Saving the Local Grocery

Atop Queen Anne Hill, a fierce neighborhood battle is brewing over plans to replace the small, upscale Metropolitan Market and an adjacent lower-income apartment building on Queen Anne Avenue North with a massive new QFC supermarket and development that will have three times the retail space.

On Dec. 19 and again last Wednesday, Jan. 4, some 200 neighbors crowded into meetings of the Queen Anne Community Council to voice nearly unanimous opposition. "It's very depressing to think it's all about 50,000 square feet and profits," commented one audience member. "We have one [QFC] on Lower Queen Anne. We have one in Interbay. Why do we need another one?" asked another. "This is a classic proposal for deciding whether we're going to have a neighborhood or big-box retail," added Queen Anne resident and former City Council member Tina Podlodowski.

Metropolitan Market's long-term lease expires at the end of the year, and since the early 1990s, the tiny five-store chain has been negotiating for a new deal with its landlord, the Cox family. In 2001, Metropolitan announced plans for an expanded 25,000-square-foot store with apartments above and underground parking, a plan that met with general neighborhood approval. But the proposal never made it as far as the permit process. "I felt that had we kept moving ahead, that project would have happened," says Metropolitan Market President and CEO Terry Halverson. "It didn't because the cost of rent was way higher than the supermarket could support, by far the highest in the city, past or present."

With negotiations at an impasse, the Cox family turned to other suitors, and Kroger, the world's largest grocer and owner of QFC, came calling. Since buying QFC five years ago, Kroger has moved aggressively to increase its Seattle market share, including an ugly but successful battle to take over Matthew's Red Apple in Wedgwood, despite massive neighborhood opposition.

An initial design proposal for the Queen Anne QFC has not been unveiled; that will happen at a community council Land Use Review Committee meeting on Jan. 23 at Bethany Presbyterian Church. But the announcement in December of the proposed QFC development met with swift and furious community opposition. A number of factors are converging. Some object to the scale of the development and attending traffic, parking, and aesthetic issues. Others are fiercely loyal to Metropolitan Market, which for years has been involved in neighborhood concerns. Some are troubled by the loss of rare affordable housing stock on Upper Queen Anne with the planned destruction of the Elfreida Apartments. But a widespread theme has been hostility to the idea of yet another QFC, especially one replacing a beloved local grocer.

This has happened on Queen Anne before. In the mid-1980s, the Safeway one block north of Metropolitan Market proposed a similarly huge expansion that was blocked by community opposition. Later that decade, neighbors opposed an ultimately unsuccessful attempt by Circle K to build a store at Third Avenue West and West McGraw Street. More recently, a McDonald's proposed for Queen Anne Avenue North also went nowhere. Queen Anne residents' loyalty to local merchants and hostility to big chains has a long history.

Can the QFC proposal be stopped? If the Wedgwood battle is any guide, community opposition might slow the project down and be useful in winning design concessions, but it won't sway Kroger. Kroger is large enough to run roughshod over community concerns. It has a long-term goal of market dominance in Seattle and can absorb extensive short-term boycott-related losses to get it. The question is whether the project's high rents will allow it to pencil out, and if not, will Kroger accept those losses anyway?

"I would expect they will apply for their master use permit next month," says Craig Hanway, chair of the Queen Anne Community Council's Land Use Review Committee. "If there's significant public comment or appeal, it could take over a year." But with no zoning changes required, and a weak Design Review Board, says Hanway, "The city doesn't have the ability to stop it. They just have to make sure all laws are being followed."

But Queen Anne activists will try. A new group opposing the QFC project, Queen Anne Neighbors for Responsible Growth, holds its first meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 12, at the Queen Anne Community Center. And Queen Anne's efforts will be watched closely by neighborhood groups across Seattle, many of which are facing similar situations as the city's long-term plans for urban villages and increased density start to bear fruit.

And if Kroger/QFC fails in the attempt to move in on Upper Queen Anne? "We have a great relationship with Metropolitan Market," says Christina Cox, spokesperson for the landlord Cox family. Adds Metropolitan Market's Halverson, "We want to stay there. If QFC doesn't go through, we'll be knocking on the door."

gparrish@seattleweekly.com

To learn more or to contact the Queen Anne Neighbors for Responsible Growth, visit groups.yahoo.com/group/StopQFC.

 
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