I used to live in Ravenna in a fourplex that looked like a large single-family house. I could walk to what was then Boulevard Grocery and buy lunch. In this small one-story gabled market, originally a garage then converted into a grocery in the 1920s, I chatted with neighbors, learned about my neighborhood and bought sundries. One time we ran out of toilet paper, and I discovered this a little too late. My now-wife ran down to the grocery and picked up a roll to save the day. When we moved, we looked for a house that was close to a commercial hub so we could still walk to shops. This really limited our options because of the current zoning rules.
The fourplex and the grocery are remnants of a historical Seattle. Today, neither are allowed to be built where we were living because it is a single-family zone. These zoning rules are also historical remnants. Allowing only one family to live in a detached house throughout most of the city dates from the 1923 comprehensive plan, authored by Harland Bartholomew. He was writing zoning codes for cities throughout the country to prevent “colored people” from moving into “finer residential districts.” He was laying the groundwork for racist property covenants and red lining by banks. The effects of these past racist policies are still starkly apparent in the current map of Seattle. But they don’t have to be.
There are a small handful of stores and cafes like Boulevard Grocery (now called Seven Coffee Roasters Market & Cafe) speckled throughout the city’s residential neighborhoods. They have all been in continued operation since at least 1922, weathering the depression, WWII and the Vietnam War, the oil embargo, the Great Recession and now online commerce. Why have they been able to maintain business for 100 years? Because they are beloved local places that connect us — to Seattle’s past; to each other; to the food, drink, art, culture and life of a specific neighborhood. They create more activity on the sidewalk, reducing crime and cars and increasing walking, biking, skipping, scootering and maybe even laughing. (There’s no data yet on that last one.) They create more equity by opening up small business opportunities that tailor their offerings to the neighborhood, generating jobs and keeping economic multipliers in the community.
Many of us will be working from home more than we used to. What if we could stitch together an itinerary walking around our neighborhoods that includes a stop at our block’s coworking space to attend a video meeting in a soundproof room, then a haircut and a sandwich at the deli down the street? We wouldn’t need to live right near a commercial hub if these businesses were distributed throughout our neighborhoods.
Let’s allow corner stores back into our neighborhoods. If you are concerned about this prospect, help to shape how we let them return. Let’s keep things human-scaled with local businesses and small structures that will nestle into our neighborhoods, just like the examples we already know. We can decide what uses to allow. Coffee? Yes. Grocery? Yes. Cellphone store? Hmm, I don’t think so. Kid’s art classes? Yes. Beer and wine on a patio with unamplified music? How about only before 8 p.m.? We can make rules about when deliveries are allowed to happen and where to keep trash. There’s much to discuss.
The way we allow corner stores back into our neighborhoods is by amending the land-use code, which requires a vote by the Seattle City Council. Reach out to our council members and tell them you want to bring back corner stores to create a connected, walkable, safe city that replaces old segregationist rules with a vision for a city that will be ready when you need that roll of toilet paper!