Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Value of Neighborhood Cafes

A healthy city needs fractal scales of activity. There is the main downtown which supports things that benefit the entire region, then there are the neighborhoods that orbit it, each with their own set of sub-neighborhoods that orbit them, all the way down to the block level. If every time I wanted to partake in public life I had to go into downtown, it would severely impoverish my quality of life; I'd spend an awful lot of time in transit, and I'd never connect with my local community.

As it is, I'm quite fortunate. There's a park in front of my house that serves as a meeting place for my immediate neighbors; there's another park nearby that draws folks from my sub-neighborhood; further away, but still within walking distance there is a neighborhood "downtown" with restaurants, a library, etc. Also nearby is a light rail station that will take me to the big downtown for the city. I have easy pedestrian-oriented access to all these levels, and each one enriches my life and strengthens the bonds of community, each in their own way.

As great as my local parks are, I wish I had a cafe or a pub nearby; a public living room for the immediate neighborhood, where I could hang out and pass the time with the folks I live near. I've lived in places that had such a thing, and it's always been one of the highlights of my life there. We have such places in the nearby neighborhood downtown, but that's far enough away and serves a large enough scale that it doesn't really serve the purpose for my local community.

Unfortunately, the current zoning structure doesn't really support this kind of healthy sprinkling of cafes (and pubs and bodegas) throughout otherwise residential spaces. People worry about the extra traffic, the noise, the "unwanted element". It's just this kind of thinking that keeps us all locked in our own personal fortresses, making it harder to connect with the people around us, making it harder to form the kind of heartfelt neighborhood bonds that can truly support us in good times and bad.

There is a fine example of such a neighborhood cafe (not in my neighborhood, unfortunately), the Volunteer Park Cafe, but unfortunately it's currently under fire from a few folks who don't want it in their backyard. In order to stay open, the cafe needs to change its zoning (originally grocery... long story) to restaurant. If you'd like to help them out, here are a couple things you can do (but act quick, the deadline is October 13!).

Even if the Volunteer Park Cafe is not for you, I urge you to think about ways you can encourage that sort of place in your own neighborhood; we'll all be better off for it!


As one of several nearby residents who are concerned about the Volunteer Park Cafe attempt to become a 70-plus seat destination restaurant, I’d like to offer info to people considering commenting, since the post by Ian Gilman offers no context:

1. I became a good customer of VPC on the very week it opened in early 2007, and loved what owners Ericka Burke and Heather Earnhardt were doing with the food (including my favorite baked item in the world, the Luscious Lemon Loaf). The owners seemed neighborhood-oriented, having a pumpkin-carving party before they opened, and later treating regular customers nicely. My family embraced VPC as a neighbor. We lent Heather and Ericka baby clothes; I brought over a WiFi router when theirs failed. And, we didn’t make a big fuss every time their trash bins overflowed, or deliveries dangerously blocked part of the street, or late-night customer/staff noise disturbed us, etc.

2. Then, without any meaningful outreach to neighbors, the owners in spring of this year started building a patio capable of doubling, to at least 70, the seats inside and outside the restaurant. Ericka told a food writer that an outdoor barrel barbecue would be part of the patio plan. The neighbors were left to guess whether we’d be hit with 7-day a week outdoor dining and drinking, until who-knows-what-time at night. Some of us also began to wonder why we weren't making a big deal over impacts that were already a problem — like the rodents VPC attracted with those overflowing trash bins, and the illegal and hazardous parking.

3. With Ericka and Heather declining to have even a conversation about their plans, the neighbors turned to the City of Seattle for help. We felt that the building, built as a small grocery in 1905, was not suitable for a destination restaurant, with seemingly no limits on hours or capacity, and an impact exacerbated by the owners’ unresponsiveness. The City immediately ordered VPC to stop use of the patio, which was built without any permits. Even after the City became involved, it took more than 3 months for VPC owners to agree to neighbors' requests to meet about the problems their business was causing.

4. Is the way Ian or anyone thinks "public living rooms" should be sprinkled around our city? When people like me, an NYC native, choose residential neighborhoods, we do it because we're not looking to find ourselves 2 doors down from this kind of destination business. VPC has never had -- and should not be given -- the right to to change the rules (zoning allows a small grocery) without agreement by neighbors and the City.

5. So, what can you do if you like the food and ambiance at VPC, and also want to respect the neighbors’ right to live in the quiet, residential area that they moved into long before the VPC opened? You can tell the city you support a small restaurant with seating inside the building, since that space is more than adequate for a thriving business and **reasonably** sized community gathering place. You can say you agree that some limits should be set to keep the traffic, noise, etc., at a level in scale with the location. Above all, think about what you’d want if you chose to live in a purely residential neighborhood, with little kids who go to bed by 8 p.m

6. Don’t tell this only to the city. Tell it to Ericka and Heather.

7. Drop a note to if you have any questions.

Cliff, thank you for the thoughtful, evenhanded comment. I agree that being good neighbors is a two-way street. It saddens me to hear that the folks at the Volunteer Park Café haven't done as well as they should on that count. Hopefully this current legal tussle will help improve that, but it's a shame it's come to this. I think the thing that I and many others are reacting to so strongly is the notion that the café could be put out of business entirely by this. Hopefully nobody actually wants that.

The fact is that we as a nation have far too many “purely residential neighborhoods” without any public spaces or commercial services within walking distance. As we work to reverse this unfortunate trend, there are bound to be disagreements as we all try to find the right balance. Sounds to me like you're one of the ones trying to find that middle path; may you be successful in finding a way for everyone, café and neighbors alike, to get along.
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