Last month, the Capitol Hill coffee shop became the fourth building on its street to fall to the wrecking ball. And while former customers may turn pale at the prospect of wandering the Hill in search of a worthy replacement to their Drinkmore double-tall, they have far more serious concerns than just caffeine withdrawal. As developers continue to blanket the city with luxury condos, the community's health may be at stake.
Arriving on April Fool's Day, 2000, The Drinkmore, then called the Bit Star, was the most recent in a long line of small businesses to set up shop on the corner of Bellevue Avenue East and East Thomas Street. More than 100 patrons stopped in daily for espresso, internet access and conversation.
It was precisely the type of place you would expect from owner and neighborhood activist Scott Kennedy, an also-ran in Seattle's most recent mayoral election (he placed fifth in a field of 12 candidates). Although he hasn't shaved or worn a tie much since then, Kennedy never stopped preaching his political beliefs from behind the espresso counter - until, that is, the wreckers came to haul that counter to the dump. Just one month after his lease expired, Kennedy spoke about the long-term effects of Seattle's development strategy while the bulldozers chewed up the remainder of his former business and home.
"I think it is unrealistic to ask people to stop building," he said. "But the current zoning regulations are segregating residential and commercial areas. And when you banish all shops to the high-traffic commercial strips, like Broadway, 15th Avenue East or the Pike-Pine corridor, you deter entrepreneurs, and the new jobs they bring."
Research concurs, showing that as much as 80 percent of new jobs are generated by new business with fewer than five employees. These smaller businesses stimulate economic diversity, generate more tax revenue, reinvest more of their revenues locally and are less susceptible to outsourcing, relocation or other whims of Wall Street investors. Expensive retail and commercial space is the primary barrier to entry for new businesses. The resulting storefront vacancies can actually cause more problems for the community.
"I'm concerned that if we continue pushing small businesses, students, struggling families, senior citizens and artists out of the neighborhood, we may lose our diversity and jeopardize the very essence of what attracts people here in the first place," Kennedy said.
While residential vacancy rates hover around an all-time high of 10 percent, a King County Annual Growth Report shows a staggering net increase of 3,261 new units authorized in 2003.
Losing the corner store won't help traffic, either. With no nearby retail shops, new tenants will likely be driving to get a latte, or a book or a haircut. Their friends and visiting relatives will compete for the three parking spaces generally available on lower Capitol Hill. And Kennedy (who occasionally opened the shop in his pajamas) will probably now be commuting a bit further away than his hallway.
Perhaps the worst effect of all-residential blocks, and empty retail spaces, is a loss of security. Within a few months of opening The Drinkmore, Seattle police reported reductions in drug-related incidents in Thomas Park, located across the street. Graffiti was cleaned, the phone booth was moved inside and dozens of minor incidents and conflicts were resolved, helping to relieve a police force already stretched dangerously thin. The role of the local merchant in maintaining civic pride was not lost on the nearby building owners, who had been using The Drinkmore as a selling point to prospective buyers and renters along Bellevue Avenue East.
"The feeling of a truly connected community is naturally appealing to people, which is precisely why corporations and condo builders work so hard to create and sell that illusion," Kennedy said. "But in the long run, we could attract a healthier, more stable growth by building job opportunity. Just like good schools, parks and transportation, these community 'quality of life' assets are what lure people to a region."
If you really want more mice, Kennedy says, you don't build more mousetraps, you buy more cheese. So how to encourage small business growth? A few planks from Kennedy's otherwise dated mayoral platform suggest a good start: Retain lower rent commercial spaces off the main strips. Forgive taxes on new businesses during that notoriously precarious first year of operation. Significantly reduce the paperwork burden. Increase small business loan opportunities. Fund programs to match venture capital with local firms looking for small amounts of equity. Lower unemployment insurance rates.
The design and implementation of such strategies would cost a fraction of the huge corporate deals, such as the recent $3.2 billion earmarked for Boeing, or the $30 million Seattle plans to throw at the South Lake Union revitalization project.
"How can we even consider funding the development projects of Paul Allen if we can't fund our schools properly, or even keep our libraries open?" asked Kennedy. "It's dangerously easy to confuse standard of living with quality of life. I wouldn't mind a nice condo, but a great neighborhood, with character, connectedness and diversity, can bring a joy and fulfillment far beyond having a larger closet."
Kennedy's quality of life goals are increasingly difficult to keep in mind as large development projects sprout up and confuse dreams with the promise of convenience and a new residential order. One wonders how, in such a disconnected world, will neighbors meet each other?
The Drinkmore is already sorely missed. As Kennedy heads off to pound the pavement, yet another Capitol Hill neighborhood prepares for a different kind of pavement pounding. The sound of construction will be present all summer, and right outside his neighbors' bedroom windows.
Freelance writer Robert Hathaway lives on Capitol Hill and can be reached c/o email@example.com.