Goodbye to Starbucks at Westlake Park and so much more

Goodbye to Starbucks at Westlake Park and so much more

This is a love story.

In 2007, I lost my column at the newspaper in Phoenix. My transgression was calling the real estate crash (where that was the primary industry).

With no job available there, my wife, Susan, and I made a list of desirable cities. Beyond a newspaper job, they needed to offer a vibrant downtown, abundant cultural assets, architectural delights, walkable neighborhoods, a diverse economy, good local transit and Amtrak service.

Seattle was at the top of the list, made more so as job offers elsewhere evaporated in the newspaper crisis at the beginning of the Great Recession.

We arrived here 15 years ago next month with me writing, in laughable irony, about real estate before settling into this column. When I called the collapse of Washington Mutual, The Seattle Times rewarded rather than punished me. A good sign.

As those cool (!) late summer evenings turned to fall, we often found ourselves at Westlake Park, sitting on the benches. Buses ran on Fourth Avenue as the transit tunnel was being refitted for light rail. We might wait for one to get home in Belltown after a movie or shopping.

It was an inviting public space with the fountain running. We never felt unsafe. No one camped on the sidewalks or panhandled at the park.

Just sitting there, with the lights of the skyscrapers seeming like stars overhead and stores all around, was a wonderful tonic from Phoenix. Its downtown was nearly dead and the nearest major retail to our center-city historic district was a 5-mile drive. In Seattle, we never felt as if we had to spend every dime to keep the minimal nearby restaurants and stores alive.

All of which makes me sad to know that Starbucks closed its Westlake Park location on Wednesday and moved the fixtures out.

Whether because of crime — perfectly believable and the reason given by the company for closing six area stores — or as punishment for unionization attempts, it’s a gut punch. (And employees themselves at the stores complained about assaults, thefts and drug use.)

I recall all those nights we enjoyed sitting at Westlake Park, with the Starbucks there open until 11 pm I bought my venti nonfat, no-whip mocha and got change for the bus in these pre-ORCA card days. Customers came and went unmolested.

Yes, I know other Starbucks stores are downtown. And Seattle coffee snobs despise Starbucks and prefer smaller outlets. Maybe one will move into the Westlake site. But until then, the empty space will stand as mute testimony to all we’ve lost. (To be fair, I enjoyed a hot dog at the park recently, under watch of a security guard, but the old nighttime safety isn’t there.)

Those early days contained big-city excitement, to be sure. Nightclub shootings were common — I watched one happen myself from the apartment before hitting the deck. One establishment was appropriately named Venom. But this was a very safe city, especially given its density.

Seattle was the embodiment of urban scholar Jane Jacobs’ essentials for strangers to feel safe in a city: “Eyes on the street,” whether from pedestrians, Ralph’s Deli, Bed Bath & Beyond or the Westlake Park Starbucks.

I loved that city.

So many times, I retweeted something about Seattle with the comment “I love this city!” Twitter was in its infancy and the iPhone had just come out.

The Seattle-headquartered company pioneered the idea of ​​the “third place.” I noticed it when I went to my first Starbucks, in Denver, then as it followed me to Cincinnati, Charlotte, and was well established when I arrived in Phoenix at the turn of the century.

The “third place” was one in addition to home and the office. I spent much time there enjoying a drink but also making notes for one of my columns or my mystery novels. The chain made cameos in several of the latter, including “Deadline Man,” my only thriller and only novel set in Seattle.

In 2018, the third place came into question when two Black men in Philadelphia were waiting for a friend and a barista called police after one man tried to use the restroom. They were arrested. This resulted in a backlash that caused the company to close more than 8,000 US stores to conduct anti-bias training. It instituted a policy of open restrooms for all.

This year, Howard Schultz — back for another stint as CEO and locally despised for selling the SuperSonics — said Starbucks was considering ending the open-restroom policy.

“We have to harden our stores and provide safety for our people,” Schultz told The New York Times. “I don’t know if we can keep our bathrooms open.”

As depressing for the third place was the company’s plans to install drive-thrus at 90% of its new stores.

In the years after 2007, Seattle underwent profound changes, including Amazon’s headquarters in South Lake Union and downtown. It added a staggering 100,000 people from 2008 to 2018.

Politics changed, too, from a pragmatic liberalism to a City Council majority of far-left activists. They defunded the police even as crime rose and shoplifting staggered the remaining retailers. Third Avenue’s rich assortment of shops are now closed and boarded up.

The pandemic struck, with especially catastrophic effects on office work downtown. We have yet to find out what the new normal will be.

Once again, I feel the need to spend every dime to help the remaining retailers and restaurants.

Paradoxically, downtown Phoenix has rebounded with an Arizona State University campus, convention center, biomedical campus, new apartment towers and light rail. Still, it will never be Seattle, even though it’s the nation’s fifth most populous city.

Love stories often end with sadness and this is no exception.

I loved the city that the activists hate. That older Seattleites lament.

I loved those nights sitting in Westlake Park, with the Starbucks open and welcoming.

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