Amazon Drive-Thru Conflicts With City’s Sustainability Goals, Requires No Public Process

project x

Amazon is, by all accounts, planning to open a new drive-through grocery store at the corner of 15th Ave. NW and NW 51st St. in Ballard, the site of the now-shuttered Louie’s Chinese Restaurant. Site plans for a mysterious “project X” describe a “new model of grocery shopping in which orders are placed online at the retail business, and the goods are assembled for the customer to be picked up [sic] at the retail business.”

The plans continue: “When placing an online order, customers will schedule a specific 15-minute to two-hour pick up window. Peak time slots will sell out, which will help manage traffic flow within the customer parking adjacent to the building. When picking up purchased items, customers can either drive into a designated parking area with eight parking stalls where the purchased items will be delivered to their cars or they can walk into the retail area to pick up their items. Customers will also be able to walk into the retail room to place orders on a tablet. Walk in customers will have their products delivered to them in the retail room.”

The drive-through store will include 13 or 14 parking spots, according to the site plans, which also detail the interior plans for the retail store and storage facility. (The plans refer to both 8 and 9 customer pick-up spots; the other five spots would be for employees).

Unlike the seemingly endless process by which density opponents are able to delay, say, four-story apartment buildings, this new auto-oriented business in one of Seattle’s most rapidly densifying areas will go through with no public process at all.

The drive-through grocery will be inside the Ballard Hub Urban Village, a place where the city expects to see growth in both jobs and residents over the next 20 years. The site is also a few blocks from, but not inside, a pedestrian overlay area, where drive-through businesses are prohibited.

According to the city’s comprehensive plan, the city’s goal in urban villages and urban centers is to “promote densities, mixes of uses, and transportation improvements that support walking, use of public transportation, and other transportation demand management (TDM) strategies, especially within urban centers and urban villages.”

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Auto-oriented businesses promote the opposite. They encourage people to drive to an area, and to leave that area without getting out of their cars and exploring the cafes, parks, and small retail businesses that characterize dense, walkable neighborhoods. Worse, they make sidewalks more dangerous and uninviting for pedestrians, who have to navigate cars and delivery trucks driving in and out of a driveway designed for maximum convenience for automobiles, not people. Imagine walking through the drive-through line at McDonald’s: You can do it, but the people who have priority are the ones in cars, and it’s up to you to navigate around them at your peril.

Surprisingly, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation and the Office of Planning and Community Development, the new drive-through grocery store will require no formal review process, and the city is providing no avenue for people to submit public comments on the proposal. SDOT said the agency would likely do a traffic analysis of the project in the future, but the proposal does not have to be approved by the agency before moving forward. OPCD spokeswoman Wendy Shark says since the project is merely a change of use (from a restaurant to a retail space), it’s allowed under the current commercial zoning and won’t trigger the design review process or a review under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). Which means that unlike the seemingly endless process by which density opponents are able to delay, say, four-story apartment buildings, this new auto-oriented business in one of Seattle’s most rapidly densifying areas, which defies the city’s own stated goal of creating human-scale, pedestrian-oriented urban villages, will go through with no public process at all.

Ironically, because the new drive-through is on a site with access to frequent transit service and is in a designated urban village, Amazon will be able to take advantage of an exemption to minimum city parking requirements and get by with just 14 (or 13) parking spaces. When light rail comes to Ballard, the drive-through site will also be within walking distance of the Ballard station.

A while back, I argued that the city should consider a moratorium on all auto-oriented businesses, but especially those (like the drive-through-only Starbucks in the shadow of the Othello light rail station) located in areas with frequent transit service. The city has said it wants those parts of the city to be transit- and pedestrian-oriented, rather than catering to cars. In allowing new drive-through businesses like the new Amazon grocery store, the city is embracing a very different set of priorities.