By Ben Joravsky

Last week Lincoln Square residents launched a counteroffensive. It wasn’t the streets of Seattle, with anarchists in black bandannas smashing the windows of Starbucks. But passions ran pretty hot Saturday, as more than 500 people jammed the first-floor meeting room of the Sulzer library to voice support for the Davis theater, the second-run movie house at 4614 N. Lincoln, which has been threatened with destruction. Two hours of emotional testimony made it clear that there were larger issues.

“The fight to save the Davis is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Mary Edsey, who organized the meeting. “The possibility that the Davis might be destroyed led people to look around and think about how much unchecked development has changed our neighborhood.”

Such cries of outrage would once have been unthinkable in this section of North Center, a relatively quiet, unremarkable mix of working-class renters and middle-class home owners. But things started to change in the early 90s, when the steady northward march of upscale development along the Ravenswood el reached the community. In the last few years the real estate market has boomed beyond expectations, with houses selling for as much as $700,000 and developers anxious to build duplexes or town houses on vacant land and commercial strips.

“At first you don’t even notice the change,” says Edsey, who lives a block from Lincoln Avenue. “Then one day you look up and you see that the things you loved–the things that gave your neighborhood color and charm–are gone. The local video store, the bakery where they made the great rye bread, the antique store, the secondhand shop–they’re gone.”

Edsey is describing a familiar transformation. It starts with a series of unrelated residential developments (one here, one there) that causes rents and taxes to rise beyond the means of local merchants. Word gets out–the neighborhood’s hot. Rumors abound, some true, most not, that the Gap, Kinko’s, and Starbucks are coming. Developers, realtors, and land speculators pour in. Landlords who’ve sworn they’ll never leave can’t resist selling. The speculation hurts as much as it helps. It becomes harder to rent vacant storefronts, since merchants figure it’s only a matter of time until the buildings are sold for development. Longtime residents find the old neighborhood unaffordable.

“My family has been living in North Center since 1910–I grew up here, I went to school here, I played in the parks. This is home,” says Sharon Woodhouse, a friend of Edsey’s. “But so many of the people I grew up with can’t afford to live here. Everyone from my generation rents from parents, sisters, or cousins. It’s sort of weird to see your old neighborhood change and realize it’s not really yours anymore.”

On November 17 Edsey read in Inside, a neighborhood weekly, that the Davis was for sale and interest from buyers was high. Inside reported that local realtor Edward Vanek had shown the building “to eight different developers, each of whom had a different idea for the theater’s future. One wanted to turn it into a mall; another wanted to convert it into a three-screen movie theater with food and liquor service; yet another wanted to develop condominiums on the lot.”

The notion of knocking down the Davis for condos outraged Edsey. “Destroy the Davis? I couldn’t believe it–why would anyone want to do that?” she says. “Everyone loves the Davis. OK, it’s not fancy. But you can see a movie for a buck and a half. Go there on a weekend and it’s filled. You have kids and teenagers and parents and the hipper crowd. It’s real.”

As she points out, the stretch of Lincoln just south of the Davis has already undergone significant change since the Old Town School of Folk Music moved there last year. Several storefronts across the street from the school were cleared for a parking lot and an upscale shopping complex. “Enough’s enough, already,” says Edsey. “I think it’s time we hold on to what we have.”

She and several friends went to Alderman Eugene Schulter seeking support. “I asked if he had any comments about the closing of the Davis,” says Edsey. “He said, ‘All I know is that it’s up for sale.’ He said he didn’t know enough about it to discuss it. I said I’d like to plan a meeting and he said that was OK with him.”

Actually, the Davis’s uncertain future had been well-known, at least to realtors, since Vanek listed it for sale in October. “This ornate theater is waiting to be developed into a shopping mall,” said the listing. It described the Davis as the heart of a three-story building that includes six storefronts and 12 apartments. Real estate agents consider the building a great buy at its $1.6 million asking price. “You could make it upscale commercial and do a renovation,” says one. “Or make a fortune by tearing it down and selling condos or town houses.”

Vanek says the building’s current owners also own and operate the Davis. “They want to sell and there was a lot of interest. We had 60 calls and 12 to 15 visits and two contracts in 19 days.”

The winning bid came from a young developer named Jim Yaeger, who said he had no specific plans for the property. “There’s a lot of homework that needs to be done,” he told Inside. “We haven’t given [demolition] any thought.”

Yaeger’s comments, printed in the weekly’s November 24 edition, didn’t appease Edsey and her allies. They booked the Sulzer meeting room and circulated flyers calling on residents to “Save the Davis.”

As word spread, residents flooded Schulter’s office with calls. Now he was in the hot seat. Demolishing the Davis, or even converting it to residential use, would require a zoning change unlikely to be granted over Schulter’s opposition. Denying the change would alienate a developer; supporting it would anger voters. Within a few days, Schulter was trying to make his position clear.

“I met with him [Yaeger] and I told him exactly my feelings about saving the building,” says Schulter. “I made it very clear to him that we wanted to make sure that the theater remains commercial on the first floor. We have informally been told by the developer that this is what he intends to do, though I haven’t seen any plans.”

Does that mean Schulter will block any attempt to raze the Davis?

“I’m not sure he wants to tear down the Davis,” the alderman replies. “I’m not even sure the deal’s complete. For all we know, he might not even wind up owning the Davis. But I did let him know that a zoning change would not be appropriate.”

Schulter says he’s always envisioned the stretch of Lincoln between Sunnyside and Lincoln Square as a colorful mix of commercial and retail. “You need to have a mix in a neighborhood of theater and gallery spaces and restaurants and shops,” he says. “The Davis makes a really nice mix, particularly with the Old Town School. On a more personal level, I have to say that I love the Davis. I go there myself. My kids go there. All the neighborhood kids go there. It’s a neighborhood institution.”

To make sure his message got out, Schulter not only attended last Saturday’s meeting but dominated it. The crowd spilled out of the meeting room and into the library’s vestibule, and everyone wanted to speak. One man railed against encroaching chains; a woman cried over a lost Butera grocery a mile south on Lincoln in another neighborhood (it was demolished to make way for a Crate & Barrel); another woman passed out a flyer that read, “This [the Davis] is my 65-year-old dad’s life. Please don’t take it away.” Some speakers reminisced about old antique stores, laundromats, and small eateries that had already been priced out of existence.

“Don’t tell me about rising property values,” one resident declared. “I don’t want to sell. I want to live here.”

Schulter reaffirmed his support for the Davis and his opposition to any zoning change, and by the end of the meeting it was clear that the Davis had been saved for the moment. In the long run, though, its existence remains in doubt. Even if the next owner keeps the building commercial, there’s no guarantee that a movie theater will remain.

“It’s the same old story–people don’t realize what they have until it’s gone,” said local resident Rob Adams as the crowd dispersed. “If the Davis goes, ten years from now we’ll be getting together to figure how we can make this more like a neighborhood with theaters and shops.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.