Today, its future is muddier than its namesake river.
The city, with help from lobbyists, is completing a growth plan that would allow up to 3.3 million square feet of new offices, bars and restaurants around Safeco Field.
That’s nearly the size of Microsoft’s main campus in Redmond, or two Columbia Towers laid on their side, in an area where industry is already choking on traffic.
Some landowners who helped write early versions of the plan are appalled at its mutation in the labyrinth of City Hall, but others decided midway through the process that they might want to build offices themselves.
“The plan as it stands has been gutted,” said developer and glass artist David Huchthausen, who spent five years helping the city write the document. “Virtually every effective deterrent to commercial expansion into the manufacturing and industrial center has been systematically removed.”
City officials say they have altered the plan because stadiums, land values and the new economy have changed their priorities for the Duwamish, and their definition of what an industrial area should be.
The plan won’t be adopted for several weeks, but already change is in the air around the ballpark, where the smell of diesel and the clanking sound of forklifts are fading like memories of Ken Griffey Jr.
If nothing else, the planning sheds light on what the region can expect to see south of Pioneer Square.
Owners of nearly every parcel around the ballpark revealed their intention to develop offices, stores, fast-food restaurants and hotels as they fought the strict zoning proposed for the area.
That kind of growth was embraced in Baltimore, Denver, Cleveland and other cities that built stadiums in rundown warehouse districts.
But the Duwamish was booming long before Safeco Field, which is why there’s such a fight over the plan. In 1997, 60,700 people worked there and 95 percent of the buildings were used for industry.
“Some people believe we must preserve what we have as it is, we must either keep the current zoning or downzone to preserve the industries we currently have,” City Councilwoman Jan Drago said.
“Other people believe that the world is changing and that we need to make accommodations for the new industries that are emerging in the new economy, so it really is a discussion about the future, which is why it’s so difficult.”
Some wonder why all the fuss.
“The economy is moving away from industrial anyway,” said David Zarett, a 36-year-old developer who converted a Duwamish warehouse into offices for an Internet company, The Cobalt Group. “It’s not like there’s a shortage of industrial space. If people want the city to grow, it needs to grow.”
From the top floor of Zarett’s building, Cobalt CEO John Holt can see the ballpark reaching above warehouses and freight terminals, and the sun setting behind the cargo terminal on Elliott Bay.
“I see us as being compatible neighbors,” he said. “We’re kind of a factory. We build Web sites for car dealers. There’s some synergy there.”
Also weighing in are unions, the port, real-estate brokers, tech companies looking for space, industrialists wanting to stay and industrialists wanting to leave.
Testimony on the plan spans the history of modern Seattle, with comments from people whose families supplied goods to the Klondike gold prospectors, and from companies like Amazon.com demanding more office space.
Even the state opposed sections of the plan. It fears they would reduce the value of land it’s selling, the Hat’N’Boots property near Boeing Field.
Recognizing that change was inevitable around the stadiums, Mayor Paul Schell last year proposed a five-block containment zone where intense commercial development could occur.
The idea was to concentrate that growth near the stadiums, so it wouldn’t spread farther south, where zoning restrictions would be strengthened.
“Being a little bit more generous in the stadium area for these commercial uses, it was hoped it would take some of the pressure off other areas in the Duwamish,” said Tom Hauger, supervising planner in Schell’s strategic-planning office.
Hauger said traffic and land prices make traditional industry unfeasible around the stadium, where property is selling for two or three times what’s normal for industrial areas. He also noted that other protections for industry outside the containment zone, including bans on movie theaters, hotels and pay parking lots, remain intact.
But the plan is not yet law, and commercial growth has already leapfrogged the containment zone and is heading south toward Lander Street. Some believe the downtown core is basically expanding south and eventually will reach all the way to Spokane Street.
Schell and the council also have enlarged the containment zone, moving its southern boundary from Massachusetts Street by Safeco Field to Holgate Street.
And they dropped a provision that would have reduced the amount of office space allowed in the industrial area, officially known as the Greater Duwamish Manufacturing and Industrial Center.
“The mayor decided that the current limits are sufficient to prevent rampant development of offices down there,” Hauger said.
What’s left is basically the status-quo zoning, which has done little to stanch the traffic, land prices and development that are gradually forcing out industry, Huchthausen said.
“Everybody picked the barbs out of the plan,” he said. “It’s sort of like a pizza going through a line of people and everybody picking out pieces they don’t like. At the end, all you’ve got left is the crust.”
Away from City Hall, on the streets of the Duwamish, reaction is mixed to the plan and changes the city is trying to harness.
“We’re going to probably try and sell the whole block off,” said John Kazdal, owner of a restaurant-equipment business in a former candy factory near the ballpark. He believes a hotel or office developer will pay more than $10 million for his land and that of his neighbors.
“Right now, you’ve just got warehouses with very little going on, paying very little taxes,” he said. “When you start getting these high rollers in there, these dot-coms, it would benefit the city a great deal.”
“Everybody seems to be moving east, southeast,” said Denise Olmeth, a 22-year employee of Peat Belting, a supplier of belts used in industrial machinery. “They’re all just closing up or moving. You can see the change.”
Peat Belting is among a row of one-story wooden buildings across from Starbucks headquarters in the former Sears distribution center at First Avenue South and Lander Street. The area is dotted with shops and restaurants, indicating the city has long tolerated a mix of businesses in the Duwamish’s north end.
On the same block – which is outside Schell’s containment zone – one building was converted into industrial-chic offices for an advertising agency, complete with pink leather chairs and computer desks made of metal shelving. Another was painted mustard yellow and became an art gallery.
Across First Avenue, two old-line woodworking companies make custom moldings and building materials. O.B. Williams Co. co-owner Susan McCoy said business is great and the ballpark and offices aren’t a problem. But Millwork Supply Co. manager Kevin Cochrane said offices are using all the parking.
“You’ve got business offices going in where industrial was before, so you’ve got a lot more people and they’re not providing parking,” he said. “If you’ve got no parking, you’ve got no customers – they’ve got to be able to get in.”
In between the woodworkers is Cisco Cork Insulation. It’s selling its building, perhaps for tech offices, and moving to Kent.
“The area’s changed so much for the style of manufacturing we do, it’s going to be better to be down in the south end,” said manager Mike Orendorff.
A particular frustration for Orendorff is traffic that races behind the building, past its loading dock. Another factor is that the old multiple-story building, with slow elevators and bulky columns, is less convenient than a single-story building with an open floor plan.
City Councilman Richard Conlin, whose growth committee votes May 30 on the plan, said it’s impossible to please everyone, but, “We’ve done what we need to make sure the industrial base is protected.”
“I don’t think you can absolutely prevent encroachment,” he said. “What you can do is try to set policies that encourage as much as possible of the commercial development toward the north.”
By BRIER DUDLEY