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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest
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Pacific NW Cover Story Paula Bock

On The Edge Of Opportunity

A community stretches for the buzz

Imagine you could buy a three-bedroom house with a yard — not just a condo! — priced in the mid-$300,000s, only a 15-minute drive from downtown Seattle (on a good day), in a community with a new bike trail, ethnic eateries, 28 parks (including a saltwater beach), a cozy neighborhood cinema featuring $3 movies, a growing arts scene, a supermarket specializing in fresh seafood, organic produce, Asian ingredients and live music on Friday nights, and a highly regarded school district where each student gets a laptop and chance to take instrumental music starting in fifth grade.

Think Shoreline.

Shoreline? Dowdy Shoreline? That stretch of car dealerships, casinos and strip malls lining Aurora Avenue just north of Seattle? That sprawl of cul-de-sacs and ramblers prone to power outages and flooding? The place where your parents' friends used to live?

Look again. Like a boomer edging back into the scene after several stagnant decades, this first-ring bedroom town is in the midst of a major makeover.

No longer content to be a cookie-cutter suburb, Shoreline just might transform itself into the new "it" place to live, work and play. Trendy restaurants, little shops to walk to, joints to hear jazz. They're planning a new city hall and civic center next to a Grease Monkey outlet, talking about a farmers market, dreaming of a bike race ("Tour de Shoreline"?) on the new Interurban Trail.

Many of its single-family homes are expected to go on the market within the decade as an older generation moves on, and developers talk about putting up as many as 1,500 new apartments and condos during the same span.

Will Shoreline evolve? Can it become cosmopolitan while still remaining friendly? Grow urban charm and eco-vigor in a landscape built around cars?

Why not? If back-shop Burien can remake itself into an artists' enclave, and the once seedy Alderwood mall can morph into a quasi-European plaza, surely Shoreline can create a There there. After all, Ballard did it.

"Shoreline's not hot like Ballard, but there is a buzz," says Tom Boydell, Shoreline's economic-development manager. "It's a place on the edge of opportunity. There's a lot of wealth up here, a lot of diversity, terrific leaders, great businesses, great schools, proximity to I-5, Highway 99 and downtown Seattle. And yet, at the same time, it's got vulnerabilities. So the city's got some work to do."

How, exactly, to create a There there? What makes a community cool? How to breathe new life into crumbling pavement?

Using Shoreline as an unscientific case study, we posed those questions to developers, visionaries and plain folks.

Naturally, when it comes to Change, people debate whether more density is good, bad or inevitable; how much, how fast, what quality; the merits and morals of parking; whether new development will build or destroy a community, sink real-estate values or price them out of the neighborhood.

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"Because we're such a bedroom community, there wasn't any heart of Shoreline," says Patty Hale, a longtime community volunteer who has lived in Shoreline for 25 years. "But to me, the heart of the city is not a geographic location. It's where you feel the greatest attachment, at home, right in my own neighborhood with family and friends."

Now, she adds, "We're looking at this great — what would you call it? — urbanization of Shoreline. It's going to change the demographics and makeup. I don't think it's necessarily going to be bad, but when there's change, there's growing pains."

OUT: Strip malls.

In: Town centers, or walkable "villages," where you stroll around, grab a bite, bump into neighbors, view art exhibits, buy groceries and baby presents, browse bookstores, get your hair cut, see a local drama production.

Out: Car culture, where you screech up to a storefront, grab your purchase, slam the trunk and screech back out.

In: Walking, biking or transiting to a destination where you amble around doing errands and engaging with your community. See above.

Out: Blocky townhomes with no ground-floor retail.

In: Mixed-use development with condos or apartments above shops and public spaces with fountains, sculpture and places for people to meet.

Out: Long, flat storefronts isolated by a sea of parking.

In: Linked shops with facades of varying texture, color and height set close to the paths, sidewalks or street so there's visual interaction between passers-by and people inside.

Out: Single-purpose buildings that empty at close of business.

In: Programs that draw people: poetry readings, wine tastings, knitting circles, mahjong clubs, community meetings, French lessons, home-repair workshops.

"What you do to create a great place," says visionary developer Ron Sher, "you figure out your best shot at it. If it's already got a library or a park or some retail stores, you add to it so there's enough energy. You want a place where people feel good about going and hopefully meeting their neighbors. There's a conviviality, a civility, a respect." Sher revitalized Crossroads Mall in Bellevue, developed Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park and Ravenna, bought the venerable Elliott Bay Bookstore in Pioneer Square, wisely leaving it pretty much as is.

He and others organized a think tank in Seattle this summer, bringing in 50 national leaders to figure out what makes a Great Place.

Their list declares Great Places should: Welcome diverse peoples; invite chance encounters and surprise; appeal to all the senses; offer a variety of activities; respond to changing community needs; engender personal well-being, renewal and a feeling of connectedness; inspire people to take ownership; promote health and safety; spark cultural and economic vitality; be economically, environmentally and socially sustainable; encourage participation in public life.

Doesn't need to have retail, Sher says. Look at the community swirl at the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park. "But in creating a There there, it helps to have something that keeps the lights on, so that people come, it won't be empty, it'll be safe and there will be something going on, all the time." Last year, Third Place Books hosted more than 1,200 free events.

"Great Places are funny. There are some There theres that just happen. There are some that happen and then they lose it. They appear invulnerable, but they are fragile. Like if you lose a big retailer and you don't do something. You have to be conscious of groups interacting, and you have to invest. . . . Like if you try to redevelop a dead shopping center, you find pockets of energy and you work on them and make them as strong as they can and then those pockets overflow and interconnect."

"In Shoreline, there isn't much of a There there," Sher says. Transected by three major arterials, the place was developed for automobile convenience, not human interaction. Yet Sher sees potential. Pockets of energy to nourish and connect. Movers and shakers with the right attitude and questions.

"Can Shoreline overcome its geography? Hey, I never say no."

THE CANDY-COUNTER clerks at the Crest Cinema Center are chatting about what Shoreline really needs (a bubble-tea bar, cafe with foosball table, live music venues, places for teens to hang out) when a movie-goer breezes in, vitality oozing from the brim of her black and orange baseball cap down to her yellow Converse shoes.

"The big huge popcorn with butter in the middle, all that fattening stuff and a large Diet Coke." At 32, Emily Musselwhite knows exactly what she wants. She loves the Crest, lives in Seattle's Eastlake neighborhood, just bought a Ballard condo.

Why Ballard, not Shoreline?

"Cafes, coffee shops, bars. Everything walking distance." Natch. She laughs, grabs her popcorn, ducks into "Becoming Jane."

With $3 movies, worn velveteen seats and a lobby comfy as your best friend's living room, the Crest is a pocket of energy. Trouble is, it stands virtually alone. After Café Aroma closes at suppertime, there's nothing else open save the fluorescent 7-Eleven across the street. No place to grab a bite or meet pals before or after show time.

"It's a bland corner," agrees Ronald Turner, a retired architect and urban planner who taught at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania. Turner and University of Washington instructor Luann Smith led several brainstorming sessions with neighbors and UW landscape-architecture students on ways to develop an abandoned bingo hall across the street from the Crest.

It's a dumpy, empty building surrounded by asphalt and a chain-link fence. But the site harbors a hidden treasure: altitude. The parcel perches on a ridge 465 feet above sea level, higher than Queen Anne Hill. Build up above the treetops and you'd get 360-degree views of mountains, Sound, downtown Seattle.

How 'bout a restaurant atop condos and apartments, Ridgecrest neighbors told the students, with a street-level bakery or Trader Joe's and a community meeting room? How 'bout a plaza for a farmers market and community festivals? Green roofs, tree-lined streets, permeable paving, solar power, cisterns to reuse water, sidewalks linking the nearby school and park with the theater, better traffic control, bike paths and a first-class bus shelter?

"Pragmatically, the corner could be developed more intensely, but never with a tremendous amount of vitality — unless they add a significant amount of housing around there," Turner says. "You don't have enough people. How many cups of coffee can you serve a day if it's not a pedestrian neighborhood?" And how would a developer pay for all the amenities without enough units to sell?

At a Monday-night zoning meeting, a whopping 60 neighbors show up to meet a potential developer and hear the city's proposal to relax height restrictions at the site in return for amenities like fountains and public spaces.

The neighbors worry aloud about parking, about being priced out, about privacy, shadows, potential crime. They worry the project won't be as innovative or green as what they'd dreamed with the UW students. They worry things will change.

You need to ask yourself if all you really want is just another 56 townhouse units, the developer says.

Then, they worry things won't change enough.

NEWLY MARRIED and planning on kids, Patty Hale and her husband, Gordon, moved into a 1,600-square-foot home in the Ridgecrest neighborhood (near the Crest) in 1982. They liked the nearby park, the bigger bang for their real-estate buck, and the fact that it wasn't the Seattle School District, where children could be bused clear across the city for desegregation.

Hale's neighborhood, like much of Shoreline, was built for veterans returning from World War II. Developers flattened a tract, raised a hundred houses, and built a grade school overflowing with so many baby boomers that classes were held in two shifts.

"It felt like home," Hale says. Mailboxes at the street forced neighbors to bump into each other, say hello. Everyone knew everyone else's kids, and even now, years after the children have grown up and moved away, their parents still go to high-school games.

Meanwhile, Shoreline aged.

Its sewer and water pipes, only 6 inches in diameter, couldn't handle buildings higher than one story (thus the low, flat strip malls along Aurora) or, truth be told, much rain.

"We'd get 70 to 90 calls saying, 'I'm flooded!' with every drizzle," recalls Jesus Sanchez, operations manager for Shoreline Public Works. "Today, not one call during even the heaviest storms."

Since incorporating as a city in 1995, Shoreline has torn up its streets, installed sewers, bigger water pipes and underground power.

"If infrastructure doesn't keep up," says economic-development manager Boydell, "then property gets abandoned. That is the history of cities in California and other places around the country. You'll see these small suburban cities and they'll become pockets of poverty, and usually the reason is that someone didn't think ahead about what the business community needed."

Economic development isn't just a matter of cute soap shops and cupcake cafes. "You're being strategic about improving the city's tax base so you have more commercial businesses and not an increasing burden on single-family-house owners," Boydell says. "Shoreline has a population of 53,000, a trade area of 200,000 people and only 1,300 businesses. That's three times as many people as jobs. Kent has twice as many jobs as people. Ideally, you want to get to a better ratio, like 1:1 . . . More jobs create more sales taxes. The reality is, that's how government pays for services."

A whirlwind tour of Shoreline includes: Two new artsy pedestrian bridges along Aurora, plus new sidewalks and tree-planted medians; a sagging North City neighborhood recharged with flower planters, wrought-iron lamp posts, pullout parking, a wine-bar bistro and vibrant Internet cafe. What was once gravel parking strips and old specialty stores near City Hall is now a grassy swath ripe for a farmers market and historical trolley.

City upgrades jump-start private investment, Boydell says, pointing out storefronts along Aurora. "All the businesses are repainting — everything from McDonald's to the tattoo place!"

More projects are in the works, or at least in talks: A state-of-the-art YMCA and 400 new housing units near Echo Lake and a major public-transit station; an expanded Sky Nursery; possible mixed-use housing and retail behind North City's popular Hotwire Café; a potential after-school community-theater program for high-school students at the Crest.

Mixed-use here, town homes there, pretty soon it adds up to more than 1,500 proposed housing units in a faltering market. Will there be demand? Think long-term, Boydell says. Jobs at Boeing and Microsoft. Seattle condos priced sky high. Easy bus ride to downtown. With infrastructure in place, the next critical step is wooing certain developers and getting community buy-in. "These guys who are really good and visionary are often so successful they don't need to find another new project," Boydell says. "They're inspired by doing something nice for the community, so we try to create a fertile ground for that."

Shoreline's potential could spur developers to turn the Central Market/Sears Plaza into a town center with view condos. Create housing for seniors behind the Ridgecrest 7-Eleven. The city is struggling with one property owner's proposal to build a 12-story residential tower along Aurora.

A 12-story building in a city steeped in single-family houses? That worries longtime resident Hale. Slow down, she says. Let residents have a say. "Shoreline is at a make-or-break point," she says. "Let's do it well and get it right.

"And what's wrong with being a bedroom community anyway? I don't understand all these people who say there's nothing to do," Hale says. "For me, if I'm going to Do, I'm going to Everett or to Seattle to the theater. I like the idea of being able to return home at the end of the day to quiet."

READY OR NOT, Shoreline's already pulsing. Sort of.

Stroll into North City's Hotwire Café for a morning latte and you're surrounded by breakfast regulars, laptop warriors and the cheerful patter of Miriam D'Arco, who bought the cafe in February with her partner, Angela Rinaldo.

"White mocha! For the sensitive guy," she sings, handing a cup to a balding businessman. "There you go, honey. Where were you yesterday?"

D'Arco has spent decades working restaurants in hot spots: Miami, New York, Alki. She knew nothing about Shoreline before this year. ("Had to Mapquest it!")

"My first impression was that it had a good vibe, that it was definitely a neighborhood." She could tell by the regulars — and she was surprised by the demographic: folks from local churches, yoginis from a nearby studio, nursing students from Shoreline Community College, naturopaths from Bastyr, Internet types, chatting moms, a firefighter, a novelist, a cancer survivor, caffeine aficionados from North Africa, Latin America, Vietnam, Japan.

In the '60s and '70s, Shoreline was mostly white. These days, nearly 1 in 5 of its residents is of Asian ancestry, and the Latino population, now 5.5 percent, is growing fast. Some of the world's wealthiest, including the McCaw cellular family, live within city limits in the Highlands, a gated enclave. Shoreline's 11.7 square miles is also home to 17 percent who qualify for food stamps.

D'Arco lets some low-income customers and kids barter chores for beverages; firefighters pay tabs for other down-and-out regulars. Creating community takes certain "ingredients," D'Arco explains. In the case of the cafe, excellent coffee, wireless Internet and "a passion to integrate everyone, including the homeless."

Across the city, in a vintage yellow school bus converted to a taco truck, Hugo Raul Conejo Maldonado gazes out at the strip-mall parking lot and sinks into a tortilla with carnitas, refried beans and rice.

He calls Shoreline home during the summers, when he plays Andean folk music on the festival circuit. Come fall, he returns to his village two hours north of Quito, where there's a huge Saturday market and you can walk wherever you want to go. Talk about community.

Shoreline? "I like this place and find everything here!" he says. "We have a Latin store. We have the (taco) bus. We have Safeway, Sears, Big Lots, a place to do laundry."

Lunch consumed, Maldonado and fellow musicians stroll across the parking lot to Lupe's Tienda, where they crowd around a ticketing machine, confirming plane reservations to Ecuador. The store also has phone lines with cheap rates to countries south, the largest selection of quinceañera dresses between Everett and White Center, and achiote, a brick-red seed that lends signature flavor and color to a pork dish called cochinita pibil.

Owner Guadalupe Ortiz moved to Shoreline from Green Lake some 20 years ago for the usual reasons: Less crowded, more house and yard for the money, good schools. She ran a restaurant, and now the store. It's her community

Tickets purchased, Maldonado bids Ortiz adios and heads for his house — on foot.

Who says Aurora isn't walkable? Lacks "village" appeal? Not the urban-planning ideal, for sure, but there's something that's real.

"From a design perspective," says urban planner Turner, "the energy that's Aurora with all the chaos and problems — all those signs shouting: Look at me! — is probably more truthful to American capitalist competition than the shops where everyone has the little awnings and people sit outside sipping aperitifs." He worries about everything becoming the same — "middle-class stereotypes of what should exist."

What does exist, if you start at the new pedestrian bridges and walk 15 minutes north: 3 casinos, 9 car dealerships, a windowless strip joint, a hot-tub showroom, U-Haul, a rehab center, 2 nail salons, 2 banks, 2 gas stations, 4 tiendas, a butcher, a car wash, 7 restaurants, an electronics recycling place, an auto-parts store, towing shops, 3 hair salons, a pawnshop, a discount clothing store, a few empty storefronts and the Sweet Spot — a drive-thru coffee place featuring bikini-clad baristas.

The main problem with Aurora, says barista Katie Rowland, is that the traffic pattern doesn't accommodate the cafe's popularity when the line goes around the block.

Could be worse, says Pamela Suryan, who manages the strip mall that includes the Sweet Spot. Before the city installed new sidewalks and planters, "you'd see a lot of prostitutes and drug dealers. It sounds corny, but you clean up the neighborhood and you clean up how people behave."

Suryan has lived and worked all over Seattle, in Redmond and Bellevue. "This, I would say, is the least charming. I was an art-history major, attracted to fun, funky places. This is not that. But you need somewhere to recycle your computer, get a taco, a hair cut, a great burrito, a good deal on a car. You're not going to find these conveniences with good prices in downtown Bellevue.

"A lot of times, you just want to run your errands."

Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. E-mail: pbock@seattletimes.com. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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