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The Ave is getting an update, but who decides what that looks like?

Work has already begun on the Sound Transit station in the University District. (Sound Transit image)

Developers have started their builds in earnest in the University District, and property taxes and rents are rising accordingly. But so far, University Way Northeast, known colloquially by students and neighbors as ‘the Ave,’ has been spared from much of the development excitement across the neighborhood.

That’s due in large part to pushback from community activists and small business owners. Some community members want the city to designate the Ave as a historic district, or take out cars and create a pedestrian-only walkway.

Save the Ave was formed to ensure the relentless upzoning and density increases happening on neighboring blocks will not spill over onto the University of Washington’s longtime business corridor.

Change on the Ave is now inevitable, but it’s early enough to decide what those changes should look like. KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross asked four small business owners with storefronts along the Ave for their best case scenario. It feels especially urgent as some local favorites, like the four generation family-owned University Seafood & Poultry, have already closed their doors.

“You can’t blame people for holding onto a property and getting this huge payout. How can you walk away from 5 to 10 to 20 million dollars off a property?” Rick McLaughlin, owner of Big Time Brewery, told Seattle’s Morning News.

“We all have to embrace the fact that change is gonna happen. How do we work with the change in order to make sure we keep what we have, and yet continue to grow?” said Andrew McMasters, co-founder of Jet City Improv on the north end of the Ave.

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Developers often don’t consider thoughtful additions they can make to a neighborhood, like green spaces or arts programming, McMasters said. He wants to work with developers to make the University District an arts and theater destination in Seattle, but there’s little incentive for developers to talk to community members and small business tenants.

“Many of [the developers] are out-of-state builders,” said Don Schulze, who owns the family business Shultzy’s Bar and Grill. “They’re just here to put it up and sell it and move on.”

Buildings on the Ave must stay below a maximum height of 65 feet. A couple of proposed upzones along the business corridor would increase the height to 75 or 85 feet, adding a few stories to the buildings.

“The reason why I stand so strongly at 65 feet, where it’s zoned now, is because as soon as you go through and do an upzone of a commercial district like the Ave, the King County Assessor will go through and say ‘hey, this area is now ripe for more development,'” McLaughlin said.

When property values increase, that creates a burden for small business owners like McLaughlin, who holds a triple net lease and must pay taxes on his property. This is part of the reason, McLaughlin said, that beloved local hardware store Hardwick’s will soon close its doors. Sitting on Roosevelt Way, the nearly 90-year old property didn’t have the protections that business owners on the Ave want from the city.

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“As it stands right now, you can’t restrict what a property owner or developer does with their property because there’s no rights for commercial tenants, and there’s lots of rights for residential tenants,” McLaughlin said. “So unless you have it signed in contract … pretty much every business tenant is getting the boot as soon as that project starts.”

Schulze said he and his family feel the Ave would be better off with redevelopment.

“The buildings are old, they look unsafe,” Schulze said. “I don’t want to lose this opportunity to redevelop at the same time the entire University District is being redeveloped.”

Schulze has ownership over his property. He says the Ave has many Unreinforced Masonry Buildings (URMs), which are unsafe in the event of a major earthquake. Retrofitting his building, Schulze said, is about the same price as knocking it down and rebuilding with added stories.

“I’ll build up,” Schulze said. “I’ll build up seven floors, I’ll have more space.”

That space would increase neighborhood density, and bring more customers into the neighborhood, Schulze said, benefiting all businesses. A proper design team, perhaps on a city level, could set guidelines for those new buildings to keep the character of the neighborhood intact.

Gayle Nowicki owns the Gargoyle Statuary, which sells gothic art, home and garden wares, and, of course, gargoyle statues. She rents her storefront.

“My letters to the city — and they actually have considered this — would be a downzone, limiting the heights to 45 feet,” Nowicki said. “That would encourage people not to go any higher than a lot of our one or two-story buildings, which have the most beautiful storefronts.”

“I talk to hundreds of people every day that just would be crushed if this little neighborhood was destroyed,” Nowicki said.

A new light rail station will open on the Ave in September 2021, as will a station near Roosevelt High School, and another at Northgate. Increasing density while keeping affordability and neighborhood charm in North Seattle is a concern.

“Who’s in charge of making sure University Avenue maintains it’s weirdness? Despite what’s about to happen?” Dave Ross asked the group.

“I believe the community is responsible for that,” McLaughlin said. “Uniqueness is important, especially as a city that’s just getting really a whitewashing throughout Seattle. We need to have uniqueness. And we need to have culture and community in place. Otherwise, everything’s going to be like South Lake Union.”

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