Amazon Drive-Thru Conflicts With City’s Sustainability Goals, Requires No Public Process

project x

Amazon is, by all accounts, planning to open a new drive-through grocery store at the corner of 15th Ave. NW and NW 51st St. in Ballard, the site of the now-shuttered Louie’s Chinese Restaurant. Site plans for a mysterious “project X” describe a “new model of grocery shopping in which orders are placed online at the retail business, and the goods are assembled for the customer to be picked up [sic] at the retail business.”

The plans continue: “When placing an online order, customers will schedule a specific 15-minute to two-hour pick up window. Peak time slots will sell out, which will help manage traffic flow within the customer parking adjacent to the building. When picking up purchased items, customers can either drive into a designated parking area with eight parking stalls where the purchased items will be delivered to their cars or they can walk into the retail area to pick up their items. Customers will also be able to walk into the retail room to place orders on a tablet. Walk in customers will have their products delivered to them in the retail room.”

The drive-through store will include 13 or 14 parking spots, according to the site plans, which also detail the interior plans for the retail store and storage facility. (The plans refer to both 8 and 9 customer pick-up spots; the other five spots would be for employees).

Unlike the seemingly endless process by which density opponents are able to delay, say, four-story apartment buildings, this new auto-oriented business in one of Seattle’s most rapidly densifying areas will go through with no public process at all.

The drive-through grocery will be inside the Ballard Hub Urban Village, a place where the city expects to see growth in both jobs and residents over the next 20 years. The site is also a few blocks from, but not inside, a pedestrian overlay area, where drive-through businesses are prohibited.

According to the city’s comprehensive plan, the city’s goal in urban villages and urban centers is to “promote densities, mixes of uses, and transportation improvements that support walking, use of public transportation, and other transportation demand management (TDM) strategies, especially within urban centers and urban villages.”


Auto-oriented businesses promote the opposite. They encourage people to drive to an area, and to leave that area without getting out of their cars and exploring the cafes, parks, and small retail businesses that characterize dense, walkable neighborhoods. Worse, they make sidewalks more dangerous and uninviting for pedestrians, who have to navigate cars and delivery trucks driving in and out of a driveway designed for maximum convenience for automobiles, not people. Imagine walking through the drive-through line at McDonald’s: You can do it, but the people who have priority are the ones in cars, and it’s up to you to navigate around them at your peril.

Surprisingly, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation and the Office of Planning and Community Development, the new drive-through grocery store will require no formal review process, and the city is providing no avenue for people to submit public comments on the proposal. SDOT said the agency would likely do a traffic analysis of the project in the future, but the proposal does not have to be approved by the agency before moving forward. OPCD spokeswoman Wendy Shark says since the project is merely a change of use (from a restaurant to a retail space), it’s allowed under the current commercial zoning and won’t trigger the design review process or a review under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). Which means that unlike the seemingly endless process by which density opponents are able to delay, say, four-story apartment buildings, this new auto-oriented business in one of Seattle’s most rapidly densifying areas, which defies the city’s own stated goal of creating human-scale, pedestrian-oriented urban villages, will go through with no public process at all.

Ironically, because the new drive-through is on a site with access to frequent transit service and is in a designated urban village, Amazon will be able to take advantage of an exemption to minimum city parking requirements and get by with just 14 (or 13) parking spaces. When light rail comes to Ballard, the drive-through site will also be within walking distance of the Ballard station.

A while back, I argued that the city should consider a moratorium on all auto-oriented businesses, but especially those (like the drive-through-only Starbucks in the shadow of the Othello light rail station) located in areas with frequent transit service. The city has said it wants those parts of the city to be transit- and pedestrian-oriented, rather than catering to cars. In allowing new drive-through businesses like the new Amazon grocery store, the city is embracing a very different set of priorities.


10 thoughts on “Amazon Drive-Thru Conflicts With City’s Sustainability Goals, Requires No Public Process”

  1. Mega supermarkets with their expansive parking lots decrease walkability. Walkability means increasing business density, and if this supermarket has a tighter footprint, I’m all for it.

  2. I’m quite familiar with this area, and 15th Ave. NW has more in common with Aurora Ave. than it does with Ballard Ave. and the other pedestrian-oriented streets nearby. Drive-in businesses are going to be with us for a while, and better to have them on a street like 15th than over in the neighborhood somewhere.

  3. Earlier this year, I participated in a feedback session for SDOT & Neighborhood Greenways, which was discussing a method for pedestrians and bike people to cross 15th in this vicinity. I know they were looking at somewhere between 51st and 53rd, and my impression was the city was favoring 53rd. Some neighbors with a business on 53rd were uncomfortable, as they had semis and forklifts serving them – but they were otherwise in favor of getting a blend of transit modes in. Amazon’s drive-up option would only increase vehicle traffic in an area the city is targeting to be more multi-modal-friendly, and around the two streets that worked better for neighbors (my preference was 52nd or 51st for crossing 15th in order to better connect to 17th’s bikeway, and the new crosswalk/traffic lights near Cafe Mox).

  4. A small edit–looks like you got your Sts. & Aves. swapped. should read:
    corner of NW 51st St. NW and 15th Ave NW

  5. I’m all for walkability – for those for whom it is an option.

    For me, it isn’t always necessarily the case. I am physically unable to walk long distances due to mobility and pain issues. I can’t get too worked up about drive-through options at places like pharmacies. They can literally mean the difference between my being able to get my medications some days or not.

    But even in my current state I think I’d drive further and rather go walk around in a grocery store, even if I have to stop and sit down on my rolling walker every 3-5 aisles to ease my pain for a moment, than support the whole Amazon situation. It just seems so ill-conceived.

  6. I disagree about this being an “auto only” design. Looking at the proposed design documents, especially considering they’re renovating an existing structure that has a near zero pedestrian access from the street, I’m somewhat impressed. They’re reducing the overall parking area and increasing the protected pedestrian area within the designated loading zone and store frontage.

    Compared to the old structure’s layout, this one has a safe pathway to and from the north sidewalk where pedestrians and cyclists don’t have to cross traffic or interact with automobile traffic (its on callout #130 on page 8 of the plans, on the north), and they also include a pair of bike racks on the southwest side of the building for public use.

    As someone who lives in the Ballard neighborhood, and frequently rides my bike on errands, this business plan and retrofit of an existing structure seems to be quite pedestrian and cycle friendly. It’ll be far easier to get into and out of while use a cargo bike than the existing Ballard Fred Meyer, where you have to dodge parking lot traffic to get to the building’s bike racks and entrance.

  7. All true, but it’s a little late. There are already at least 3 drive in businesses nearby – a drive up only Starbucks and a Wendys with a drive up window just up the street from this location. There’s also a McDonald’s with drive up window two blocks away.

    1. True (not to mention a drive-through window at Walgreen’s just up the street!) — which is all the more reason to stop allowing new ones.

  8. I’m a fan of walkability, but I have a hard time getting too worked up about this. First of all, the location is pretty hostile to pedestrians because it’s right next to 15th, essentially a six-lane highway. There’s no crosswalk for a few blocks in either direction.

    Beyond that, I don’t expect this place to last very long. Amazon routinely tries out new business initiatives such as this. Some succeed, others don’t. Either way, the building will still be very much undersized compared to the zoned capacity and value of the lot. It will probably be redeveloped within a few years. When that happens, it will have to be brought up to current pedestrian access standards.

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