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Wednesday, February 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Prime land for industry, not condos

Waterfront industry came here because Elliott Bay was here. It required no subsidy. But in the 21st century, one might ask whether water-related industry needs to be sheltered in order to survive.

I recently took a tour of the Port of Seattle's Pier 90-91 uplands. My guides were explaining how 57 acres of the property, once used for parking Nissan cars, became vacant a month after the 9/11 attacks, and have been vacant since. I looked at the site, and thought, what's there not to like about this? It's flat. It's on tidewater, next to docks big enough for an aircraft carrier. It's by a railroad switching yard. And it's in Seattle, just minutes away from machine shops, crane rentals, freight forwarders and every kind of skilled labor you'd ever need.

Nobody wants this?

There are people who want it. Put it on the market, industrial users say. Lease it out.

"You won't get a neat [street] grid, but there's no reason you couldn't fill it up," says Alec Fisken, their champion on the Port Commission.

Ballard's Barry Hawley, who deals in industrial properties, says the Port is not the right developer. "I would sell the property," he says. "And keep it industrial. It's not a problem to find private money to invest."

The Port doesn't want to sell. It wants to plan, invest and own — to "do it right." The commission has spent most of $5.8 million for consultants, a market study and environmental statement. The study says the property needs an additional $22 million, mostly for relocating utilities and redoing roads. But if the use is all industrial, says project director Mark Griffin, "the lease income won't cover the $22 million."

The Port's answer is to acquire land east of the railroad — the 25-acre National Guard Armory site, under negotiation, and the small Tsubota Steel site on 15th Avenue Northwest, recently bought. Those sites and part of the original site would be developed for offices and perhaps housing.

Housing? "Ridiculous," says Suzie Burke, who owns industrial land in Fremont.

Standing on the site, I have to agree. This is not a place for housing. It is a place for industry, and particularly industry that needs ocean shipping and the railroad. Containers come to mind, and yet the Port has promised the neighbors there will be no containers. It says there are not enough other maritime users to fill the land profitably. It would add biotech, offices and housing, which pay more.

The Port cannot afford to take a loss, says CEO Mic Dinsmore. "We need positive cash flow to put back into maritime operations."

This will be an issue in the race for the seat on the Port Commission being vacated by Paige Miller. Two men are running so far: environmental consultant John Kane, chairman of the Ballard Interbay Manufacturing Industrial Committee; and Rich Berkowitz, local representative of the Transportation Institute.

Kane says of the Port's $5.8 million in studies, "They spent a lot of money for nothing." Says Berkowitz, "I'm against turning industrial land into condos and nanotechnology centers."

I'm all for condos and nanotechnology centers, in their place. But this land was made for maritime industry. Something is the matter — with that industry, the business climate or the owner — for such a prize to sit, unused, year after year.

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

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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