A Private Driveway In A Public Park -- Starbucks CEO Got A Break, Neighbors Say

Quite a few of Howard Schultz's neighbors say the Parks Department never should have let him build a 100-foot driveway through the park next to his new home overlooking Lake Washington, near Denny Blaine Park.

They'd like to see things returned to the way they were a couple of years ago, when only an overgrown lane provided legally required access through Viretta Park to the house - an older dwelling that Schultz, chief executive officer and president of the Starbucks Coffee Co., razed before building his house.

Now, a pedestrian approaching Viretta Park at 39th Avenue East and East John Street sees - instead of a mossy track hemmed in by shrubs - a sweeping drive of crushed yellow limestone curving toward Schultz's two-story golden stucco house.

At the end of the driveway, a stucco-and-iron fence separates Schultz's house from the park.

New landscaping along the driveway and next to the fence also is an issue. Critics say the plantings give the impression that part of the park is private property.

"The way in which the property is landscaped makes upper Viretta Park appear to be a part of Mr. Schultz's land," said John Capps, president of the Madrona Community Council, in a letter last month to Parks Department Superintendent Holly Miller.

"The property owner (Schultz and his wife, Sheri) has either taken, or been given by the Parks Department, more land than was contained in the original access agreement," Capps said.

If the driveway and a retaining wall supporting it are allowed to remain in the park, "then Mr. Schultz owes the community and the city a substantial amount of money," said Martin Liebowitz, a nearby resident who says the widened drive has reduced the size of the park's open, grassy area where he and others play football and volleyball with their families.

Others, such as Joseph Baillargeon, who has convened a group called Neighbors and Friends of Viretta Park, want to know how the Parks Department let the Schultz driveway get built in the first place and why the department agreed to let Schultz and his landscaper, R. David Adams Associates, make changes there without consultation with nearby residents who use the park.

The answer seems to be that the Parks Department, always short of money for park maintenance, saw an opportunity to spiff up Viretta Park at Schultz's expense.

Schultz was not available for comment and Adams did not return calls for comment.

Department documents going back to 1991 describe an agreement allowing the Starbucks executive to use the level area of the park as a staging area during the construction of his new home. Schultz's property has never had a driveway directly from the street because it is on a steep slope.

In exchange for waiving its fee for such use - later valued in a department memo at over $25,000 - parks employees apparently expected Schultz to make significant - though unspecified at the time - improvements to the park.

Then, early last year as construction of the reportedly $1.4 million mansion neared completion, the landscaper presented the Parks Department with a plan to build a replacement for the old asphalt lane that led to the house and to restore the areas of the park affected by Schultz's building project.

Adams' plan - dated March 25, - was reviewed by Mary Lou Whiteford, the Parks Department's property manager, and Herman Lantz, a department-landscape supervisor, at a meeting at Viretta Park with Adams and George Rudko, his project manager.

No written agreement came out of the April 2 meeting but both Whiteford and Adams - based on later correspondence - believe there was a decision to go ahead.

Meanwhile, Schultz sent a letter to his neighbors describing his proposed landscaping plan for the park. The letter doesn't mention the driveway construction at all.

By late May, however, Whiteford was sounding the alarm. In a memo to Raj Manhas, her boss at the department, headed "early warning," she wrote that "construction of the driveway (is) not according to plans submitted and approved."

At the time, Whiteford took photos she says show that the retaining wall for the driveway and a planting area along its edge were approximately seven feet farther into the park than the edge of the original driveway.

"(A) wall that size wasn't on the plan," said Whiteford last week, adding that she told Rudko, Adams' manager, by the end of May that it had to come out.

In response, Adams later wrote that after conversations at the April 2 meeting, he believed he had permission to build the retaining wall, an assertion Whiteford told her bosses was "an absolute fabrication."

Early in June, Holly Miller, the parks superintendent, wrote to one of Schultz's attorneys, Judy Runstad, that the department's grant of vehicular access across Viretta Park to Schultz's house was limited to "the minimum length and width necessary to accomplish its purpose . . . the existing (new) improvements within Viretta Park exceed these minimums, and to the extent they do so they must be removed."

Miller's letter was one of several written requests to Adams or Schultz's lawyers over the summer asking them to "move the retaining wall and the plantings to comply with the plan as soon as possible."

By September, Miller was exasperated by the lack of cooperation and wrote John Seethoff, another Schultz attorney, that "we have discovered numerous changes to the original design only through field inspection, not through direct communication from you, your client, their landscape architect or contractor."

Nevertheless, in late August Miller, deputy superintendent Ken Bounds, Whiteford and Ted Holden, the department's landscape architect, met with Schultz, Rudko and Adams at Schultz's home.

The purpose of the meeting, Miller says, was "trying to make them realize how egregiously they had erred. . . . "They just couldn't believe that people wouldn't look at what they'd done and say this is marvelous," she added.

Some of the park's neighbors do agree with the Schultzes. "We like what has been done," said Cornelius Rosse. "It looks very nice. It's been very nicely landscaped and we have no problem."

The August meeting is a bone of contention for Baillargeon and others who say it shows a coziness between Schultz and his landscapers and the Parks Department, especially because Miller has since softened her initial position that the retaining wall must come out.

Such fears were exacerbated when a memo surfaced indicating that Holden, following a September meeting that included Schultz, parks officials and about 20 residents, sent a copy of Miller's letter summarizing the meeting to Adams for Schultz to look at before its release.

Miller now says she's "trying to get beyond the point of ripping out walls and acting in a preemptory fashion" to find out just what people around Viretta Park would like to see there.

To that end a committee including Madrona and Harrison Ridge community council members, the Neighbors and Friends of Viretta Park and the Friends of Seattle's Olmsted Parks as well as the department and Schultz's representatives will begin meeting this month. Their recommendations will be reviewed by the park board, as well, Miller said.

The Schultzes understand that they have "far overstepped any approvals" given by the Parks Department and that "there will have to be serious modifications" of what they've done in Viretta Park, said Miller.

But, she added, "before we blow up the wall, let's find out what we want there."