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WRITTEN BY WILLIAM DIETRICH
PHOTOGRAPHED BY HARLEY SOLTES
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.
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?
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Taste||Northwest Living||Now & Then|