by Will Sweger
Pigeon droppings coat the windows of empty shops. Church signs with names like the Holy Temple Evangelistic Center, Libreria Cristiana and the Greater Gospel Temple occupy storefronts craving paint.
On first inspection, Skyway’s Renton Avenue seems like a curious place to operate a coffee hut. But for 22 years, Nevzat Cankaya has done just that. From his tiny espresso stand, he’s watched the surrounding commercial district transform after the financial crash in 2008.
Today, he’s looking to expand his business into a full-scale café, but Skyway’s zoning laws are holding him back.
In the early 90s, Cankaya worked as a manager at a drug store in Skyway, which belongs to unincorporated King County though residents have a Seattle address. His interest in Turkish coffee eventually led to founding his own business in 1995, an espresso drive-thru he originally operated from an 8 by 8 stand in a grocery store parking lot.
Four years later, he constructed a new building in the same location and had his first run-in with county regulations. The Pedestrian-Oriented Commercial Development Special District Overlay, instituted 24 years ago, bans drive-thru businesses in an attempt to make the area more pedestrian-friendly. Because his stand had a drive-thru window, county officials said it was prohibited.
For the next seven months, while applying for required permits to move back into the building, he operated his business off of an espresso cart, pushing it daily from his home to the grocery store parking lot.
Through a customer, he was able to get the attention of a then King County Councilmember Dwight Pelz and State Senator Margarita Prentice who granted an exception for him to move back into the building. The issue rested until recently when Cankaya, eager to expand his business, started looking for a bigger facility.
Last year, he bought the old Milk Barn gas station across the street with the intent of moving into a larger location again. His plan is to fill the 500 square foot main room with his espresso business, including a 300 square foot dining area for customers with 5-6 tables and 20-30 chairs.
An awning and a European style café seating area will complete the front of the building. With the expanded kitchen, he intends to offer breakfast and lunch selections of Turkish food with his wife serving as head chef.
Integral to the plan, Cankaya says, is his ability to continue to operate a drive-thru service. “I’ve been in business 22 years. When I started, Starbucks was not in the drive-thru business. They wouldn’t open a drive-thru. It was beneath them in a way. But then, it became so much more popular and people started asking for it because they want the convenience…you have to take the service to people.” He later put it simply, “Without the drive-thru I cannot move across the street.”
Fittingly, the new building is still equipped with a drive-through window from its previous owner who operated the gas station before it closed in 1993. Cankaya says the building department will sign off on a “sit down” establishment, but not one with a drive-thru due to the same Special District Overlay he encountered years ago. Unfortunately, the exemption county officials granted him for his current stand won’t follow him across the street.
In an earlier meeting this year with King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, Cankaya says the councilmember advised him to hire a land use attorney and warned him the legal implications of the move could be an “uphill battle.”
Community response on the issue has been overwhelming. An online petition to allow Nevzat’s Espresso to move to the new location has collected over 1,100 signature from local citizens. Speaking about the community support, Cankaya said, “The government is there for people. If people are asking for something, they should be able to find a way.”
The only ones seemingly against the move in the community are “Tha Family Motorcycle Club”, who rent the Milk Barn building from Cankaya. “No one wants to move,” a club member explained when asked what the club would do if it lost its home.
In a statement released to activists petitioning the county on behalf of Cankaya, Councilmember Gossett said, “Mr. Cankaya was informed before purchasing the property in question that due to the SDO, a drive-thru establishment would not be permitted. Despite this, and against [King County’s Department of Permitting and Environmental Review] staff’s recommendations, he purchased the property anyway.”
Gossett went on to state, “I have asked staff to research possible solutions that could take place prior to the next major [King County Comprehensive Plan] update in 2020.” Though the overlay earmarks the area for pedestrian traffic, King County has yet to build a sidewalk in the ensuing 24 years.
The Skyway VFW is quartered in a building behind the Milk Barn and uses the drive-thru lane of the old gas station as a way to access their parking lot. They worked out the arrangement with Frank Pellegrino, the previous owner of the Milk Barn and a World War II veteran, in 1971.
In the early 90s after retiring and closing the Milk Barn, Pellegrino still lived in the apartment on the second floor of the building. He tried to shut down the VFW’s access through his drive-thru lane because he was “tired of the traffic” according to Chuck Vitiritti, a former Post Commander of the Skyway VFW Post. At the time King County officials, concerned there wouldn’t be two access points for the VFW parking lot, told Pellegrino no.
Speaking about the community in the 70s and 80s, Vitiritti said, “Traffic was just the same. But at the same time, all those businesses were businesses. We didn’t have the churches, we had a hardware store, the drug store, a cleaners, a furniture store…this was our business district…If you needed anything you didn’t have to leave the area.” He explained after the financial crash of 2008, the local businesses “just packed up and left.”
Right now, Cankaya employs himself and one other person. After moving, he anticipates hiring two more people to help with the larger shop. It might not be enough to spark a renaissance in Skyway’s deteriorating commercial district, but a new café would be a step towards bringing businesses back.
Cankaya is determined to go through with the move, but his frustration is mounting. “Come on guys,” he said, “is this a crime? We’re trying to open a coffee shop.”
The proposed move of Nevzat’s Espresso will be up for community discussion at the annual King County Community Service Area Town Hall on Thursday, June 15 from 7 to 9 PM at the Secondary Learning Center, located at 7800 South 132nd Street.
Will Sweger is a Beacon Hill resident and freelance writer. Find him on Twitter @willsweger
Featured image by Will Sweger