The perils of a neighborhood cafe

When Volunteer Park Cafe wanted to expand a bit to its back yard, a year-long wrangle with the neighbors was the result. Now that's settled.

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Volunteer Park Cafe: now including chickens in the back.

When Volunteer Park Cafe wanted to expand a bit to its back yard, a year-long wrangle with the neighbors was the result. Now that's settled.

A century ago, the yellow house at the corner of 17th and Galer, a block from the northeast corner of Capitol Hill's Volunteer Park, housed a small general store, the sort of corner shop relied upon in cities around the world for last-minute staples. Ericka Burke and her business partner Heather Earnhardt took over the space ten years ago from a restaurant known as Cafe Europa and continued to run it as a cafe, selling pastries and such alongside a few prepared fodostuffs, and expanded into a full-service restaurant called the Volunteer Park Cafe.

A popular restaurant, not surprisingly, given Burke's talents as a chef, but its very success gave rise to a classic Seattle phenomenon, Not In My Back Yard. Literally.

VPC had a small back yard of its own, and last year put in a brick patio to provide a bit of outdoor seating and a couple of chicken coops. Not so fast, said neighbor Paul Jones. He complained to the Seattle Department of Planning & Development that using the garden around the corner from his house as a restaurant hadn't been authorized. Not only that, he pointed out, the property's original, 1904 license was limited to operations as a grocery store. DPD agreed and clapped the restaurant with a violation.

There followed a year of wrangling and fingerpointing, of claims that the patio would "double" VPC's business (denied by Burke, who said the kitchen was already running at capacity), create unbearable traffic problems, that cooking odors would permeate the neighborhood, that garbage would pile up. The offended neighbors launched a blog (of course!) featuring a photo of a dead rat said to be found in VPC's back yard. While the unhappy neighbors claimed they had started as friends and supporters of VPC, they were "offended" by the fact that the business wasn't operating legally, wasn't covered by so much as a conditional use permit.

The determination, released last week by DPD land use planner Scott Kemp, allows VPC to stay in business by meeting a number of conditions that have the effect of reducing VPC's use as an outdoor cafe.

Burke and Earnhardt have retreated from plans to prepare Sunday suppers on a backyard barbecue, agreed to put signs on their garden that specify "no restaurant use," and to build out an expensive new venting system for the kitchen. What the angry neighbors called "illegal" expansion has thus been halted, though the business owners would probably prefer to call it a proposed expansion pending a permit.

The chicken coop? Funny thing, that's a perfectly legal use in a single-family residential zone in Seattle. No problem, says the DPD.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).