Aerial view of Smith Cove with the Magnolia Bridge, Interbay, and Magnolia in the background. Magnolia is likely to be split between District 6 and 7 under new City Council boundaryes. (Credit: Port of Seattle and City of Seattle)

Early this year, a call went out that the Interbay Armory Advisory Committee was looking for community proposals on what to do with 25 acres of land in the middle of Seattle. What is it, and why does some committee need ideas?

Those 25 acres are currently the National Guard Armory located on relatively clear land just off 15th Avenue in Interbay. The Guard is looking to move because the site doesn’t fit them any more. The facilities are not large enough for their current equipment or the number of staff. The site could get flooded in a tsunami or cut off from highways in an earthquake, so they are planning a new facility near North Bend.

The State is involved because this relocation is not going to be funded by the Feds. the state convened a committee of heavy hitters to examine how to redevelop the current Armory to fund the new National Guard site. 

For many of us who heard the initial call for comment, there’s really only one option: build lots of housing. The site is halfway between two proposed light rail stations: Dravus Street and Smith Cove. If light rail is coming here, here should grow upwards to meet it. Mike Eliason had a great idea called the Interbay EcoDistrict, where he proposes to bring together many underdeveloped sites in Interbay to promote homes and walkability using the best in cooperative housing and green development techniques.

The Interbay Planning Mishmash

But that is not that easy in Interbay, as review of these proposals and eventual recommendations by the Advisory Committee revealed. The neighborhood is crisscrossed with planning initiatives, contradictory zones, and competing interests. While many of us see Interbay as clogged bridges and mini-storage, the story of Interbay is layers deeper.

That mini-storage is kind of an accident, as is Whole Foods. The planning and zoning for the area is weirdly complex stemming from an original simplicity. The underlying zoning on both sides of the rail yard is Industrial-General (IG), the city’s catch-all designation for not-houses, not-downtown, not-neighborhood. A wide spectrum of building sizes and uses are permitted, along with on-site parking, just no residential. While this is great for the varied industrial uses like commercial kitchens, auto-repair, and maritime support found in Interbay, the flexibility of IG zoning makes the area attractive for the big box stores and mini-storage units that are proliferating.

But the plans for the area don’t match the zoning. The City proposed more stringent industrial focus that its zoning just doesn’t require. To support the Port and the rail in the area, the city designated the Ballard-Interbay Northwest Manufacturing and Industrial Center (BINMIC) in 1998. This BINMIC document tried to preserve the industrial nature of Interbay, but kept the super flexible zoning.

A decade later, the Puget Sound Regional Council designated Interbay as a focus for increasing employment but didn’t recognize how manufacturing is becoming more efficient. Interbay is a focus of employment, but manufacturing is being surpassed by big box retail. And the city’s current examination of industrial zoning is just the most recent iteration of fits-and-starts initiatives that have produced reports that went nowhere in the past.

Atop this, competing interests are steering the competition for land use authority in Interbay. Neighborhood groups in Magnolia, Ballard, and Queen Anne claim parts of Interbay, but often focus on an antiquated image of the industries in the area. The Port Authority resists any change to industrial zoning near the water, even where it better describes what’s actually happening. At the same time, the Port is developing a million square feet of industrial space on Terminal 91, immediately west of the Armory site. BNSF–operator of the Balmer rail yard and the Salmon Bay bridge–has massive federal protections on operations and transparency as one of the few rail carriers left. And the Army Corps of Engineers’ focus on navigable waters is supported by more regulation than resources.

Interbay is the Crucial Link to Northwest Seattle

This mishmash of interests and protectiveness stems from a singular fact about Interbay. It is the crucial link for transportation in the Northwest. Many of us only see the backup on the roads when the bridges are up or complain at the potholes. But this complex of roads is just one layer.

The Salmon Bay BNSF bridge rises over the large Ballard Lock. (Photo by author)

Start with the water. The Ballard Locks literally changed the shape of Seattle by stabilizing the elevation of Lake Washington, channeling freshwater into a ship canal and marinas, and drying out the marshes once found in Interbay. The locks are the busiest shipping link in the country, with 40,000 transits per year and supporting a billion-and-a-half-dollar fishing industry. 

Layer on the rail. The Salmon Bay rail bridge just west of the Locks took advantage of this newly unsubmerged land in Interbay by developing the Balmer Rail Yard, now an extensive complex of rail switches and locomotive repair. The rail bridge itself is the only north-south rail link between the Pacific Ocean and Spokane. It carries up to 80 trains per day, including commuter and passenger rail, lumber and grain, Boeing fuselages, as well as coal and oil trains. 

On top of all that, Interbay is also a network of automobile bridges crossing these waterways and rail yards. There are eight road crossings in total – Aurora Bridge, Fremont Bridge, Ballard Bridge, Nickerson Street, Emerson Street, Dravus Street, Magnolia Bridge, and the Galer flyover. All of these have been built to move cars around the Locks or the rail. Add in that there will be a ninth crossing: the light rail connection to Ballard.

So, from an infrastructure view, Interbay is full of crucial links, creating rail and water transit and allowing the city to move around. But all 10 of the existing structures have some very disturbing things in common. None of them are transit friendly. None of them are pedestrian friendly. None of them are ready for an earthquake. None of them are ready for climate change.  All of them need extensive repairs or imminent replacement.

The Armory sits at the center of it all.

Interbay’s Armory site is sandwiched between a BNSF Railyard and a Whole Foods. (State of Washington)

Over the course of the last two years, the Armory Advisory Committee examined ways to use the site. Gauging the potential income from filling 25 acres with industrial, residential, or mixed uses, the committee discovered that money for relocation was not going to come from the site until the relocation was complete. They found that potential revenue from the site depended on what was built there. And they noted that something needed to manage development for years to come because real value from the site would not be realized until other infrastructure like light rail and pedestrian improvements were in place. Their final report, due later this year, makes the following recommendations:

  • Identify funding to relocate the National Guard
  • Create an Interbay Community Preservation and Development Authority (ICPDA) under State law.
  • Consider the following future uses:
    • Industrial Only
    • Mixed Commercial/Residential
    • Mixed Light industrial/Residential

In some ways, the proposal sounds like a punt. Let’s make a(nother) committee and kick the hard decisions down the road. We found the answer is 42, now let’s figure out the question.

Proposed location for Interbay Ecodistrict. (Google Maps)

This is a particularly galling conclusion for a parcel that has so many crisscrossing interests, authorities, and proposals already heaped upon it. We’ve seen the fights that come from Development Authorities being expected to do something, then stretched in exasperating ways.

Seattle’s most famous Public Development Authority governs Pike Place Market. Created under city ordinance, they get to set uses and development rules in the market. Their stated goal is to fulfill the historical and redevelopment plans for Pike Place and “be concerned with the rehabilitation and redevelopment of the surrounding areas which may affect the character of the Market Historical District.” Then we asked them to interfere more specifically in a fight between a developer and the neighboring condos, and the City got sued for a taking of the Showbox–and settled for almost a million in legal fees.

The Advisory Committee says the ICPDA is a good concept because of the limited nature of the project and the distinct boundaries of the site. But the success of the site is specifically dependent on things outside. This is setting us up for another Showbox/Market fight. 

But what if we turn it inside out? Instead of depending on fixing infrastructure to make the Armory site valuable, can we leverage the value of the Armory site and other Interbay properties to lead and finance the infrastructure that makes this city function?

Let’s Establish Interbay Crucial Link Authority

Here’s the idea: Instead of going tiny, go massive. Set up the Interbay Crucial Link Authority. Give it jurisdiction over anything not zoned single family between Ray’s Boathouse and Myrtle Edwards Park, from Fred Meyers to Palisade. Organize it under local and state law with four direct charges:

  1. Coordinate the rehabilitation or replacement of Crucial Link infrastructure in Interbay, focusing on connectivity and resilience;
  2. Take ownership of publicly owned sites along Interbay and leverage development to pay down the costs of infrastructure and National Guard relocation;
  3. Manage the uses permitted in Interbay to maximize climate-responsible use of the Crucial Link infrastructure; and,
  4. Arbitrate conflicts between public agencies in Interbay to further these goals.

It’s hard to overstate how bold a step creating the Interbay Crucial Link Authority would be, but it’s one we must take. Elected officials must relinquish the ability to interfere. The city and state’s big players must cooperate. Neighbors must accept many new neighbors. Industry must face its uncertain future. We all must speak honestly about how we live in this city. 

Years of half measures and ill-conceived plans have left parts of our city swimming against layers of crumbling infrastructure and conflicting authorities. It is time for us to try something creative and courageous to step past those mistakes. Before the Crucial Link in our transportation system comes to a disastrous failure. Before we add another layer. Let us create a way to cut through the old and build the new.

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Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.