Commentary: Stewardship, validation and small business owners

by Frederica Merrell

Now we come to some interesting questions. How do we approve or “validate” our North Beacon Hill neighborhood plan recommendations before they are submitted to the City Council in November/December? Of course no one has any idea what exactly will be proposed by Department of Planning and Land Use (DPD) in September. But whatever comes out of the amazing brainstorming that has been going on, be it rerouting car traffic off Beacon Avenue onto 15th to create a bus, bike, pedestrian campus, or increasing zoning heights to 65′, or creating public benefit “baskets” for the key development properties (El Centro, Red Apple, Sound Transit block), or starting a temporary community garden on the empty land around the station, the ideas are all big, bold and exciting.

As a community with a number of different interest groups. we have to vote, or something, to say neah or yeah. And, we have to hope that DPD can correctly interpret our input in the short time between September and November 20 when the proposal must be submitted to Council (unless they give us more time). Who should get to vote, approve or validate our plan? I assume it will be residents and business owners of North Beacon Hill. How will DPD figure out who is validating? Will it just be community or will they inadvertently or intentionally also include developers, or people who don’t live here? Another question that has arisen for me is: how do the small business owners on Beacon Avenue get a fair say?

The last three days I have walked the Beacon Avenue and 15th business district in the station area overlay boundaries to do outreach with business owners. I walked from the intersection near Frank’s Auto shop at 14th, beyond the station area boundary at Winthrop, and through the Horton street business district down to Denise Louie Education Center where I stopped. I criss-crossed the street, lapped back to catch people who were out, sat waiting to chat and then hung around getting to know folks that mostly I never really met before.

I love our local business owners. They are smart, interesting, articulate and cool. About three people struggled with their English, but still voiced ideas. A number of owners have been here for decades and some of them are second generation. There are a bunch of hip young entrepreneurs (all relative, I’m 50) as well as middle-aged professionals. It seems like many, many businesses are family run, indicating that the survival and success of what they are doing has a big impact.

The people I talked to are concerned about being left out of planning meetings. They think about customer access, and parking, and they are hopeful that the new RPZ will benefit them by eliminating “hide and rides” and opening up spaces for their clientele. They don’t want parking meters. They were shocked that they hadn’t heard about some of the concepts being discussed for street changes. A lot of people had a positive reaction to pedestrian friendly spaces and they all want to have opportunity for input and were grateful that I came by on my walk.

I asked them to sign my petition asking for more time to refine our potentially big, bold, neighborhood plan “update” before sending a proposal to the City. The small business owners all want more time, and I gave their 40 or so signatures to Councilmember Sally Clark. Only three of the over 40 people I contacted had attended either of the two neighborhood plan meetings held so far. All of the people who didn’t know about the neighborhood plan update, and one person who did go to a meeting, indicated that they had not received notification at their businesses of those meetings. Don’t ask me what went wrong with DPD outreach, but folks were a little peeved. Some blamed the community Council (I told them the North Beacon Hill Council isn’t in charge), some thought the City doesn’t want them to know what is going on. I promised to make sure that DPD send them notices of the final meeting in September, but they probably won’t get much chance to bring new proposals to the table.

All the very cool ideas that have been put together so far have been submitted by residents. I wonder what proposals the small business owners would come up with given a little more time? If small business owners were actively engaged, we could have a rockin’ stewardship group to make sure our ideas become real. If the people who work on Beacon Avenue every day aren’t interested or supportive of the update, we might have a real problem ever getting anything implemented.

Stewardship of our plan and validation go hand in hand. People who get to refine the big ideas and see their own proposals in the update will be more supportive of getting things built. It isn’t enough to only get ideas from residents. We need the other three groups: small business owners’ input, original ideas, and approval along with proposals from key property owners: El Centro (now ably run by new Executive director Estella Ortega) and the Lee and Tucci families who own the area around the train station. If we have time to talk and refine the proposals together, we build the precious relationships needed among all four groups. From these relationships a stewardship model could be created. Maybe we can even revive the moribund Beacon Chamber of Commerce. I think that is what has to happen to secure funding to rebuild Beacon Avenue, run a Farm and Flea Market, create gardens, and more. I continue to voice support for more time to build the big. bold, update proposal with the four interest groups identifiably working together.

I look forward to seeing everyone, including our small business owners, at the September meeting where DPD will unveil the proposals for our big, bold, exciting, North Beacon Hill Neighborhood Plan update. Wahoo! All aboard!

About the Neighborhood Planning Ad Hoc Committee of the North Beacon Hill Council:

Our work is mostly about process, not about proposals. The main goal is to make sure the City outreach and planning process works for our community and to follow-up with a community-run process that includes more of the issues and areas that the City won’t address (like stuff outside the station area overlay and issues that they don’t really have time for) using a DON grant.

We have been meeting at the Jefferson Park Community Center 7:00-9:00 pm on alternating Tuesday and Thursday evenings, about every two weeks. The next meeting is Thursday, July 23. We will focus on our Department of Neighborhoods grant application (deadline August 31) and follow-up on the train of discussions about the City timeline and products.

After that, the dates are:
Tuesday, August 4
Thursday, August 20
Tuesday, September 1
Thursday, September 17
Thursday, September 24
Thursday, October 8
Thursday, October 15

Contact Frederica Merrell, Organizing Volunteer,

16 thoughts on “Commentary: Stewardship, validation and small business owners”

  1. I’m always wanting to get more involved in neighborhood planning than my life lets me. One of the reasons is that when I hear ideas like “rerouting car traffic off Beacon Avenue onto 15th to create a bus, bike, pedestrian campus” without any other information, it sounds like a total disaster to me unless major infrastructure changes happen that make it easier to route traffic off of the Beacon Hill corridor entirely. As far as I can tell, nobody is seriously predicting the number of cars that use Beacon or 15th on a daily basis to change any time soon, light rail or no light rail.

    I’m all in favor of fewer cars and more walking, but when I see ideas like this mentioned without any data to give them context, it’s hard not to jump to the conclusion that that it’s supposed to happen via magic wand. Do the attendees of the planning meetings get more information to work with, which those of us who don’t make it don’t have access to?

  2. Brook –

    The proposals and ideas coming out of recent planning meetings are being thought up by neighbors, all of whom care about the neighborhood, few of whom are actual urban planners. Some ideas are simple, like adding a crosswalk or traffic light at a dangerous intersection, others are grand and try to envision BH 20 years from now. Neighbors draw on their experience living and traveling on other places and suggest things they’ve seen working elsewhere. Some neighbors were involved in Neighborhood Planning 10 or 20 years ago, so they have a knowledge of the City Process, Comprehensive Plan, Land Use Code or what it takes to get a traffic circle built by DOT in your neighborhood.

    The majority of folks, myself included, are amateurs.

    What are the professionals (That would be DPD, DOT, Parks and other city departments) doing? DPD has been leading the current Neighborhood Plan Update for Beacon Hill, North Rainier and Othello. The process started at the beginning of this year and will be done by the end of this year. If you were able to attend one of their meetings or go on line to the DPD website, you had an opportunity to talk about what you’d like BH to be, and if you had an idea for a specific project, you were able to state it. At the meetings there was lots of discussion amongst neighbors, developers, city staff, urban planners, etc. It was very nice. There was food and a good conversation. I was out of town and could not attend the second meeting. My understanding was that there was more conversation and an exercise to gather feedback about building heights. But no proposals from our City Professionals. And, there was not a lot of technical info coming out of those meetings. There were specific proposals from neighbors, in large part to get the conversation going in a concrete way because there is nothing being proposed by the professional city staff.

    DOT has done some recent planning and released the SE Seattle Transportation Study in December of 2008. Its available on line and has specific problem areas, possible solutions, budget and timeline estimates, as well as priority rating. And just last week, one of DOT’s multi-modal planners was at the North Beacon Hill Council meeting to talk about 15th Ave S between Beacon and Columbian. Judging from the turnout of folks who live on 15th, it looks like he did a pretty good outreach job. One of the projects in the SE Seattle Transportation Study is the Lander Festival Street, which will be built in the fall (right on top of the newly re-built Lander St, no jack-hammering required). This project was thought of by neighbors, who worked with the City for two years to make it happen.

    DPD will be presenting some kind of proposals at the September meeting. They should involve zoning, transportation infrastructure and open space (Parks). Whether they present technical data to support their proposals or not, I can’t say, but their hasn’t been a lot to go on so far. At that point, we’ll be expected to say yeah or neah. There is no magic wand, there is a neighborhood plan, with a list of priorities and goals, with actual land use code changes. By proposing specific projects we’re trying to envision the possible results of those changes and get the professionals to think creatively and specifically about our neighborhood.

  3. Thanks for the excellent response David. I admit to having what I imagine is a somewhat contrarian view about what Beacon Hill could use right now, versus at some point in the future when maybe car use patterns have changed enough that 15th could support more traffic. Seems to me 15th is pretty maxed out at rush hour already.

    After the recent flap about the car wash in the pedestrian overlay zone, I started looking into zoning in a couple business districts that seem to me to have traffic patterns similar to North Beacon Hill’s. Basically they all have bottlenecks that are hard to avoid.

    I looked at the Admiral Business District and Phinney Ridge. Neither one of them has a pedestrian overlay, but they seem to me to have a lot of pedestrian traffic and healthy small business ecosystems. If I put myself in the position of a commercial property owner or potential business on Beacon Hill, am I going to see a pedestrian overlay on top of a an intersection as busy as 15th and Beacon as something that encourages or discourages me from making choices that might improve the business ecosystem here? Are people

    Beacon Hill is a neighborhood that long has been deeply impacted by big transportation planning ideas: Columbian Way, the Spokane Street viaduct, the Highway 99 viaduct and its lack of easy access from Spokane Street, the Dearborn cut, replacing the streetcars with buses, the construction of two freeways, and now Light Rail. Bizarrely, most of these transportation projects did more to cut the hill off from the rest of the city than connect it, which is one of the contributors to the “neighborhood that time forgot” aspects of Beacon Hill. I don’t know if preserving that feeling is anyone’s goal but looking at history, limiting transportation options on the hill seems to have that effect.

    Ultimately, it seems to me that Beacon Hill’s past has been shaped by planners always looking into the future and promising that this time, the big project is going to help the neighborhood. With light rail, given that the business district is hidden from the trains, I’m not sure that it’s going to do much to expose people to the Hill, unless things start happening here that draw people up the elevators. And unless people start coming up the elevators, the main modes of transportation used to support the business district will still be based on asphalt.

  4. I agree with Brook’s concerns about “drawing people up the elevators”. Light rail is exciting, and the trains are a huge boon for those of us already on Beacon Hill. I’m not sure what’s in place to help businesses attract new customers via light rail.

    It’s interesting to compare Beacon Hill with Phinney Ridge. Also makes me think of Montlake, which also has some horrendous bottlenecks, yet is still vibrant with pedestrian traffic and small businesses. The Beacon Hill business district is evolving as the neighborhood evolves.

    As Beacon Hill residents open businesses and other business owners see what works here, our business district will continue to adapt to meet our needs. Planners (pro and amateur) need to consider carefully who it is we’re trying to serve. What are the demographics–now and in 5, 10, 20 years?

    Are we trying to attract business from out of the neighborhood, or serve those who live here? I don’t want to be a “destination” like Columbia City, Fremont, or Ballard. I want neighborhood businesses that reflect the neighborhood.

    The biggest specific impact opening day of light rail has yet to come. The trains are cool, but I’m most excited that the sidewalks will be open on McClellan AND Lander. No more big trucks parked on the sidewalk; construction noise and the big blue wall will be gone. The entire block will be welcoming and pedestrian accessible.

    After things have settled, we can look around and think about next steps. For now, let’s enjoy our shiny new trains!

  5. Frederica asked: “how do the small business owners on Beacon Avenue get a fair say?” In most other neighborhoods, they’d get a fair say because at least some of them would be involved in an active neighborhood chamber of commerce that would contribute to planning, go after development grants, and such. I’m sure it’s a challenge in a neighborhood as diverse as ours, but everyone is losing out without an organization like that.

  6. What is the goal of bringing more small business to Beacon Hill? Sincerely I ask as a lifelong resident of Beacon Hill who loves the diverse, somewhat slower and quieter neighborhood feel. I would really hate to see that go with the institution of higher structures and more traffic. As someone who commutes to Montlake daily I am witness to the horrendous bottlenecks and fear that any rash changes to our neighborhood would take away from the family oriented feel of the neighborhood. I agree that without a serious plan for traffic, regardless of our City’s attempt to get more pedestrians, we will have a mess! There are people that will never, NEVER give up their cars. We have to be prepared to deal with that reality.

  7. The goal is to bring us the services and shops that we want so that we don’t have to drive our cars through those “horrendous bottlenecks.”

    Auto-oriented neighborhoods, to me (and I admit not everyone will agree with me) are not family-friendly. Neighborhoods that are pedestrian-oriented are, I feel, safer and more family-friendly. (More “eyes on the street,” and you know your neighbors better.) They are also healthier because it’s easier to get motivated to walk around when there are places to walk to.

    People who will “never give up their cars” now might feel differently if gas prices go back up again — and stay up.

    Personally, I don’t really understand the reason to have a neighborhood that is lacking in businesses and services. Why want that? Sure, maybe people want a quiet neighborhood — but that does not mean a neighborhood that is lacking in walkable retail.

  8. It’s interesting to come back to this post after the recent conversation on the mailing list in which I was surprised to see so many people saying they’d rather drive to Southcenter to shop than go downtown. It seems to me that’s exactly the sort of thing that makes the pedestrian overlay on Beacon Hill more of a theory than a reality. If people want a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, then changing the zoning doesn’t matter unless they also change their habits.

  9. Thank you Brook. You clearly elucidated my point. Currently Beacon Hill neighbors do not seem so inclined to frequent the few businesses we currently have. Buggy had to relocate and Culinary Communion also closed. Brook – were you at the DPD meeting tonight? I was not able to attend.

  10. Culinary Communion did not necessarily close because of a lack of business — there were a lot of other things going on there.

    Also, people are not going to change their habits to walk more if there are no businesses up here to walk to. The point of the pedestrian overlay is to draw in businesses that are pedestrian-friendly. Without them, of course we don’t walk much.

  11. I left this discussion alone because I haven’t been involved in planning or the NBHC in a while, but maybe it is time to get involved again.

    I had a different take on the recent list-serve discussion. Driving to Southcenter seemed to be out of necessity for those who wanted to shop at a store like Target, etc. or to find a specialty shop not available downtown or otherwise. Plus, I felt that most of the commenters would actually prefer to ride the train there than drive. But, there will always be the need to efficiently leave the neighborhood with a car to get to a destination in the city (or outside of the city, god forbid) not reachable by transit. I really hope that this concept is not lost on those doing the planning.

    Regarding the desire to shop on Beacon; sorry, but shopping on Beacon is a joke and it will be for quite some time because rents are low enough to allow marginal businesses to survive. Hell, you have a perfectly good storefront next to the Beacon Pub that could be a restaraunt, etc. being occupied as a private art studio with the blinds closed and doors locked 90-percent of the time. Hopefully the local economy improves enough to increase developers’ confidence soon. The few Beacon Hill businesses there are, and recently were, are specialty shops that serve a small percentage of the population but, ironically, actually attract people to drive TO Beacon Hill. Examples are Red Bird Golf, Delite Bakery, formerly CC and Buggy, the stinky fish shop next to Galaxy, the print shop, yoga shop, tax and banking services, dentists, several salons, etc. Note that most of those are on Beacon ave. I hope city and neighborhood planners consider the value of drivers from outside of the neighborhood to the success of these small businesses who can’t survive with Beacon Hill patronage alone. Red Apple is the only business I can think of for the staples that everyone needs. I know alot of people love Red Apple, and I shop there myself somewhat regularly, but it is a poor use of such a critical lot. However, any attempt to redevelop the Red Apple site into a decent multi-use, multi-storefront block will be met with a wrath unseen on Beacon Hill and we’ve seen some pretty nasty fights over property changes (library, light rail station, Pac Med, etc.). But, if you want people to get off the train and ride the elevator up to the street surface to shop on Beacon, that block will need to be the focal point unless something big is planned for the property at the station.

    Regarding Brook’s “changing their habits” comment; pedestrian safety and comfort can come a long way on Beacon Avenue and in Beacon Hill in general before we need to implement any sort of social engineering. Cars, bikes and pedestrians can coexist. Simply improving or widening the sidewalks, adding marked and signalled crosswalks in more locations, and enforcing maintenance of sidewalks both on Beacon and within the residential area would go a long way. As a 6-foot tall man, I feel like I can’t walk a block without risking a concussion from a low hanging branch, an improperly constructed awning or mailbox cover, etc. Don’t get me started on people who park across a sidewalk.

  12. Do we have a chicken, or do we have an egg?

    What I’m trying to get at about changing habits isn’t just about walking around on Beacon Hill. If you drive to Southcenter to buy something that you could have bought downtown, you’ve just given tax revenue to the city of Tukwila instead of the city of Seattle. And you probably didn’t get to Tukwila on a bus or train, which you probably could have done to get downtown.

    So a trip to Southcenter, which makes the most sense to you in terms of consumer convenience reduces the amount of development money available to Seattle neighborhoods, and adds to the traffic congestion on Beacon Hill. We all make convenience-based decisions like that even though they work against our long-term interest. It’s human nature. If you want the zoning to work, you need to support it with your big choices (which Nordstrom?) as well as your small choices (which restaurant?), otherwise it’s just a way of even further limiting the already small number of people who might open new businesses on the hill.

    Cat, I’m actually not in Seattle at the moment, and my attendance at planning events is dreadful. I wish it wasn’t.

  13. Follow up question for Chris: You used the term “social engineering.” Would you consider the existing pedestrian overlay zoning on a business district with a primary zoning that already specifically encourages pedestrian use to be social engineering?

    When I read the actual zoning definitions, I don’t really get what the point of this sort of “double-pedestrian” zoning is on Beacon Hill. I know it’s in effect in the West Seattle Junction, but there they have a 65′ height limit. On Beacon Hill, we’re zoned for pedestrian traffic, but very low density and that just seems like a combination that can not work well. We don’t have density, so our businesses need traffic. It doesn’t have to be car traffic, but there really isn’t a serious alternative yet.

  14. For what it’s worth, when I go to Southcenter, it’s almost never to go to the mall. It’s to go to some nearby stores that don’t exist in downtown Seattle. But there’s a bit of a chicken/egg thing there, too, I suppose. They don’t exist downtown because shoppers like the free parking in the mall area. Shoppers go to the mall area because the stores they want aren’t in the city anymore anyway.

  15. “If you drive to Southcenter to buy something that you could have bought downtown…”

    I think that most people in Beacon hill, myself included, would gladly take a train trip to downtown than drive to Southcenter, all things equal or even for slightly higher unit costs. Part of my point is that there are services/stores that just don’t fit the downtown environment that require access by car, which requires maintenance of an efficient entry/exit vehicle corridor to the freeways and nearby streets. Of course, the other point is that there just aren’t enough businesses on Beacon Hill yet to support a true pedestrian shopping experience and much of the services on Beacon Hill require efficient car access from outside of Beacon Hill to allow customers to reach the businesses.

    That brings up the social engineering comment; i would have to say that most city planning has a necessary level of social engineering. My issue lies in trying to guide the process based on personal political agendas rather than on what the residents of the neighborhood want. For instance, messing with traffic patterns to reduce mobility of cars because cars are evil and we just shouldn’t be driving them would be a good example of policy designed to change our behavior to match the ideals of those doing the planning rather than for achieving a safer neighborhood or to achieve what the residents want. On the other hand, I actually agree with the pedestrian overlay concept as it exists, if I understand it correctly. I see the design and operation restrictions that come with the overlay as reasonable and necessary to maintain a safe environment for pedestrians as the central business and residential district of Beacon Hill grows in response to the convenience of the light rail station that will attract more people to move to Beacon Hill, which of course will attract more developers to increase investment and build more multi-unit construction. Unfortunately, that development doesn’t seem to have shown up yet. I’m not even sure what the reception will be when it does show up.

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