How are Seattle’s politics changing after a move to City Council representation by districts? An accelerating effort to remake Aurora Avenue North for apartments and shopping may offer some clues.
Town houses and small apartment buildings increasingly pack the blocks that branch out from Aurora Avenue North above Green Lake.
Their occupants squeeze onto the crowded RapidRide buses that whiz downtown each morning, and attend the area’s three gleaming new public schools.
Decades ago, Seattle designated the neighborhood straddling this segment of Highway 99 an “urban village,” directing residential development here — and the results show.
But the so-called village’s main street hasn’t evolved or boomed like the rest of Seattle. Aurora remains an artery characterized by auto shops, drive-thrus and motels, rather than a walkable shopping corridor.
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It’s a strip of asphalt frozen in time.
That’s what some neighbors want to change and what a City Council member began helping with last year.
“These issues have been simmering for a long time,” District 5 Councilmember Debora Juarez said.
Not everyone here is on board with the effort. But the growing clout of a new community group shows how district representation may be influencing Seattle politics.
Before 2015’s historic election, no council member was responsible for the city’s northern reaches — and at the time, none lived there.
Now the constituents pushing for change on Aurora say Juarez, a longtime North Seattle resident, is their direct line to City Hall.
“She listens to us, that’s for sure,” said Susan Larrance, an immigration lawyer who lives in the Aurora-Licton Springs Urban Village, which stretches between North 85th and North 110th streets.
“The core of the city has always been well-represented. Now you’ve got the North End and the South End represented,” added Ryan DiRaimo, an architect with a young child who moved to the area with his wife about three years ago.
They were sipping beers at Lantern Brewing, just west of Aurora. Tucked into a nondescript concrete building, the taproom caters to a fleece-and-jeans crowd and is the type of business Larrance and DiRaimo say their neighbors crave.
Both are active in a community group working with Juarez to spruce up the area as the council considers zoning changes for 27 urban villages in 2018.
The city’s plan would allow seven-story apartments with ground-floor stores on Aurora while banning new car-oriented businesses.
The organizations that provide social services on Aurora are still trying to suss out what the changes would mean for the vulnerable populations they serve, including people engaged in sex work, addicted to drugs and living unsheltered.
Renters could see development make the area more expensive, while longtime employers with blue-collar workers are wondering whether an overhaul makes sense.
Seattle’s mechanics need to work somewhere, and Aurora is a state highway, after all.
But the change agents have Juarez’s support as they press for amenities.
“They want what every other neighborhood wants,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. I think that’s what a district representative is supposed to be doing.”
‘Neglected part’ of city
The Aurora-Licton Springs Urban Village is shaped like a football, widening between North 90th and North 100th streets to include several blocks on each side of Aurora.
Nearly 1,000 homes were added between 1995 and 2015, a 39 percent increase. Additional projects are under construction. Parking has become more scarce.
Several other urban villages, such as Ballard and Columbia City, have grown more. West Seattle Junction added 2,187 net housing units in 20 years, a 111 percent surge.
But Larrance and DiRaimo say most areas have something theirs lacks: a pedestrian-friendly hub. They want the growth some neighborhoods dread.
“This has always been a neglected part of Seattle,” said Chris Engdahl, co-owner of Lantern Brewing. “Especially this stretch, where there’s no personality, no character.”
Aurora-Licton Springs has a movie theater and an international supermarket at North 100th Street but no mainstream supermarket, no banks, no community center, no bookstores.
Sit-down restaurants are scarce. Walking to Greenwood or Northgate can mean navigating streets with no sidewalks, Larrance said.
“We don’t have a dry cleaners,” she said. “There are a lot of things we don’t have.”
The area’s growth has happened almost exclusively on its side streets because much of Aurora is zoned for businesses that require ample parking, such as building-supply stores, equipment-rental yards, warehouses, mechanics and manufacturers.
That would change under City Hall’s neighborhood-upzones plan. Its premise is a deal with developers — allowing them to build higher in urban villages while requiring them to create or pay for some low-income housing.
But other objectives are being taken into account. Besides permitting taller buildings on the surrounding blocks, the legislation under consideration by the council would bring “neighborhood-commercial” zoning to Aurora.
Though existing businesses would be grandfathered in, the zoning would encourage new mixed-use buildings with apartments and offices and stores.
Juarez jumped in last year when members of the urban village’s community group (they call the group ALUV, for Aurora Licton Urban Village) decided they couldn’t wait for the zoning changes.
Two large properties on Aurora had been newly slated for redevelopment as storage-unit buildings. The ALUV members worried about more sites sprouting structures out of sync with the planned changes.
“There’s an opportunity to house people along Aurora, not things,” DiRaimo said. “If we’re not adding housing, we’re missing out.”
So the group, whose members also include neighbors who work in real-estate development and urban planning, asked the District 5 council member for help.
And she delivered. After some months of legislative work, Juarez sponsored an emergency, one-year moratorium on future projects deemed “incompatible” with the long-term plan for Aurora.
Approved by the council with a unanimous vote in October, the moratorium prohibits new drive-ins, storage buildings, auto lots, warehouses and certain other uses.
“We just did it,” Juarez recalled, adding, “That’s how government should work.”
The needs of the poor
With only about a dozen core members, the ALUV group can’t claim to represent every view of Aurora.
“There are so many varieties of lifestyle, so many kinds of people,” said Don Barnum, who sleeps most nights on the street.
Barnum was visiting Aurora Commons, a drop-in center for people without homes that buzzes with activity on weekday mornings.
He knows firsthand how rough life on the highway can be, having been in altercations and had his sleeping bag stolen. “This is basically purgatory here,” he said.
Pedestrian bridges and more housing would be welcome, Barnum said. “You could put an apartment building here with restaurants, a laundromat, an art-supply store,” he suggested.
But low-income housing should be built as Aurora evolves, Barnum said. In gilded Seattle, there aren’t many other areas where poor people can go.
Contemplating the zoning changes “is complicated,” agreed Josh Castle, who rents in the area and helps with a city-sanctioned homeless encampment on Aurora.
Though Castle is personally excited about the effort to liven up the neighborhood, Aurora’s grungy motels provide ad hoc affordable housing to people living day by day, he said. Losing them to redevelopment would result in displacement.
Two bus stops north, Ruthie V. runs the Seattle Artist League, the no-frills art school she recently opened in what used to be a pornography shop.
“We’ve been here about eight months,” she said. “There’s parking, it’s easy to get to and it’s cheap.”
V. sees positives and negatives in the area’s growth. She lives in a new micro-apartment complex, describing it as the only kind of housing she can afford.
But the zoning changes could over time replace buildings like the one her school occupies. Throughout Seattle, spaces appropriate for making art are being bulldozed.
“When we were looking, we saw a lot of old warehouses, but most of them had land-use action signs up,” she said. “We can’t afford rent in a new building.”
V. knows she may be contributing to gentrification. That hit home when she was painting a mural outside.
“People from the neighborhood were honking their horns and waving to welcome me,” she recalled. “It was really nice. Then one of them said, ‘Thank you — our property values are going to go up.’ ”
Merchants have doubts
There’s an older mural nearby, marred by graffiti, that speaks to Aurora’s history — trucks chugging down a highway past snowcapped mountain peaks. “Free movement of people and commerce is the backbone of this country,” the mural says.
The motor vehicle was dominant in the 1940s, when Curtis Gehrke’s family opened Acme Auto Electric & Repair. Four generations later, he has doubts about reinventing Aurora.
“Building an urban village on a seven-lane highway is kind of ridiculous,” Gehrke said. “You’re going to need to clean up the homeless, the drugs and the prostitution.”
The Aurora Merchants Association president liked what he heard from Juarez when she was running but has since become disenchanted with her. The council member didn’t discuss the moratorium with the merchants association, he said.
“She’s representing the homeowners more than the business owners,” he said.
Faye Garneau is equally annoyed with Juarez — which is ironic, considering the wealthy Aurora property owner bankrolled the campaign for district voting.
Midrise apartments and hip cafes don’t make sense for noisy Aurora, she said. “They want a cutesy neighborhood? That isn’t going to happen,” Garneau said.
Not that she regrets the move to seven districts, which is bringing more attention to areas far from City Hall as council members hold neighborhood office hours and come under pressure to earmark money for local needs.
Despite her frustration with Juarez, Garneau believes in the system. “The voters will vote again,” she said.
Juarez knows voters are paying attention because she hears from them all the time. In her office. On the phone. “At the store,” the North End resident said.
The council member regularly mentions “D5” during meetings and has an aide serving as district manager. She keeps track of budget wins, including $60,000 for Aurora Commons and $750,000 for a North Seattle expansion of a program that links low-level drug dealers and users with social workers.
Some of Juarez’s actions have raised eyebrows. She pressured Sound Transit to plan for a light-rail station at North 130th Street despite low ridership projections.
But the council member has sought to balance her district duties with citywide responsibilities, taking a leading role last year on the redevelopment of KeyArena.
And Juarez says she appreciates how the district system makes her accountable to groups like ALUV. Her office has worked with a new coalition of community groups from across District 5 and a similar coalition for business groups.
“I heard Faye’s comments and thought they were interesting. If a community comes together and wants a cutesy neighborhood, I think they should get one. And I don’t think asking for basics is cutesy,” she said.
“The Aurora of the 1960s isn’t the Seattle of today,” Juarez added, “Every neighborhood in the city should have some sense of self-determination.”
This story has been corrected. An earlier version identified the location of a movie theater and supermarket as North 110th Street. The businesses are located at North 100th Street.