Turning a corner at 20th & Yesler - Coffeehouse in new building a sure sign of big changes

"We've been waiting for you to open."

"Wow! A coffee place here...."

"When are you gonna get prepaid cards? Is there going to be live music? Are you getting soup and sandwiches? (Yes to all of the above.)

Visitors to Ken Clark's new coffee bar at 20th and Yesler have been waiting months for the promised new operation to open. It took him at least six months from lease signing to his May 12 opening, but Clark has been dreaming of this venture for a lot longer.

Until he saw his chance with two vacant retail spaces on the ground floor of the new condo building, Clark worked as a production manager for K/P International, a commercial printing firm. He has high praise for his former employer, but says he knew the high-stress, "in-your-face" stuff sometimes typical of a deadline-oriented business was not for him. When son Alexander remarked one day that sometimes Daddy was difficult to be around "because he's always mad," Ken knew the moment had arrived. He considered it his "wakeup call."

"When did I actually start thinking about my own business? Gee, I don't know. It's been most of my life ... "

Clark sees his new Virginia's American Coffee Bar (named for his grandmother Virginia Drummer, a 90ish resident of Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood) as the first step in his dreams. He'd like to see a "casual food" spot nearby, something on the order of the Madrona Bar & Grill. He has his eye on a couple of spots.

But for now he is focused on getting his roomy 1,300-square-foot coffeehouse finished. An art show by his friend Ethan Jack Harrington runs through the end of June; a second show by a neighborhood artist will follow. Furnishings, including a sofa and a children's corner, are intended to encourage a living-room atmosphere.

"Kid-friendly is a big thing for me," says the father of toddler Josephine and kindergartner Alexander, both of whom have breakfast at Dad's new place on weekdays. Ken's wife Ellen brings them by each morning on her way to drive Alexander to his school in the North End.

The corner of 20th and Yesler has been well known to Seattle police for years as a center for drugs and prostitution. Clark's video cameras still capture some of that action during the night, but according to many nearby neighbors "it's getting better every year." The tearing down of the former commercial building, home to a small store selling alcohol and snacks, began the change at the busy corner.

Almost coinciding with the opening of Clark's new venture, the Seattle City Council recently passed an ordinance expanding the Alcohol Impact Area into the Central District. Although alcohol retailers will be asked to voluntarily stop selling high-alcohol brews, the Council could make the ordinance mandatory in six months.

An hour spent looking out through Clark's large plate-glass window on the world gives a hint of why the Council may not have to make the ordinance mandatory. Joggers, dog-walkers and stroller-pushers pass by at least as often as the corner's former regulars. Many of the family groups are en route to the new children's playground across the corner in Pratt Park, another magnet for the neighborhood younger set.

There's even a plan to bring back the cops.

Police chief Gil Kerlikowske has been invited to make 20th and Yesler one of his stops on Aug. 5, the "National Night Out," an event which, among other things, brings police and neighbors together. Clark's regulars are planning to organize their own event for the evening of community picnics.

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