by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
It all starts with development. In today’s mixed-use, local-business, neighborhood-pride philosophy of construction, the building comes first, and the tone of the block follows. There are so many new buildings going up around Capitol Hill that it’s hard to keep track, and it seems that whole urban villages sprout out of nowhere. If the story behind one such development – the 19th Avenue East and East Mercer Street mixed-use building– is any indication, there’s more intention than miracle in the concept.
The 19th & Mercer building is a Blanton Turner property, coming from the same organization responsible for the Packard Building on 12th Avenue, among others. This new location is a departure from the rest of their developments, though. Capitol Hill’s 19th Avenue and much of the surrounding blocks are residential, mixing long-standing houses, older apartment buildings, and new constructions along the way. It’s a quiet neighborhood that has more in common with the likes of Madrona than the closer stretches of Capitol Hill proper.
If the land east of Broadway were a small town, 15th Avenue would be the bustling thoroughfare, and everything else would be reserved for houses and schools. The businesses living on the ground floor of the 19th & Mercer building seem aware of that. And yes, they’re totally in on the same plan. The way that Robin Wehl Martin, proprietor and head baker at Hello Robin, tells it, the lineup on the block was a mix of neighborly assistance and ambitious business savvy.
“It was all Molly,” Wehl Martin said, “She talked to the developer and said, ‘look, if you put a chiropractor’s office and a dry cleaners in here, it’s not gonna work.’”
As the freshly minted legend goes, ice cream heroine Molly Moon and her husband, Zack, gathered a mix of up-and-comers and Capitol Hill mainstays to grab every retail space at 19th & Mercer. Tallulah’s, the newest restaurant from Linda Derschang, took the East Mercer Street corner while Hello Robin moved in next-door, one step closer to East Republican Street, joined by a walk-up Molly Moon’s Ice Cream window ready for the spring and summer months. Between them, an honest-to-goodness general store, Cone and Steiner, also just opened its doors.
The overall experience of this fresh block of businesses is part nostalgia and part fiction, all made real. Wehl Martin rolls fresh cookies on the open table that takes up a good third of Hello Robin, popping them in the oven while chatting with guests of all ages. She shares a hallway with Cone and Steiner, and everyone shares materials.
“I ran out of butter and grabbed some from the Cone and Steiner earlier this week. Before that, Tallulah’s had an egg emergency and I lent them a sack. That’s the kind of relationship we have around here,” Wehl Martin said, prepping habanero orange cookies on a Sunday afternoon. It is, but for the literal cup of sugar, the kind of neighborly attitude many of us grew up hearing about but rarely seeing.
None of this would stand up if it all came at a luxury cost, but browsing the goods at Hello Robin and Cone and Steiner isn’t a cause for sticker shock. The former charges a buck and change for a cookie, and discounts on the half and full dozen. Cone and Steiner may have more organic stuff than the average corner store, but it beats the typical convenience store model of paying a 50 percent markup on the mass-market goods available three blocks away at QFC.
And, to be sure, all of this is big-N, big-S Nice Stuff. Hello Robin has a coconut curry cookie that entices indulging grown-ups with a halo of spice around coconut cream, an evolved whole wheat chocolate chip cookie with sea salt, and the aforementioned habanero orange cookie that seems designed to introduce educated kids to the time-honored pairing of chili and chocolate. Cone and Steiner fills growlers with local beers from their taps, and has an impressive array of mustards. It’s all delivered in such a clean, friendly package that it feels like it should mean something.
“I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 15 years,” Wehl Martin said, shedding some light on the motive behind the block’s design, “I have three kids now. I couldn’t help but make [Hello Robin] family-friendly.”
Family-friendly and Capitol Hill don’t walk on the same side of the street as often as they could and, perhaps, should. The new stuff at 19th & Mercer makes a case for not moving away from the neighborhood when it’s time to settle down. If anything, it suggests that folks spend their restless youth around Pike/Pine and Broadway, meander to 12th and 15th avenues in adulthood proper, then raise the kids around 19th.