Along the Mother Road
A mural commissioned by the Aurora Merchants Association is shown on Monday, March 26, 2018, near the intersection of Aurora Avenue North and N.105th St., in Seattle. 
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A mural commissioned by the Aurora Merchants Association is shown on Monday, March 26, 2018, near the intersection of Aurora Avenue North and N.105th St., in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Aurora Ave used to be kind to the auto industry. No longer

Aurora Avenue North is a place where you can buy a car, sell a car or get fancy rims for your tires. If your vehicle has ever been towed in north Seattle, you may have written a painfully large check to Lincoln Towing so they’d release it. For decades, Aurora’s business community has been dominated by car-oriented businesses.

That time is coming to an end. And those businesses are fighting to maintain what influence they have left.

Randy Stirm works at Abra Auto Body. His shop’s location on Aurora is perfect: High visibility, and there’s been an auto shop at this intersection for decades.

Stirm has seen some pretty nasty wrecks roll in.

“The whole side of the car is gone, the roof’s gone,” he said, scrolling through photos on his phone. “Everything’s gone other than the firewall. There would be nothing left and you basically have to build the car from the base up. And you build it like how the robots do. There’s a lot of procedures and policies we gotta follow. They take photos of every weld.”

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He spares customers the gory details unless they ask. “They get their car back; they don’t even know the difference.”

It’s gotten harder to operate on Aurora lately. Abra used to park its wrecked cars on the side streets. But sex workers slept in them and neighbors complained. A crackdown by the city means insurance companies can no longer tow what Abra calls “train wrecks” to the shop and leave them on the street outside.

Attitudes toward car-oriented businesses are shifting in other ways, too. People have told the city they don’t want these car-related businesses to grow here anymore. Instead, they want places to live, with retail shops on the ground floor.

The City Council has listened to these voices. Zoning changes on the horizon give those voices legal weight.

“We’re being pushed out of the city. And we’re not allowed to have auto-related businesses in these urban villages, even though we’re abutting Aurora,” Russ Saunders, who owns the truck rental business Handy Andy, told me at a public hearing. The business has been in his family for 40 years.

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Recently, he bought an auto wrecking yard next door, hoping he could store his trucks there. Right now, he parks them on the street, and they’ve been getting vandalized. But because of the planned zoning changes, he says he’s now fighting for the life of his business.

“If I get my permits before these zoning changes – I will be grandfathered in, which will allow me to stay at my business,” he said. “If I don’t get my new permits, I will lose everything.”

Other car-oriented businesses are cashing out. Lincoln Towing, on 125th and Aurora, is building 125 new townhomes on its former tow lot.

This is a major shift. Cars are out. Housing is in.

It’s elicited a cry of pain from the Aurora Merchants Association and its wealthy benefactor, Faye Garneau. “The idea of building apartments on a major highway, in this country, is ridiculous. It’d be like putting apartments on the freeway.”

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Garneau says nobody wants to live on a freeway. “You can try all you want to make it into a little neighborhood street, but it isn’t. It’s a major highway,” she said.

Garneau and her late husband Ed built a fortune fixing cars on Aurora. They used to own the shop Abra is in now, plus many others. They started in the late 1950s, before the World’s Fair brought the Space Needle to Seattle. Garneau says she doesn’t understand why the city would undervalue car-related businesses and the taxes they pay to the city.

She told me Aurora has always been about cars.

“This is America,” she said. “Everybody has a car. I mean, the first thing kids want to do when they get out of high school is get themselves a car. They might not be able to afford it, but that’s what they want, they get a job, they get a car.”

But young people have been shifting their interest away from cars lately. Forterra polled Seattle millennials last year. Turns out they're more interested in affordable housing.

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Next in our series Along the Mother Road: the people trying to rebuild Aurora for housing.