Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The newest thing in the neighborhood


Opens tonight

When we wandered by the place this afternoon, they were cooking away madly, getting ready for Madison Park Conservatory’s opening at 5:30 this evening. Chef Cormac Mahoney admitted to being both excited and stressed, hardly surprising given the logistical requirements of getting a new restaurant properly launched.

Judging by the turnout for Saturday’s open house, there’s certainly a lot of buzz surrounding the Park’s newest eating establishment. Guests sampled food and wine while enjoying the atmosphere of the newly refurbished space. Much of the talk, of course, was about the food. On that point, Madison Park Conservatory has managed to preserve much of the mystery. Chef Zoi Antonitsas did confirm to us that she and Cormac agree that lemons and limes are important ingredients.

Tonight is going to be something of a “soft” opening, and diners could find that the staff still has a few bugs to work out. That’s all part of the fun, however. Tomorrow the new restaurant begins in earnest, taking reservations beginning at 11:30 a.m. MPC has kept Sostanza's phone number, 324-9701. The website should be up and running in a couple of weeks. Our earlier interview with Cormac is available here.


[Photos are each from MPC's open house on Saturday. Top: Cormac and Zoi in the kitchen. Bottom: panna cotta anyone? Madison Park Conservatory is located at 1927 43rd Avenue E.]

Monday, November 29, 2010

Lowballing in an unsettled market


By Bryan Tagas

Home sellers—and many real estate agents—hate to even hear the term lowball offer, let alone be the recipient of one. But there’s anecdotal evidence that as buyers have tried to gain an advantage from the dysfunctional nature of the residential real estate market, lowballing has been on the rise.

There are no statistics that confirm this trend, if it exists. That’s because there is no uniform definition of what a lowball offer is. One buyer’s idea of a realistic offer may be a seller’s idea of a lowball. Even among real estate agents, there’s no industry standard. Some maintain that an offer 25% below asking price is lowball, while other professionals set the bar at only 10% or less. More often, however, agents argue that it really depends on the property in question and whether the seller has properly priced it to the market. In a generally declining market such as this one, it’s easier for sellers to unreasonably overvalue their houses, while buyers might at the same time unreasonably assume they can negotiate a big discount from any asking price. Local agents tell me they see both kinds of mistakes made all the time. In a market with a low number of home sales the problem is exacerbated, since there are fewer comparables by which sellers, buyers, and their agents can measure value.

“When the bust first happened,” says one local Windermere agent, “many sellers didn’t recognize it and held onto their prices far too long. This led to a lot of lowballs.” He says he thinks most sellers are wiser now about setting their asking price, “but many buyers still seem to think lowballs make sense.” The reason for this, he says, is that buyers are in no hurry, making the assumptions that interest rates will remain low and that plenty of houses will continue to be available in the market.

Many sellers react to lowballs with anger, however. Some agents caution against “insulting” the seller with an offer that is too much below the asking price, since this may not result in a counteroffer by the seller. If the buyer’s idea is to start a negotiation, lowballing is more dangerous than if the buyer is simply testing to see if the seller is desperate or not. And desperation certainly can lead to a changed attitude on the part of a seller. One agent reports that she received a lowball offer on a house which the seller promptly rejected, refusing to “counter” because he was incensed. Several months later, however, that same seller accepted an even lower offer after having failed to sell his house. This is apparently not an unusual scenario. Many listing agents have personal horror stories of having a seller reject their recommendation to lower the asking price, then suffering the loss of the listing when the house remains unsold, and finally watching as another listing agent sells the house after drastically reducing the asking price. Some sellers simply have to learn by experience, which can sometimes be painful.

In fact, there’s evidence from the local market suggesting that waiting too long to accept “market realities” can be costly. Windermere/Madison Park agent Laura Halliday provided me with an analysis she did based on King County’s September sales for houses listed at $1 million or more. She found that houses that had no price changes before they were sold stayed on the market for an average of only 22 days—and the sold price of these houses was, on average, 93% of the original listing price. These were quick sales for well-priced houses, and this represented 44% of total sales for that market upper-segment. On the other hand, the houses that had one or more listing-price changes before sale (representing the other 56% of sales during the month) spent 214 days on the market, on average, and were sold at an average 78% of the original listing price. Houses that were on the market for 180 days or more sold at only 70% of their original list price.

Halliday notes that particularly in higher-end markets such as Madison Park, there are lots of houses to choose from. “When a seller prices a property too high all they are really doing,” she says, “is helping all the other correctly priced properties sell by making them look like a bargain.” Halliday believes that “the longer a property sits on the market the less the seller will net in the end.” She notes that someone with a home that has gone unsold for many months may become discouraged or “worn out” at some point, willing to accept a lowball offer. So lowballs definitely make sense in certain instances.

Val Ellis of Coldwell Banker agrees, stating that “time on the market” is a major factor for a potential buyer to consider. “A property that has lingered on for some time with numerous price drops will immediately become an invitation to an even lower (lowball) offer.”

Lowballs may make sense in certain other instances as well. One example is where the buyer who is making the lowball provides some advantage to the seller that might not otherwise be available. The ability to pay cash is one such advantage, and several agents report sellers being willing to accept reductions in the sale price of 10% or more simply because cash means an immediate sale and no risk of financing falling through, which might happen with a higher non-cash offer.

Another reason that a lowball offer might be effective is that it can be the opening round of a negotiation with the seller. Some agents advise sellers to make a counteroffer to a lowball even if they are angry. While the lowballer may simply be bottom fishing, he possibly could just be a serious negotiator making an initial gambit. The one way to find out is to keep talking. It’s possible, after all, that the two sides could meet somewhere in the middle. As Windermere’s Halliday notes, “you never know how high a buyer will go or how low a seller with go” until someone initiates a negotiation. Sometimes that begins with a lowball.

On a personal note, I have been involved in lowballs on both the buying and the selling sides of the equation. Many years ago my wife and I made an offer on a beach house which was “ridiculously" lowball--more than 20% below the sellers’ already-reduced asking price. It was the end of summer, the selling season was over on the island, and we expected our lowball to be the starting point for negotiation. To our astonishment and the listing agent’s dismay, the sellers accepted our offer rather than making the anticipated counteroffer.

Later as sellers, however, we learned a different lesson. After buying our house in Madison Park on a no-contingency offer, we still had to sell our house in View Ridge. We received a lowball offer for it, which we promptly rejected. But after several more months of not selling our house (suffering from double mortgage payments in the meantime), that lowball offer suddenly seemed more attractive and even realistic. Our agent asked the lowballer to resubmit his offer, which he did—and which we accepted. At closing, the buyer, a professor of finance in the UW’s Graduate School of Business (my alma mater), gently reminded me that the market sets the value. A good point, and one that buyers and sellers should always be mindful of.

[As noted, statistics are based on September 2010 sales in King County for the $1 million+ market. The lower chart shows that for sold houses in this market segment, only 3% of sellers had maintained their list price for 180 days or more. 54% of sellers, meanwhile, were successful in selling their houses after maintaining their original listing price for 30 days or fewer. Analysis supplied by Linda Halliday of Windermere Real Estate, using data from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. Click to enlarge charts.]

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Early snow 2010

National news coverage of the snow in Seattle last week included commentary by several weather experts predicting that our early snowfall could be a sign that the region is in for a cold and snowly winter. We’re a bit skeptical of weather predictions, for good reason, but it’s certainly better to be prepared for another snowstorm than to assume we’re only permitted one per season.

It's certainly true that early snow planning by our Community Council occurred none too soon this year. We’re told that several people were “rescued” and delivered back to the neighborhood by the all-volunteer Emergency Snow Brigade, just established. We received no reports of any serious problems occurring in Madison Park during the period of freezing temperatures.

We appreciate the MPB readers who followed up on our suggestion to send us their snow pictures. These artsy shots are by Emily Heston, who blogs at splendidmarket.com:





The photos that lead off and end this posting were taken by Dorian G. Muncey.

Unsolicited Testimonial: Before ending this posting, the author (who does not own stock in the company and has not been compensated in any way for this endorsement) would like to recommend a product: Yaktrax Pro, a traction device for walking on snow and ice. I advise MPB readers to get this product (or one that’s similar) if you want to feel comfortable walking around the ‘hood in conditions such as we experienced last week. It is not expensive ($29.95 a pair at REI) and it really does make a world of difference. Last week I slipped and slid for 14 blocks while trudging on snow and ice get to the REI store downtown. I purchased a pair of Yaktrax Pros there, put them on, and walked back to my office with total confidence. Nary a slip nor a slide the whole way. Later in the week, while wearing Yaktrax, I actually (without thinking) ran with my dogs on the ice while they chased after a squirrel. Yaktrax slips over your shoes or boots and acts like “cable chains for your feet.” As noted, there are other products out there to choose from. Additionally, there are some customer reviews saying that Yaktrax does not have a long life. However, to pay a nominal amount not to fall on ice—even if you have to replace the product next year—seems like a bargain to me. My wife advised me to check them out, and I advise you to do the same. Many residents of hilly Queen Anne reportedly swear by them.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

October Real Estate Report

There’s no getting around the fact that it’s just not over. The decline in activity in the local real estate market, that is. The October numbers released by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service (MLS) for our area of town show sales, pending sales, and median sales values all down for the month, compared to October a year ago. And 2009 was hardly considered a good year in the local market.

For MLS’s Statistical Area 390 (which includes Madison Park, Capitol Hill, Madrona, and Montlake) inventory levels remained steady, but closed sales declined by 19% and pending sales were down by 24% year-over-year. This performance was better, however, than for Seattle as a whole, where closed sales declined by 32% and pendings were off by 26%.

Comparing monthly sales data for a market as small as Madison Park’s doesn’t make at lot of sense, however. Where total monthly sales range from only 5 to 11, a couple of extra sales (or a couple fewer) can seriously skew the data. The best way to analyze the numbers for our neighborhood is to look at longer-term trends. At the end of the year we will compare 2010 to 2009 and to previous years in order to put our market into better perspective. Just for the record, October’s numbers for Madison Park are almost level with those for the same month a year ago. Madison Park actually seems to be doing a bit better than the rest of town.

Here are the October market data for Madison Park (Broadmoor and Washington Park included), as reported by the MLS:

Houses

Sales: 3
Median Sale Price: $1,640,000
Average Sq. Ft.: 4,867
Average Price per Sq. Ft.: $572
Average Days on Market: 103
Average Discount from Original List Price: 14.7%

Condos

Sales: 2
Median Sale Price: $1,120,000
Average Sq. Ft.: 1,557
Average Price per Sq. Ft.: $646
Average Days on Market: 125
Average Discount from Original List Price: 4.7%

Additionally, however, the King County Assessor’s office reported two sales in Madison Park that were not apparently handled through the MLS. Both sales were under $1 million, and if included the above totals would reduce the median sale price for single-family homes to $1,150,000.

The October total of seven sales was slightly down from the eight home sales recorded in October 2009 and in line with the seven sales reported in Madison Park last month. The homes that sold did so relatively quickly, but the sellers of single-family homes took fairly deep discounts from their original list prices in order to get the sale: almost 15% on average. Condo sellers did much better, with an average discount of under 5%. Both condos that sold during the month were in the Washington Park Tower (1620 43rd Avenue). The most expensive home sold was the Washington Park waterfront estate of Joel Diamond, which we featured in our Summer Real Estate Report. Originally listed at $7,880,000, it sold for $6,700,000.

Here’s the current state of our real estate market, as reported by Redfin:

Houses

Listings: 62
Median List Price: $1,786,000
Median Sq. Ft.: 3,900
Median Price per Sq. Ft.: $458
Average Days on Market: 156
Proportion with Price Reductions: 34%

Condos & Townhouses

Listings: 31
Median List Price: $519,000
Median Sq. Ft.: 1,262
Median Price per Sq. Ft.: $411
Average Days on Market: 199
Proportion with Price Reductions: 45%

There are eight houses and five condos currently pending sale. Inventory levels, meanwhile, seem to be holding steady at around 100 listings. Many realtors advise prospective sellers to refrain from entering the market during the holiday season, since many potential buyers are focused on other things. This is not a universally held view, apparently. There were 12 new listings on the market during the last 30 days.

[Photo: This 2,100 sq. ft. one-story home, built in 1941 but recently remodeled, sits in the heart of Madison Park at 2060 McGilvra Boulevard. It has been on the market for one month and is a listing of Evan Wyman, Windermere Real Estate. Thanks, as always, to Wendy Skerritt of Windermere Real Estate for her help in compiling market data used in this report.]

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Madison Park Conservatory ready to make music

Open house on Saturday

By Bryan Tagas

Before we get to the blah blah blah portion of this posting, let’s go directly to the reveal: Madison Park Conservatory, the latest culinary incarnation to inhabit the onetime Sostanza space, is going to have its soft opening on Tuesday; and in advance of that, the neighborhood is invited to tour the refurbished digs and meet the new restaurant’s team at an open house to be held this Saturday, November 27, from 6 until 9 pm.

Now, on to the narrative:

Cormac Mahoney, maestro of Madison Park Conservatory, seems like a guy who’s ready for his close up. At 38, he’s done his time in the kitchens of other restaurateurs and has gained both assurance and bit of celebrity from his successful effort of last year: the trendy, well-regarded Tako Truk on Eastlake. That little venture, in which he was partnered by Bryan Jarr, was a “summer experiment” of intentional short duration. Operating out of window space in the 14 Carrot Café, Tako Truk was a quickly-popular, walk-up/carry-out purveyor of some adventuresome dinner fare—for example, the Coco Piggy Taco (coconut-flavored braised pork belly topped with pork rinds) and the surprising Octopus Taco (octopus boiled, sautéed, caramelized with lemon juice, and topped with a yogurt sauce and parsley)*. The critics raved and the place developed something of a cult-like following before shutting down.

Don’t expect another Tako Truk here in Madison Park, however. That’s not the plan.

But what is the plan? Since everyone wants to know, I’ve been doing my best to ferret that out, pestering Cormac for weeks to tell all. But though he was gracious and voluble, the guy was just not ready to divulge. Until now.

On Monday I got an email from him, and the subject line read: “built to spill.” So I eagerly bundled myself up and trudged through the evening’s snowstorm to meet Cormac at his new Madison Park Conservatory and get the scoop.

First of all, about the space. It’s been both lightened up and stripped down since the days of Sostanza. Outside, the building has been whitewashed, making it cleaner and brighter. Inside, the false ceiling in the main dining room has been removed, the fireplace eliminated, the wallboard pulled away to reveal the underlying cement, and the walls considerably lightened in color. The impact of all this is to make the room much airier and more open. Upstairs, the carpet has been pulled up to reveal a lovely wood floor, which has been refinished; the walls have been painted a light gray-blue in order to better tie the interior space to the view of water and sky; and in the bar area, decorative tin ceiling tiles have been installed to enhance the ambiance. The previously dark-stained bar—like the food counters downstairs—has been sanded down (by Cormac himself) to reveal the lighter wood beneath. Again, the impact of these changes is to create a livelier, happier space.

The Mediterranean atmosphere of the new restaurant, meanwhile, is heightened by the addition of hand-made Moroccan light fixtures. Large mirrors, which were framed in wood by Cormac’s father, will grace the main floor; but what other interior furnishings and decorations will fill the space are unknown to me, as they had yet to arrive. Hopefully, the snow will not prevent their delivery in time for Saturday’s event, so we can all see the full staging.

I had submitted a list of questions to Cormac before I actually got the chance to quiz him in person, not that he would have needed any advance prep in order to handle my interrogation. He certainly appears to be a guy who’s self-possessed, confident, and well able to think on his feet. He is also—by his own admission—profane, contrarian, and conceited. All of this, however, is overlaid with a well-developed, self-deprecating sense of humor. I was not fazed.

Here are the blogable results of my interview (some of which I excised in conformity with community standards and some of which Cormac himself decided were off the record, either before or after uttering the words). The questions and the responses have been paraphrased, except where there are direct quotes.

***
Bryan: Why the name, Madison Park Conservatory?

Cormac: Four things. First, “I like the way it sounds. It rolls nicely, and I like the acronym.” Also, there’s the greenhouse sense of conservatory. “We’re going to have our own garden and grow our own herbs and as much stuff as we can.” Additionally, “I like the whole idea of the music-school conservatory since there’s a correlation between music and cooking. At Sitka & Spruce [where Cormac was chef, 2005-09] I likened us to a house band. People came to us for the standards, but we wanted to do new things, too.” Finally, there is a certain “nudge/nudge, wink/wink” aspect to the name. “I wanted to play against the expected. Madison Park has the reputation of being staid and conservative,” and a conservatory is what people might expect to find here. “So it was kind of an inside joke, which maybe only I get: ‘Oh, let’s do lunch at the Conservatory.’ I was counseled against the name from some camps, but if I have gotten laughter or even a single giggle out of it, it’s what I wanted.”

Bryan: You’re being pretty coy about the menu. What kind of food are we talking about?

Cormac: As I always say, we’ll be serving “delicious plants and animals with a squeeze of lemon.” I really don’t want to define it further or put a label on it and then have it typecast. Once you do that you limit the food. “I’m going to cook what I want to cook.” My favorite dinner, for example, is roast chicken, potatoes and braised greens—the best vegetables ever. We’ll start minimally with the menu, the bar, and the space--and then let things take their course. I don’t want to overdesign it. It will grow organically. We will get feedback from our audience, and things may change. This is not to say, like Tom Douglas [famous Seattle restaurateur, in whose restaurants Cormac got his start] that the customer is always right. I reject that. I know it’s not true because as a customer I am sometimes wrong. So we’ll consider the input and then decide. I don't want this to be a place that intimidates people, but everyone will have to remember that “we’re a restaurant, not a catering company.” I want people to be comfortable here, but people will also have to be reasonable. This is going to be a mature, adult place. I want to have a healthy relationship with the neighborhood, including introducing it to new things that people may not already know and that might not otherwise be here. Mario Batali [well known New York chef and food impresario] has a sign up in his market, Eataly, which says ‘We are not always right, you are not always right, but together we’ll figure it out’ or something like that. I like the thought. “I don’t want Madison Park Conservatory to be a place that intimidates people. I want someone to walk away from a dining experience here saying ‘I learned something I didn’t already know.’”

Bryan: Can we talk about the Sunday dinners?

Cormac: We’ll be doing them every Sunday and if you want to dine you’ll have to make a physical reservation. In other words, come in, look us in the eye, and tell us you’re going to be here on Sunday and with how many people. We’ll post the Sunday Dinner menu on Thursday, so everyone can see what’s being served, the same meal for everybody. You’ll also get to look at the signup list, so you can see exactly who you’ll be dining with.

Bryan: Tako Truk—three months successful and then gone. How does your experience there inform what you’ll be doing in this new gig?

Cormac: “Tako Truk was an experiment, a street party. It was my frustrated artist scratching an itch. It was designed to be a summer thing, and it was fun for me to build something and then kill it. The food was good—I loved eating what we cooked. But I had to separate myself and get over myself for a second.” I learned to be self-critical. I’m sure I learned other things as well.

Bryan: What kind of atmosphere are you hoping to create at Madison Park Conservatory?

Cormac: “I want this to be a fun place, and I want this to be a place where big discussions happen. I have high hopes that the crazy Madison Park people will turn this into the kind of place where someone will suddenly break into song and that people will have great ideas eating here: ‘a full belly leads to an inspired mind’ or something like that. At minimum, I want people leaving here happy with themselves.”

***

Cormac is by no means alone in this new adventure, as he is quick to point out. Onetime Dahlia Lounge chef and celebrity Top Chef contestant Zoi Antonitsas, Cormac’s longtime friend from their days together in the kitchens of Tom Douglas, has returned from San Francisco to Seattle to work the “back of the house” with Cormac. “She’s my alternative life partner in the kitchen,” he says. A Seattle native of Greek descent, Zoi went on to become executive chef at Zazu in Santa Rosa after her 2008 stint on Season Four of Top Chef. She’s a believer in the simple and the rustic, and she’s on record as favoring the use of local, seasonal ingredients whenever possible. That’s certainly a fit with Cormac’s own thinking.

Maggie Savarino, meanwhile, will be managing the “front of the house” at MPC. She’s a one-time booze, wine, and food columnist for Seattle Weekly, whose first job (so her story goes, as told by Cormac) was as a bartender in a roadhouse blue-collar bar. Cormac met her through a mutual friend, did a dinner with her, instantly hit it off, and came back gushing about Maggie to his girlfriend, he reports. “She’s a fabulous, fun person.” says Cormac, adding “she’s a killer.” But I’ve met her and she seemed pretty sweet to me.

Last but not least, Bryan Jarr continues as a principal player with Cormac in this latest endeavor. “If the rest of us are Charlie’s Angels,” says Cormac, “then Bryan is our Bosley. He picks the herbs and chooses the insurance, among a lot of other things—he makes the ball round. He’s the only guy who can tell all three of us no.”

Madison Parkers will get the opportunity to meet the whole MPC crew on Saturday, at which time you can quiz each of them unmercifully. Cormac already knows what he’s in for, since he’s met at lot of neighbors already and has concluded that we’re pretty free with our advice and commentary. He lives in the neighborhood himself and describes Madison Park Conservatory as a 24/7 effort.

Judging by my interactions with him, it’s clear to me that Cormac Mahoney is a big thinker (just to prove my point, ask him sometime for his views on the fetishization of food in American culture). And it's also evident that he's ready to move to center stage. Though he’s perhaps a bit crazy, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the proprietor of a top-end restaurant, even one located in Madison Park. He’s obviously got a lot of talent, a good team, and a thought-out game plan. I think we should set the bar high for Madison Park Conservatory and expect great things.

***
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[*I’m abashed to report that I was not among those lucky enough to have had the Tako Truk experience. I’ve therefore relied on the excellent reporting of Seattle Times critic Tan Vinh for these descriptions. Madison Park Conservatory is located at 1927 43rd Avenue E.]

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Snow, the morning after

First the good news. The bus is running and some cars are successfully navigating E. Madison St., which appears to be reasonably clear—at least for drivers with experience and the right kind of vehicle. On the other hand, the side streets are a bit treacherous in some places, especially where the thin covering of snow has been removed by traffic to reveal a dangerous layer of ice underneath. Inclines may be tricky.

Here's a good photo of the conditions at 7:00 am on E. Madison, which allows you to judge for yourself whether you want to take the bus or chance it in your car, assuming you need to leave the Park today:

Last evening’s mini-blizzard, with winds reportedly tracking at 20 mph or so, dumped about two inches of snow on the neighborhood. By 6:00, as most commuters had finally struggled home, the Village became pretty quiet, with few people or cars on the streets. Even Cactus! was relatively deserted (an almost unheard of event) when we wandered by, though the usual crowd of four or five was sitting around the fire at The Red Onion.

This morning, the Village is still relatively peaceful. Delivery trucks are making their rounds, and people are heading down for coffee. Be careful out there. The sidewalks are messy.
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Update at 9:30: Our drive downtown to work causes us to reinforce for MPB readers the fact that only drivers with experience and the right vehicle (four-wheel drive) should be on the roads. E. Madison St. is officially closed between Martin Luther King Way and 23rd Avenue E. Those wishing to travel downtown are advised to turn left on MLK rather than continuing up Madison. At Union Street you can turn right with the buses and continue on to downtown. Drive safely and watch out for the crazy kind of pedestrians who cross the icy streets against the light and in front of oncoming cars.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Remembering the Big Snow of 2008

There was a brief flurry of snowflakes over the Park this afternoon, and a winter advisory just issued raises the possibility of real snow in the forecast for Monday. All of this provides a fine excuse for posting more of the great photos sent in by blog readers showing what it looked like when the Park was briefly severed from the rest of the City during the Great Snowstorm of 2008.

Although the mid-December storm that year only dumped about eight inches of snow on the town, continuing freezing weather kept that accumulation on the ground for many days. And, as those of us who lived through it well remember, the City failed miserably in its responsibility to quickly clear the streets, E. Madison included. Wasn’t it about four days before plowing and sanding finally occurred? That’s our recollection, at least.

At any rate, we learned to live with the situation. Whatever the inconveniences, however, the neighborhood managed to look absolutely fabulous in a picture-postcard, winter-wonderland kind of way.

Snow like that can be fun for kids and for those who don’t have to get to work somewhere. But it can also be treacherous for others. Hopefully we have learned some lessons from last Big One and will make sure to check on our neighbors if happens again this year. Remember, too, that the Community Council is heading up the neighborhood’s snow-emergency volunteer efforts. If you’re interested in helping out contact Gene Brandzel, the Council’s Lead Coordinator, at genebb@gmail.com or (206) 524-2115.

It's unlikely that this year we'll be experiencing anything like what happened in 2008, when the most snow Seattle had seen in over a decade fell in a seven-day period (it had also snowed earlier in the week, prior to the 8-inch dump). But if it does snow, a lot or a little, please send us your pictures!

[Photos, top to bottom: 1) Madison Park Beach, courtesy of Dorian C. Muncey Interiors, 2) 43rd Avenue at E. Howe, courtesy of Graham Fernald, 3) E. Madison Street at E. Galer, courtesy of Spencer Rascoff, 4) Washington Park, courtesy of Dorian C. Muncey Interiors, 5) the Madison Park pier, courtesy of Mikel Anne Morrison, and 6) Sophia Rascoff having the Madison Park playground all to herself, courtesy of her dad.]

Saturday, November 20, 2010

IndieFlix charts a new course

It’s not every day that a Madison Park business becomes the focus of national media attention, but that’s what happened this week when The New York Times ran a flattering story in its Sunday edition on IndieFlix, an independent film distribution company based right here in the Park. The article describes IndieFlix’s innovative product, Film Festival in a Box, as the centerpiece of an “unconventional” strategy to get short, independently produced films in front of new audiences. Those who attended IndieFlix’s Halloween screening of four scary films, which was held at the Madison Park Starbucks last month, are already in the know about IndieFlix’s creative game plan. For others, however, it might be a bit of a surprise to learn that there’s a company headquartered in the neighborhood with aspirations of changing the way business is done in a segment of the international entertainment industry.

When IndieFlix was formed in 2005, the initial idea of founders (and Madison Park residents) Scilla Andreen and Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi, was to use the internet to help independent filmmakers find a wider audience by streaming their films online. And that was exactly what the Company did in its formative years—and still does. More recently, however, Andreen (whose first name, by the way, is pronounced SHE-la), hit upon the concept of marketing short independent films as part of an interactive game that would be played in social settings, with DVDs as the delivery vehicle rather than the Web. From there the idea developed into Film Festival in a Box (FFB), which debuted in September with its first boxed set of indie flicks on DVD. Each box, which retails for $14.95, contains a disc with four 8- to 20-minute films of a particular genre: for example, Love, Comedies, Fantastical and Powered by Girls. Eight different Film Festival in a Box games are currently available, but the plan is to ramp that up to at least 50.

video

The kickoff for FFB was held in New York’s Times Square (shown in the video above); and as the New York Times reported, the inaugural event provided a bit of an attention grabber when the IndieFlix films suddenly appeared on the JumboTron outside the W Hotel. Since its introduction, FFB has been picked up by online retailers such as Uncommon Goods and Drugstore.com, and is also available at many bricks-and-mortar locations nationally and at shops such as NuBe Green on Capitol Hill and the University Book Store locally.

The game is intended to work this way: you invite to some friends over for a social occasion and FFB becomes part of the event. Everyone watches the four films and then votes on the winner, following which you post the result online. The filmmakers are notified by FFB of all the votes they receive, and there are sometimes online opportunities for fans to interact with the creators of the films they’ve voted for. It’s all designed to get these films seen and get people talking about them. Tom Skerritt, the well-known actor and neighborhood celebrity, has played the game and is quoted as saying that “Film Festival in a Box is doing what Hollywood’s been trying to do for years—getting people to connect over films.”

It’s a start, but Andreen, who is the Company’s CEO, realizes there’s still a lot of work to do to push these interesting-but-often-overlooked films into the mainstream. FFB represents just one aspect of IndieFlix’s operations. The Company will continue to be an online independent film distributor, and there’s also the intriguing idea—still on the drawing boards—of creating an IndieFlix cable TV channel. With over 2,000 titles in the IndieFlix film library (features, shorts and documentaries, including foreign films), there’s no lack of product.

What’s needed, and what the Company's 13 employees have been tirelessly working on, is a business model that accomplishes the ultimate goals of the founders: provide a forum for filmmakers and their audiences to interact, while helping those filmmakers achieve commercial success. Both Andreen and co-founder Scandiuzzi (who, as executive director of ACT, is no longer involved in IndieFlix’s operations) had extensive background in filmmaking. Andreen spent many years in Hollywood, where she was an award-winning producer, director and Emmy-nominated costume designer, before returning to Seattle in 2005 to start a new career (she had grown up in Madison Park and attended Lakeside). As a champion of independent films, she was motivated to find a way to use her experience and connections in the industry and her marketing talents to develop a new-media distribution model that would work.

It’s way too early to declare success, as The New York Times noted, but the media buzz about IndieFlix has certainly been positive. In addition to the favorable NYT article, FFB was recently the subject of a Tweet by national film critic Roger Ebert, and the trendy lifestyles website Daily Grommet (“fresh finds, true stories”) also featured FFB earlier this month.

Andreen says her vision is to provide indie filmmakers with up to ten different revenue streams for their productions. “We launched [IndieFlix] with very little money,” she told PodTech in an early interview, “and it has sort of taken off, like a vine that grows and grows--and there’s no stopping it.” And at this point, after five years of effort, it looks like Madison Park’s own “next-gen” trend setter is well on its way.
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[IndieFlix is located at 1938 43rd Avenue E. Upper photo: Times Square NYY Film Festival in a Box event. Lower photo: Scilla Andreen, CEO of IndieFlix with her latest product. Photos and video courtesy of IndieFlix.]

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

December happenings

If you are looking to time your holiday party this year so that it coincides with the arrival of the Christmas ships, it would be wise to plan your event for Saturday, December 18. Argosy Cruise’s “Christmas Ship” and its festive flotilla of followers are scheduled to appear off of Madison Park Beach between 4:55 and 5:15 that evening. The Vivace! Cathedrals Choir will be providing the live music.

Other than boat-borne concerts using our fabulous water backdrop, Madison Park doesn’t have much in the way of a performance venue, so holiday events in the Park each year are pretty limited. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing happening in the neighborhood, however. Art and photo lovers, for example, will have several opportunities to view some static art at different locations in the Village during the month.

Madison Park photographer David Hiller, who spent his formative years in Los Angeles as a photographer to the music and entertainment industry, will have photos from his Music Legends portfolio on display at the Madison Park Café throughout the month. Hiller’s clients have included several icons, including Angelina Jolie. Three of his shots of Jimi Hendrix will be used for a new boxed-CD anthology to be produced by Experience Hendrix LLC (that’s Jimi above).

Madison Park’s own “Fauvist-inspired” artist, Art Messer, will have some of his work on the walls of Park Place Deli during December. His pieces were inspired by a recent trip to Paris, where he found “the movement” is still alive and well in the city’s museums and contemporary art galleries. His oil-on-canvass painting, Yellow River is shown above. A reception to kick off the show will take place on opening night, December 2, from 6 until 9 pm.

Abstract artist Margo Spellman, meanwhile, will have her art on the walls of Wendy Amdal Salon during December. Spellman was recently featured as “Artist of the Day” on Max’s Kansas City, a national art, fashion, and music website based in NYC. That’s her recent work, Through Up, above. The Madison Park Blogger’s conflict of interest regarding this talented local artist is fairly well known.

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Here’s a final note on December happenings: If you plan on picking up Greek pastries from the Church of the Assumption for your upcoming holiday party, you better get your order in quickly. The last day to get your dibs on the baklava, paximadia, and koulourakia is Tuesday, November 23. You can place your order here and pick the pastries up on December 4th and 5th at the Church, located at 1804 13th Avenue E. on Capitol Hill.

Happy December!

[Madison Park Café is located at 1807 42nd Avenue E., Park Place Deli is located at 4122 E. Madison Street, and Wendy Amdal Salon is located at 4120 E. Madison Street. Photo of the Christmas Ship courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives.]

Monday, November 15, 2010

Police Blotter 11/15/10

Animosities lead to disturbances

There were a couple of unlikely criminal episodes in the neighborhood during the last two weeks, each apparently resulting from failed relationships, real or imagined. The most serious incident was reported by a resident of an apartment in the 4200 block of E. Blaine Street. According to the victim, at about 7 pm on 11/12, a woman pounded on the door of his apartment saying that she was there to pick up her friend, who was a former girlfriend of the victim. He admitted that his former girlfriend had been at his apartment, but he said she had left twenty minutes earlier. The woman, according to the victim, then became enraged and came into the apartment, where she assaulted him, yelling that he should stay out of her friend’s life as he was just “f---ing it up.” In the ensuing scuffle, which began in the living room, the victim was bit on the chest, he reported. The struggle then moved into in the kitchen, where the victim was “grabbed in the genitals” and his underwear ripped. When he reached for his cell phone to call the police, his assailant grabbed the phone and ran for the door. But before she could make it out of the apartment, he punched her in the gut and she dropped the phone, which he then used to make the call. When the police arrived, the victim showed them the bite to his chest, his bruised groin, and the ripped underwear. The man said he did not know the suspect’s name or address. But the alleged assailant later provided a clue to her identity by calling the victim on his cell phone to further chew him out, thereby inadvertently leaving her phone number on the victim’s phone for the police to follow up on. Quite a story, but only the first in this series.

The second incident involved a resident of the 2000 block of 43rd Avenue E. and occurred at 8:25 pm on 11/6. She reported that a man she knew arrived at her apartment to complain that she had had her ex-boyfriend over for drinks. The suspect entered her apartment and yelled at her, but was intoxicated and eventually left. The victim reported to the police that while she did know the man, he was not someone she had ever dated.

There was also a serious case of harassment reported this month. On 11/8 a Madison Park resident told police that his stepson was a victim of “cyber bullying.” He said that his stepson had been having an ongoing conversation with someone on Facebook whom he had never met. The Facebook messages had suddenly became hostile, however, to his both the stepson and the stepson’s girlfriend. The complainant reported, in fact, that the perpetrator had eventually sent this message: “Don’t kill yourself, because I want to be the one to hurt you.” This caused his stepson to experience a panic attack, the man stated. Although the perpetrator had given his “name” on Facebook, the police were unable to find anyone by that name in their databases.

Also during the last two weeks there were three cases of credit card fraud reported in the neighborhood. In one of the cases, a woman in Broadmoor told police that she had received a call from Chase Visa asking about a $1,200 charge that someone was attempting to make using her credit card in New England. She told Chase that the charge was not valid, so the Bank declined payment to the requesting merchant, cancelled her card and issued her a new one. Whether this and the other two local credit-card fraud cases were related to a recent flurry of such activity on Capitol Hill was not immediately clear. As reported recently by the Capitol Hill Seattle (CHS) blog, the Secret Service is investigating a case involving a Capitol Hill restaurant, where the credit card information of various patrons was apparently stolen. CHS reports that the restaurant is the Broadway Grill, which is not believed to have had any direct involvement in the thefts.

[Key to crime-map symbols: starbursts represent burglaries, solid cars represent car thefts, un-solid cars represent car prowls, spray-paint cans represent property damage, upraised hands represent shoplifting, dollar bills represent thefts, dollar signs represent credit card fraud, handcuffs represent arrests under warrants, black masks represent robberies, gloved fists represent assaults, and exclamation points represent cases of harassment. This map covers the period from October 28 through November 14.]

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A survey of Madison Park road ends: Part Two

“Hidden Beach” at E. Harrison Street

Madison Park’s southernmost road end (like our rustic northernmost road end, which we profiled earlier), is a bit off the beaten path. In spite of the fact that it’s actually not the most obscure or hard-to-find waterfront road end in the neighborhood, it’s still well deserving of its local moniker: Hidden Beach. You have to venture down “Devil’s Dip” to get to it, and unless you know what you’re looking for you might very well miss the entrance.

Officially, it’s the “street end” for E. Harrison Street, which actually peters out several blocks higher up the hill, where—at its intersection with Lake Washington Boulevard E.—it terminates its role as a transportation route. This little unconnected waterfront stub of E. Harrison is not at all obvious as either a road end or as beach access (though there is a sign). Frankly, it looks very much like a homeowner’s driveway:

But E. Harrison Street without a doubt has the nicest beach of any of Madison Park’s six waterfront road ends.

You enter Hidden Beach from 39th Avenue E. (known to locals as “Devil’s Dip”) and approach it through a woodsy trail.

The trail terminates in what is a surprisingly lovely and relatively wide sandy beach, though very much smaller and far less able to accommodate a horde of sunbathers than Madison Park Beach can.

This beach, we’re told, is popular with some locals looking for water access for their dogs. A onetime beach-side resident also reports that there are occasional nude swimmers in the early morning hours, but Hidden Beach is definitely not to be confused with the famous Nudie Beach further south on the Lake (more on that in a later posting).

Hidden Beach, unlike a couple of the other waterfront road ends in Madison Park, is a well maintained and appreciated neighborhood amenity for those few who venture to take advantage.

[Upper photo: looking North from Hidden Beach (aka Secret Beach). Bottom photo: looking South. Aerial photo from Google Earth.]

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Planning begins for the next Big One

You may have noticed that the City came out with its new Snow Plan yesterday. The official Snow Map puts Madison Park squarely into the Level 2 category: if it snows, E. Madison Street will be plowed to provide one “bare and wet” lane in each direction. Presumably this means quickly plowed, which if true would represent a major improvement on whatever City plan might have been operative during the last Big Snow. As we well remember, E. Madison Street was not plowed for several days after the infamous Winter 2008 snowstorm hit town, and Madison Park was effectively cut off from the rest of the City during that time. We’ve changed mayors since then, and the new one commits to doing a better job.

The Madison Park Community Council (MPCC), however, is not waiting around to see how things work out if we do have a big snowstorm this year. The Council is taking action to implement its own plan to assist Madison Park residents who are negatively impacted by a snow event. Dubbed the Emergency Snow Brigade, the idea is to “help those who can’t get groceries, prescriptions, or get to a critical doctor’s appointment or other services,” according to Über-Volunteer Gene Brandzel. The MPCC is organizing volunteers to serve as Block Coordinators and as drivers for residents in Washington Park, Denny-Blaine, Broadmoor, and the rest of Madison Park.

Madison Parkers who have vehicles capable of operating in extreme snow conditions are especially needed. Not only will they be critical in helping people get essential services within the neighborhood, they may be needed to taxi children and adults who are unable to get back home because of snow. Pet rescues may also be part of the job, says the Council’s Kathleen O’Connor. Block Coordinators, meanwhile, will be responsible for checking on their immediate neighbors and for communicating with MPCC “dispatchers” to see that drivers and other volunteers are directed to those with special needs. It might be necessary, for example, to shovel walks and stairs for those who can’t do so or to drive the elderly to a place that is heated, if the neighborhood experiences a power failure.

The MPCC is looking for volunteers to fill all of these roles: driver, Block Coordinator, and non-driver volunteer. If you are interested in helping out, Gene Brandzel, the Council’s Lead Coordinator, would like to hear from you. He can be reached at genebb@gmail.com or (206) 524-2115.

Don’t assume, by the way, that just because E. Madison Street is scheduled for priority plowing that Madison Park will not be negatively impacted by a big snow. Even if the City fulfills its commitment to keep that major thoroughfare relatively clear, residential streets will not be plowed. The only exceptions are those blocks of 42nd and 43rd Avenues E. that are part of the bus route (primarily north of E. Madison). McGilvra Boulevard is a Level 3 arterial under the City’s Snow Plan, where only “curves, hills, and stopping zones” will be treated. Cliff Mass's Weather blog, by the way, has an excellent overview of the City's snow plans and the likelihood of weather forecasters getting it right this year.
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[Photos of the 2008 winter snow: upper photo shows E. Madison Street during the storm, courtesy of Dorian G. Muncey Interiors; middle photo shows 43rd Avenue E. at Madison Park Beach, courtesy of Sky Records; and bottom photo shows the lifeguard chair at the Beach, courtesy of Joan Loeken. Thanks to the many MPB readers who provided photos. We will be doing a Winter 2008 retrospective as we get closer to the snow season, using more of the great photos we received.]

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Google does Madison Park

Tina Brown of Tina’s on Madison put us onto this story by mentioning that Google had recently spent an hour and a half or so in her shop taking photos and videos of the place. A quick check of other neighborhood merchants revealed a pattern: Google has been systematically working the Village in recent weeks. So what’s it all about?

The answer is Google Places, an “overarching initiative” currently underway by the dominant internet search engine to provide higher-quality information about businesses in communities located in the U.S., Japan, New Zealand and Australia. Madison Park just happens to be one of the places where Google is making an early investment in one aspect of the initiative, a pilot program called Business Photos from Google. The ultimate goal is to have a new Madison Park “Place Page” on Google that is much more comprehensive and in-depth than what currently exists. For the fact is that if you Google “Madison Park Seattle” today, you get a pretty anemic representation of our neighborhood:

What Google envisions is a robust search conclusion that would provide a detailed Place Page of Madison Park businesses, where each listed business can be clicked on to reveal a business Place Page with updated information, high-resolution interior pictures, reviews, and points of interest nearby. To reach that ideal, Google first needs to get updated, high-quality pictures of each business. In Madison Park, that process is now well underway, although it may be some time before we see the results of Google’s efforts.

When called by Google to set up a photo date, the first question asked by several Madison Park shop owners was “What’s it going to cost me?” The answer was nothing--at least for now. The idea, apparently, is to get businesses hooked on the program by doing the initial photos for free. Google, of course, could always decide later to charge for updates to the photos and for other information that may be uploaded to Google about a particular business. Right now, however, Google is presenting the program simply as an altruistic attempt to provide information that people searching Google seem to want. Google is also appealing to the self-interest of business owners. “By enhancing your Place Page,” says Google in its pitch, “business photos will help your business stand out above the competition and get discovered.” Google, by the way, will own the photos.

Here’s what a Place Page for an individual business looks like, using Bing’s as an example:

The photos on Bing’s Place Page are certainly not high-resolution shots, but we’ve confirmed that the restaurant was contacted by Google to get that corrected. Interestingly, Google officially cites 21 U.S. cities in which the Business Photos from Google pilot project is underway. Although Portland, Los Angeles, and San Diego are on the list, Seattle isn’t.

[Businesses that have not been contacted by Google for a photo shoot can apply to have their businesses included. More information is available here. Aerial photo of Madison Park from GoogleEarth.]

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Starbucks Madison Park to get revamp

Our neighborhood Starbucks will be undergoing a makeover sometime in the next six months, but don’t expect the end result to be anything like what’s recently transpired at certain other Starbucks locations in our fair town. Madison Park Starbucks Manager Iaan Hughes calls the upcoming changes simply “a refresh.” He notes that the store has been in its present form for eight years, and he thinks it’s time for a bit of updating. The changes anticipated for Madison Park will be a lot less ambitious, he says, than the transmogrifications Starbucks undertook in the University Village and in a more recent example closer to home.

There’s been a lot of press coverage of the just completed overhaul of one of Starbucks’ prime Capitol Hill locations, the store at 1600 E. Olive Way—known affectionately to some locals as Gaybucks. Not only was the space completely revamped, but the whole concept of the store was transformed from urban coffee house to something best described as “Coffee Theatre.” A sort of coffee-warehouse effect was one of the goals, another of which was to be green. Many of the materials used in construction were recycled, and the finished space is being touted as environmentally friendly (in fact it’s “LEED® registered or certified.”).

Nothing quite so dramatic as a “Capitol Hill East” Starbucks is planned for our staid Madison Park locale, however. Just as the Capitol Hill store was supposedly remade in the image of its community, the Madison Park store will stay true to what Starbucks thinks we want here in the Park. “It's not going to be hammered copper” or anything out of line with the neighborhood, Hughes says. “My vision for the store is that we have a lot of high profile customers and we need to keep the existing neighborhood feel.”

Speaking of high profile, Howard Schultz just happens to live three blocks from the Madison Park Starbucks and is often seen in the store. But if Hughes is in any way intimidated by his role managing the Chairman’s own-neighborhood Starbucks, it certainly doesn’t show. He’s been doing the job successfully for four years, and he feels he has a pretty good sense of the community in which his store sits.

“We had the potential to be obnoxious,” he says, referring to Starbucks' entry into the neighborhood in 2002. The local (but big) corporation replaced a couple of well regarded neighborhood restaurants that had successively occupied that space; and not everyone down here was happy about the changeover to Starbucks when it was first announced. But after the opening, the Starbucks store was “resoundingly supported by the neighborhood,” says Hughes; and it quickly became a neighborhood fixture. What Madison Park really wanted, in Hughes’ opinion, is what Starbucks delivered: “good coffee and good service.” The store was designed to fit into the Park and be part of the neighborhood—and the new store is not going to deviate from that course. “It’s not going to be cool,” says Hughes.

What this means in practice, he tells us, is an updating of the space and some new furnishings, although “the refresh” may go a little deeper than that. His goal is something “comfortable, timeless, classic—a fit for the neighborhood.” What he doesn’t want to see is anything too dark: “No museum pieces.”

Remodeling suggestions from patrons will certainly be welcomed, says Hughes. And as Amy Peterson, the store’s assistant manager, notes, once the story gets out about the upcoming revamp, suggestions will be offered whether the staff requests them or not. “Madison Parkers are not shy about sharing their input,” she says, adding, “How many times have I had someone say ‘When you see Howard next time be sure and tell him..…’?”

A lot of times, apparently.

[Photos: We challenged Manager (and "Coffee Master") Iaan Hughes and Assistant Manager Amy Peterson to prove for the camera that they can still work the bar at Starbucks. They performed admirably, showing the rest of the staff how it's done.]