Every morning on her way to work, Janine Blaeloch bicycles by everything she loves about Lake City. Heading down 27th Avenue Northeast, Blaeloch passes neighbors walking their dogs and, nestled in between tall evergreen trees, rows of unique houses of every size, shape and color.
By riding her bike down Northeast 125th Street and onto the Burke Gilman trail, Blaeloch, who has lived in Lake City for 10 years, manages to avoid things she doesn’t like about the neighborhood: a gun shop, dive bars, strip clubs and the acres of new and used car lots that line Lake City Way.
The four lanes of black top, also known as Highway 522, and its 1950s-era car lots, fast food restaurants and gas stations, bisect Seattle’s northeast neighborhood. Lake City Way takes you places, but it is not a place, per se.
Residents have long wanted to change that. Earlier this year, the Bill Pierre family, a name synonymous with Lake City’s auto row, announced a plan to redevelop 14 acres of car lots that span a mile of Lake City Way from 110th Street to 127th Street. Residents gained hope that Lake City and the thoroughfare that bears its name could become a destination in its own right.
So when the city of Seattle announced plans to convert the old Fire Station 39 into low-income housing, right across the street from one of the Pierre properties, some residents saw it as a threat to their hoped-for transformation.
At a series of public meetings about Fire Station 39 in October, residents recounted their grievances: The neighborhood has too much low-income housing already; homeless people loiter and defecate on the streets; low-income families don’t contribute to the local economy.
At first it seemed that people in the neighborhood were hostile to the homeless people and working poor families around them. And while that may be true, there is more to the story. Behind the residents’ anger was a sense of frustration over a series of missteps in which Seattle City officials placed homeless services in the area without first consulting neighbors.
With the announcement of the fire station’s planned transformation into housing, residents of the north Seattle neighborhood, already anxious about the future, began to feel hopes for a rejuvenated Lake City slip away.
Blaeloch, an environmentalist who runs the University District-based Western Land Projects and is an advocate for new street infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists, said timing had much to do with how things in Lake City got so heated.
“It’s just more a crescendo of emotion around the future of Lake City, and the fire station came in right at the peak of that,” she said.
Early in 2012, the Pierre family hired faculty and students from the University of Washington’s Urban Design and Planning department to discuss what to do with 11 properties that abut Lake City Way.
With the auto industry foundering, the Pierre family was ready to turn the properties into something the neighborhood wanted: stores, restaurants, business offices and market-rate housing to take over the concrete jungle stretched across the region.
In May, during visioning meetings the Pierre family held for the community, residents said they were embarrassed by Lake City’s reputation. Many admitted that when they talk to friends from outside of Lake City, they identify themselves with surrounding neighborhoods: Meadowbrook, Victory Heights or Cedar Park.
Seattle annexed the Lake City neighborhood in the 1950s but the area remained isolated.
Despite its more than 25,000 residents and its short 15-minute bus ride to downtown Seattle, Lake City still feels like a suburb.
The redevelopment presented a chance for the neighborhood to shake the reputation it gained as “little ol’ Lake City” from the old Bill Pierre television commercials. No longer would it be an auto row. The Bill Pierre family business, once considered responsible for Lake City’s image, was offering an opportunity for growth.
Don Moody, a real estate consultant the Pierres hired to explore redevelopment, said the meetings revealed how complex the redevelopment would be, “because it isn’t about these 14 pieces of property,” he said. “It’s about Lake City.”
The neighborhood is primed for growth. The block on Lake City Way between 125th and 127th streets is almost all new, including a few locally owned businesses that have gained an almost cult following among neighbors.
In the spring, Elliott Bay Brewery opened its third branch on Lake City Way in a space once occupied by an old hobby and model train shop.
The remodeled space features warm amber wood tables and benches, exposed slats in the ceiling and a giant chalkboard menu featuring dozens of house brews and ales from other regional microbreweries. The restaurant is filled nearly every night.
Two years ago, Annette Heide-Jessen and Brian Hensley opened Kaffeeklatsch, a coffee shop and bakery with a mix of American- and German-inspired pastries. The shop gained a dedicated customer base. Blaeloch, the bike commuter, calls it “the city hall of Lake City.”
Business owners such as Heide-Jessen want more paying customers.
“I’m looking for people who can afford to come here and get a coffee and a cookie,” she said.
Ask, don’t tell
The July 18 announcement that Fire Station 39 would be low-income housing was not the first time city officials caught Lake City residents off guard. Three years ago, the city gave residents 24 hours’ notice that Tent City 3 would inhabit Fire Station 39.
Later, when the city brought in an emergency shelter managed by Union Gospel Mission, they made an announcement, not a request.
With the shelter, the city offered only a vague plan. To a neighborhood already nervous about any more shelter or housing, the plan lacked key details, such as who would build it, what it would look like, who would live there and what kind of support the residents would have.
Low Income Housing Institute Executive Director Sharon Lee said typically a nonprofit finds a neighborhood, a need and a property, then approaches the city. The nonprofit meets with the community and points to its reputation and previous projects to offer concrete examples of what the housing will look like.
With Fire Station 39, city officials offered Lake City no clear plan of what would happen. That allowed neighbors to assume the worst — that the city would build shelter and transplant the worst of downtown Seattle’s homeless population in Lake City.
At the forum, residents brought out their complaints: There’s nothing for families to do in the neighborhood; the Lake City Mini Park is just a concrete expanse with a portable toilet; the area needs mixed-income developments, not public housing; why can’t the city encourage business growth to bring in more restaurants like the Elliott Bay Brewery?
By soliciting public comment without a clear plan, Lee said the city created “a forum for every complaint you can think of.”
As a white-haired woman hopped on the 75 bus to go shopping a week before Thanksgiving, she gestured toward a man sitting at the Lake City Mini Park and referred to him as “one of our drug dealers.”
The man, 49-year-old Troy Schroeder, said he wasn’t there to deal drugs. He sits in the park every day hoping to do auto repairs for a few people he knows in the area. On a good day Schroeder can get up to $80 for the repair work, he said. But on this day in November, Schroeder didn’t expect to do much work. He was still recovering from getting hit by a car while he crossed Lake City Way just the day before.
He had a large Band-Aid stretched over his right eyebrow and spots of blood dried on his dirty, gray shirt. Schroeder has lived in north Seattle for years, he said.
A block away, at God’s Little Acre, community minister Jonathan Neufeld often meets longtime residents who are now looking for work. “It’s pretty common to meet someone you’d gone to school with,” Neufeld said.
Nestled in a parking lot between the church and Value Village, the center provides coffee and a washing machine, a kitchen and a storage space to anyone who stops in.
God’s Little Acre welcomes about 20 people into its doors almost every day. For people who camp in Lake City’s greenbelt, the center is the first stop before heading off to find an odd job or search for work in the Northeast Branch of the Seattle Public Library.
Like the homeowners, renters and business owners in the area, those who use the center say they also want more public space, parks and a cleaner, safer neighborhood.
Over coffee one morning, a group of center regulars chuckled at complaints that homeless people defecate in public and sleep in people’s yards.
“Why would you take a shit on the bare sidewalk when you can walk two feet to the Port-A-Let?” Schroeder said, referring to the public toilet at Lake City Mini Park.
More than anything, people who are homeless in Lake City want to remain anonymous, Neufeld said. That’s why they stay in Lake City where there are a few services but not the larger population of homeless people found in areas like the University District and Pioneer Square.
When Union Gospel Mission opened the shelter at Fire Station 39, the larger homeless population moved into Lake City. Instead of causally strolling into God’s Little Acre for a cup of coffee and a bus ticket, longtime users of the center found they now had to line up behind dozens of people who had stayed at the shelter the night before.
God’s Little Acre exists to support the small, tight community of homeless people who already live in the area, Neufeld said.
“What we do here only works when it’s neighborhood-focused,” Neufeld said. “We’re not trying to fix Seattle; we’re just trying to work in Lake City.”
Recently, Lake City residents and city officials have worked to overcome their differences.
Councilmember Tim Burgess toured the neighborhood Dec. 11, and the Mayor’s Office has helped organize a task force to look at pedestrian infrastructure, an improved community center and more parks.
But a few residents say the discord over housing was avoidable.
“Had the people been asked about having the homeless shelter, chances are the public would have said yes, let’s help these people out,” said Tracy Heims, president of the Lake City Chamber of Commerce and one of the earliest and most vocal opponents to shelter and housing at Fire Station 39.
Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith said Seattle and Lake City are on good terms.
“I think the relationship is better than some folks would describe it,” Smith said.
In November, the city council approved funding to upgrade the neighborhood’s community center. But Councilmember Nick Licata, who attended one of the October community meetings on Fire Station 39, said the funding and much of the work the city has done in Lake City was a direct response to residents’ complaints.
“It was pretty clear that we needed to make improvements,” Licata said.
In early 2013, the city council will vote on whether to turn Fire Station 39 into affordable housing.
So far, city staff have not offered any alternative plans for the property.
Blaeloch is circumspect.
If the housing is built, “I can accept it,” she said.
“I’m not going to be that upset. But I am disturbed by the insensitivity that the city has shown. If anything positive is coming out of the tumult over that entire situation, it’s that the city in a genuine way is saying that we really do need to pay attention to Lake City,” she said.