Lake City Revisited

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I said goodbye to Lake City more than a dozen years ago. I had raised my sons there and originally expected that it would always be my home. It was a difficult decision to move and Lake City is still near to my heart.

It’s the kind of leafy, compact neighborhood that sports a walkable business district, a handsome public library and a colonial office building that once was the neighborhood school. When I lived there, Lake City was a populist neighborhood. You could have a janitor living on one side and a university professor on the other. You’d meet your neighbors at places like Bakers, the local bakery where they served the best weekend breakfasts and where, in the backroom, they made hand-dipped chocolates.

Unfortunately, Bakers closed down some years ago. And, lately, Lake City has had its ups and downs – a little good news and a lot of tough breaks. To hear about some of the neighborhood concerns, I accepted an invitation from Janet Arkills, a self-described “mom with two kids,” who represents the Lake City Neighborhood Alliance. Nieghbors Chris Leverson, Phil shack, Dave Morris, and Mark Von Walter also joined us.

Janet invited me to take a walking tour on a sunny Friday afternoon, along with several local leaders. As the tour demonstrated, the community faces challenges. For one, the neighbors feel that the city has concentrated too many low-income developments around the business district, all within a few short blocks. Janet reported that 500 units of subsidized housing were added to the hub urban village within the last four years.

The neighborhood also has a shortage of sidewalks. Originally annexed without sidewalks in the car-dominated 1950s, little has changed. In addition, there’s a dearth of usable park space, particularly for families with children. And while there is a Lake City Community Center, it lacks many of the amenities of centers elsewhere, such as restrooms that are ADA compliant.  It also suffers from a lack of programming.“There’s not much for teens and for young children, just one karate class,” Arkills said.

Our tour guides reported that the business area has, unfortunately, been overrun by chronic inebriates and has grown “scary” in recent years. Crime is on the rise, including drug dealings and shootings in parking lots. Merchants complain that, despite a portable restroom facility located on a pocket park in the business area, they must daily clean up their doorways. There are public areas where street people gather to consume readily-purchased alcohol and to discard needles and other detritus.

The owner of Romeo’s Pizza arrived on the scene as we crossed a litter-strewn parking area. She cited the distressing daily chore of “cleaning up the mess” at the adjacent bus stop that does not have a garbage can. She said her establishment had experienced three recent burglaries. Once the front door was shattered and the television stolen. She said, “People come here to pick up pizzas, but they’re afraid to stay. Frankly, we’re dying.”

Dismal as the news is for some of the establishments, there are several rays of hope, according to Arkills and the other Lake City leaders. One of the bright sports is the addition of new business establishments, such as the Kaffeeklatsch. Located at 12513 Lake City Way, Kaffeeklatsch is a genuine German bakery named for the custom of German housewives gathering in small groups to drink coffee and talk. Specialties there include home-made cinnamon rolls, Bienenstich (bee-stung coffee cake) and obstachen, a breaded yeast roll.

By the aroma alone, we were lured away from the walking tour. I got to meet Annette Heide-Jessen (pictured above), who opened the bakery with her partner Brian Hensley. After hours they often make the seating area available to neighborhood groups.

Annette explained, “Brian and I were unemployed, so we decided to employ ourselves.
We not only found two jobs, but created two more.”

Also new to the area is the Elliott Bay Lake City Public House and Brewery. Warren Peterson, who once was Tom Douglas’ beer czar, is featured in the kitchen, which has been popular since its opening last spring.

Another sign that the community is stirring is that the business community recently joined with Northgate to form the North Seattle Chamber of Commerce. The group is ready to work on improvements, including revisiting a plan to establish a Business Improvement Area. This would mean that a majority of the businesses would tax themselves in order to pay for improvements. A final piece of good news is that the Pierre family, which owns several parcels of land in the area, is making plans for redevelopment in the urban village.

But, meanwhile, the community is hoping that the city will take steps to improve the neighborhood in ways that make it safer for families. There are different ideas for how this might happen. There is the hope that the city could pass a high-octane beer ban for the publicly inebriated.

As Arkills said, “We don’t want to see Lake City’s sense of identity fractured. We think we should have a neighborhood where people and families can go and feel safe.”