This article originally ran in the February issue of Seattle magazine.
If you haven’t been to Husky Deli in West Seattle’s Alaska Junction in a while, don’t worry: It hasn’t changed much since the last time you were there. There’s still the same ice cream counter featuring flavors like Husky Flake, Almond Joy and spumoni; the old-school deli with classic made-to-order sandwiches; the shelves stocked with staples and an oddball selection of British treats—Hobnobs, Marmite and Kinder Bueno bars.
It’s the kind of place that may still exist in your neighborhood—an old-fashioned grocery store and gathering place, owned and operated by the same family since 1932, when the place sold chocolate-dipped ice cream bars to local schoolkids. Jack Miller, the deli’s apple-cheeked, barrel-chested paterfamilias, started working here as soon as he was “old enough to help make ice cream”—around age 6 or 7, he thinks. He took it over from his father (who took it over from his father) in 1975.
“When people come back to town after being gone, they come in here, because they want to see what’s still here,” Miller says. On 9/11, he recalls, “We were full—people came in because they wanted to run into some place where they knew they were going to see people they know, and Husky’s is that kind of place.”
City Council member Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle and has lived in the neighborhood for decades, wants to make sure businesses like Husky can survive the rising rents and booming development that have doomed neighborhood institutions across the city—the Harvard Exit Theatre, Ballard’s Sunset Bowl, West Seattle’s Alki Tavern. Last November, Herbold secured $100,000 in the 2017 city budget (approved in an 8–1 council vote) to study the cost and scope of creating a “legacy business program,” to help “preserve businesses that contribute to the City’s unique culture and character and are at imminent risk of closure.” That includes businesses like Husky, which ranked fourth on a questionnaire Herbold posted on her council website asking, “What business do you fear will go away?” In that questionnaire, Scarecrow Video in the University District came in at No. 1.
“We need a bridge to our past,” Herbold says. “Development happens, growth happens, but the people who made this city what it is are still here.”
The San Francisco program on which Herbold’s proposal is loosely based includes both a registry of legacy businesses and a dedicated fund (passed by 57 percent of San Francisco voters in 2015) to pay for direct assistance to historic businesses, along with financial incentives for landlords to keep renting to those businesses. Herbold says she doesn’t plan to propose a property tax in Seattle. Instead, she hopes to provide incentives and assistance to businesses through existing city funds. Assistance could include help from the city’s Office of Economic Development with marketing, relocation or complying with complex regulations.
David Campos, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors member who spearheaded the legacy business effort there, says that in San Francisco, the main threat to historic businesses is rising rents: “A lot of these legacy businesses were not getting long-term leases, because the owners of these properties saw that they could make many times more money if they kicked them out and rented to somebody else.” The grants to property owners, which are capped at $22,500 a year, help make up the difference between market rent and what the businesses are able to pay; the grants to the businesses, capped at $50,000 a year, help businesses pay for ongoing operating costs, whether or not they stay in their original location. The program just started issuing its first grants.
One of the challenges of the legacy business project is defining just what bumps a business into the “legacy” category. San Francisco has grappled with this, without coming up with a definitive answer. Campos, who represents San Francisco’s rapidly gentrifying Mission District, says the case-by-case process is “intangible and very neighborhood-specific,” with businesses chosen based on testimony from the community and a hearing before the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.
Seattle’s definition may be similarly subjective, though Herbold says, “It has to be something other than nostalgia. I don’t see this as being a way to a save every quirky little hole-in-the-wall business in town.” The point is to heed community input. “It is really important that we don’t have a legacy business template, but rather, that each community has the ability to identify what’s important for them.”
Jaimee Garbacik, a local author whose multimedia historical mapping project, Ghosts of Seattle Past, collects “the venues, restaurants, shops and institutions we’ve lost to development,” according to its websites, is a vocal advocate for Herbold’s proposal. The way to make sure “legacy business” isn’t just a synonym for “quirky dive bar” is to work with and survey neighborhood residents from all backgrounds and find out what matters to them, she says. “I would hope that a space with cultural significance to a specific community, including gathering places, historically significant spaces that don’t qualify for landmark status and businesses that offer specialized services should be distinguishable from somewhere that merely has niche flavor,” Garbacik says. And just because defining what counts as a “legacy business” is difficult, the city shouldn’t be dissuaded from undertaking the project.
Of course, not everyone is in favor of preservation for preservation’s sake. Advocates for housing development tend to be skeptical of proposals that would require preserving the buildings where legacy businesses are located, arguing that this will discourage new housing and serve as another avenue for neighborhood activists to stymie projects they don’t like.
One such skeptic is Roger Valdez, a lobbyist for local apartment developers. Sitting at a table at Joe Bar, a quirky little hole-in-the-wall coffee shop on North Capitol Hill, he notes: “Whatever Lisa says, I know there are going to be people who use [her project] to stop development. It feels like another opportunity for people who want to monkey-wrench the [development] process.” And change, he says, is inevitable. Some businesses that fit into a neighborhood 20 years ago no longer do. “Small businesses are just hard to run, and sometimes the neighborhood changes and doesn’t support that business anymore. I don’t see how you’re going to put your finger on the scale and say, ‘Nobody goes to Café Whatever anymore, but there’s a group of people who want to save it, so let’s save it.’”
Ethan Phelps-Goodman, founder of the development-tracking website Seattle in Progress, spoke recently at an event curated by Garbacik about lost or threatened Seattle institutions. He agrees that small, community-based businesses add character to a neighborhood, but worries that the definition of that “character” will be determined by a narrow slice of neighborhood residents. “You can say that it will be a community-driven process, but we’ve seen repeatedly how without extreme care, open community processes are captured by the most engaged, connected and already privileged members of a community”—that is, the single-family homeowners who often show up to oppose new development already. Phelps-Goodman argues that the best way to keep small businesses viable is to create new mixed-use development that includes spaces for both old and new small businesses. “By far the most important thing we can do is address the shortages of affordable small commercial spaces that are the root of the problem,” he says.
It’s closing in on noon back at Husky Deli, and nearly every seat is taken in the small dining area. Miller, the owner, knows he and his business are in an enviable position. As owner of the building, he’s the master of his fate. His building will only be torn down for redevelopment if he decides to take that step. “We’ve got no plans to do that.” While redevelopment could mean a financial windfall, there are other important things—like making the kind of human connections his place of business fosters. It’s true even for newcomers to the city. “They start off eating at Chipotle and all the places that they know, but pretty soon they realize that it’s pretty cool to go to a place that’s been there a long time.” Herbold sees her proposal as a bridge to that kind of past—to a time when guys like Miller passed their businesses down from generation to generation, and everyone bought their ice cream by the cone.