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Wednesday, March 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist
In the uncool part of Ballard, Seattle's slow way holds sway

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The industrial guys build stuff. They move stuff. They work. "We do this," says one, "because this is what we know and love to do."

Their lands are piled with spools, cranes, cowlings, ships' propellers. The appearance is messy, money-making, masculine.

If society were an organism, these would be the guts that keep it alive.

"I don't think the government has ever figured out what it means to have us here," says Warren Aakervik, owner of Ballard Oil, one of the two big marine fueling stations on the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

To the east, Western Towboat Co. is erecting a three-story building — finally. Getting the building permit took four years. "Four years," Ric Shrewsbury says again.

The city objected to Shrewsbury's building because it would block a view. A view from what? From the street. Of what? Of the Ship Canal.

Was that view important?

The city's answer hung on whether the proposed building was "water-dependent" or "water-related." If it was water-dependent, the view was not important, but if it was water-related only, the view was important. The city bureaucrats decided it was water-related only — bad news for Western Towboat — but after months of back-and-forth, another view corridor was discovered next door and the city said the other one would do.


Next came a bit of extortion. The city permit would be issued, but only if Western Towboat would promise to plant and maintain a 20-by-68-foot "habitat-restoration project" along the Ship Canal. This postage stamp of green, surrounded by buildings and boats and heaps of rusted chain, was to be designed by a consultant.

The consultant has now specified one evergreen huckleberry, one salal, one kinnikinick, one Oregon grape, one flowering alum, one dogwood and one creeping mahonia.

The public will not have access to it. It is not for them. The city says it is to create shade for the fish.

They're going to shade the Ship Canal with salal? From the north?

Suppose this were a good idea. (Bear with me, here.) Is it fair to lay the entire cost of accommodating fish only on the business that wants to build something? Is it smart? And what is the value of a "view corridor" across an industrial zone?

"Views are important," a city official says.

No. They are not important. Not in an industrial zone.

The official who talked to me was almost apologetic about it. Yes, the applicant was angry. The process had been handled poorly (a whole other story). Yes, it was the wish of the mayor to protect blue-collar jobs.

But Seattle citizens also felt strongly about their views, and their feelings were in the code.

It is not only the city. The industrial guys are regulated by the feds, the state and the county, and when asked about it they are like six cans of Pepsi waiting to foam over when popped.

The quietest is Jim Ferguson, owner of Ferguson Terminal here. He also has a terminal in British Columbia, where he recently was able to build a dock without a permit. If it was in the same footprint, the Canadians were OK with it.

In Ballard, he has applied for a permit to build "dolphins," which are three piles tied together at the top, for boats to bump up against. For this he has waited five years.

What is going on? "It's all cultural," says Eugene Wasserman, executive director of the Neighborhood Business Council. If it were biotech, it would get the green light.

Biotech is cool. Propellers and pilings are uncool.

Seattle's attitude toward industry was perfectly expressed by the fight at the City Council over extending the Burke-Gilman Trail through industrial Ballard. This will bring bicycling parents with kids to conflict with dump trucks and oil trucks. The industrial guys think it's nuts.

"My insurance company has informed me that the minute we have an accident we will not have insurance," says Aakervik of Ballard Oil. "We can't load a truck without insurance."

Ballard has had an industrial district for a century. It pumps $1 billion a year into Seattle.

All the industrial guys ask is to be left alone to work, safe from having to worry about views, salal, creeping mahonias and kids on bikes. No such luck. The bicycle lobby won.

And Western Towboat will be doing its habitat-restoration project.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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