A concerned group of Fremont and Wallingford residents have organized against a development slated for a modest chunk of Lake Union's shoreline at the end of First Avenue North, at 2503 N. Northlake Way.
Presently, the land holds a paved, vacant lot with a small, one-story building once used for boat repair along with more than 4,000 square feet of over-water fixed structures used to moor large boats and ships. In fact, many Seattle residents are unwittingly familiar with this obscure piece of property because of the last large vessel it hosted: the Kalakala ferry.
The property encompasses more than 50,000 dry and wet square feet, all of which were presented to the city for development by Troy Hussing for J. Dan Fiorito Jr. The city's director for the Department of Planning and Development, D.M. Sugimura, approved a permit for Fiorito's project on May 6.
According to the approval document the vacant lot will host dry boat storage for 524 small to medium-size vessels within five storage racks measuring 35 feet tall apiece.
There also will be a three-story caretaker building holding the steward's residence, a boat garage and an office.
Much of the site's remaining dry-land area will serve as parking for up to 109 vehicles, with two piers featuring loader stations jutting from the shore. The complex will not have general boat launching or other public access features.
Thirteen days after the city's planning department gave the proverbial thumbs-up to the project, a group of 23 neighborhood residents gathered at the Fremont Neighborhood Service Center to discuss whether to appeal the decision to the state's Shorelines Hearings Board before the May 27 appeal deadline.
"We need to decide what our goals and objectives are," Wallingford Community Council member and local attorney Lee Raaen asserted. "We need to narrow them down. We can't just be nit-picky."
Following Raaen's lead, the neighbors drew up a list of faults they found with the project planned for First Avenue and Northlake Way.
More than that, they agreed to have Raaen take their cause to the Wallingford Community Council members, whom he felt would likely champion the cause and name its organization as the appellant in the action against Fiorito's city-approved proposal.
"The group of people that own [the Northlake Way property] have a right to put something there," Raaen said near the start of the group's two-hour discussion. "We can't make them leave it as open space, [but] we have problems with certain aspects of the plan."
Poking holes in the permit
Raaen's hunch was right. The Wallingford Community Council took up the concerned citizens' cause and agreed to file an appeal against the building permit on May 27 with the Shorelines Hearing Board. According to this document, the council lists several areas where they feel the project is inconsistent with the state's Shoreline Management Act and the Seattle Shoreline Master Program.
The first deals with the area's aquatic ecosystem. Historically, the site has hosted a cement plant and vessel-building activities that undertook industrial grinding, welding and painting. According to the appeal "there was not an adequate investigation of the potential hazardous substances on either the land or water portions of the site."
The appeal also points out the environmental pollutants commonly expelled by the heavy equipment, hundreds of boats and dozens of vehicles that may occupy the area when fully operational.
As a result, the document calls for the project to be conditional upon the performance of such a study and the subsequent implementation of any appropriate mitigation measures it may call for.
Reflecting one of the major concerns of the May 19 public meeting, the appeal charges "the amount, location and configuration of parking for the project is inadequate and fails to meet the requirements of law."
It also states the planned height of the buildings and racks will violate city code while simultaneously blocking the view sheds from neighboring residential areas, the Burke-Gilman Trail and Gas Works Park.
Shore front property on Lake Union is a crowded commodity, and the appeal takes note of the negative impacts Sugimura's decision may have on the commercial and recreational navigation of adjacent waters.
According to the Wallingford council's document, "the proposed project will, in effect, place a 524-boat marina...on the channel between two nearby rowing clubs, near two yacht clubs, near a public launch site and several smaller marinas."
The property problem
While all of these concerns appear to have compelling legal backing, the most interesting one by far is the issue of ownership.
The appellant feels the permit will allow Fiorito and his partners to develop a "significant and valuable public property based on an incorrect conclusion regarding the ownership of a portion of the site."
The permit states that, "the First Avenue Northeast right-of-way does not go through the site in that the street has been vacated at that location."
The Wallingford council feels this is an egregious mistake, and the appeal notes the street vacation took place in 1927. However, this vacation was limited to 30 years. After that, the city was entitled to take back the property it rightfully owned.
But three years before the city was scheduled to legally take control of the First Avenue right-of-way bisecting the property, the 1954 Seattle Council attempted to disclaim ownership, a move that the appeal calls "legally ineffective and in violation of law."
Until the ownership issue is worked out, the Wallingford council is asking the Shorelines Hearings Board to deny the permit.
"So far, we haven't been able to get anyone in the city to respond to the ownership issue. I have tried to contact someone at the City Attorney's Office for information, with no response," Raaen said a week after he and his fellow Wallingford council members appealed the project.
He continued, "The building department just said that the city wasn't claiming the property, but didn't give any information in support of its position. Councilman [Richard] Conlin tried to investigate, but evidently felt he couldn't share whatever information he was provided because the city was asserting an attorney-client privilege of confidentiality."
When asked to elaborate on the issue in light of the project appeal, the councilmember was unable to provide any fresh insights.
"Based on my conversation with our lawyer, the city's official position is that the street was vacated under the council ordinance passed in the '50s," Conlin said.
As for the next step, Raaen said the Shorelines Hearings Board is in the process of scheduling a hearing sometime in the next several months. However, he also noted "there may be a settlement conference before then."
The property owner listed in the building permit, J. Dan Fiorito Jr., could not be reached for comment for this story.