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Changing Visions | Part 4
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Cover Story
Identity Crisis: Trying to find itself, Greenwood rides the tides of progress and pragmatism

The series: In this ongoing series, Pacific Northwest magazine explores the forces of change around us and its significance to our future as a community. Readers have been chiming in with their own opinions, suggestions, horror stories and even creative solutions.
Read other installments in the series.
To contribute your comments, e-mail or write to "The Big Squeeze," Pacific Northwest magazine, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.
WHEN DOES place become neighborhood?

In fits and starts, Seattle's Greenwood is finding out.

Seattle and the Puget Sound basin have hundreds of places, many of them new because an average of 70,000 more people a year are flocking into the region. But many of these places remain little more than collections of houses where you still have to get in a car to work, shop or play. And where almost nobody knows your name.

The area also has some long-established urban neighborhoods with distinct identities and personalities, such as Capitol Hill, Ballard, Fremont and the Chinatown International District. A particular population, history, pride, longevity, familiar businesses, local schools and annual festivals combine to create a sense of identity and community.
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Waitress Beth Fura reads the horoscopes from local papers to her regulars at Baranof Restaurant, a classic eatery of "old Seattle." Listening are daily diners Wes Young, left, Jean Moore, in the center, and Pat Bogucki, to the right.
Greenwood, on the northwest reaches of Green Lake, is between these poles. From its boundaries to its self-image, the place is fuzzy — neither bland suburb nor chic urban nucleus, neither rich nor poor, sparkling new nor quaintly old. It is a name and a place but just barely a neighborhood: a commercial island in a vast metropolitan sea.

As America tries to recover some of the warmth lost in the last part of the 20th century, Greenwood presents an interesting test case for the 21st. Do great neighborhoods just happen? Or can they be built, deliberately and consciously, with wise leadership?

Community leaders want Greenwood to be a test. Plans for remodeling a Fred Meyer and a supermarket are creating an opportunity to rethink the entire commercial core — and provoking discussion on just what a good neighborhood should be.

Is the post-World-War-II car-and-parking-lot pattern a "model of efficiency," as a Times editorial writer once described Aurora Avenue? Or was the golden age of the urban neighborhood 1920 to 1955, when autos were rarer, commerce was concentrated, streetcars abundant and necessities within walking distance?

Can detailing make a drive-through community a destination? Or is the stuff that planners and architects love as unnecessary as paint on a pig?
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The Greenwood Academy of Hair is a neighborhood landmark. Student Beth Hodson takes a cellphone break between appointments. At the far left is Anna Warren, who graduates in April; in the center is Amber Bray, who graduated in March.
Greenwood's heart is the intersection of Greenwood Avenue and North 85th Street, where the business district is centered. Its rough boundaries are Aurora Avenue to the east, 8th Avenue Northwest to the west, and Holman Road and North 105th Street to the north.

The southern boundary, depending on who's talking, lies somewhere between 67th and 80th, where Greenwood merges indistinctly into Phinney Ridge. One homeowner, asked if he lived in Phinney or Greenwood, answered, "It depends whether I'm selling or buying." Even the city fudged on the issue by lumping the commercial districts of the two neighborhoods together into one, long, crucifix-shaped "urban village."

Best known for its antique shops, Greenwood's commercial district is a mix of big-box stores such as Fred Meyer and small businesses that sprinkle new ideas around a 1950s milieu. New three-story condos loom next to World War II-era bungalows. There's a Tully's Coffee at one corner and the Bombers Tavern at the other end of the double-sized main block. Residences range from Martha Stewart Living to Dogpatch. Hollywood will never film here, but it's quintessential Northwest.
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Greenwood is a neighborhood of ethnic diversity and has drawn businesses to serve its diverse population. Ruben Salazar, 7, has just bought candy at Mi Tiendita Latina, which sells christening gowns, videos and food, among other things, to cater to the Latino community.
Greenwood is more affordable for young families than many Seattle neighborhoods. Steve Reents, who moved to Greenwood three years ago, walks up 82nd Street with his sons, Alex, 3, and Tyler, 1. Photo
An example of cutting-edge retail is Sheryl Long's Got Rocks, a store that sells polished rocks and has been so improbably successful that it recently expanded. Long, who grew up near Chicago, picked Greenwood as the next hip place, a crossroads where rents and housing are still affordable and yet interesting enough that outsiders will come to shop.

She moved into the new Tower Apartments across the street and loves the low-key urbanism. "It feels like a real village," she says.

"We cater to people who like the sounds of a city but don't like the prices downtown," says Karen Platt, the apartment manager. The Taproot Theater brought some culture when it moved in seven years ago, and a catering service has opened kitty-corner from the stalwart Greenwood Academy of Hair.

"The yuppies are moving north," concedes Carole Cote-Watt, manager of the crusty Baranof Restaurant, which comes across as the lost twin of Seattle's late, lamented Doghouse. With its kitschy 1960s décor, a bar as dimly lit as a crawl space and a wing devoted to pull-tabs, the Baranof is so unhip it's hip. "You've got tree huggers who think this is the worst place in the world because we sell liquor and are full of smoke, but now we're turning into a novelty because we're so old."

BUILT ON A BOG in a swale with no views, Greenwood historically has been a modest place. Some 40 acres of it was once an unsuccessful cemetery, its few bodies moved when developers finally got there. People used to camp at nearby Green Lake, when the entire area was known as Woodland. Greenwood was more remote from central Seattle then than Woodinville is today.

Development finally took off in the 1920s and '30s. The area north of 85th was not annexed to Seattle until 1954, and the legacy of that lag is plain: Half a century later, there are still no residential sidewalks north of 85th. Housing prices on that side tend to be a quarter lower than housing to the south.

Yet Greenwood could become the next Wallingford. Its close-in location and relatively affordable housing has produced an interesting ethnic and professional mix: Latinos, Greeks, Asians, Ukranians, blue-collar and professional, small entrepreneurs and the retired.
spacer One issue for urban Seattle is making neighborhood redevelopment affordable. The Low Income Housing Institute operates the rental Denice Hunt Townhomes at the site of an old skating rink on 85th Street.
A traditional Greenwood Avenue bungalow is dwarfed by a new condominium project across the alley. The upper floors of the Ridgmont feature views of the Cascades and sell for more than $400,000.
"It's the last bastion of affordable housing," says attorney Stacey Romberg, who moved in five years ago after migrating from Washington, D.C.

"It's like going back in time," says Marlene Hall, co-owner of the popular Gordito's Mexican restaurant. The commercial hub seems to have one foot comfortably stuck in the 1950s. The shop owners are real and unpretentious. The kids still go to the Boys & Girls Club. The Fred Meyer is as worn as a comfortable old boot.

After decades of benign neglect, the city is beginning to invest in Greenwood because of new, voter-approved levies. Greenwood's 1901 elementary school has been completely updated. The 1953 library is about to be replaced. While condos and apartments have taken over an old lumberyard, an aging greenhouse business is being turned into Greenwood Park just west of Fremont Avenue. While the City Council rebuffed Mayor Greg Nickels' sidewalk initiative, officials expect to see it resurrected in some form in the next year or so.

Other change is more controversial. As the city tries to accommodate more people by "in-filling" with apartments, condominiums and skinny houses, traffic on Greenwood Avenue has turned from a trickle to a torrent. Buses fight to get through. The monorail and light rail still seem like distant dreams, and neither will go directly through the neighborhood. Most promised improvements have yet to materialize.

"The irony is that we're ending up with the density without the city investment needed to make Greenwood and other transitioning neighborhoods the vibrant, healthy urban space they could be," notes Rob Fellows, a Greenwood Community Council member.

"Either invest and make this work or stop giving us growth," adds Michael McGinn, council president.

Having already waited 50 years for sidewalks, Greenwood isn't depending on City Hall to solve its problems. The community council has taken on its biggest challenge, and biggest opportunity: Directing commercial redevelopment to encourage a more pedestrian-oriented neighborhood — a true urban village.

The key player is Seattle's old-line Morrow family, which owns Greenwood Shopping Center Inc., a classic asphalt-and-big-box desert that is landlord for Fred Meyer, the Greenwood Market, Blockbuster and similar large tenants. Family member Patty-Cole Ulrichs says the family had tentatively planned updating in 2005, and over the last year the community council has met with representatives to discuss possible change.
spacer Thumbnail Growing a better Greenwood spacer
Why do citizens have a say? Because they could support a rezone that would add substantially to the value of the property.

Here's the deal. Greenwood residents might support a rezone allowing buildings to go from 40 feet to 65 feet high, making possible condos or apartments above remodeled stores. In return, the company would invest some of that added value in pedestrian walkways, landscaping, possibly structured parking, and even a small community plaza. Maybe grant money could be found to share the expense.
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Greenwood's skyline has, until recently, changed little since the 1945 photograph, below. The streetcar power lines are gone. Now new apartments and condominiums are appearing on the horizon of this streetscape.
At a recent community meeting, one resident suggested a Saturday market, the kind that has helped invigorate other older neighborhoods such as Columbia City.

The devil, of course, is in the details.

Those working on the plan seem to have a pretty good idea of what they don't want. No mini-mall that sucks the commercial life out of adjacent Greenwood Avenue. No University Village, with its destination upscale stores and a doughnut of parking that cuts the complex off from its neighborhood. No blank block walls facing the surrounding neighborhood; maybe a fringe of townhouses instead.

Consultants have proposed physically linking the shopping-center property to Greenwood Avenue with a mid-block walkway about where McDonald's is now. The hope is that the big anchor tenants also attract and make room for a wish-list of small businesses: an independent bookstore, a shoe repair, an ice-cream place, and so on.

Both Gary Brunt, the shopping-center property manager, and Tom Gibbons, the Fred Meyer development representative, are cautiously supportive of the planning process but reluctant to make any promises. "Mixed-use development (a combination of retail and housing) seems to be the wave of the future," Gibbons acknowledges, and Fred Meyer has experimented with it in Portland. Will Greenwood be the Seattle test? No decision has been made.

"The plan has good merits but not all of it makes economic sense," cautions Brunt.

Hope has a way of colliding with reality. The neighborhood is anticipating a redeveloped Safeway store at Greenwood and 87th, but when Safeway excavated it found the old peat bog that serves as the headwaters of Pipers Creek and had to pump in order to build. Some neighbors have accused the chain of pumping so much water out that surrounding buildings are settling, a theory Safeway disputes.
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Huge asphalt parking lots, the hallmark of postwar "big-box" stores, discourage walking. Greenwood hopes to break up this one with a more inviting mix of businesses, walking paths and landscaping.
And there's a huge cost difference between giving Fred Meyer a facelift and converting it into something so dramatically different that it becomes a tool for neighborhood development.

One of the ironies is that some of what locals would like to achieve in Greenwood was already there before World War II. Small businesses proliferated. A streetcar ran right down Greenwood Avenue. Until city annexation, Greenwood even had a reputation as a somewhat naughty place, with nightclubs, taverns and a Chinese gambling den flourishing in what was unincorporated King County, right across the city line. The home of the Taproot Theater was, at one point in its history, a porno palace.

From the 1950s and '60s, locals remember fondly Marie's CafÈ (the origin of Marie's salad dressing), the Fuji dime store, the Teahouse, the roller rink and the hula-hoop competition at the supermarket.
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The new Tower Apartments, next door to the Baranof Restaurant, are reflected in the window of Recollection Books, one of several used-book stores in Greenwood.
The car, superstore competition and the public demand for large lots of free retail parking gradually changed the neighborhood's feel. "The more automobile traffic, the less you know your neighbors," says McGinn.

Now residents want the best of both worlds: the convenience of a Fred Meyer — including its parking — coupled with the community that comes from a walkable neighborhood of small businesses owned by people who have invested their lives there.

In theory, it's simple: Make walking enticing. Get people out of their vehicular cocoons and life slows down, becomes more communal. "I like urban living, but I just don't want to be downtown," explains antique-seller Charlie Bailey. She sees Greenwood as an ideal compromise. "I'd like to see it be a little more walking friendly."

You can see the tricks in any shopping mall: broad walkways, landscaping and interesting storefronts. Shoppers take energy from each other. The only thing "new" is doing it outdoors.

That means street trees, planters, hanging baskets, attractive lighting, sidewalk cafes, intriguing stores, architectural detailing, historic preservation, signs scaled for foot traffic instead of hurtling cars, safe street crossings and logical walking routes. One need go no farther than Edmonds or Kirkland to see how to make it work.
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Antique-store owner Kay Hurd is retiring, but she came to Greenwood 23 years ago because she was convinced of its potential as an urban village.
One idea is to have buildings set back in tiers as they go higher, turning a canyon into a valley that lets in light. There could be second-floor terrace cafes, or balconies where residents overlook the street.

Another is to change the fortress-like blank ground floor of many condos and hotels that rely on small retail to make the sidewalk interesting. There are only so many espresso bars and video stores to go around. Why not townhouses with front doors that open directly onto the sidewalk, as seen in Europe and New York? Ballard Place Condominiums on Northwest 57th Street is an example of what this does to a block.

Greenwood's eclectic mix of antique stores, ethnic restaurants, neighborhood hangouts and services — Korean karate next door to ballet practice — provide the distinct personality. But can they agree on a vision? A mall has a single owner. A neighborhood has a hundred.

Locals aren't opposed to change. Tony Mussio, who has lived in Greenwood all his 38 years, welcomes more condos. "I think it's kind of cool" — Greenwood is getting trendy. "I'd like to see more home ownership." To Mussio, former Mayor Norm Rice's urban-village idea makes sense.
If I ran this place ...

OK, OK, we heard from you — hundreds of you — in response to this Changing Vision series. You wailed, you wished, you scolded, you begged. You want this place you love to work better. So, how would you do that? What's your vision for change? Your idea can be big, it can be small. It can fix the city or save the farms. In words (try holding it to 250, please) or pictures, or both. We'll report on your ideas. We'll even give you a prize if we like your ideas best!

E-mail us at, or mail your response to:
"If I Ran This Place"
Pacific Northwest magazine
The Seattle Times
P.O. Box 70
Seattle, WA 98111

First Prize: The computer game Sim City 3000
Second Prize: A Seattle Monopoly game
Third Prize: Your very own Seattle Times calculator

"I've always thought that Greenwood will have its day," says antique-dealer Kay Hurd, who is retiring after opening her store in 1980 and operating it from her wheelchair. The increased density has increased foot traffic, discouraged crime and given the neighborhood new energy, she says.

Yet what combination of investment, cachet, demographics, geography, commitment and luck is it that turns a set of addresses into a village within a city?

Government can't engineer a Baranof, or buy a Kay Hurd, or think up a Got Rocks or invent the memories of the Boys & Girls Club. Like fine wine, neighborhoods have to ferment and age, people and architecture developing together. It can't force a Portland-based megacorp like Fred Meyer to care about a neighborhood 180 miles away.

But a city can destroy or prevent a neighborhood from ever emerging — by neglect, by zoning out small core businesses, by dull-witted planning or poor policing. It can also encourage property owners to use more imagination, which is what Seattle is trying to do. The cost difference between banal and beautiful design is sometimes small, if developers understand they are creating not just square footage but an environment.

There are a zillion equivalents to Greenwood Shopping Center Inc. all across America: commercial hubs that are handy but sterile. The question for the 21st century: Is this the best we can do? Can there be Costcos with charm, or does that miss the whole point? Maybe we want warehouse muscle. Drive in, drive out, as welded to our steering wheel as a Comanche to his horse.

Or maybe we realize we've lost as much as we've gained. Maybe shopping is not just about consumption, but communicating: the marketplace as the heart of the neighborhood, as it was in ancient times.

"You have to work with what's in place," notes Beth Pflug, coordinator of the city's Greenwood Neighborhood Service Center. And that, she says, is exactly what seems to be happening. "This is one neighborhood that's trying to take control of itself through the planning process."

Can planning partnered with market forces create a new model for the millennium?

Perhaps Greenwood will point the way.

William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter. Harley Soltes is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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