The changing face of the Ave

For the last two weeks, the Herald-Outlook has published stories about the ongoing crime on the Ave (University Way Northeast). This week, we look at how the Ave Project has changed perceptions and resolved some problems.

Once upon a time, the University District was funky. It was bohemian. University Way Northeast, better known as "the Ave," was a gauntlet of guitar-wielding hippies and Rastafarian outcasts.

It wasn't the place for a family picnic, maybe, but most people didn't seem to mind. What the neighborhood lacked in social graces, it made up for in personality.

Times have changed.

A lengthy process

The Ave still has personality. Panhandlers still butcher classic-rock tunes, and vagabonds still wander the streets. But the city committed itself to revitalizing one of Seattle's most well-known streets by pouring $9 million into the Ave Project, completed in 2003.

Two years later, changes are still occurring, but as merchants and residents evaluate the city's efforts, the biggest difference is in the neigh-borhood's landscape.

The city offered U-District businesses and residences community-development block grants to improve the physical appearance of their buildings, a move that many believe has paid dividends.

"The facade-improvement program has made a significant difference in the appearance of the Ave," said Matt Fox, president of the University District Community Council. "A good proportion of the business owners in the area took advantage of the city's offer, and it's really spruced the place up."

Gayle Nowicki, owner of Gargoyles Statuary, 4550 University Way N.E., applied for the grants twice to pay for two separate projects.

"It was a lengthy process to get approval and permits," she said. "But overall, it was worth it, and I'm pleased with the results. It really improves the quality of the neighborhood as a whole, so I wish more people would take advantage of it."

The grants cover materials up to $10,000, but business owners must pay labor costs, a fact that Nowicki said may discourage some people from applying.

"I don't know if enough people are aware of the program," she said. "Either that or they can't afford to pay for the labor. It can get pretty expensive."

In her case, the first grant paid to replace the anti-graffiti film on her window. The most recent grant will pay for a new sign outside her storefront, installed at the end of August, though she said she is still waiting to be paid.

The city invested $80,000 in 12 projects between May 2004 and August 2005, according to Karin Zaugg at the city's Office of Economic Development. Businesses invested an additional $200,000 during the same period, and there are currently 20 such projects under way in the U-District.

Incremental improvements

While the facade improvements have been helpful, the Ave Project encompassed a great deal more than aesthetic improvements, according to Theresa Lord Hugel, executive director of the Greater University Chamber of Commerce.

"It's important to note that the Ave Project was never just about the Ave, and it wasn't just about beautification," she said. "It was about revitalizing the entire University District, and there were a number of things that needed to be done."

That included updating the infrastructure to make the area more efficient and pedestrian-friendly. Sidewalks were widened, and new bus shelters, bus bulbs and street lamps were installed.

Changes also were made to underground utilities, including a new water main and storm-drain system.

"We used several different strategies to try and improve the area," said Jill Nishi, the city's economic development director. "Of course, it's going to take some time to reach the point we're all hoping to reach. But I think it's fair to say that regarding many aspects, things have incrementally improved."

Robert Gorman, project manager for the Seattle Department of Transportation, agreed: "It met my personal expectations from a construction standpoint. We made the necessary updates to the physical infrastructure, and the construction went well. But whether or not the project has met some of the broader goals is up to the community to decide."

One of those goals was to address declining business in the area.

"The vacancy rate was about 20 percent when I arrived here four years ago, before this project took place," Hugel. said "Now we're at about 1 percent, and there are several new businesses that will be opening in the near future."

Hugel said the old Tower Records location will soon become a secondhand-clothing store and a new bank of businesses will be constructed in the 4700 block just north of the Wilsonian Apartments.

One of the biggest changes is the expansion of the Safeco headquarters, which recently announced plans to increase its already strong presence in the area. The move is expected to bring an additional 1,600 jobs to the neighborhood.

Work also is being done to retain the neighborhood's artistic personality. Scholarships were created that allow businesses to commission original banner art from University of Washington students. Thirty pieces have been completed so far for display on light poles along the sidewalk, and another 16 will go on display next spring.

The constant struggle

Though efforts to improve the aesthetic value of the neighborhood are being lauded, the area continues to struggle with cleanliness. Many complained about litter on the sidewalks and streets.

"It's clean around the Safeco building and near the University of Washington," said Larry Smith, a longtime U-District resident. "But if you look at some of the alleys, no one cleans up the junk and grease and garbage back there. It looks like a third-world country."

Hugel said the chamber is trying to fix the problem. In addition to police enforcing littering laws, the "Green Team," a group of six formerly homeless youths, is paid to pick up trash in the area.

"It's been a really great program," Hugel said. "It gives kids who might not otherwise have an opportunity to make money a chance to pitch in and make a difference."

Overall, while she admits that the U-District is far from perfect, Hugel said the Ave Project has improved the neighborhood and that there are plenty of reasons for people to be optimistic.

"We're looking forward to the students returning for the fall and to the holiday shopping season," Hugel said. "This revitalization has been a long, involved process, but what a blessing the project has been to the community. It's really given the area a boost."

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