Most days the sweet smell of pork ribs drifts from the kitchen at Uncle Mike’s Super-licious BBQ and into the dining room. The hickory smoke gets in your head, man, and it messes with your senses. You almost forget that you’re here; not just here in this homey, wood-paneled joint, but here, like, in the present. The voices coming from the TVs on the wall—ESPN talking heads previewing this week’s NFL games—get garbled up and stop making sense. Your mouth starts to hurt, it’s watering so hard. And your lizard brain takes over and hisses, Ribs. Now. In other words, the smell is freaking intoxicating.
Other days the cozy restaurant in the heart of downtown White Center is still overcome by a mind-altering smoke, but it’s coming from the NW Cannabis Market, the farmers market–style medical marijuana dispensary next door. Clouds of the stuff will seep down through the ceiling tiles in Uncle Mike’s and fill the place. “I got customers coming in saying, ‘Wooo, it’s strong in here,’” says owner Michael Gordon. “Some of them want to eat here, but they end up taking their food to go. I still get the sale, but it doesn’t help when somebody walks by and sees that I got an empty restaurant.”
Gordon doesn’t have a beef with medical marijuana; there’s another dispensary across the street that’s never caused him any problems. It’s the smoking that goes on indoors; last he checked, that wasn’t legal. It’s the noise from raffle nights that the market holds; while we’re on the subject, do pharmacies hold raffles for vicodin? It’s the pot deals he says he regularly witnesses in broad daylight outside, between patients leaving the market and others—presumably not patients—sitting in parked cars. That stuff is hurting the family-friendly atmosphere he’s aiming for, and it’s the kind of activity that he thinks a restaurant owner in a city with more governmental oversight wouldn’t have to deal with.
Roman Turchiniak, who owns Stan’s Adult Superstore, another downtown business, says revenue is down 30 to 40 percent since the market opened a year ago, mainly because its patients monopolize the parking spots in front of his store. Turchiniak’s seen a lot of sketchy activity in White Center over the last three decades, but this is the worst. And he was there last year, when the feds seized more than 50 pounds of meth and nearly 70 guns from other businesses that have since been shut down. “It’s a nightmare,” he says.
The nightmare he’s referring to, specifically, is the NW Cannabis Market. (For the record, its owner, Michael Keysor, says he has a security team that’s been doing its best to sweep the street of any secondary-market dealers. And the “medicine room,” where patients smoke, has a top-of-the-line carbon filter to reduce the smell.) But Turchiniak might as well be talking about the sense of helplessness that he, Gordon, and other neighborhood residents say they’ve felt for years now.
White Center is part of the 3.2-square-mile sliver of unincorporated land between Seattle and Burien—known to land-use wonks as North Highline Area Y—and consequently has no central government. Its designated liaison to King County, the North Highline Unincorporated Area Council (NHUAC), was defunded last year. Its lone zoning code enforcement officer is responsible for several other neighborhoods and muni-cipalities. Its police services, which come from the cash-strapped King County Sheriff’s Office, have been routinely reduced. In 2010 the county cut from its budget the salary for a deputy who patrolled White Center’s downtown; last year, after crime increased and citizens signed a petition, it reinstated the position using special funding. But that’s set to run out at the end of 2012.
Those concerned residents do have reason to hope. On November 6, the 17,000 or so people who live in North Highline Area Y will vote on whether to be annexed by the City of Burien. “There’s been no investment in our community for many, many, many years,” says Barbara Dobkin, the president of NHUAC, which has continued to operate without financial support from the county. If the annexation is approved, “we will have a city that has an incentive to see that our community does well.”
Slam dunk, right? Don’t say that to Mark Ufkes, a developer, the president of the White Center Chamber of Commerce, and an outspoken opponent of annexation. “I like being unincorporated. Are you kidding me?” he shouts into the phone. “If I go to Burien, I’m going to have to get a permit to trim my tree.” If you ask him about the upcoming vote, he’ll rattle off one figure after another to support his belief that being absorbed by Burien will kill both communities.
Taxes for North Highline residents will go up over $400 per year, Ufkes says. (Burien city manager Mike Martin says the number is closer to $140.) The neighborhood has $77 million in deferred maintenance needs that Burien can’t afford to address, he says. (Dobkin, of NHUAC, says that number represents a wish list of infrastructure improvements to the area similar to what any municipality has. But if the area remains unincorporated, the county has said that it will stop maintaining its roads, even allowing them to revert to gravel if they degrade too much.) All of that, Ufkes says, and the level of police service will go down. (Again, Martin refutes this and claims police service will be at least as good as it is now.)
Ufkes laughs a lot when he talks about annexation and the people who support it. It’s a sneering, sarcastic chuckle, and it gets even more sarcastic at any mention of NHUAC. He used to be a member and thinks it’s toothless: “I got seven of my neighbors, I promised them an ice cream cone, and they elected me to it.” But really, he just doesn’t like the people, several of whom now say he only opposes annexation to Burien because he’d rather that White Center became a part of Seattle, where zoning laws would allow him to develop high-density, low-income housing. That claim? “It’s pathetic,” he says.
That’s the irony of the annexation vote: An attempt to bring together two communities has bitterly divided one of them. And all the while, people like Uncle Mike Gordon are left to twist in the wind, hoping for some kind of order to be restored in White Center, a sense that someone—more police; maybe another code enforcement officer; anyone, really—is minding the store. Because if it doesn’t come, he’ll have to consider closing the restaurant and going somewhere else. “I would go somewhere where there’s going to be some regulations around,” Gordon says.
It’d be a shame. Because those ribs smell good.