store front today.

  3. Phillip,

    Phillip: the stores you adore are in a tiny commercial zone embedded between a low-rise and a mid-rise zone (given your description I assume you are referring to Top-Pot on Summit and the surrounding shops). See the zone marked NC1-40 on Summit Ave at the following link:

    That zone is a perfect example of how to do small retail well in a residential neighborhood. The stores are all near one another, creating a lovely core area and a true sense of neighborhood. Nevertheless, the location of stores is controlled, and stores are not free to sprawl throughout the retail neighborhoods willy-nilly.

    By contrast, this zoning proposal would give blanket approval to do exactly that: a store in any ground level location less that a certain square footage. Anywhere in the zone. That’s a terribly uncontrolled mechanism that is likely to change the character of what are currently lovely neighborhoods.

    I, too, love living within a block or two of neighborhood stores. I also want to live on a relatively quiet street. I can do that now. I may not be able to if this zoning change passes.


  4. That neighborhood does not have all the stores next to each other. The Lookout is a few blocks from that stretch of business, and there are 2 other mini-marts that are both at least 2 blocks away, plus a restaurant, and some other small businesses. I live on Olive now, but when I lived at Summit and Republican, I loved having these small businesses throughout the neighborhood.

  5. Tiffany: The Lookout is also in a tiny commercial zone. See the same zoning map for which there is a link above. It’s also an NC1-40 zone.

    I don’t know the mini-marts to which you refer. “Searching nearby” (google maps) at Summit and Mercer for “market” turns up QFC on broadway. Doing the same search for “minimart” turns up only “Summit Food Mart” which is within the Top-Pot NC1-40 zone. Please let me know if there are others. I’d be curious to see what the zoning is on them.

    Similarly, doing the same search for “restaurant” turns up broadway business, the two NC1-40 zones already mentioned, and two businesses which I do not believe have retail locations at that space. Again, let me know if I’m missing anything.

    Properly done, a sprinkling of tiny commercial zones allows you to achieve the “throughout the neighborhood” effect while still providing control over the process by which stores appear in a neighborhood.

    By contrast, a blanket zoning change provides none of that control. Accordingly, it threatens the character of the neighborhood.


  6. One of the Mini marts is called Harry’s Fine Foods, the restaurant I am referring to is called Thomas Street Bistro, and I can’t remember the name of the other mini mart.

  7. This small stretch of summit seems (at least from the perspective of someone who lives more than a few blocks away) to be really great, and exactly what many people would want to accomplish in their local neighborhood. Though it would be interesting to hear from people right next door to make sure that assumption is correct.

    I could imagine a bunch of smaller sections like this scattered around capitol hill. Personally I’d love it. Of course, how do you make sure that what happens mirrors this success and not some series of disconnected restaurants, bars, and shops that maximize noise, and hassle without bringing the benefits?

    I think the rules still require that the commercial spaces comply with residential zoning in terms of setbacks, etc. right? If so, we are really talking about renovations of single family homes for first floor commercial use, with rental residential above, or new development that probably mimics the typical townhouse style with the first floor given over to commercial. Are there developers out there eager to build these types of properties?

    I like the idea of clustering these commercial spaces together, it probably minimizes disruptions to the residential character of the neighborhood, while providing maximum benefit. Perhaps instead of allowing this arbitrarily throughout LR2/3 developers who thought they could make something like this work, and had a lot or two they wanted to build on could put together their plan and submit it to the permitting process, where an additional step for “micro-commercial” zoning could be reviewed.

  8. Well, there you are. My Mother has lived on Capitol Hill for 44 years and property adjacent to hers has been slated for large-scale condo developement. The developers used phrases like “filling in the missing piece of the neighborhood” and abringing in additional retail would “activate the sidewalks”. I had no idea that Capitol Hill was in such dire need of “revitalization”. The general attitude appears to be that developers are bringing civilization to the wilderness. I was wondering whwn SOMEBODY was gonna say something!

  9. I live near there as well and I just love the little mini-commercial spaces in that neighborhood. It’s a great example of that type of thing done right, but it’s also “low density” (no condos/apartments on top to earn the landlord/developer money) so I have a hard time seeing it replicated in today’s market.

    Ben, there is another mini-mart in the Bellagio condo building on Bellevue and Roy if you want to look up the zoning. I go to it all the time. With the exception of this market, I think all the other commercial spaces near there are older buildings. I wouldn’t be stoked to have a bunch of John St. Court – style empty storefronts. As ugly as the building itself is, is the Bellagio an example of the right compromise – one storefront at the bottom instead of a whole block of them?

  10. I think we should allow street farming. Take up some of the parking for corn rows. And instead of waiting for the shitty to put in traffic circles we put in straberry beds. And more goats. A mandatory goat on every block – so no more lawn mowers. And lots and lots and lots of Chickens! Chiiiickens, chichichichichikens!

  11. Tiffany: Thanks for the business names. Thomas St. Bistro is zoned MR (Midrise). Harry’s Fine Foods is zone LR3 (Low Rise 3). Not sure how these businesses can be in residential neighborhoods. As Maggie noted, these are older buildings. It is possible the retail use was grandfathered in. I’ll see what I can find out.

    Maggie: I know the mini-mart you’re talking about. It’s in the north half of the Bellagio, right? The north half of the Bellagio is within the NC1-40 zone that also contains The Lookout. We stopped at that mini-mart for gum on our way back from The Lookout.

    I agree that market demand makes it unlikely that something like the Summit/Mercer area could ever arise spontaneously. Yet another reason I’m concerned about a zoning change that makes it possible to build retail in currently pretty residential neighborhoods.


  12. I love smaller retail on less commercial streets. It is almost never national, usually funky, and a nice mix. Volunteer Park Cafe (I know I just really stepped into it with that example) is great, as is the above cited Thomas Street Bistro. Cozy, full of locals. True, sometimes the retail is a little seedy, but so is much of the retail on the main commercial streets. I live just off 19th, which compared to 15th, 12th, and Broadway — not to mention Pike Pine — is modest in scale. And it is adorable, and as it head north towards Interlaken Parks, begins to become more fragmented, less unified, but no less rich. I see these types of uses as both pleasant surprises in the landscape as well as a chance to support the type of home grown commercial enterprises we all (at least say we all) support. With Pike/Pine/Broadway getting so expensive, they present a viable place for those places unable to afford the new developments, or those that were simply pushed out by it. All local. All neighbors. Bring it on!

  13. Maggie,
    yes, a single store would be better, with residential dominating the building street level except in the true commercial zones.
    Tiffany, as you pointed out, when the storefronts are broken up, it creates a vitality. It took a long time for these business to work out here. But introducing such a drastic change could upset the balance once again.

  14. As pleasant as the Volunteer Park Cafe may be, many neighbors would not agree with you. So many protections had to be written into the permit to allow them to stay in that single family zone as there were too many complaints about noise, odors, parking and congestion. However, under the Regulatory Reform, the stricter regulations that protect a residents right to quiet night’s sleep would be thrown out the window, and the far looser regulations of commercial zones would apply.
    And the streets that you describe are arterials, which is where the businesses should stay. They should not be allowed to be set up in the quieter pockets of residential, or if so, then it should apply to ALL residential zones. I have 6 grocery stores within a 6 block radius–I don’t need a bodega. But people on north Capitol Hill sure do.

  15. Ben–you so get it. What the council forgets is that Cap Hill is the template or precedent for how this all works. We have a little of this, and a little of that. and slowly it has all come together. But these changes are too much, too fast, and too BIG! We easily could end up with strip malls, and not with good tenants either. Top Pot and Sun Liquor worked for their success, and filled their stores with passion and dedication. What is to keep out a check cashing store, a tacky copy shop, head shop, or subways? We all see the success stories, but ignore the eyesores messes with cheap lighting, dirty windows, piled up garbage, and pissy graphics.

  16. This ordinance is a huge change, and not just a corner store. In fact, it could be a whole block of corner stores, very much like a strip mall and about as attractive as one, too. This is not about having a few little stores along a block like Top Pot and Artemis, Olivar and Kobo. This is about possibly having every block from the freeway to 17th Ave looking like slightly shorter versions of the Joule or the Trader Joes buildings.

    Many small businesses already operate in homes: all over Capitol Hill, people’s homes have REAL BUSINESSES: graphic design and architecture studios; dress making,accounting, stock trading costume designing, pet treat making, glass blowing. And now with the Cottage Kitchen law, people will be able to prepare food in their own kitchens with a commercial kitchen. But they all follow residential regulations, and must respect the rights of their neighbors. The RR changes this, and lets a business follow Commercial regulations. Hours are later, noise is greater, odor and light pollution are not as strict, and not very strongly enforced. Ever live near a bar or restaurant?

    When the City adopted changes to multi family zoning last year it was after two long hard years of study. It would have been sooner, but Sally Clark wisely consulted with three teams of architects/designers, who were charged with designing the best case and worst cases scenarios. When the committee saw what horror were possible, they spent another nine months rewriting and fine tuning them. In contrast, Conlin/McGinn are just presenting the best case scenarios, and is turning a blind eye towards the possibility of bad design–imagine the Angel Court on steroids (515 Summit Ave E).

    There are some good parts to the RR, though. For example, it allows people to have up to two employees in their home business, and to post the address on the internet. It opens up ADU development, and it puts the onus of parking on the developer via good old supply and demand.

    Capitol Hill has one of the highest walkability index in the state. And for those within the seemingly random boundaries of the RR, we have an even higher index. It is the poor suckers in Roanoke or in my old neighborhood of E Galer/21st that have no grocery store within a ten minute walk. These are the ones who need the corner stores.

  17. Ben, you don’t really understand zoning apparently. Those little areas were not zoned first, then filled with small retail. They were old streetcar-era commercial spaces from the days before zoning, and are only there because commercial space was allowed anywhere. When zoning was introduced, existing uses were grandfathered in to the new zoning. Zoning in general almost always reflects (and protects) current use rather than shaping new uses. Seattle and other cities are trying to change that. Rather than using zoning to simply freeze uses forever, they are trying to change it in response to needs or, even better, relax the rules so that we can get the kind of great urban form that was generated before zoning.

  18. I agree! How can people say retail should only be on arterials? Some of the nicest little cafes and corner stores are in the nooks and crannies of the neighborhood, and are only there because they were built before strict zoning.

  19. This is total BS. The new rules would limit commercial space to 1500 sq. ft. That is a small retail space, not a Trader Joe’s. No one should trust this guy, he’s clearly on a mission and isn’t going to let facts get in the way.

  20. A problem I have with the city’s (and this blog article’s) use of the term “corner store” is that it’s completely misleading. While we can all picture a favorite corner store that’s well-integrated into a neighborhood and makes use of a classic pre-existing space (a house, an apartment building’s ground floor, etc.) there’s nothing in this legislation that would nurture these types of businesses over permitting developers to build ugly, modern, mixed-use buildings on streets that are currently residential — streets where people have purchased townhouses, condos, or homes on the assumption that their street was zoned for residents, not businesses. And while there is a space limit on the size of a single storefront, there’s nothing to prevent an entire block from having a storefront on every lot. I believe this legislation will be far more likely to replace classic houses of Capitol Hill with generic and underutilized mixed-use buildings than it will result in a plethora of Volunteer Park Cafe or Top Pot Donut style businesses.

    To change the definition of that zoning without proactively informing and involving the community is irresponsible and the reason this smacks to me of being a boon to developers rather than communities. Particularly given how walkable and small-business friendly our community already is.

  21. Regarding the comment “The new rules would limit commercial space to 1500 sq. ft. That is a small retail space, not a Trader Joe’s. No one should trust this guy, he’s clearly on a mission and isn’t going to let facts get in the way”
    You assume that I am talking about a simple, one unit store, when what I am addressing is the far greater likelihood of a developer razing existing smaller buildings and erecting a structure like the Joule or Bellagio but with stores/check cashers/kinkos/etc going around the entire block. Those stores, INDIVIDUALLY, need to be under 2500, although Conlin and developers have said they are considering 1500. (FYI The DPD website still lists 2500, so until we see it in writing, don’t believe anything a politician says. “Apply a maximum size per business of 2,500 square feet, and limit outdoor uses after 10:00 p.m., in LR2 and LR3” But there is NO LIMIT on how many businesses can be in a building.

    I understand how you enjoy the nooks and crannies. This is indeed what makes it such a joy to walk through the neighborhood and “discover” something (I miss you, Artemis!) But these reforms will do away with nooks and crannies and allow for strip mall like street fronts, albeit without the parking. I would prefer–welcome–if the reforms said it would limit commercial to the corners or to a percentage so that we could maintain these nooks.

    Regardless of the size, these businesses will only need to follow the regulations of COMMERCIAL zoning, not residential zoning.
    These are all facts–please review the DPD’s own website as well as the regulations for both Commercial, Neighborhood Commercial and Residential regulations. My only agenda is to make sure we get a fair say in this and don’t just follow what developers want, and that the public is made more aware of this, just as it was for the last set of changes to the Multi-family zoning code (adopted last year).

    Our question for you ZafWegner is what is your agenda? Why are you so against greater public review? Why do you think that developers have our needs at heart, and why you think a blanket solution would work in all the neighborhoods? And if this is so great, why not promote it in single family zones, where there are no restaurants, stores, or businesses (with a few notable exceptions)?

  22. Our question for you ZafWegner is what is your agenda? Why are you so against greater public review? Why do you think that developers have Cap Hill needs at heart, and why you think a blanket solution would work in all the neighborhoods? And if this is so great, why not promote it in single family zones, where there are no restaurants, stores, or businesses (with a few notable exceptions)? I love grabbing a drink at Sun, and then walking up the Boylston to my much quieter block to sleep. Why shouldn’t we have quiet pockets? Why must EVERY block from Union to Aloha, the freeway to 17th be full of “corner stores” and coffee shops?

  23. Ben says that these were probably grandfathered in. Why are you such a hater? What are you afraid of? Or better yet, who is paying you to ignore the lack of public discourse solicited by Conlin, who is only holding public meetings at 9:30 in the morning?

  24. Brad, that is exactly the point I am trying to make. This is not just about a single store on the corner, or even a few stores. It is about possibly a full block of commercial businesses in a residential zone. And not just one block, but blocks stretching from the freeway to beyond 15th Ave E.
    And if the Volunteer Park Cafe is such a good example, than why don’t we get the same rights to a quiet night’s sleep as its neighbors do, or why doesn’t the City extend the same “rights” to have a corner business to the residents of a single family zones? Don’t they want walkable stores as well?

  25. Residential areas should remain so. When stores are on street level of buildings the neighborhood is downgraded. I dislike the word “third world” but this is what I have seen in poor countries, stores on the street level. Residences are subject to more noise and traffic among other unfavorable effects including asthetics. It looks bad. It feels bad …its no good.
    I’m disapointed in Mayor McGinn.

  26. This is total BS. The new rules would limit commercial space to 1500 sq. ft.

    The “total BS” is your comment. The proposal is for commercial space up to 2,500 sq. ft., and appeals would be sharply limited.

  27. What I don’t like is that this brings the terrorist to each block. They will be staked out on every corner and putting up minarets to whatch us from. I told you so!

  28. The ordinance will allow new mixed use construction in lowrise residential neighborhoods, with medical offices, restaurants and other retail. Restaurants on formerly residential streets will be able to seat people on the sidewalk until 10 PM. This is not a tweaking of regulations, it is rezoning.

  29. One impact this will likely have is to accelerate the destruction of existing older housing stock in the lowrise zone between Broadway and 15th. Because developers will be able to build mixed use buildings, land values will jump, providing an incentive for owners to sell. We’ll have more luxury condos and apartments, and the hill will become more gentrified than ever.

  30. How about some nice electric signs lighting up your residential street at night?
    (Ord. text below is only what the new law would be, and does not include the crossed out old text)

    23.55.022 Signs in multifamily zones
    E. In all multifamily zones that are not designated
    Residential-Commercial (RC), permitted ground-floor business establishments in multifamily
    structures may have one electric or non-illuminated sign per street frontage. The sign may
    be a wall or projecting sign. The maximum area of each sign face is
    limited to 24 square feet. The maximum height of any portion of the sign is limited to 15 feet.

    So, Lowrise 3 streets like Malden Ave or Federal could be lined with neon.

  31. I just wish to remind the residents of Capitol Hill that the changes proposed are a ripple on a puddle compared to the tsunami which will engulf the hill from the Yesler Terrace Redevelopment Project. The project proposes office space equivalent to three Smith Towers which, not incidentally, sold at a foreclosure auction on the courthouse steps. It was 70% vacant at the time. Yesler is now exclusively for extremely low income housing. Less than 17% of the units in the new Yesler will be for low income people. We will not end up with a livable, walkable urban village but 30 story towers employing 4000, another 10,000 residents, 5100 parking spaces plus customers in an already congested multi-hospital zone. Is this what we want SHA to be doing in First Hill? I agree that commercial should be constrained into appropriate areas. Along arterials for example. That provides visibility. They gain a synergy by being close to one another. But don’t lose sight of the fact that the issues are related and the impact serious.

  32. Danger everyone. 10,000 more people are coming to Seattle. We will all be crushed by the weight of their breath. And the buildings are certain to be a finacial failure. Just look what happened to this one old building in Seattle one time in the last 100 years – it got sold and somebody else baught it! Frightenning!

    And just because their will be more homes for the very poor – they will be forcing the poor to live near people of modest to middle means who can afford to rent or buy a 1200 square foot flat and take public transportation (unsubsidized possibly!)! It’s an affront to the imagination. These upitty condo dwellers and employed people might as well be spitting on the poor. We have to stop this for the sake of humanity!

    That and the horrid possibilty of opening up new spaces and opportunities for people to stare a business. It is against our trend that everybody work for the city or one of our colleges. There have been a lot of people trying to open shops, distileries, coffee bars, and pet shops. They are crushing us to death with the extra people that happily walk by to get a dring or a box of dog food. I for one am disgusted by this beyond all belief!

    Let’s make sure nothing ever changes again! For the sake of our children – Stop the World. FU Bruce.