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‘Save Saba’ — Sawant rallies support to protect 12th Ave Ethiopian restaurant, ‘stop gentrification in our community’

The 300-unit mixed-use building destined for the block

Inside Saba (Image: Saba Ethiopian Cuisine)

As her efforts to “Save the Showbox” continue to reverberate in Seattle land use and legal circles, District 3 representative Kshama Sawant is also putting her political muscle behind Saba, a 12th Ave Ethiopian restaurant facing displacement that has served the neighborhood for nearly 20 years.

“We need your support to call on the current owner, as well as any future owner, to negotiate an agreement that protects Saba Ethiopian Cuisine,” the petition Sawant has championed from Saba Tekle, daughter of the restaurant’s owner, reads. “The new owner could relocate the restaurant across the street, or temporarily relocate the restaurant while new construction is underway.”

Sawant first drew attention to the plight of Saba in September as she included the story of Workie Wubushet’s restaurant in an op-ed about Mayor Jenny Durkan’s budget proposal.

As of Sunday night, the petition calling for the restaurant to be protected has more than 900 signatures.

According to permits and the design proposal submitted to the city, developers from Isola Homes are lined up to create a six-story, 289-unit apartment building with commercial space and 11 “Live-Work Units,” plus underground parking for 230 vehicles. The property remains under the ownership of a family trust but the developer is lined up to purchase the land. The 9,000 square-foot building Saba has called home dates to 1940, according to King County Records. It is unlikely to qualify for landmarks protections, according to a City of Seattle assessment.

The development planned for the 100-block of 12th Ave is also a showcase in how opaque and distant the process of demolition and revitalization can be from the day to day of a neighborhood street.

In a letter sent in July, Tekle pleaded for help from city officials and said her mother learned about the coming development when the big land use signs went up on the block:

But the public process around the development project had already been in motion for months. In April, the city held its first design review for the project. Public comment included statements that “the corner of 12th Avenue and E Yesler Way is very important” and “a gateway for the Central District, Capitol Hill beyond, the International District, and the introduction to the residential neighborhood.” Notes on the session don’t mention the restaurant — not unusual for the architecture-focused reviews. At the end of the April meeting, the board voted to move the project to the next round in the review process. So far, the second “recommendation” phase session has yet to be scheduled.

The Saba effort comes as Seattle continues to face high rents and an ongoing affordability crisis that some advocates say would be best addressed by aggressively building more housing in the city. But this summer’s efforts to stop development from displacing downtown’s Showbox performance venue seemed to look past that at the long line of lost favorite restaurants, bars, cafes, and landmarks.

It’s a familiar situation on Capitol Hill where a long, sad, parade of old favorites like Piecora’s, Bauhaus, B&O, and the Redwood have most recently faded away. While the neighborhood has an incentive program designed to help preserve the shape and feel of auto row-era Pike/Pine buildings, efforts around creating a “Legacy Business Program” in Seattle have never gone beyond a study.

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32 thoughts on “‘Save Saba’ — Sawant rallies support to protect 12th Ave Ethiopian restaurant, ‘stop gentrification in our community’

  1. Ah the sweet, sweet irony…. I’ve been here more than 20 years…. but I’m sure if you ask Sawant, I’m not part of the character of the neighborhood… She’d happily throw me out to make room for another apartment building if she could.

  2. Creating incentives to incorporate small, local, ethnic, affordable etc. businesses into new developments would go a lot further than trying to save just one.

    It’s not like new, mixed use buildings are devoid of restaurant space. There’s actually quite a bit of (very expensive) retail space sitting vacant.

    • A large problem with the restaurant space in the new buildings is that they are huge! A smaller cafe or restaurant could never move into those new spaces and survive. Developers don’t divide up spaces that could house a Lil Woodys or Le Pichet or Cafe Salam, they’re all caverns.

      • My understanding was the opposite, that many developers put in commercial units that are too small to effectively operate as traditional sit down restaurants with multiple tables and an onsite kitchen. They work OK (sometimes) for coffee shop or quick serve dining but even those are often tight. Part of the reasoning for that was with the parking requirements in certain zones, where a larger single retail footprint triggered parking requirements that would not exist with multiple smaller spaces. Beyond just the higher rent many businesses can’t come back to where they were because the space has been carved down too small to be viable. That may be outdated info or not applicable to this lot, but it generally meshes with what I see in terms of the small commercial spaces.

      • Spaces intended to be purposed for restaurants almost have to be built that way from the drawing board, including exhaust for fryers, vents for ovens, etc. It’s really expensive or even impossible to retrofit later. If a developer intends to offer multiple restaurant-ready spaces in the same bldg, they’d want to build them all out at once. This might be why there are mostly big spaces–they cheap out and only want to spend that money once. That limits the complexity of food prep and equipment that can be used in spaces not fully outfitted.

    • Nah, you want to incorporate small, local, ethnic, affordable etc. businesses into new developments, it’s simple: Ban all chain stores and restaurants from King County for 20 years.

      But hey, there’s more money to be made by selling what used to be “Seattle” by the pound.

  3. The best way to keep local businesses is to ensure the zoning in mixed-use areas mandate generous amounts of comercial space in every new development (also giving the neighborhood a diverse wealth of places to shop/dine/etc). Of course, that would take an ordinance and some policy work by the council, which would be a new approach for Sawant.

  4. I don’t remember the folks at Twilight Exit crying foul when they had to move TWICE to stay a step ahead of the wrecking ball.

  5. There are plenty of other Ethiopian restaurants in Central District that deserve their footprint in the area, but one can’t help but wonder why as the only Asian table in the restaurant we were ignored by the staff, while other tables (even those that came in after us) made their order first, got their food first, and we sat watching the waitress fiddle on her phone for 20 minutes before she would even bring us water. We should have just gotten up and left but I truly didn’t want to believe that this kind of discrimination could happen when I’ve received warm welcomes and service at other Ethiopian restaurants. I won’t be sad to see this place go.

    • This is the Capitol Hill Blog, not Yelp. As for your review, it is boring and predictable.

      I am a non-Ethiopian and I have visited Saba many times. The service isn’t the best, but who cares? The food is amazing, and the atmosphere is authentic.

      Maybe it was something other than your asian-ness that put off the wait staff. By reading this post, I’m assuming it’s your attitude.

      • And are you Asian? By reading your post, I’m assuming you’re not. So your experience doesn’t do anything to clear up her suspicion they were treated differently than a bunch of white people just because they’re Asian. I also don’t see anything in her post to jump to the unsupported conclusion that they were doing anything to merit being ignored. Just because you got great service there doesn’t prove anything one way or another how they were treated.

      • Jim

        Your response is boring and predictable as well. Maybe you need to check out Saba yourself before siding with some internet troll. One of the things I love most about Saba is the clientele is so racially and culturally mixed. Ethiopian, non ethiopian, white, asian, indian, latino. No one cares about race there.

        As for Melissa, no one cares that you are Asian. In Ethiopia, you have to signal to your wait staff when you want something. Did you stop to think maybe the recently arrived immigrants working there might still be doing things a more Ethiopian way? Instead of watching a waitress “fiddle on her phone for 20 minutes” and then talk foul about her, why not just nicely signal that you want or need service? The last time I was there, I did that every single time I needed something. Worked out great. Just because you feel entitled to some great level of service doesn’t mean that you should bad talk this business all over the internet. Shame on you.

      • @Post

        “Just because you feel entitled to some great level of service doesn’t mean that you should bad talk this business all over the internet.”

        Why not? A restaurant is in the business of providing great service. I don’t know of any service oriented business with a motto of, “We give so-so service.” Doubt they’d be in business for very long. And ones that do provide a low level of service, I’m going to talk about them. In-person, online, to friends, co-workers, family, anyone that I think needs to know what to expect from said restaurant.

        How about this, next time, instead of telling an online poster what they should be doing, how about sharing the feedback with Saba; since you are such a regular, well-regarded customer? And enough with the “shame on you” to someone sharing their experience. It makes you sound like an ignorant troll.

  6. I’d rather see her initiate and contribute to a fundraiser to cover Saba’s relocation costs rather than trying to force it on owners of the property.

    Just because a business has rented a place for awhile does not mean they are entitled to use the space indefinitely or that property owners are responsible for relocating it’s occupants once the lease has ended.

    • Excellent point. Ms. Sawant and others on our City Council are very quick to express what businesses should be responsible for, and how other people’s money should be spent. How about coming up with ideas and leadership to bring us together instead of tearing us apart. I’m sure this restaurant is great. So why doesn’t the owner reach out to patrons to help them relocate?

  7. Ms. Sawant and other council member who are concerned about small local businesses could start with zoning. The city is very much in their right to demand smaller usable retail spots that small business can afford.

    We have too much retail going in our new apartment buildings, we should have more ground floor townhome type spaces instead empty retail everywhere that is unaffordable.

    Regarding scenarios like Saba, the instant an application is made for a project there needs to be a mechanism to notify tenants (residential and commercial) so that planning can happen.

    If Ms. Sawant wants to save Saba, maybe we can have a community event where we all help them move and set up in a new space. But to deny a property owner the right to maximize the value of their property is a sure fire losing lawsuit. Growth is going to continue, but we can do it more humanely, Ms. Sawant’s ideas are not going to help much.

    • I don’t think Ms. Sawant is interested in actually helping figure out a path on growth.

      She seems to be interested more in stirring up a large group of people against developers and property owners than in working responsibly to find solutions for our growing city.

      Unfortunately this seems to be a winning formula for staying in office these days.

      • @Greg

        Sawant’s up for re-election next year, she needs to prove to her base that she’s working for them. That’s the only reason she’s causing such a stir about this little restaurant and the Showbox. This is call and response in hopes that she can maintain her position on city council.

  8. Would like to see them find a way to move into the Anthem building across the street. That retail space has been empty since the building opened in 2015.

  9. Jesus this comment section is a fucking train wreck. At least Sawant is standing up for a business that is in her district. It’s almost like there is a concerted effort to train wreck any comment thread that is a Sawant news story.