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.


Daphne said...

Yuk. Sounds downright Kafkaesque!

Marion K. said...

This is the kind of stuff that small-business owners usually mean when they rail against government regulation.

It's just too bad you're back to Square One! I figure the best help you have is your wide network of friends and former colleagues, and people who think your idea is really cool (which it is!) But if you need still more expertise, you could try asking S.C.O.R.E. to see if they have anyone who's skilled at navigating the bureaucracy that applies to your plans. If they can help you maybe you can see the next obstacle coming before you hit it?

Good luck!!

James said...

good luck! i went through all of this in fort worth at our arts co-op. its really not set up for individuals to do this kind of thing on your own. it took over a year to even get inspections, and then we found out we would need a new $60,000 HVAC system in order to stay open.

Frederica Ghesquiere said...

Hang in there Mona, It'll happen some day!


Frederica Ghesquiere said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lindsay said...

New fan here! I love your blog- LOVE the way you write!