Down on the Duwamish

In the age of Amazon, how far should Seattle go to hang on to heavy industry?

Rick Osterhout, a commercial real estate broker, wheels his Ford Explorer along East Marginal Way and gestures out toward Terminal 34 on the Seattle waterfront, where a sea of cargo containers sits. "There's property up here that really begs to be something else," he says. "If you go to New York City, property like this would have ten 15-story buildings on it." In his wildest broker fantasies, Osterhout envisions a vast waterfront complex of office towers, retail shops and condominiums, all with beautiful Elliott Bay views. "The question for this city is, what are we going to be when we grow up? Is it better for the public good that this be a container yard?"

These questions aren't just theoretical. In the next few months, Seattle will be deciding whether to take steps that would limit development in the industrial area south of downtown, where Terminal 34 lies. The occasion for the debate is a new Neighborhood Plan, drawn up by some major players in the Duwamish area, that calls for tightening up land use codes in the industrial neighborhood, which extends south from the Kingdome to Tukwila. Under the plan, white-collar offices, hotels, restaurants, and the like would be significantly restricted or prohibited outright. The plan is being evaluated by the City Council and could be put to a vote or sent back for a makeover before the year is over.

Supporters of the plan, including the Mayor's office, argue that since no more industrial land is available, we should preserve what we have. Despite our fascination with everything dot-com and virtual, "there will always be a need for trucking, wholesaling, and so on," says architect Julia Walton, who helped develop the plan. Indeed Amazon, which has a giant warehouse in Georgetown where even top execs are required to pack boxes every Christmas season, is surest proof of that.

Supporters of the plan believe that it's important to keep industrial jobs, which pay relatively well and do not require a college degree, inside the city. They worry that by allowing in more restaurants, office workers, and residents to the Duwamish, the area will become progressively less hospitable to the bright lights, noisy machinery, grimy facades, and fume-spewing trucks of industry.

Ironically enough, however, many of the companies for whose benefit this zoning change is supposedly being proposed do not actually want it. In fact, dozens of them poured into a public hearing before the City Council a few weeks ago to express their outrage. "If you want a rusty Detroit strip, go ahead with your downzone!" declared Sam McComb, head of Blaser Die Casting in Georgetown. These small manufacturing companies, many of which own the land beneath their plants, are naturally concerned that the zoning change will reduce the value of their property.

Many of the Duwamish firms are family-run and have been in business for a good part of the century. They argue that the growth in the local economy is clearly coming from the high-tech sector, not from them. And they think the city shouldn't close off their land from this next wave of local, and global, expansion. "Amazon's market cap now exceeds that of the entire US steel industry," Osterhout points out, repeating a favorite factoid of plan opponents.

Many of today's hip high-tech employers "don't want to be downtown or in the suburbs," notes Scott Mackay, a local developer. "They want to be in these edgier, transitional areas."

But should manufacturers be pushed out so that corporate software coders can experience the frisson of working in a former slaughterhouse and eating lunch at a truck stop? Teresita Batayola of the City of Seattle's Strategic Planning Office argues that "there are many other areas in the city where high-tech can go: the Denny Regrade, the University District, Northgate." But there is no place else for a dumpster maker to go.

Plan proponents also note that the Duwamish is not just any neighborhood. It has river access, which makes the area the supply chain to Alaska. It's got the King County airport nearby, and extra-wide, multiple-lane roads for trucks. It's crisscrossed with rail lines. "There's some amazing infrastructure that was built there, not for the glorious economy of tomorrow, but for industry," says Dave Gering of the Manufacturing Industrial Council.

But Jerry Hanauer, the chairman of family-run Pacific Coast Feather, says some of that infrastructure is frayed. Strolling through his antiquated three-story pillow factory, where tiny feathers fill the air and cover every surface, Hanauer says that while his company is growing, most of the manufacturing is now done elsewhere. Hanauer objects to the zoning change because he would like to convert more of his property to office use. "Who's going to buy this building for manufacturing?" he asks, pointing at the old service elevator. "These are 19th-century buildings."

To the west, along the Duwamish River, the perspective is different.

Manson Construction is a 95-year-old firm that builds sea walls, dredges harbors, and runs barges. It's presently repairing the ferry landing up at Orcas Island. Pat McGarry, the company's head of operations, points to one of his large floating cranes and says, "If we're looking for a part for a big winch or a marine transmission, electrical supplies or specialty hoses—we can get it faster because all the suppliers are right here."

For McGarry, that "support network" of marine businesses in the Duwamish is critical, which is partly why he supports the neighborhood plan. Keeping the Duwamish area industrial-only will also spare his business from having to deal with the kinds of public "amenity" issues that come up in mixed-use waterfront locations. "We don't want to be bisected by bike paths and 'view corridors,'" says McGarry with distaste.

The battle for the Duwamish presents a clash of powerful interests. Representatives of some of the biggest players—Boeing, the Port, and Duwamish trucking companies—were on the neighborhood committee that produced the plan. For them, keeping the neighborhood small-scale and industrial-only helps allow freight to move in and out more efficiently. Maritime companies are also tending to support the rezone. Most of them lease their waterfront property from the Port or some other governmental entity, and for them, lower land values mean lower rent.

But opponents of the plan have organized quickly. Led by Doug Rosen, a vice president at Alaskan Copper and Brass, which occupies several blocks in the Duwamish, this group of developers and business owners has enlisted the city's top public affairs outfit, Gogerty Stark (the folks who brought you Paul Allen's football stadium campaign). On the day of the City Council hearing, Rosen served as the poster child for industrial decline in a Seattle Times story about the Duwamish, describing his business as less about guys working machinery than "one guy on a forklift running around lifting heavy boxes."

The tone of Rosen's comments in the Times was quite at odds with his testimony just a few weeks earlier at a public hearing about Sound Transit's plans for a light rail base near Rosen's property. At that hearing he spoke of his long-term expansion plans and said he had hundreds of employees engaged in manufacturing work.

Indeed, the Duwamish area, far from being down at the heels, is thriving. Anyone accustomed to the gleam and polish of a shopper-friendly neighborhood might think that the area looks empty and rundown. But buildings are full, and the many desolate-looking lots all have a secret purpose. "We're at an all-time low in vacancy rates in the area south of the Dome," says real estate broker Osterhout.

Along the Duwamish River, "companies are really booming," says Dave Gering of the Manufacturing Industrial Council, which supports the plan. The Northwest has become a center of the luxury yacht business, which has taken off. And the Port is currently forecasting a doubling in container traffic over the next 20 years.

But while these businesses may be doing well, the neighborhood unfortunately is not always equipped to allow them to expand. The Duwamish is full of small, family-owned parcels of land, and many of its buildings are decades old and obsolete. What's more, public entities—including the Port, the city, Metro, the state, and now, Sound Transit—have been busy wolfing down Duwamish land to build bus barns, stadiums, and freeways. Romac Industries, which makes underground water systems on Fourth Avenue South, recently decided to move to Bothell because it could not find any place to expand.

Opponents of the plan say zoning is not going to affect whether or not industrial companies stay or go. Referring to the shut-down of the Rainier brewery and the recent closure of a Golden Grain plant, Osterhout notes that these moves "were not effected by zoning. There are much bigger forces in play. These companies need low-cost capital and labor and a more efficient facility."

To some observers, the rezone proposal is simply a misguided attempt to make up for the decision several years ago to allow a gigantic baseball stadium to be set down deep in the industrial neighborhood. "The whole thing is just a joke," says Lenore Hanauer of Pacific Feather. "It's like, 'You guys are going to pay for the political deal to get the stadium.'"

That stadium has now created so much traffic and disruption that some of the nearby buildings will not be able to function as industrial facilities anymore. And yet the city now wants to decree that those buildings can't be used for anything but industry.

Rather than trying to combat this $1 billion public investment in entertainment with a downzone, some observers think the city should do just the opposite: open the neighborhood up to new development as much as possible. "The city should be in the business of maximizing, not minimizing, the taxpayers' return off their investment," says developer Scott Mackay. He argues that Seattle should convert the stadium area into a "vibrant" new urban center, as other cities have done.

Whizzing around in his Explorer, Rick Osterhout argues that the Duwamish neighborhood will never completely lose its manufacturing base. "The most important fact is that these companies own their own land," he says. "Some of them will never leave. You'll have guys bending re-bar next to an artist's loft next to an Internet company. I think the market forces will allow this eclectic mix to remain."

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow