Sunday, December 12, 2010

Whistle Stop Coffee and Bike Shop Sitll on Square One

Whistle Stop is trapped on square one. Its pawns are scattered all over the dank gray basement of our 100 year old house in the form of café furniture, bike tools, an espresso machine, grinder, files, architectural drawings, and much more. Whistle Stop even has a cool fan page: The fans are waiting.

It was early August when I first found my way to the Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) located on the 20th floor of Seattle Municiple Tower. Though familiar to me now, It was new then, that big room with its long counter, waiting area with wall to ceiling windows looking out over the freeway and Seattle hill- scapes.

I plopped my shiny blue bike helmet on the counter and spoke to the woman behind the desk. “I want a permit to open a coffee and bike shop.”

She looked up at her computer screen “I’ll sign you up for a counseling session. There’ll be a wait. Do you have your plans with you?”

“Oh, yes,” I rummaged through my back pack and pulled out my 12 page business plan.

She shook her head. “I mean your drawings.”

I reached into my pack again and produced an 8 ½ X 11” piece of graph paper with a floor plan carefully drawn in pencil.

The woman suppressed a grimace which might have been the start of either a laugh or a frown. “It has to be an official architectural drawing with a site plan of the surrounding streets and sidewalks.”

I heard a laugh behind me. “You need an architect,” said a voice. “Our firm just finished designing a coffee shop.”

I turned around and looked up at the tall young man. “How much did it cost?”
He shrugged. “Oh, about four thousand dollars.”

Now I was the one who laughed. The value of this work of art in my hand was about ten cents for the graph paper. The design was free because it had erupted spontaneously from my brain.

I waited for about an hour before a different woman called me to another part of the counter. This woman told me I would indeed need architectural drawings, much larger, not on graph paper, but on vellum. She asked me the address of the building in which my shop would be located. I said I didn’t know the address but it was in a big building called the Citadel on the corner of Martin Luther King and Othello Streets beside the Station. So the woman called up her Google Earth, found the general vicinity and figured out the address. Then she looked at her computer screen and signed me up for an appointment with the microfiche section. She said to go and wait there until someone called my name.

I waited about twenty minutes before the man behind the counter called me up and handed me some little dark square films. He said to take them over to one of the microfiche viewers and look up the permit numbers for the address. He seemed to assume that I must know what I was doing or I wouldn’t be here.

Following the example of someone else, I went over and placed one of the little films on the glass tray under what looked liked a TV screen and shoved it in. I had done something like this some thirty or forty years before in another life, but I don’t recall the images being this confusing. Here were all these miniature forms with lots of helter skelter words and numbers. After searching at length without knowing whether or not I had found what I was looking for, I went back to the counter and asked the man if he could help me. “I’m not supposed to do this part,” he said. “Customers are supposed to do it themselves.”

I nodded. “It’s better to be independent,” I agreed.

The man shook his head but proceeded to do my work for me even though it wasn’t in his job description.

After a couple more DPD counseling appointments in August, I finally showed up in early September with some drawings that were good enough to be granted an “intake appointment” in mid October. It so happens that I have a kind neighbor named Jenny who is an architect. She had charged me considerably less than $4000

However, three days before the “intake appointment,” our game plan changed. Instead of renting the room in the Citadel which is in very bad repair, we were offered the opportunity to rent the vacant lot between the Citadel and the Station. We would buy an office trailer, fix it up like a bike and coffee shop and put it on the lot. This way we would have a nicer building in a more visible location.

I ran over to Jenny, and she miraculously came up with a fairly official looking set of drawings in a couple of days. This time I thought it might help to have some people less ignorant than me in my corner at the meeting. My husband went with me and so did Ed, the man from Jemco who wants to sell us the trailer, and Lyle, a DPD City planner who coordinates our Othello Neighborhood Plan.

A young man ushered us into an office cubicle with a wide table where we laid out our drawings. After we told him about our change of plan, he went out and came back with another woman who told me I should have canceled the appointment and made a new one because this was a new plan at a different address. It was of no consequence that the different address was only next door to the original one.

We would literally have to go back to the drawing board. We would need elevations depicting all four sides of the building as well as supportive detail of stairs, wheel chair ramps, etc. She gave us a booklet about rules regarding temporary buildings. She said that after we had these drawings done, we could make another “intake appointment.”

Jenny went right back to work for us, and we came back a month later with a huge roll of beautiful drawings in quintuplicate. But at the next “intake appointment” it completely different people who barely looked at our drawings. They said, “Our permits for temporary buildings are only for four weeks or six months,” This would not, of course, be enough time. The game had stopped. This was a new game with different rules, and our little piece on square one had nowhere to go as far as we could tell.

We found out that next year the City Council will consider a possible new ordinance that would allow temporary buildings on vacant lots where planned developments had been postponed due to the recession; our situation exactly. However, if the new ordinance passes with no contention, it will still take until May at the earliest to go into effect.

Now mind you, the people who work for the City of Seattle are really nice. Lyle said he and others are trying to help us. Ed, the trailer man, is trying to help us too. Maybe someone will figure out how the rules of this game will allow Whistle Stop off square one soon.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Whistle Stop Co-op; Espresso, Bagels and Bikes

On May 17 I told you I had this crazy idea about opening a shop. I made it sound so easy. Now five months later I am still on square one. Not that I have never been off square one. In fact, I’ve been all over the board circling back and around again and again. No wonder my head is spinning.

Once I had a place by Othello Station to put my shop, then I didn’t have it, then I almost had another place and on and on. I hope to finalize this decision soon, but it’s not a promise. I am still going round and round with the city of Seattle to get my permits. Although I’ve been down town to the Department of Planning and Development three times, each visit lasting several hours, my intake appointment is scheduled for October 20th. And I’ll be showing up there with a different plan than the one they accepted last time.

I have a whole file box full of research about, menus, designs, drawings, etc., etc.. The file folder containing my research on equipment alone is about an inch thick. It’s full of brochures and quotes on espresso machines, grinders, triple sinks, hand washing sinks, refrigerators, counters, Panini grills, etc., etc., much of it obtained from warehouse and showroom visits all over several counties. Let me tell you, this stuff is very expensive. But I still don’t know what we’re going to buy. We do have over $2K worth of bike tools but no place to put them. We have lots of furniture because we rented out our vacation cabin on Hood Canal to help meet expenses and hauled everything back across the Sound. We have cute logo.

I know I started out with a checker board metaphor, but actually this is more like a roller coaster bike ride. Up one hill and down the other. It feels like we’re at a high point now, but I’m hesitant to be optimistic. The terrain looks familiar. I’ve been here before. Maybe we’ll drop down again into a dump. But even though I don’t know what I will bring to my DPD intake appointment Oct. 20, I am resolved it will be right and they will haul out their pens and write me a permit.

I have not lived the easiest life nor the hardest. But this is the most difficult trip I’ve ever been on, even harder than bicycling across India. Maybe you’re thinking of hitting the comment button now and typing in some advice. Go right ahead. But believe me, there has never been any shortage of advice, much of it conflicting. Some of it made things worse. But even so, I will listen carefully and give you words grave consideration. I’m in no position to refuse anything free, let alone generous counsel. My brain is in a shambles.

Don't bother advising me to give up, no matter how sane and sensible that would sound. I can't do it. Giving up is not in my behavioral repetoire. Here's a quote: (I don't recall who said this, but, not knowing whether it was good or bad advise, I took it to heart): "Did you ever try? Did you ever fail? No bother. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Friday, August 6, 2010

Accessing the World's Great Bike Paths

My husband, Dick Burkhart, and I have been with our Bike Friday Project Q tandem on many world renowned bike paths. We have traveled old canal boat toe paths in Ohio, New York, New Jersey and beyond. Avoiding much city traffic, we biked out of Paris on a path that took us clear to farm country. From there we headed eastward across the continent on roads bordered by red poppies and rolling hills covered with pea fields and punctuated by villages of stone houses, geranium pots on every window sill.

There were occasional bike paths in Belgium too, but once we got to the Netherlands there was no more need for roads. Holland’s numbered complex of bike paths, more important than its freeway system, took us all the way across the country to the Hague without needing to get off. On our trip up the East Coast of the US we traveled a bike path all the way across Cape Cod. In fact, we had to make a special effort to get off this bike freeway in order not to miss the sweet New England Villages for which the Cape is famous.
To name a few.

Normally with bike paths you have to know where to get on and off. Except maybe in Davis, California, which was built for bikes, you can’t just get on at any street corner. Bike path designers tend to separate the path from the rest of the community. I suppose that’s because cyclists want to ride unencumbered by the rest of the world. Likewise property owners want to keep bike path users at a distance. So fences, hedgerows, and ditches tend to border bike paths, prohibiting escape before the next exit that may be a number of miles ahead, kind of like with freeways. Best to take water, tire pump, patch kit and tools, maybe even lunch, along.

Seattle’s Chief Sealth Trail is maybe one of the hilliest I’ve been on. It rises up, dips down, and up again on its ascent through City Light’s power line strip, gaining about 200 feet of elevation within a few short miles from the Rainier Valley neighborhood floor to the top of Beacon Hill. When Seattle built the Chief Sealth Trail (CST) a few years ago, they apparently assumed that users would access it dutifully, as with most of the world’s bike paths, at designated intersections a mile or more apart even though , in this case, there are no fences, hedge rows or other barriers between it and the houses. Instead the Trail runs through the City’s mowed grassy power line strip with no encumbrances on either side to keep anyone out or in.

So once in place, the Trail’s access system began to take on a design of its own, a network of pathways the planners had apparently not envisioned. The wide expanse of mowed grass spreads out on either side of the CST turning this mundane power line strip into a walking park to gaze upon a majestic panorama that spreads one arm westward along the Olympic Mountain Range and the other eastward over the Cascades with Mount Rainier crowning her snowy head to the south.

No, the Skyline Footpaths, as I call them, were not part of the City’s plan for the CST. They were made by feet the way cow paths form. CST users don’t enter from the mile apart cross streets the planners had in mind. Most access the Trail by human made foot paths that lead from houses, sidewalks and yards. Humans have created their own network of paths the way deer and groundhogs do. It’s the same way towns and village streets were formed before there were city planners.

Looking out over the power line strip park, you can see lots of people on the CST. Some are on bikes. A few are in jogging shorts running up and down the hills. Lots are walking dogs. There are African women in long colorful veils and Asian women in cone shaped coolie hats corralling their kids. There are people in suits and ties heading down to the Othello Link Light Rail Station on their way to work down town and others wheeling suit cases to the airport via light rail. But if you bike the Trail, be sure to drop your bike at its intersection with Holly Park Drive and scramble on foot about 40 feet up a narrow path to look out over Lake Washington and the Othello town center. From there the view is best. I’ve seen a few mountain bikes up there from time to time, but mostly it’s feet, and you never have to lose sight of your bike to enjoy the view.

I am working with a group of neighbors to apply for a grant from the City to gravel and enhance the network of footpaths people have made to access the Chief Sealth Trail. I wonder what would happen if we took out all the fences and hedgerows along most of the world’s bike paths and just let people access them at their own convenience. Would cars become obsolete?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Whistle Stop Co-op; Beverages, Books, and Bikes

If you live in our neighborhood, Othello, you don’t have to fork out a $1500 round trip ticket for an exotic trip abroad. All you have to do is show up in the center of our business district, and you will be in some exotic place resembling your dreams.

Othello’s center piece is a new light rail station that’s designed to resemble an Asian garden with pretty little trains whistling into it every few minutes. Surrounding the Station are plenty of Asian grocery stores, East African café’s, Chinese herbal medicine shops, etc., etc. Oh yes, you will have almost as much difficulty being understood in English there as you would in Katmandu, especially if there are minor nuances involved in your request. Sure, you can buy a cup of coffee, but don’t try to get one without caffeine or with fat free milk. Come to my neighborhood and you virtually leave the U.S. half a globe away.

While I love rolling out of bed every morning into this exotic place, there are some things we need. One is a coffee shop that does serve non-fat decaf, known in Seattle as a “Why Bother?” and other espresso variations. We also need some semblance of a book store where people can sit and gather, read, study, and/or relax. But most of all, we need a bike shop. We are served by bike lanes and a magnificent bike path called the Chief Sealth Trail. But Othello is crying for a bike shop.

So I have a plan. With help from family and friends, we will solve all these needs with one unique consumer and employee owned business which we will call, “Whistle Stop Co-op; Beverages, Books, and Bikes.”

So here I am several years retired from my former day job as Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. (There were too many syllables in that occupation too.) But I’m thinking about taking on a new career that will have an even longer title: “Shop Keeper of Three Stores in One: Whistle Stop Co-op; Beverages, Books and Bikes.” It will be a family run employee and consumer owned cooperative.

To prepare myself, I am taking a course in how to run a business and have already written pages and pages of my business plan. I have long lists of things we need, like espresso machines, and serving counters, and bike tools, and tables. Being an family of book worms, we already have a fairly large expendable library. The accountant/bookkeeper will be my husband, Dick, who is a retired mathematician. My son, Erik, will manage the shop and fix the bikes. He is well versed in those skills. My job will be promotion as well as making coffee. I hope to hire an assistant for the barista part because eye-hand coordination isn't my strong suit.

Of course, the most important thing we will need is a shop. This was promised to me by my dentist, Dr. Silver, one morning while he was examining my teeth. He was excited about my idea, and he just happens to own an empty plot of grass right on the main corner next door to the Station. He said he will have a shop built on it and rent it to us for the going rate that the Asian grocers and other shop keepers pay in the neighborhood. Of course, it will take awhile for him to get the shop built. That gives us time to plan, buy things, take more courses and make more lists. Maybe before too long I won’t be a retired old lady on a bike but rather an old lady shop keeper coming to work on a bike. I’ll let you know when we open up so you can come visit.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

In Heaven with my Dahon Folding Bike

I’m sitting on park bench under the warm, sunny skies of heaven. I knew where to find heaven because I spent a couple of days here last winter this time. To get here my friend, Lucy, just walks out into her back yard and opens the gate. Voila! There appears a ten mile smooth gray asphalt bike path through an expansive groomed parkland surrounding a lake. Well it’s not just a lake, but a gigantic aquatic amoeba comprised of many lakes, channels, ponds and sloughs reaching out tidy and unperturbed from an invisible nucleus. Views along the path around the waterway feature sparkling fountains, white sand beaches, palm and live oak trees.

An unbroken line of variable housing surrounds the park, but heaven’s home owners association requires that colors be selected from a limited pallet of soft earth tones, the brightest being red Spanish roof tiles. Thus everything from apartments to bungalow blends attractively with the landscape. Apparently there is even a size limit on dwelling units. Perhaps the reason there are no mansions allowed in heaven is that, out of proportion to the others, they would be an eyesore. The effect is not unlike much of Europe where ordinances require that all buildings be constructed of native stone. I couldn’t bike around the lake when I was here last year because I didn’t have my bike. So I resolved to come this year for two weeks and bike the ten miles around every day.

As if heaven weren’t enough, Lucy shows me other south Florida attractions. She has driven me to the Everglades which I also saw last year.. We walked on a board walked called the Anhinga Trail. Anhingas are great black birds about as tall as a six year old human and with wing spans the size of hang gliders. The Everglades are an Anhinga’s idea of heaven. Flocks of white egrets and other great birds lift like clouds from marsh grass and shrubs. The Everglades are heaven to many other species such as twelve foot alligators that sleep on their fat bellies in the mud. They wear big permanent grins on their faces that look like a kid dabbed sloppily on with a paint brush.

Humans would have a hard time living in Everglades because they would sink into the mud and thus become easy alligator prey, hence the board walk. But Lucy said human heaven was actually resurrected from the Everglades basically by destroying Ahinga heaven. So human heaven still has a few cute gray grebes and a flock of Ibis which are white birds with long curved orange beaks that peck at the ground like chickens.

I started preparing for this trip around Christmas time When Seattle tends to be, “Darker than a thousand midnights down in a cypress swamp.” (A reference by James Weldon Johnson to Ahinga heaven only at night.)

The challenge was to find a way to check Dahon on American Airlines to Miami without paying extra. My husband, who is patient and understanding, tried to help me stuff it into our Bike Friday tandem suitcase, but it wouldn’t fit. So I went to U-Haul and found a box big enough to fold the bike up and stuff it in. But then I found out that the linear measurement of the box was 64 inches, but the maximum allowed was 62.

Dick told me not to worry. He would figure out a way to get my bike in the luggage at no extra cost. I did not doubt him. Dick is a PhD mathematician, a virtual rocket scientist. Sure enough, the day before I left, Dick took Dahon’s 20 inch wheels off and stuffed them in my duffel bag. He then folded the frame in half and that way it fit in the suitcase. So all I had to do was shove my clothes and things in around bike parts.

Dick accompanied me to the Seatac Airport on Seattle’s new light rail that only a few weeks before had been extended all the way there. Lucy met me on the Miami side and we deftly rolled the suitcase to the parking garage and lifted it into the trunk of her car along with the duffel bag.

The first day Dahon and I explored heaven, we had only gone about two of the ten miles when the trail ended in a library parking lot, beside a shopping complex of that hell known as an American suburb, its eight lane arterials clogged with traffic. Ghastly to think that thousands of acres of Ahinga heaven had also been transformed into this! But I knew there had to be at least eight miles of human heaven left if I could just get around the shopping center and find a way back in on the other side. The other side greeted me with a big three story apartment complex and a huge locked metal gate. I went into the management office with my bike in toe and explained that I wanted to bike back around the other side of the lake to get to my friend’s house. Smiling, the manager took his key out and unlocked the not so pearly gate to heaven.

The next day I decided to go around the opposite eight mile way and try to find another exit from heaven without encountering a locked gate. This time a couple hundred yards before the shopping center, there were some sidewalks entering some apartment buildings. But upon investigation, the streets all lead to the other side of same locked gate. The manager came out and opened it again, this time frowning.

The next day I went the same eight mile way around again, determined this time to find a way out that didn’t go through a gated community. But on the way, I had a flat tire. Of course, I had not come prepared with a spare, this being heaven after all, a place of no worries. Luckily the flat had occurred under one of heaven’s half dozen bridges where cars from hell cross over. I called out to a fisherman beside the lake and asked what street it was going over the Bridge.

“Hammocks,” he said, without turning to look at me. So I phoned Lucy and asked her to pick me up where Hammocks Boulevard crossed the lake.

But while pushing the bike up the steep bank to the bridge, I fell down hard on my left hip, the post-fracture one with the metal ball joint. I screamed as though I was afraid I would dislocate the hip and have to go back into surgery . . . which I was. In truth I wasn’t hurt much, but the scream got the fisherman’s attention, and he pushed my bike the rest of the way up. Lucy drove me and the Dahon to a good bike shop which replaced both multiply patched inner tubes with bran new ones and lined the wheels with neoprene strips.

I returned to heaven next day firmly resolved to ride all the way around, this time finding the elusive free man’s exit with no locked gates. Observing carefully as I biked again under the Hammocks Bridge, I learned that I had already found the way out without knowing it. Beside the bridge where I had the flat tire, there was a sidewalk leading from the bike path right out onto the street. From there it was only about a block to the shopping center where I bought a few groceries, biked round to the library parking lot, out through the open gate, and basked in the glory of heaven for the two remaining miles back to Lucy’s house. Since then I’ve done that every morning (each of which was warm and sunny) stopping at the shopping center for grub and maybe a book to enjoy on a park bench by the lake for the rest of the afternoon. This is the heaven!

Fortune cookie prophecy: Persistence and determination will get you to heaven.