The commercial district of the Wedgwood neighborhood in northeast Seattle is arranged along the arterial 35th Avenue NE with clusters of stores at the NE 75th and NE 85th Street intersections. The majority of the storefronts and office buildings were built during an intense period of development after World War Two ended in 1945.
Soldiers returning from the war married and started families, and in the 1940s and 1950s the vast areas of vacant land in northeast Seattle filled up with single-family housing. During those years with a growing customer base in the new Wedgwood neighborhood, the Wedgwood business district took form with various kinds of stores and services. The business district is primarily aligned along the linear arterial of 35th Ave NE and has a 1950s aspect because that decade was the peak period of small businesses.
Today we are beginning to see the tear-down and replacement of commercial buildings in Wedgwood along 35th Ave NE. Due to the lack of action from Seattle City Council on zoning issues, townhouses with blank walls are being built in the commercial district instead of the storefronts which are wanted by the Wedgwood community.
This blog article will primarily address what happened from 2012 to 2017 with the Jasper Apartments, 8606 35th Ave NE, which marked a major change in the type of commercial building in Wedgwood. As of 2022 another major change in the neighborhood is pending, the redevelopment of the shopping center at the southeast corner of NE 85th Street. That project was just announced in 2022 and will be discussed in another article on this blog as plans for the project are firmed up.
Apartment buildings come to Wedgwood in the post-World-War-Two era
Wedgwood was somewhat rural, was outside of the city limits and had no apartment buildings until after World War Two. The Oneida Gardens, located at 38th Ave NE on NE 75th Street, was the first project. Post-war government incentives were accessed by the builders, to meet the demand for housing. The apartments are now called Wedgewood Estates. The name was changed in the 1980s at the time that more buildings were added to the complex.
After completion of the Oneida Gardens apartments in 1948, sixty more years went by until another apartment building opened, the Jasper in 2012.
The Jasper at 8606 35th Ave NE was the first four-story-tall building to be built on 35th Ave NE near Wedgwood’s commercial center at NE 85th Street. Despite prolonged negotiations with the developer, Wedgwood neighborhood activists were unable to win any concessions such as accessible public space or set-backs to make the Jasper building less overwhelming.
Another big disappointment to the neighborhood, was that the Jasper building does not have storefronts at the sidewalk level. We learned that the City of Seattle does not require developers to put in retail at ground level, in a new apartment building like the Jasper. The Jasper has the type of “live-work units” at the sidewalk level, which are essentially apartments which can be used as offices or stores. There are six of these spaces. Since opening in 2012 the front spaces have included a hair salon, medical, and some other services such as a law office, but not strictly retail.
An education in City zoning and construction codes
What is wanted by Wedgwoodians is more locally-owned coffee shops, restaurants, and services such as a copy center or a bookstore. But there is no City zoning requirement that buildings in Wedgwood’s commercial district have to have storefronts of a type to include the needed ventilation equipment for food outlets.
Wedgwoodians were not aware that it was even legal to build up to four stories tall in Wedgwood’s commercial district, so the Jasper project brought this issue to the fore, as well as that of the lack of storefronts in the new building.
Construction of the Jasper was a wake-up call which precipitated neighborhood action on land use, specifically for protection of the commercial district of Wedgwood. In 2010 to 2015 via two grant-funded surveys and planning initiatives, Wedgwood activists worked to formulate a plan to address future developments.
Looking back now, I could not have predicted that all of the time, effort and grant funding to study and advocate for a plan for Wedgwood’s commercial district, would go down the drain due to inaction on the part of Seattle City Council. The planning requests were presented to City Council but they never took action.
The Future of 35th Ave NE planning project
In 2014-2015 the Future of 35th Ave NE project was organized and conducted by Wedgwood neighborhood activists to address the look and usability of the commercial zone along 35th Ave NE. The purpose of the Plan was to get ahead of new development projects by defining neighborhood needs and presenting documentation. Only by setting out guidelines ahead of time for what we want in Wedgwood’s commercial district, can we get the retail storefronts we want instead of the blank walls of townhouse structures.
The Future of 35th Plan primarily addressed zoning rules, which is what could preserve Wedgwood’s business district. The plan did not address the street itself (35th Ave NE) as to how the arterial would be used, such as the issue of bike lanes. Looking back now, I see that the name of the project, Future of 35th, was confusing because people thought it had to do with traffic and street issues.
The Future of 35th Ave NE Plan, completed in 2014, was published in a document and presented to the Land Use Committee of Seattle City Council in February 2015. Since that time, City Council has not taken action on the request and has added more layers of “process” before Wedgwood can get the requested zoning changes which will affect what can and can’t be built along 35th Ave NE. After election of new City Councilmembers in the year 2015 who were supposed to represent geographical districts of Seattle, it has been very discouraging and disillusioning to see how ineffective and inactive City Council has been in the years since then.
Zoning regulations could create the desired retail district in Wedgwood
Wedgwood waited for five years for the zoning request of the Future of 35th Plan to go through the process of consideration by City Council, ending up with nothing as of 2019.
In 2016 City Council considered a bill which addressed zoning for the whole city and included the need for more housing. The HALA legislation (Housing Affordability and Livability) proposed denser zoning in some areas of Seattle, especially in “Urban Villages.” As of 2019 City Council came out with some tentative applications of the zoning, but none which addressed the request for enhancement of business zoning in Wedgwood.
For Wedgwood which is not a dense urban zone, the Future of 35th Plan requested zoning changes only for the commercial nodes of stores, primarily at the intersections of NE 75th and NE 85th Streets along 35th Ave NE. The “pedestrian zone” as defined by the Future of 35th Plan, was for retail storefronts and a walkable streetscape in the business district. In this way, by a requested zoning change, the Future of 35th Plan proposed a requirement that buildings in Wedgwood’s commercial district have retail storefronts with apartments or condos above, to help to create the needed population density to support small shops. The “tradeoff” of taller buildings at these commercial intersections of NE 85th and 75th, would be the requirement that the buildings would have storefronts suitable for coffee shops and restaurants, which would enhance neighborhood life.
Waiting for the Future of 35th Ave NE
As of 2019, Seattle City Council members had spent the last five years dithering about issues such as ethics in banking, instead of taking action on real concerns of the neighborhoods of Seattle including traffic, housing affordability and enhancement of business zones.
As an example of endless “processing” by Seattle City Council, how much longer will it take for City Council to decide upon a plan to help the homeless? They have already been discussing this for years and years without enacting an effective plan.
I do not mean to equate Wedgwood’s zoning request with the seriousness of issues such as homelessness. My point is the ineffectiveness of Seattle City Council to take any action on anything in a timely manner.
The Future of 35th Plan was completed in 2014 and presented to City Council’s Land Use Committee in February 2015, but promised action on the Plan has not taken place. My recent inquiries to City Council members received no response. As yet there is no indication of action on the Future of 35th Ave Plan or on City-wide zoning plans.
While we are waiting and waiting for Seattle City Council to take action, uncontrolled development is destroying the Wedgwood business district. it is too late for some buildings in Wedgwood as more buildings in the commercial zone are being lost to the pressures of townhouse developments.
On September 27, 2016, one building in a cluster of the office complex built by Albert Balch, Wedgwood’s original developer, was demolished. The building at 8038 35th Ave NE was replaced by six three-story townhouse structures. Then on August 8, 2018, the next building, 8044 35th Ave NE, pictured below, was demolished and will be replaced by more townhouses. These much-taller, densely clustered buildings obstruct visibility and access to businesses, and take up the former parking area. This block was in need of adjustment of the zoning to preserve the business district, as requested by the Future of 35th Project, but it was never done.