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Booming Bothell says goodbye to quaint Country Village

After 40 years, the iconic mix of shops will soon be razed for townhomes.

Grounds maintenance worker Jesse Nance takes down lights outside of Whitehouse Antique and Candy Shoppe at the Country Village Shops in Bothell on March 22, 2019. The property has been purchased for redevelopment. (Photos by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

As Pike Market is to Seattle and Granville Island Market to Vancouver, B.C., so has Country Village been to Bothell and points north, an eclectic mix of shops in an old village setting. 

But in recent weeks, shoppers from all around Seattle and the Puget Sound have returned here to say goodbye to the beloved landmark, which has hosted hundreds of festivals and events, including a seasonal local farmers market for the past 14 years. For nearly 40 years, Country Village has been an artisan center with specialty shops featuring everything from porcelain dolls to wood-crafted birdcages, custom knives and hand-lathed pens.

The Country Village Shops in Bothell on March 22, 2019.
The Country Village Shops in Bothell on March 22, 2019.

“These quaint streets and shops amid countryside — there’s nothing like it anywhere,” said Kris Seitz, an ardent antiquer from Kenmore, as she strolled down one of the meandering Country Village paths with her husband, Don.

Marketed as“a whimsical world of shopping, home decor, one-of-a-kind toys, gifts, restaurants, antiques, and more!” Country Village once sat on a 13-acre parcel of woods and wetlands in unincorporated Snohomish County. That was before it officially became part of this former logging and farming town 15 miles northeast of Seattle, before Bothell became the booming suburb it is today, with its rapidly expanding biotech and biomedical offices. 

Half of that parcel has been cleared for 98 luxury modern townhomes. The rest — a 7.7-acre settlement of old storefronts and houses, including a Milk Shed once dedicated to milking cows and a building with an old-fashioned waterwheel — is slated to be razed for as many as 114 townhomes, billed as “Urbane Village.”

Some of the 45 businesses have already relocated, and even the village’s 13 famous wandering chickens have been “rehomed.” But most of the remaining shop owners are packing up to leave, destinations unknown. 

Standing out front at the gates there's a 16-foot polka-dotted chicken with a checkered future, too. 

Why couldn’t some rich person swoop in and buy the town? mused people on social media. “I still cannot believe someone wealthy who cared about the community would not buy that property and keep it going,” wrote a member on the Bothell Community Facebook page.

“Some people just say, ‘it’s a sign of the times,’” said retired schoolteacher-turned-activist Gavin Wissler. But Wissler, who, with other community members, secured more than 25,000 signatures on several petitions to “Save Country Village,” still holds out hope for an angel investor to buy out the current buyer. 

She also hopes parts of the village — like the 1901 Whitehouse Antiques & Candy Shoppe building and its carriage house — can be preserved.

With the final sale in June all but assured, however, most shopkeepers and visitors are resigned to this top tourism destination closing. 

That hasn’t been popular. “They’re killing the culture here,” said Don Seitz. “This is something so unique in its own way. All of the history of this area is being erased.”

Behind her desk in the Old Still building, so-named for a moonshine still that was said to be buried there (but never located), Leeann Tesorieri manages the leased shops that were scheduled to close this week. “We’ve always valued and promoted the historical properties,” she says, “because people are always interested in these things, whether others value them or not.”

Her father, Rod Loveless, the patriarch of the family, who bought the land in 1979, was the "imagineer" behind the village. He went to town putting together buildings, brickwork streetscapes, and alleyways inspired by New England town squares that he visited, she says. “He laid most of the bricks himself,” she says. 

“Then he’d get distracted and throw in some Western stuff,” she laughs. A vintage windmill. Two or three old railcars and cabooses. An old gillnetter boat once built for salmon fishing in Bristol Bay. Her mother, Barbara, designed the plantings and landscaping.

“My dad used to go to auctions a lot, especially one in Renton, where, if you came to the first half-hour, you could get the really antique stuff. So we lucked into a container from England, from Scotland Yard Antiques, with a lot of stained-glass windows.” These now line a wall of the Boat House, which the family had originally designed for boat building; a pond dug to test those boats remains as part of the picturesque landscape. 

“Once he finished one building, he’d move on to the next,”  Tesorieri says, describing her father as “very, very, very creative.”

Built around a few Victorian-era buildings, over time Country Village grew into the fantasy of a dreamy, sleepy village. While it has been compared to Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Vista, California, and Dollywood, the Dolly Parton-themed park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, Country Village charged no admission. For many years it offered rides for children on ponies and the Iron Horse rail-free train. Part of this place's charm is its rough-hewn, ramshackle design and its rural setting amid ponds and creeks.

People who came here loved it for being so distinctively different from a typical mall. 

Jeff Pittman, who came to one of the village’s going-away parties in March, was sitting at the Carolina Smoke barbecue place, which drew hundreds on its last day.

Over a plate of ribs, Pittman says, “Personally I don’t care for malls, preferring to support the family-owned businesses like these in Bothell or Snohomish.” He likes how “the grounds and outdoor spaces lend themselves to festivals, rather than an aisle-way at the strip mall.

Many wonder why this up-and-coming suburb couldn’t have saved Country Village from closing. 

Only a few years ago, it topped the list of “places to visit” outside Seattle, according to Snohomish County Tourism.

Even a real-estate agent with Bothell Homes, who would stand to gain from the sale, bemoaned the development, calling the sale a "sad day," since "for decades, Country Village has been a considered a part of Bothell’s identity."

The Loveless family for years made efforts to find buyers who could keep the village center going as a commercial enterprise, leasing to retail tenants, with no success. Instead, the family sold in June 2017 to Atlanta-based residential builder Pulte Group, which describes itself as “one of America’s largest homebuilding companies,” with operations in some 60 markets. The city upzoned the area to enable higher-density residential sales there. The back acreage was sold for $4.1 million to Lochwood-Lozier Custom Homes, which resold to Pulte Homes. The front lot was sold for about $11 million.

The sale led to a huge public outcry, including more petitions, one of which asked the City of Bothell to explore buying the property.

Country Village
Victor Obrastoff stands in the doorway of his shop, The Write Stuff, at Country Village on March 22, 2019. After the Country Village shops close, he plans to continue crafting his hand-made pens, which he has been doing for the past 28 years, from his garage. 

But the city didn’t have the $11 million to $15 million or more needed, says Bothell Deputy Mayor Davina Duerr. “It’s just tragic,” she admits.

Because it is a private sale, Duerr says, there’s only so much that the city can do to help. “We can’t tell them who they should sell to,” she says. 

Several shops and businesses were served with letters asking them to vacate the premises by last Sunday, March. 31. 

Bothell City Councilmember Rosemary McAuliffe, Deputy Mayor Duerr explains, was helping find retail spaces for displaced merchants. Cranberry Cottage, for example, moved into a plum location downtown, with a ribbon-cutting sponsored by the city’s chamber of commerce, which also moved downtown from the village. 

But some merchants, upset about the closing, said the search for new retail spaces has been brutally difficult. Rents in downtown Bothell (at $40 a square foot) are so much higher than at Country Village (at $1 a square foot), they say.

Only a half-dozen or so businesses, including Doll House Baked Goods, are slated to remain on for a month or more before Country Village officially closes in June.

Until then, the grounds remain open to the public, says Tesorieri, who in retrospect wishes Bothell had been more supportive of Country Village.

“We had to fight to get our events listed and promoted,” she says.

Bothell’s Landmark Preservation Board tried to persuade the buyer to save some of the historic buildings, says Cary Westerbeck, a local architect and Landmark Preservation Board member.

But with the city’s landmark preservation laws being so weak, there’s little the city can do to keep those buildings from demolition, Westerbeck admits. The buildings could be salvaged if the developer makes a case for not being able to incorporate or save them, allowing someone else to step in and move the buildings at their own expense.

The Pulte Group declined to answer any questions about the project, stating in an email to Crosscut that “the purchase has not been finalized.” But in a news release about its new townhome development, it described the project as “an ideal place to be for young professionals, growing families, and anyone who dreams of life in the city.”

According to Bothell development services manager Jeff Smith, Pulte will remove the pond, restore Little Swamp Creek and build a “promenade” walkway.

Country Village plans to hold a big public auction for some of its iconic items: facades, lamp posts, murals, cabooses and other memorabilia. Some residents, like Gavin Wissler, wishes the community could collectively salvage some of the old architectural features and, of course, the 16-foot spotted chicken sculpture in case there’s a possibility that Country Village is reincarnated somewhere.

The loss of Country Village is spurring some here to dream up ways to design new affordable retail spaces in the downtown core, possibly creating new Granville Market-style buildings and linking Main Street to the Sammamish River via new pedestrian bridges, says Westerbeck.

One reason Country Village was so successful, according to Westerbeck, was that it created true, human-scaled design “which people love and which is better for creating community. We’re not able to do that now with our land use codes. Instead of building for humans, we build for cars first, humans second.” 

“You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone,” said Jackson Olney, who grew up in Bothell, and who was one of hundreds who packed the place last weekend. “The sad thing is we got to come here as kids and now our kids won’t get to experience this as we did.” 

Country Village
The Country Village Shops in Bothell on March 22, 2019. 

 

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Booming Bothell says goodbye to quaint Country Village

About the Authors & Contributors

Francesca Lyman

Francesca Lyman is a Seattle-based journalist and author of The Greenhouse Trap: What We're Doing to the Atmosphere and How We Can Slow Global Warming.