Those of us who grew up in the Wedgwood neighborhood of northeast Seattle tend to be nostalgic about businesses and buildings of bygone years. Some types of businesses which once were in Wedgwood, such as Dairy Queen, 7-Eleven stores and small gas station markets, no longer exist.
Some buildings in the commercial district of Wedgwood have been remodelled and re-used by a succession of businesses, until finally being torn down and replaced, as was the grocery store building at 8606 35th Ave NE.
There have been many changes in the business environment in Wedgwood in the decades since the neighborhood was created in the 1940s. Wedgwood now has some kinds of businesses which didn’t exist in the 1940s, such as a tanning salon and a yoga studio.
Some of the commercial buildings in the Wedgwood business district wore out and were replaced out of necessity. The former grocery store building at 8606 35th Ave NE was used by a nonprofit agency for a while, then was torn down and replaced by a four-story apartment complex, the Jasper, completed in 2012.
Up until the plans to build the Jasper, Wedgwood neighborhood activists had been unaware that the zoning allowed for a four-story building on 35th Ave NE in Wedgwood. It was this controversy which began in 2007, which set off the process of trying to come up with a plan to preserve the business district of Wedgwood.
We have to accept changes over the passage of time, but what we should not accept is the current lack of support for the business district in Wedgwood – support that should come from the City of Seattle in proper zoning of business blocks to preserve commercial use.
This blog post will describe the current status of “zoning” which means the regulations on what can be built, as to height of buildings and use for residential or commercial occupancy.
The construction of the Jasper, pictured at right, set off a Wedgwood community project which was meant to bring about enhancement of the business district via improved zoning, but these recommendations were never implemented by Seattle City Council. In the upcoming election I urge all Wedgwoodians, and all residents of Seattle, to vote for new City Council representatives who will respond to the need to support neighborhood businesses.
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Wedgwood is born in the post-World-War-Two years
In the summer of 1941, just before the declaration of the USA’s involvement in World War Two, developer Albert Balch acquired a five-block-square tract of vacant land which he platted as the Wedgwood Addition with a layout of streets and lots.
With government support for home construction in the 1940s, Balch built 200 Wedgwood houses which war workers were given priority to buy. This first Wedgwood development was from NE 80th to 85th Streets on the west side of 35th Ave NE, and it was so attractive that it won awards.
Wedgwood gains a name and a business district
With houses being built and occupied by young couples, by 1945 at war’s end businesses were attracted to the newly created shopping district at NE 85th Street where they could provide goods and services to new residents in Wedgwood.
Except for the Hansen’s Tavern block from 8501 to 8517 35th Ave NE, Balch gradually gained control of the other three corners of the intersection of NE 85th Street and he reserved these for commercial development. The present-day heart of Wedgwood on 35th Ave NE at NE 85th Street is the legacy of this benevolent developer, Albert Balch, who wanted to create a community.
Local businesses began to adopt the name “Wedgwood” for themselves, and in the 1940s and 1950s there were more and more listings: Wedgwood Café, Church, Gardens, Market, Medical & Dental, Paint & Glass, Pharmacy, School, Shoe Service, Tavern and Tradewell.
The Wedgwood business district of the 1950s and 1960s
The types of businesses in the commercial district of Wedgwood in the 1950s reflected the growth of consumer products in the post-World-War Two years such as the increased availability of cars. As of 1958 there were at least twelve gas stations along 35th Ave NE in the 1.5 mile stretch from NE 65th to 95th Streets. Some intersections, such as NE 70th and NE 95th, had gas stations on three corners.
The proliferation of stations in the 1940s-1950s may have been in response to the rise in car ownership after World War Two. When people saw that many more people owned cars, they thought of going into car-related businesses like gas stations. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why there were so many gas stations in Wedgwood in the 1950s, plus the availability of land along 35th Ave NE. Today there are only two gas stations, one at 7300 and one at 9500, in that same stretch along 35th Ave NE.
Another category of business in the commercial district of Wedgwood in the 1950s could be described as “home improvement.” There was a hardware store, paint and glass, electrical contractor, appliance store, and a plant nursery. These businesses thrived in the atmosphere of new houses with young families in Wedgwood in the 1950s.
Another factor in the early growth of Wedgwood was the lack of any sort of overall zoning plan for the business district. In this, Albert Balch can be thanked for creating a cohesive business district at today’s heart of Wedgwood, the NE 85th Street intersection. Although he was not a commercial builder, he leased sites to businesses like grocery stores, banks and medical-dental offices because he knew that these services would enhance the convenience of life in Wedgwood. Unfortunately, the haphazard zoning of the Wedgwood business district was never addressed, and in the present era business blocks are being destroyed for the building of townhouses.
Contrasts between the Wedgwood business district of the 1950s and today
Within our lifetimes there have been trends and types of businesses in Wedgwood which have lasted perhaps twenty years or so. Where there was a proliferation of gas stations in the 1950s, the commercial spaces gradually changed over to other types of businesses. Wedgwood no longer has any 7-Eleven stores, a Dairy Queen, a small, locally-owned hardware store like McVicar’s, a variety store like McGillivray’s or a pharmacy like Bud Gagnon’s.
Wedgwood now has retail chain stores like the Rite-Aid drugstore and the QFC Grocery, and instead of gas stations Wedgwood now has a lot of banks — seven of them along 35th Ave NE between NE 73rd to 87th Streets.
Wedgwood now has some business categories which had not yet been invented in the 1950s, such as a Starbuck’s, a tanning studio, yoga studio and an orange theory fitness center. Wedgwood has some financial services including insurance companies and an Edward Jones Investments office. Some of these are new-fangled, but the Walt Adams Insurance office has been operating continuously in the same location since 1956 and is now in its third generation of owners, no relation to the original owner.
People like myself who grew up in Wedgwood in the 1950s and 1960s think back fondly to the businesses of those days, such as the very popular McVicar Hardware at 8507 35th Ave NE and McGillivray’s Variety and Gift Store at 7512 35th Ave NE.
We see that the stories of McVicar, McGillivray’s and other early businesses in Wedgwood followed a similar arc and decline. They did well in early years, but by the 1970s there was an economic depression in Seattle and the types of stores were changing. Dairy Queen, for example, moved out of Seattle and only did well in the suburbs.
Additionally, local business owners like the McVicars, McGillivrays and Bud Gagnon (WedgEwood Pharmacy) who had started out with their stores in the 1940s and 1950s, were getting older in the 1970s and 1980s and they wanted to retire.
Buildings get torn down and replaced
Besides the types of businesses which have changed, in Wedgwood over the years we have seen changes in the commercial buildings with some tear-downs and replacements.
Some commercial buildings in Wedgwood only lasted a few years before being replaced. The Dairy Queen, for example, was in a freestanding building on the Safeway parking lot for only about four or five years in the 1960s, then was torn down. A new building was built for Dairy Queen at 7320 35th Ave NE. When Dairy Queen moved out, the building at 7320 35th Ave NE became a succession of pizza restaurants, with a pizza restaurant still there today.
The original Safeway grocery store in Wedgwood, built in 1951 at the corner of NE 75th Street, was torn down in 1965 and replaced with a larger store positioned differently on the lot. The new Safeway building was placed at the back of the property so that there was a vast parking lot in front.
A church building which was torn down and rebuilt was Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church. After the move of the congregation to 8900 35th Ave NE in 1940, by 1960 the building was bursting at the seams with post-war families who had moved to Wedgwood. The first OLL church building was torn down because it was too small, and it was replaced by the present building.
Bud Gagnon’s Wedgewood Pharmacy, built in 1955 at 8517 35th Ave NE, was torn down in 1971 so that the present brick bank could be built. The bank was originally University Federal Savings and is now Wells Fargo. The replacement of Bud Gagnon’s locally-owned, small pharmacy by a bank building was an example of what was happening in Wedgwood’s business district in the 1970s.
Businesses which moved to new buildings
Some businesses of the 1950s and 1960s moved into new buildings, leaving their old ones to be occupied by other businesses. One church did this, as well. In 1951 the Wedgwood Presbyterian Church began meeting at their new site, 8008 35th Ave NE. They had come from the corner of NE 95th Street and when they moved out, they sold their old building to a veterinary. The office at 9505 35th Ave NE has been remodelled but has been a veterinary continuously since 1951.
The original Tradewell store at 8512 35th Ave NE was built in 1952. After only about six years at that site, in 1959 Tradewell moved into a new building at 8400 35th Ave NE (present site of QFC). At that time in the 1950s-1960s, the NE 85th intersection was becoming the central shopping area of Wedgwood, with a variety of stores. The old Tradewell building at 8512 became Pay ‘n Save, was rebuilt and is now Rite-Aid.
The Tradewell at 8400 35th Ave NE became Matthew’s Red Apple in 1989. The building had some upgrades and remodelling when it became the QFC Grocery in the year 2000.
The first bank to come into the Wedgwood neighborhood was Seattle First National, which built at 8401 35th Ave NE in 1961. This corner-of-NE-84th Street site had been the subject of community action in 1959 when a 19-cent hamburger drive-in started building there. The Wedgwood Community Club successfully stopped the drive-in via appeal to Seattle City Council to pass a zoning regulation against this type of business.
Two years later, when Seattle First National sought to build a bank at that corner of NE 84th Street, the community club had to go back to the City to adjust the zoning again. The prohibition against drive-up windows was adjusted to allow for banking business, but not hamburgers.
After only eleven years in their first building at 8401 35th Ave NE, in 1972 Seattle First National Bank moved to the north corner, 8425, into a new building with a drive-up window and with a safe deposit vault. This new bank building replaced the Wedgwood Texaco gas station at the site.
Today’s Bank of America is still at 8425 35th Ave NE. On the old site at 8401 35th Ave NE, the bank building was torn down and replaced by the office of Windermere Real Estate in 1985.
Today’s zoning efforts to preserve the business district of Wedgwood
It is never a good idea to speculate on whether life was easier or better during another era, or whether Seattle City government was more responsive during the 1950s than they are now. However, as I have studied some of the past zoning controversies in Wedgwood, I have wondered why the City of Seattle does not now do anything to help business zones to thrive.
In the present era Wedgwood community activists have been unable to obtain City of Seattle support for the Wedgwood business district, and as a result we are seeing destruction of commercial buildings. Instead of more business buildings with the stores and restaurants which Wedgwood residents would like to have, business buildings are being torn down and replaced by clusters of townhouses.
Some of these tear-downs are the result of Seattle City Council’s legislative actions to produce more housing, with the unintended effect of tearing down blocks which should have been zoned for business. One example of this is the extremely ugly townhouses which were shoehorned into the former space of just one house, the Big Green House at 7321 35th Ave NE. Squeezed between other commercial buildings, the site of the house should have been “zoned” commercial so that it would have been replaced only by a retail storefront to enhance the Wedgwood shopping district.
Another example is the heartbreaking (to me, anyway) destruction of the original office of Albert Balch, developer of Wedgwood, at 8044 35th Ave NE. One factor in the loss of 8044 was that the City’s historic preservation department would not consider the significance of Albert Balch in Wedgwood history and the cluster of buildings on that block. The fatal factor which allowed the building of townhouses at the 8044 site, rather than a commercial building, was that the zoning of this block has never been reviewed and updated since the 1950s.
Advocating for support of the business district of Wedgwood
I (Valarie) was one of the Wedgwood neighborhood volunteers who worked very hard on a plan of zoning for a business district along the commercial corridor of 35th Ave NE. The purpose of the plan was to correct anomalies such as the zoning at 8044 35th Ave NE, and most especially to require that any new buildings at the intersections of NE 75th and 85th, would have retail storefronts.
Surveying of Wedgwood residents and work groups like the one pictured at right, showed that Wedgwoodians would accept taller buildings in the business zones as long as there were stores and restaurants at the sidewalk level. These concerns were a reaction to the building of the Jasper Apartment building, which has some offices at the sidewalk level but was not designed to accommodate coffee shops or restaurants. With increasing destruction of commercial buildings along 35th Ave NE, neighborhood activists wanted to adjust the zoning to prevent this.
The project to map out the zoning of the Wedgwood business district was paid for by City of Seattle grant funds which were used to hire urban planners. This grant-funded zoning plan for Wedgwood was completed in 2014 and was presented to Seattle City Council, but was never enacted. Now, without zoning to require retail storefronts or other commercial use, buildings like 8044 35th Ave NE are being torn down and replaced by townhouses.
As community activists we have been unable to get any response from the City of Seattle on the needs of the business district along 35th Ave NE in Wedgwood. The ravaging of business blocks continues, as, just like 8044 35th Ave NE, other commercial buildings are being torn down to be replaced by townhouses.
The next commercial building to be destroyed will be Wong’s Kitchen & Bar at 9400 35th Ave NE. It is to be be torn down and replaced by another townhouse cluster. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Wong’s had to finally close on March 18, 2020 instead of staying open until redevelopment plans go forward.
The grass-roots initiative to preserve and improve the business district of Wedgwood has had no response from the City of Seattle, despite the fact that the project was paid for with City of Seattle grant funding. We wait to see if a new wave of Wedgwood activists will take up the challenge again in coming years. The same issues are still waiting to be addressed, as commercial buildings in Wedgwood age and may be replaced.
One thing that all Wedgwood residents can do to help their neighborhood is to VOTE. In the upcoming election for City Council representatives, we can choose candidates who will support Seattle’s business districts. We need correction of the zoning so as to enhance Wedgwood’s commercial district, instead of allowing Wedgwood to be destroyed by townhouse clusters.
For further reference:
The grant-funded effort to nurture and enhance the business environment in Wedgwood was called The Future of 35th Project, completed in 2014 but ignored by Seattle City Council. The reason for the project name, “Future of 35th,” was that Wedgwood has a linear commercial zone with almost all stores facing 35th Ave NE.
An emphasis of the project was the “nodes” at the commercial intersections of NE 75th and 85th Streets. At those corners, better zoning regulations could enhance the business district by requiring that any new buildings to be built in the future, will have retail storefronts.
The documents of the Future of 35th Project are still posted, and Wedgwood activists will continue to pursue the goals. Hopefully these goals can be taken up with new and better City Council representatives after the November 2019 election.