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Advocates Look To Save The Ave From Rezoning, Redevelopment

In 2017, Seattle’s University District was one of the city’s first neighborhoods to be upzoned in an effort to increase density and housing affordability. Since then, the district has been flooded by real estate transactions led by developers looking to capitalize on the new opportunity. 

But in a corner of this district lies a slice of history that is still untouched by the upzoning regulations, and its future is hanging in the balance.

The eclectic, funky University Avenue, known as The Ave, has so far escaped upzoning and local advocates hope to keep it that way. They say this historic stretch of road, and the small businesses that line it, should be left alone so its community can continue to thrive.

Advocates hope to preserve The Ave's eclectic character by keeping it off the upzoning list.

Cory Crocker, a 30-year resident of the U-District and founding partner of Webkey, a website development company, is one of the advocates fighting to protect the integrity of the historic avenue that dates back to the early 1900s. Now populated by a mix of small businesses and frequented by students from the nearby University of Washington, The Ave has become a regional draw. Soaring real estate prices and traffic gridlock have forced many small businesses, such as Hardwick’s Hardware, to close. The property on which the 87-year-old Hardwick’s sits recently sold for $17.25M.

Former City Councilman Rob Johnson, who stepped down from his role this spring, was considered an upzone booster. Abel Pacheco was appointed to replace him, but The Ave’s fate will likely lie in the outcome of the Seattle City Council election this fall. There are currently 10 people vying for the District 4 position, in which the U District is located. 

In Seattle, upzoning allows for higher-density residential and commercial construction and taller buildings while hardwiring in mandatory housing affordability requirements.

Successfully implementing the upzoning strategies takes careful consideration and community engagement, said City of Seattle Strategic Advisor Janet Shull in an interview with Bisnow this spring. 

“Sometimes upzoning creates positive changes, but then we run into the problem of gentrification and displacement,” Shull said. “It’s a difficult situation to unravel.”

Touchstone and Portman Holdings recently announced plans to develop two commercial office buildings in the district on the site of two parking lots. In addition, the eight-lot, 1-acre Campus Station is on the market. Buildings on the site can be as tall as 240 feet high with no minimum parking requirements. Up to 549 market-rate apartments or 1,100 student beds can be built on the lots. 

Crocker is part of a local movement to keep The Ave off the upzoning list. He said upzone opponents aren’t against the density that is already set to take place in the U-District due to the current upzoned areas.

“We welcome the density and the new clientele that comes along with it,” he said. “But we do want to keep the great things about this neighborhood that we already have. We are losing small businesses every month. The Blue Moon Tavern has been here for 80 years and University Seafood for 74. We have a lot of small businesses that are extremely legacy.”

Though upzoning doesn’t necessarily mean that small businesses wouldn’t be invited back into their space after the remodeling of a building is complete, a small business may not survive up to two years of displacement, Crocker said

“Small businesses survive off the community,” he said. “Where will the community meet during that two years that a small business can’t occupy a building?”

Crocker believes there can be a balance struck between the growth that upzoning will create and preserving the historic value of the neighborhood that can eventually be a regional draw. Save the Ave is holding an event Aug. 10 that will address how advocates hope to protect the street from upzoning and the redevelopment that would come with it.

“Small businesses are the tip of the pyramid of a community,” he said. “Small businesses are the places that community happens. When you take out the community and don’t give people in the community a place to go there is a loss of connection.”