Is Georgetown About to Get Trashed?

Residents of the working-class, South End neighborhood say they've been dumped on enough.

It's midweek at Smarty Pants, a motorcycle-themed bar in the heart of Georgetown's commercial strip, and manager Sam Oldfield is doing triage in the kitchen after the lunch rush. A couple of middle-aged guys in polo shirts and khakis sip tequila at the bar while a young couple dressed mostly in black munches on Smarty Pants' signature sandwiches at a corner table. "What do you think of the transfer station proposal?" I ask Oldfield, over the din of the White Stripes and the occasional rumble of a passing semi. "You know, the trash site down the street?" "Bullshit," Oldfield offers without hesitation. "It doesn't make this a desirable place to live," she says, noting that she lives a few blocks north in an apartment above Georgetown Records. The city, at the behest of Mayor Greg Nickels, has for years considered buying a land parcel about a half-mile south of Smarty Pants, where Seattle's trash could be trucked in, smashed, loaded onto trains, and carried out of our sight. The City Council is currently wrestling with the idea and will vote on it next month, but an announcement about the proposal could be made as early as this week. Of course, no one wants a giant trash compactor in their backyard. And if you've spent any time on Airport Way South, it's hard to imagine the transfer station being an enormous blight on an area that trades on its grittiness and is already a speedway for truck traffic. But to Georgetowners, that's exactly the point: They've already got their share. Oldfield concedes that the neighborhood's industrial flavor was largely what drew her here two years ago. But she says Airport Way is already so dirty that Smarty Pants can't leave salt and pepper shakers on the outside tables because they'll be covered in dark-gray grime in a matter of hours. And the new transfer station could mean hundreds more truck trips day and night. "There has to be some acknowledgment that people live down here," she says. Her message to the city: "Leave us alone." Bounded by Boeing Field to the south, I-5 to the east, the Duwamish River to the west, and the main lines of the BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad across the north, Georgetown is a crazy mishmash of industry on top of homes on top of industry. Along with parts of South Park, Georgetown is the only Seattle neighborhood where zoning laws allow industrial buildings side by side with single-family homes. It's also the only place where you can stand next to a train rumbling along, under an airplane taking off, and within arm's reach of a semi roaring by, all on the same corner. Georgetown has a history of being the city's fallback for the unsightly and the ungainly. "When you can't find a place to put things, you put them in Georgetown," says Marianne Clark, a fourth-generation Georgetowner. It's where Seattle put its industry, freeway, airport, train tracks, and smokestacks. Houses were mostly chased out by the 1970s. But lately, there have been signs that the Rodney Dangerfield of neighborhoods is getting some new respect. In 2005, residents mobilized and successfully lobbied King County to turn down Southwest Airlines' proposal to fly out of Boeing Field, a plan that would've added more than 100 flights over Georgetown every day. Last year, the mayor proposed creating a red-light district to house the city's strip clubs on the northern fringes of Georgetown and nearby SoDo. Residents again rebelled, and the City Council came up with a new plan (approved last week) for zoning that wouldn't isolate the clubs in one part of town. Buoyed by these successes and growing political clout, residents hope the neighborhood is becoming less and less a place to dump the city's undesirables. But this, too, could have drawbacks, as Georgetown loses its status as a working-class hamlet. Home prices are creeping into the $400,000s, and in recent years, the popularity of early hipster hangouts like All City Coffee, Stellar Pizza, and the 9 Lb Hammer has made way for more spots to bar-hop on Airport Way, such as recent additions Calamity Jane's and the Georgetown Liquor Company. These places are packed weekdays and weekends alike. "Ten years ago, if you saw someone walking down the street after dark, chances are they were casing a building to break into," says longtime resident Dan Lamb. "Now, it's couples strolling down the street checking out the restaurants." Seattleites from all corners of the city are increasingly making the neighborhood a destination for something different. And Georgetown is serving up its shabby-chic image both in its growing strip of bars and restaurants, and during events like the Music Fest earlier this month and this weekend's (SW-sponsored) Artopia. This is just the beginning. Plans to redevelop the 300,000-square-foot former Rainier brewery and cold-storage building on Airport Way could quadruple the size of old-town Georgetown and would certainly mean the end of local live/work space that's been costing 60 cents a square foot. Some Georgetown residents whisper the names of other places, like Fremont, Belltown, and Ballard, like they're swear words—while others are too busy fighting trash to worry about trivial things like yuppies. Today, Seattle relies on two transfer stations to compact its trash. One is in Wallingford, the other in South Park. Both are a fraction of the size of what the city has proposed for Georgetown, and neither has access to rail. On a recent trip to the South Park station, Tim Croll, the director of solid waste for Seattle Public Utilities, stands next to the trash pit as we watch a Waste Management truck dump its load. Yelling over the rumble of the bulldozer below, Croll says the plan is to not only build a third station but use part of the $160 million in Nickels' proposal to rebuild and modernize the sites in Wallingford and South Park, making them earthquake-resistant and less noisy and smelly. Croll and other officials say having a city-owned waste-collection site that connects directly to rail is insurance for the future. Today, Seattle trucks its trash from the Wallingford and South Park transfer stations to the Argo rail yard, located on the north end of Georgetown and controlled by Waste Management Inc. From there, the containers are loaded onto trains and shipped to a landfill in Arlington, Ore. The city's contract with Waste Management Inc. for access to the tracks expires in 2028. Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis says the most efficient way to run the city's waste system is to have a transfer station that has both "compaction" capability and access to trains. "The further downstream we control our solid waste, the more control we have over our costs," he explains. Having a third transfer station, Croll says, would also lessen the impact the existing sites have on the other neighborhoods. If the Georgetown station is built, the city would likely send all of the commercial garbage trucks there and reserve the Wallingford and South Park stations for ordinary Seattleites hauling their own junk. Ceis says he understands that the neighborhood feels it's long been dumped on. "But Georgetown's always going to be a residential and an industrial area," he says. "I would hope that people, when they move to Georgetown, understand the community they're moving into. [Industrial use] is part of the fabric of the community. If they don't realize that, it becomes gentrification of another sort. It's no different from people building a subdivision in the middle of a farm community and complaining about the smell of cows." "The neighborhood already stinks," is Georgetown Records co-owner Grant Eckman's response to those who worry that a transfer station would smell things up. He says he's conflicted about the proposal, because no one likes the idea of dodging more trucks, "but my opinion of the neighborhood has always been, well, planes, trains, and automobiles. So we get more trucks—what's the big deal?" Eckman, who also runs a contracting business and woodshop out of the Rainier cold-storage building, says he's more concerned about getting priced out. He already had to move from his live/work space the last time the brewery changed hands. Now, with Sabey Corp. buying the building last fall, he says, there's a new wave of panic that the existing artists won't be able to afford the spaces. "The prices for what people are selling down here have escalated to the point where you're like, 'Really? You know you live under Boeing Field's flight path, right?'" Eckman admits he's as "conflicted as they come" about the neighborhood's success because growing popularity is a good thing for a small-business owner. "There is an inevitability about it," he says. "I never expected things to stay the same forever, but it certainly grew faster than I expected." Ian Halcott, who recently opened up Twinline Motorcycles repair shop on East Marginal Way South, says Georgetown today is what Ballard was 10–15 years ago. A place, he says, where you can do the "dirty" work that would raise eyebrows in places where boutiques are more common than garages and condos are multiplying. But Halcott says that's changing. "Ten years down the road, Seattle will miss the way things used to operate down here. It's going to be way too clean. There will be no place to do the dirty work anymore." As for the brewery building, Jim Harmon, Sabey's senior vice president of investments, says the property, because of its age and size, has been "severely challenging." "That's what's taking us so long to come up with the solution here. That and construction costs," he says, noting that Sabey hopes to nail down plans for the project in the next couple of months. In the meantime, Sabey has convened a panel of locals to seek input about what the building should become. On the table for the building, now home to more than 60 tenants, is everything from commercial space to condos. Kim Yanick, who manages a fire-suppression supply company that's a stone's throw from Smarty Pants, marvels at the transformation that's already happened. From her second-story office window, she points out where drug deals used to take place under a freeway on-ramp and remembers when she wouldn't even let her Rottweiler out by itself after dark. Yanick, who lives on Mercer Island, says construction of the transfer station "would put the lid back on." But most residents aren't willing to make that bet. They think the neighborhood can win the transfer-station battle and still retain its delicate balance of industry, artistry, and affordable housing. Some say it's simply too rough 'n' tumble to be the next condo enclave. "I don't think it will happen down here," offers Lynn Christiansen, owner of Two Tartes Bakery. She opened up shop in Georgetown in 2002 because Fremont was "too expensive" and Ballard "too yuppie." Christiansen, who lives on Crown Hill, says Georgetown is not the next Fremont: "It's too industrial down here. This is the real thing." The city looked at nearly 1,000 possible locations for the 19-acre waste station before whittling the list down to 12, says Andy Ryan, spokesperson for Seattle Public Utilities. From that, four finalists were selected. Two of the sites were on Harbor Island and dropped off the list after the Port of Seattle said it wasn't interested in selling the land to the city. Ryan says the Harbor Island sites also weren't ideal because the area is tight for loading the mile-long trains the trash transporters require. The third site, located just north of the Argo rail yard in Georgetown, was discounted due to concerns about access on and off Airport Way. The proposed Georgetown location is between I-5 and Airport Way South and is currently home to a handful of light-industrial businesses—including one that recycles concrete and another that reclaims computers. The irony of getting kicked out of town in order to make way for trash isn't lost on Ultrablock Inc.'s general manager, Rick Ianello, who says the firm recycles more than 200 tons of surplus concrete per day. "We take concrete that's left over [from industry]. Instead of it being dumped, it gets another life. We make lock-blocks [i.e., self-locking connectors] for retaining walls out of it. We're considered a recycled product," he says. "It would be very tough for us to relocate to a place that's as affordable and located close to industry and freeways." In other words, the company is there for the same reason the city wants the site: It's a cheap, convenient location for handling messy jobs. The city predicts that the Georgetown station would attract an average of about 700 truck trips per day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Officials say most of these trucks wouldn't use Airport Way, but would instead travel to and from Seattle on I-5 and Highway 99. But Clark, the fourth-generation Georgetowner, who lives in one of the neighborhood's small residential sections adjacent to Airport Way, says the trucks still have to crisscross the neighborhood somewhere. "For me, it's like another piercing of your heart," she says of the transfer station proposal. Clark's family has lived in the same home on Carleton Avenue South since 1913. Her grandfather was one of the first streetcar drivers on the line that connected Georgetown to parts north. She's a member of the Georgetown Community Council and Friends of Georgetown and is a liaison between the Seattle Police Department's safety advisory board and the Southwest Precinct. She says the fight to save her neighborhood, while not always successful, has been worth it. "If we don't, we're going to be bulldozed over and cemented," she says. In order to truly understand the neighborhood's war-torn psyche, it's necessary to reach back to its roots. Georgetowners have long been wary of their neighbors to the north. The first vote to be annexed by the city of Seattle failed in 1909. When Georgetown joined the city of Seattle in 1910, it was largely because the neighborhood was in hock to King County for $10,000 on construction of First Avenue South and needed some way to come up with the cash. It had 4,000 residents. Georgetown today has only a fraction of that population, due to the hungry land demands of a booming Seattle. In the early 1900s, the town's first white settlement was razed to build Meadows Race Track (which became Boeing Field in 1928). Industrial development, according to, "engulfed the community" after World War II; the library closed in 1948, the movie theater closed in 1952. According to planning documents from the Department of Neighborhoods: "The construction of I-5 resulted in further fragmenting [of] Georgetown's residential core and divided it from south Beacon Hill. By the 1970's Georgetown's core residential areas seemed to be on the verge of extinction. New one-way off-ramps isolated properties and created visual barriers. The historic commercial core continued to lose businesses and Georgetown Elementary School was razed and replaced by an office park." While the anti–transfer station sentiment may sound like typical anywhere-but-here bellyaching, Georgetown residents and business owners are pitching more than NIMBY to the City Council. Led by Georgetown Merchants Association Chairwoman Kathy Nyland, the 'townies—building on a movement with roots in San Francisco—have proposed an alternative called "zero waste." And they found a champion in council member Richard Conlin. Conlin chairs the Environment, Emergency Management and Utilities Committee, the panel charged with accepting or altering the mayor's proposal for the Georgetown site and forwarding a recommendation on to the City Council. It's virtually impossible to shrink a city's waste stream to nil, but the new Conlin plan details ways to increase the amount of waste that's recycled and reused in Seattle from 44 percent to 72 percent. Conlin calls zero waste "a philosophical concept" as much as it is a call to action, and has been working with the mayor's office on a blueprint for the city. The big "but"—for now, at least—is that Conlin's zero-waste plan also includes the proposed Georgetown transfer station, as well as a scaled-back version of it. Under the latter compromise plan, there would be transfer to trains but no mashing of trash. The move would require larger trucks but fewer trips because those trucks would have to be full before venturing to Georgetown. Conlin has also suggested that the city purchase the Georgetown property but wait to build the transfer station until (or if) it's needed. In the meantime, Conlin says the space could be turned into an industrial park that caters to ecologically friendly businesses. It's a typically Seattle effort to appease every "stakeholder." But Nyland calls the eco-industrial park idea a "land grab." She's been working night and day for nearly two years to mobilize the neighborhood against the transfer station proposal. Her efforts culminated in a public hearing earlier this month when 120 residents (nearly 10 percent of the neighborhood's population) put on green "Trash Talk. Yes to zero waste. No to building a third station" T-shirts and rode a chartered bus to City Hall. Not only were the committee members visibly shocked by the sea of green and unusual standing-room-only turnout, they were bombarded by more than two hours of testimony that included visual aids of Styrofoam and plastic bags and an a cappella rendition of "Waste Will Subside," sung to the tune of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." Even prior to the packed hearing, the political will to stick it to Georgetown seemed to be wavering. "I'm not wild about it," says Sally Clark, a member of Conlin's committee. "I like Georgetown a lot. It's one of the only pockets of Seattle that has affordable housing and small businesses coexisting." Council President Nick Licata says Georgetown is becoming less and less of a place to put the city's undesirables. "Thanks to the community activists, I think the pattern has been broken. It won't be that way in the future," he says. "I see the council wanting to retain Georgetown, not sacrifice it." For the record, developer Sabey's against the transfer station because of concerns about what it would mean for the neighborhood's well-being. But Harmon says construction of the waste site and the increased truck traffic it would bring isn't a deal breaker for redevelopment of the brewery building, either. Harmon says he wants the same thing residents want, but that it's up to them to figure out what that is. "Georgetown's long been the bastard child, ever since it's been annexed into Seattle," he says. "It's been grossly underappreciated, and not just by the city. I think we're all discovering what it is. The neighborhood has spent so much time and energy fighting what it doesn't want to be. It probably would be helpful for Georgetown and for everyone else if Georgetown comes to grips with what it wants to be. It could use the space, a little elbow room, to do that."

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