Culture clash:Competing land-use plans at odds in Interbay

Plans to open up a city impound yard on a vacant Interbay lot north of West Dravus Street have revealed a cultural and economic divide in the mini-neighborhood.

On one side of the equation is ET Towing, which recently snagged the city's towing contract away from Lincoln Towing. ET Towing is leasing a roughly 50,000-square-foot lot owned by Sound Mind and Body for the operation, and the use is perfectly legal, according to city zoning codes.

On the other side is the Interbay Neighborhood Association, a new group of 20 or so local businesspeople who are fed up with the more hard-scrabble features of the area and want the city to change its designation to a Hub Urban Village. It is a change that would require an amendment to the city's Comprehensive Plan.

"The bottom line is, Interbay is in the beginning stages of having a revival," said Chuck Dagg, who runs a State Farm Insurance office near the QFC. "It's not going to help," he said of the impound lot at the corner of 16th Ave. W. and W. Bertona St.

David Bolin agrees. He heads up the Freehold Group, which owns a mixed-use building just to the west of the impound lot. "It's the hole in the donut of our neighborhood," is how Bolin put it.

"We understand this is an acceptable use in an industrial area," he said. But Bolin worries about impacts such as oil and battery acid leaking from impounded vehicles onto the partially unpaved ground. There is also no stormwater-retention system to treat the oily water on the lot, and the streets are in terrible shape, he added.

"They shouldn't be able to do this on the cheap," Bolin groused. "We didn't get away with doing this building on the cheap," he said while gesturing to the building, which is home to a mixture of machine shops and hi-tech businesses.

Bolin and his tenants spent millions fixing the building up, and some prospective tenants are getting cold feet about moving into the place since they found out about the impound lot, he said.

One of the existing tenants is POP Multimedia, a hi-tech company that would feel perfectly at home on a Microsoft campus. POP moved into the building in 2000, and - according to CEO Bill Predmore - the company renewed its lease in 2003 in the belief that the area was turning into an office-and-retail hub.

Predmore wrote the Department of Planning and Development objecting to the impound lot because it would "diminish much of the work that has been done by our building owner and building owners in the area."

The DPD still has not issued a permit for the planned impound lot, but if it does, Predmore would like to have conditions included. Like Bolin, he worries about the lack of treatment for contaminated groundwater, but Pred-more would also like to see the lot screened from view. He also called for improvements to the pothole-filled Ber-tona Street, and Predmore would like to see parking in the area improved.

Parking is exacerbated by abandoned vehicles in the area, and he thinks the problem will get worse when the impound lot opens, according to his letter. Predmore also wrote that ET Towing "should be required to provide a solution so that the surrounding area won't become additional storage for abandoned cars."

He doesn't say how that could be done, but Predmore is also worried about security issues connected to the lot. Street people loitering or sleeping in cars are a common sight in the area, he noted. "In addition, there is currently no lighting, sidewalks or security on the property, thereby further contributing to the problem," Predmore added in the letter.

As far as Bolin and POP staffers are concerned, there wouldn't be a problem if Sound Mind and Body had gone ahead and built a gym on the land, he said. "We were very excited about have a gym there." But the fitness club shelved its plans after the dot-com crash, Bolin said.

ET Towing has teamed up with A Rose Towing to run the business, and the owner of ET Towing is steamed about the objections voiced by Bolin and others. Reached for a telephone interview, a deeply suspicious Shrokh Rezaei also wanted to know who was paying to have this story written, and he would only give his nickname, Shayan.

But a clearly irritated Rezaei - whose name is listed on the city towing contract - doesn't think objections to his business are fair. He's operated a small impound lot on southeast corner of 16th and Bertona since 1994, and Rezaei also noted that the Sound Mind and Body lot used to be the home of a steel-works and welding shop.

"It was a dump. The cement looked like a mountain," he said, adding it took him three years to clean up the mess. An impound lot is obviously a change in use for the Sound Mind and Body property, but Rezaei noted that running an impound lot in Interbay is perfectly legal. "The place is zoned for that," he said.

"Some of the people don't understand what industrial is," he complained. "This is for blue-collar workers." Rezaei is especially aware of objections to his business coming from Bolin and his tenants, but he had an answer for them. "If they don't like it, they can sell and go!"

Rezaei estimated there will be room for 100 vehicles on the lot when the permit comes through. "It's going to be approved sooner or later," he said. In the meantime, ET Towing already has a permit to store roughly 20 vehicles on the new lot, according to Mali Anderson, the DPD land-use specialist working on the Master Use Permit application.

The application triggered a State Environmental Police Act review, which is required if a project reaches a threshold of 12,000 square feet or more, she said. The permit to store 20 vehicles on the lot was issued because they would occupy less than the 12,000 square feet, Anderson explained.

Ironically, she also said that the impound lot would still be an allowable use if the area were to be converted to a Hub Urban Village, as the Interbay Neighborhood Association wants.

It takes a Village

Bolin reluctantly concedes that's true, but he insisted the Village designation would help revive the area, which is bound by 15th Avenue West and the BNSF railroad tracks, the Interbay golf course, P-Patch and sports fields to the south and Fishermen's Terminal to the north.

Bolin stressed that industrial land in the area would stay the same. "We're all about preserving the job base there," he said. But it is the mixed office, retail and residential space that would really get a shot in the arm with the new designation, according to Bolin.

The new Village designation would include an upzone that would allow buildings to go from their current 40-foot height limits to 125 feet, he said. There are roughly 22 acres in the Village area, and about half of them are underused or vacant, he added.

The extra allowable height would make any future development more economically feasible, according to Bolin, who said the planned monorail station - "if it happens" - would contribute to the redevelopment trend.

Rev. Ray Bartel from the Interbay Covenant Church said he has been at the church for four years and has seen a gradual deterioration of the neighborhood in that time. "I think a Hub Urban Village [designation] would help that," he said.

"We're interested in reclaiming the area," added Bartel, who thinks that the city would pay more attention to the area if it had the Village designation.

The designation proposal is facing an uphill climb. The Department of Planning and Development has already recommended that it stay the same, noted Seattle City Council member Peter Steinbrueck, who chairs the Urban Development & Planning Committee.

The DPD recommendation reflects the views of Mayor Greg Nickels, but the same recommendation calls for a similar change to the Interbay proposal in two locations in South Seattle, Steinbrueck said.

"We can accept or reject anything from the DPD, with or without the mayor's support," he said. But if the city council balks at Nickels' stance, it will have a difficult time getting cooperation from DPD staff, Steinbrueck, worried. He also worries about the "gentrification" of industrial areas.

According to Steinbrueck, the city needs to do a study of all its industrial land, something the Port of Seattle has done for its North Bay property. "I think we have to step back and take a broader look [at the issue]," he said.

Steinbrueck is intrigued by the proposal to turn North Interbay into a Hub Urban Village. "I thought we should explore that."

Steinbrueck's committee will start holding public hearings about amended the Comp Plan on April 19. "We will be looking at community response to all these issues," the council member said.

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached a or 461-1309.

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